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Opinion: Trump May Have American Carnage, but Biden Has American Corny

As the president flexes muscles as the border, ‘Uncle Joe’ offers a different vision of strength

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. speaks during the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. speaks during the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

You know the lights may be dimming on the American experiment when Attorney General Jeff Sessions resurrects an abbreviated Bible passage that slaveholders once used to justify selling children away from parents to justify separating children from parents on America’s Southern border and then parses the difference between his “zero tolerance” plans and Nazi tactics — as a defense. Leaving aside that using any interpretation of the Bible (or the Koran or any holy book) in setting government policy slides awfully close to a theocracy, this is strong stuff.

And don’t forget the 2018 version of the Pips — Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen — singing backup to their official and unofficial leader on immigration, with special guest Corey Lewandowski adding his signature mocking “womp, womp” refrain.

Under pressure and mindful of the optics, if not the empathy gap, the president on Wednesday said he would use an executive order to end his administration’s family separation policy. But the hallmark of U.S. leadership remains government by grievance and division, driven by a belief that certain human beings are not quite human and do not even merit the tiniest bit of concern.

The president may not have the most extensive of vocabularies, but he knows that “infest” is a verb used for insects, not people seeking a better life, and so tweets accordingly.

Repetition works, and his message on immigration has remained consistent and angry.

Maybe, then, I should not have been surprised that the unfailing optimism of a politician who has not quite left the stage filled an outsize theater more accustomed to holding a crowd primed to see “Phantom of the Opera,” a place that holds more than 2,000 and looked to be almost full with an always attentive and admiring audience.

What might have been

Was it a desperate attempt for a moment of calm in the chaos, or a sign that a turnaround is due?

In a recent stop on his “American Promise” tour in Charlotte, North Carolina, former Vice President Joe Biden sat down with former Transportation Secretary and Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx for the better part of an hour to talk about his book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” published last year, and about America.

Foxx quietly steered the conversation, but wisely ceded the stage to Biden, a politician so familiar that everyone listening could fill in the blanks of his life story and political career. He mentioned the personal tragedies, the losses years ago of a young wife and daughter and more recently of a son he treasured, in ways that explained the “purpose” so prominent in his book title and life’s mission.

His sons Beau and Hunter, “his soul” and “his heart,” respectively, brought him and each other through so much, he said. The book, Biden said, was in many ways a tribute to Beau, who died of brain cancer three years ago at 46. Beau was the one who would tell him, “Focus,” when his speeches wandered off topic.

Biden punctured the image of his onetime boss and still close friend Barack Obama as aloof. He said they have remained in touch, though he would not reveal the time or place of an upcoming get-together for fear of a media intervention.

Looming over the evening were the obvious questions: Is Biden planning a 2020 presidential run? Would the 2016 results have been different if he had been at the top of the Democratic ticket?

Carnage vs. corny

Biden skirted the present political landscape that was surely on the mind of everyone else, merely lamenting that politics have become “so coarse and so crass.” But the man who just this week endorsed the candidacy of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams to become the nation’s first-ever black female governor is definitely paying attention.

Much has been made of the “Uncle Joe” persona, a little wild and crazy and too unpredictable. His own introduction paid tribute to the memes that have become a part of his story. Perfection is something Biden would never claim — and critics would agree with that. Yet just this past week, when Trump legal adviser Rudy Giuliani made disparaging personal attacks against Biden, it made Giuliani look small (and earned a rebuke from Meghan McCain, the daughter of GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona).

Biden was both serious and uplifting when he walked to the edge of the stage to give a hint of what his answer would have been to Trump’s “American carnage” message.

He touted why America has already been great and can look forward to an even greater future. He said that in his long political career he has met every major world leader, “and I don’t know one who wouldn’t trade places, in a heartbeat, with the president of the United States.”

It was a bracing message at a time when an American president is withdrawing from international agreements, arguing with allies and praising dictators. Biden praised America’s research universities, its inventors and entrepreneurs. He acknowledged challenges, in educational opportunity and health care, but said, “This is the United States of America, for God’s sake.”

Corny? A little. Optimistic? For sure. But it’s a vision of American strength that may yet counter the scenes on the border.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Watch: Why Are the Dreamers Called the Dreamers?

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