Friends and Enemies

Both Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein drew attention today to an apparent effort by Joe Biden to contrast himself with Hillary Clinton in terms of how he feels about Republicans. Here’s Greg’s characterization:

Hillary Clinton’s Democratic rivals are now faulting her for joking (sort of joking, anyway) during the Democratic debate that she is proud of the fact that she has made “enemies” out of Republicans. The candidates had been asked: “Which enemy are you most proud of?” Clinton responded by citing a predictable litany of bad guys (the NRA, the drug and health insurance companies) before adding, with a big grin: “probably the Republicans.”

Today, Joe Biden responded with this:

“I really respect the members up there and I still have a lot of Republican friends. I don’t think my chief enemy is the Republican Party. This is a matter of making things work.”

This was apparently not a throwaway line. Biden said something very similar yesterday: “I don’t consider Republicans enemies. They’re friends.”

Ezra thinks this could be a potent argument for Biden insofar as he may be the only Democrat congressional Republicans like enough to consider negotiations of any sort in a divided government scenario. But Greg makes a crucial distinction when it comes to Democratic voters, quoting conservative columnist Philip Klein:

Phil Klein makes a contrary argument: This won’t hurt Clinton with Democratic voters, because “right now, the Democratic electorate believes that Republicans are intransigent, that they cannot be worked with, and that Obama’s presidency was at its weakest when he tried to deal with GOP leaders in Congress.”

That is absolutely true. There’s a reason Clinton’s “enemies” comment drew a loud cheer at the debate. So if Biden’s seriously considering a presidential run, it’s not clear he’s making the best argument for the constituency he could soon face:

It’s not clear what calculation is driving Biden here. Does he think criticizing Clinton for being overly confrontational with Republicans will appeal directly to Democratic voters who want a president who can avoid endless partisanship and gridlock? Or is Biden making a roundabout electability argument — is the suggestion supposed to be that swing voters in the general election will agree that a Biden presidency holds out the promise of less confrontation and more compromise, and that Dem voters will realize this, and thus see him as more viable in the general as a result? Either way, as Phil Klein says, it’s not clear that it will win over Democratic voters.

Greg goes on to argue that more recently Obama has been able to bring Republicans to the table precisely by refusing to give up ground to them when he didn’t have to and undercutting their public support. That’s pretty close, BTW, to the idea of “grassroots bipartisanship” that some of us figured Obama had in mind all along.

Pace Ezra, this makes the Biden comments all the more puzzling. If he is going to run for president, this isn’t the sort of talk that’s going to bring him up from third place in places like Iowa. If he isn’t, he shouldn’t be implicitly criticizing Hillary Clinton.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.