When Joe Biden was embroiled in controversy over his “tactile” politics, he didn’t have to lift a finger before Sen. Chris Coons rushed to his defense.
“I didn’t need to,” said his fellow Delaware Democrat when asked if he spoke to Biden before pushing back against the narrative that Biden had behaved inappropriately with women. “I didn’t need any particular advice or coaching.”
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Other senior Democrats including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Sen. Dianne Feinstein also spoke out in Biden’s favor in interviews with POLITICO. They’ll be valuable allies as he faces criticism for his record on race and his handling of Anita Hill’s treatment during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas‘ confirmation.
The two-term vice president has a built-in institutional advantage over his Democratic rivals as he prepares to enter the crowded primary as the presumptive frontrunner in the contest to take on President Donald Trump. Biden has a stable of as many as a dozen senators and still more in the House that are prepared to vouch for him when he inevitably comes under siege.
Biden’s surrogates expect that moment to come sooner rather than later, given concerns about his conduct toward women and his throwback bipartisan style of politics that’s rare in a hyperpolarized political climate.
“He’s clearly in the lead. So he’s the one to aim at,” said Feinstein who supports Biden over fellow California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris.
“He will be among the frontrunners,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), in part because of “the very deep relationships he has with many, many people, including members of Congress.”
It’s not clear that the 2020 primary electorate will care what members of Congress have to say. Younger, more left-leaning voters in particular are likely to be skeptical — especially when they see with their own eyes Biden’s conduct or liberal apostasies. But many Democrats are not as fire-breathing as those on Twitter, and having a cadre of senior party figures will help him in his pursuit of the nomination.
Already, it seems Biden’s rivals have moved on from his interactions with women to his lengthy record, with stories surfacing about his resistance to busing to integrate schools, past opposition to some abortion rights and comments like his Thursday praise for former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Such is the nature of being a frontrunner, and Biden is in some ways an easy target as a garrulous politician who got his start in another era. He served in the Senate for 36 years, spanning Democratic generations that shifted from a more ideologically diverse party with a real conservative wing to one where moderates are all but extinct from Capitol Hill.
Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, has not endorsed any 2020 candidate, but he’s a long-time Biden ally and is eager to defend him.
Clyburn noted in an interview that Biden had been invited to eulogize former South Carolina Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, who just died this month. Thurmond switched parties and revolted against Democrats’ embrace of integration, while Hollings, another Democrat, became a civil rights supporter.
“Two extremes, but Joe Biden seems to be the bridge between those two. That’s what he brings into this discussion, that’s what he brings into this presidential campaign,” Clyburn said. “You will see people all over the place who support Joe Biden because there’s something about Joe Biden that’s a little bit different.”
“He may be the most compassionate, caring public official I’ve ever worked with,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It is natural that he would get a positive response from people even if they think that a specific act of his may be suspect or questioned.”
That reaction may be more crucial for Biden than any other candidate. It’s inarguable that Biden is gaffe-prone. Even in his attempt to acknowledge social norms have changed around invading women’s personal space, he joked about getting permission to touch kids.
A “very poor” joke, said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) who nonetheless defended Biden in an interview.
“Very poor. He’s gotta be smarter than that. He can’t make light of it. Not now. Not when all this shit’s gone on,” Tester said.
Some Republicans are ready to exploit Biden’s weaknesses, despite Trump‘s own issues with women voters.
Biden “should be held accountable for it. And I got the impression that the vice president thinks he didn’t do anything wrong and still doesn’t,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).
Others had a different view. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) spoke to Biden last week after Manchin had gone on TV to defend Biden amid a wave of negative stories. Manchin told Biden to hold steady.
“I just said: ‘Joe, you’ve just got to be you. They can’t change you. The people who love you, love you because of who you are, not who they think you have to be or who they want you to be,’” Manchin recounted in an interview with POLITICO on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”
Yet even with the new scrutiny of Biden’s record, his support in the polls and among Democratic elected officials has not dropped. Clyburn said Biden is staffing up in South Carolina, a key early state, while several senators said Biden is still expected to jump into the race this month.
If there is a knock on the Biden brigade, it’s that the group does not come from the young, dynamic wing of the party. Feinstein, Coons and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) are more centrist than most Senate Democrats, and Manchin is reviled by liberals (and he won’t endorse Biden yet, anyway.) Clyburn can offer Biden strong defenses from a unique place as the most senior black official in Congress, but he’s 78 and represents the old guard.
Yet no other White House hopeful has such a broad congressional coalition as Biden, who can likely count House members and senators like Doug Jones of Alabama to align with him once he gets in the race. The candidate most closely trailing him in the polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has a fraction of the support in the party establishment that Biden has. Few rose to Sanders’ defense amid criticism that he’s been to slow to release his tax returns, particularly in comparison to when Biden has faced a backlash.
“Longstanding relationships with people who know you, who know who you are and what you stand for, always gives you credibility,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). Biden eulogized her husband, former Rep. John Dingell — the longest serving lawmaker in history — earlier this year.
“I’m not meaning to make a comparison,” Coons said. But “among the two dozen [Senate Democrats] who did serve with him, at least half of them are being advocates for him.”
Even some of Trump’s closest allies will struggle to attack Biden, particularly those that served with him in the Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he expected to speak to Biden by phone soon and said that Biden will be “very challenging” to beat.
“I’ll stand up for Joe as a person. I’m not going to vote for him. I hope he’s not president. But he’s one of the most decent people I’ve ever met,” Graham said.
Though Graham is sure to be one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers, he didn’t sound all that different from Carper, who is ready to dig in on Biden’s behalf for the next 18 months.
“I’m sure that there will be plenty of people that will be coming at him on all kinds of different issues. That’s OK,” Carper said. “We need somebody who can win, defeat Donald Trump. … He’s the guy.”