MANCHESTER, N.H. — Yes, Joe Biden said, the Democratic Party is in crisis. And so is America.
But it’s not too late.
Story Continued Below
Returning repeatedly here to the combined 172,000-vote margin in the three states that decided last year’s presidential election, the former vice president said Democrats need to face how deep the problem is — not a fluke, not just about Hillary Clinton’s performance, not just about a campaign by Donald Trump that clearly disgusted him.
“The cadre of people who were all ours for so long … they doubted whether we still remembered,” the former vice president said, in his first major political speech since the inauguration. “I’m absolutely positive they want to be with us, but we have to prove again that we understand that hopelessness. … We have to show them, we have to be the source of their hope.”
“I know it seems like we’re hopelessly divided. I know it seems like we’re in a political death match we just can’t figure out how to get out. But we’re better than that,” he added later. “We have to come together. The American people are ready.”
Biden took the stage first with his wife, Jill Biden, thanking the crowd for their support over the years, especially after the death of his son Beau.
He quickly tried to pierce the tension in the air.
“Guys, I’m not running,” Biden insisted at the beginning of his speech, acknowledging with a smile on his face the speculation stoked by his appearance in the first-in-the-nation primary state — a declaration met by the crowd leaping to its feet for a brief “Run, Joe, Run!” chant.
Biden didn’t mention the conversations he and his staff are having about building a strategy so that he’ll be best positioned to run if he decides to at the end of next year — or his longtime consultant Mike Donilon, who was perhaps most in favor of his running in 2016, who watched the speech from the side of the room.
“I don’t think Donald Trump can hear you!” New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley called out to the crowd, urging them to cheer more loudly for Biden as the event began.
Biden also stopped at several points to say nice things about Clinton, what a great president she’d have been, how she faced a double standard because she was a woman, even as he made clear over and over again how flat he clearly felt her campaign fell in breaking through.
But Clinton doesn’t deserve all the blame, he said.
“Trump was pretty smart. He made it all personal. It wasn’t the press’s fault, but they focused on all of that,” Biden said. “This bile sucked up all the oxygen.”
For example, Clinton never got much attention for her free community college proposal, he said.
Biden mostly avoided talking directly about Trump, using his name only in passing asides, and referring to him at one section of his hour-long speech as “the new guy.” He said the Trump administration has been marked so far by “an assault on the things we value so deeply,” and pointing to a personal priority, said that the current administration hadn’t shown any interest in continuing his cancer moon-shot work, bringing together money and research to try to find a cure.
Democrats should be angry about Trump, Biden said, but they should be angry too about how much they’ve lost their way and what that’s meant for America.
“What kind of country are we becoming? What kind of country do we believe we want to be — and how do we get there?” Biden said. “How, how do we unite America again? How do we unite this country? How do we end this bitter, bitter political division?”
The answer, Biden argued, was in talking more about three core American values: Dignity, thinking big, and optimism.
“Scapegoating has become a national political obligation,” Biden said. “‘Just build a wall, that’ll keep them out.’ The fears of these people who’ve been hurt are being played upon, instead of appealing to their better angels.”
Contrast that, Biden said, to the events he did for Clinton during the campaign with white union members in the Midwest, when he got them applauding for same sex marriage, stopping violence against women, and immigration.
“I was in what’s supposed to be those angry white guys, who are supposedly racists, who by the way a guy named Barack Obama won the last two times,” Biden said.
That’s wrong, Biden said, but so is what he called the “false debate” in the Democratic Party right now between appealing to working class voters and appealing to progressive values. That’s just like Democrats, he charged, forgetting who they are.
“Remember the core reason why you’re a Democrat — we abhor the abuse of power, whether it is financial power, psychological power, physical power. Think about what made you a Democrat. It’s the abuse of power. We’ve got to remember who we are,” Biden said.
And then, he said, Democrats need to remember who they care about.
“Whether I said it well enough or not, you know I’m right. Those 172,000 people we needed, a lot of them wondered whether it’d been forgotten they’d been abused by the system,” Biden said, referring to the combined margin in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. “They wondered whether or not we remembered.”
New Hampshire Democrats seemed ready for whatever Biden is going to do next, leaving the room after a roadshow of Biden classic stories, from stories he always tells about certain conversations with world leaders to the night his father told him about having to leave him with family for a while to go find work, to the super-fast turns from stage whispering to booming in the microphone.
“I think it is an understatement to say we dearly miss having his voice and leadership in the White House,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, in her introduction, calling him “my friend, New Hampshire’s friend, America’s friend.”
“We think of him as one of our own,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. “And boy, do we wish he was still in the White House.”