Vice President Joe Biden can’t recall another time in the last 40 years when the majority of Americans agreed with his Democratic Party on every major issue.
Nonetheless, he said Democrats remain too timid, defensive and reactive about their positions heading into a challenging midterm election year. In a speech at the winter Democratic National Committee meeting Thursday, he essentially told state party leaders to stiffen their spines.
“What are we worried about?” Biden asked an assembling of state party chairs inside the Capital Hilton in downtown Washington, D.C. “If we run on what we believe, if we run on our value set, which happens to be totally consistent with where the American people think we should be on the substantive set of issues, we will win. We will win.”
Biden’s comments come as the Democratic Party is strategizing on how to navigate the politically perilous sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, a time when, historically, the party out of power makes electoral gains. The highest priority for Democrats is holding on to the Senate, where the party is fending off challenges in six states Obama lost twice.
In recent weeks, Democratic incumbents in red states like Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska have made explicit breaks with Obama and some of his policies – a demonstration of the president’s unpopularity in their states.
But Biden suggested that approach has its drawbacks in a year when the Democratic base needs extra incentive to turn out. He lamented that members of his party are overly worried about the avalanche of outside money facing them, rather than embracing a proactive posture to combat GOP attacks.
“Let’s not get too hung up here on the idea about the super PAC,” he said. “What we’re worried about is the Koch brothers and their friends bringing in millions and millions and millions of dollars. I’m still one of these guys who believes money can’t buy an election when you’re selling a bad set of goods.”
Biden advised Democratic candidates should always demand that their opponents articulate what they’re for, turning what often becomes a referendum on the president’s policies into a stark comparative choice.
“What they’re for, they don’t want to talk about,” he said. “We are too shy, we are not talking about it enough, in my opinion.”
The minimum wage, equal pay for women, background checks on gun owners, marriage equality and immigration reform are all issues backed by a majority of Americans, Biden contested. Though the Affordable Care Act's popularity has taken a measurable hit in many key states, the vice president stressed it was still more popular than a repeal of the law.
Roy Temple, Missouri’s Democratic Party chairman, said Biden’s prescription for success is not so different from GOP mastermind Karl Rove’s approach to races.
“If you a run a midterm election in a way where your base can hardly recognize you, they’re not going to bother to go,” he said. “I think what Joe Biden was saying today was, 'Stand up, be loud and proud, say what being a Democrat is really about, not as Republicans define it.'”
Approximately 40 million fewer people showed up to vote in 2010 than in 2012 – a drop-off that underscores the disadvantage Democrats face in nonpresidential years. In 2010, Democrats lost the House and six Senate seats; in 2012, in addition to retaining the presidency, they picked up two Senate seats.
In an effort to broaden the electorate in off years such as 2014, the DNC is moving to bolster its voter expansion project that will enlist trained staff to help register more eligible voters and protect the rights of those already trying to cast ballots.
While party officials declined to set any benchmarks for success and did not reveal how much money they were putting behind the effort, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who heads the DNC, contended the program eventually would help the party expand its electoral map into the traditional Republican states of Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
“The only way we’re going to reverse the tide of a six-year itch or [the second year] of a presidency is to reach people from local elections up,” DNC vice chair Donna Brazile said in a briefing with reporters following Biden’s speech.
Republicans poured cold water on the actual impact of the plan, pointing to the DNC’s financial troubles. It’s still carrying $15 million in debt over from the 2012 election.
While he's pledging to assist in 120 races across the country this cycle, Biden’s address was more about mood than metrics. With memories of dark midterms past heavy on the minds of his colleagues, he did what Joe does best and offered a jolt of motivation.
“Get up. Just get up and go out and win in 2014 talking about what we’ve done,” he closed, earning whoops of applause.