Recently, the New York Times breathlessly reported that former Vice President Joe Biden had the temerity to praise a long-serving Republican member of Congress during a speech to a Midwest audience in the run-up to the 2018 election. This member—Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan—went on to win re-election by a relatively narrow margin. And now that Biden is signaling that he may very well run for president in 2020, the partisan knives are out—and it’s members of his own party who are holding them. This sad little vignette exemplifies exactly what is wrong with American politics today.
“Mr. Biden stunned Democrats and elated Republicans by praising Mr. Upton while the lawmaker looked on from the audience,” the Times reports. “Alluding to Mr. Upton’s support for a landmark medical-research law, Mr. Biden called him a champion in the fight against cancer—and ‘one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.’” As the Times also notes, Upton had nothing to do with Biden giving the speech, and there is “no evidence Mr. Biden was motivated to praise the lawmaker by anything other than sincere admiration, stemming from Mr. Upton’s role in crafting the 21st Century Cures Act after the death of Mr. Biden’s elder son, Beau, from cancer in 2015.”
This is what we’ve come to: partisans attacking a lifelong public servant because he has the nerve to show active support for a member of another party who played a key role in the passage of legislation that vastly improves efforts to fight a disease that took the life of his child. It’s shameful, self-serving—and frankly bad politics. Most Americans would look at Biden’s praise for Upton for what it is: a genuine expression of humanity, respect, and gratitude. Upton responded in turn: “Being in the audience with my family and hearing Vice President Biden reference our work together was an immense honor…He was warmly received by everyone in attendance who were thrilled to have him there, including myself.”
As Biden spokesman Bill Russo says in response, “Vice President Biden believes to his core that you can disagree politically on a lot and still work together in good faith on issues of common cause—like funding cancer research.” Biden himself responded similarly and with good humor: “I read in New York Times today…that one of my problems is if I ever run for president, I like Republicans,” Biden told the Conference of Mayors. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” He added: “But, you know, from where I come from, I don’t know how you get anything done…unless we start talking to one another again.”
Exactly. Only in the fun-house mirror politics of 2019 would these sentiments be considered anything but commonplace and laudable. These two public servants worked together on an issue that is important to them personally and to the American people in general. In doing so, they forged a mutual respect that transcends party affiliation—and as a result, they speak well of each other in public. While partisans—especially, one must suspect, Biden’s potential rivals for the Democratic nomination—cynically try to exploit this moment for political gain, it will be the rest of us who will lose if they are successful in their attempts to stymie bipartisanship and national unity.
We should be praising, not pillorying Biden (and Upton) for their approach to public service. Throughout our history, it has been exactly the kind of human connection made by Biden and Upton that have allowed us to move beyond parochial disputes, find common ground, and craft the kind of bipartisan solutions that enjoy true majority support and stand the test of time. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. George Mitchell and Bob Dole. Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy. John Kerry and John McCain. Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen. It was these friendships that forged the basis of compromise on issue after issue in the 20th Century.
Biden’s speech, and both his and Upton’s response demonstrates the kind of basic decency and bipartisan spirit that most Americans long for—and which could pay off handsomely at the ballot box if either party can stop being the ideological purity police and return to a focus on commonsense governance.