COLUMBIA, S.C.–Vice President Joe Biden has said he'll fish or cut bait on a 2016 White House bid by "the end of the summer." He said this in Iowa, last week–and not long after, he scheduled a trip to South Carolina, which happens to hold the first Southern primary of 2016. Americans were not to read too much into this, as Biden was joining Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the five-day “Grow America” tour to raise awareness of infrastructure needs.
Biden and Foxx spent the morning at Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal, accompanied by local Republican Representative Mark Sanford. Come afternoon, the vice president and Foxx joined Democratic Representative James Clyburn–who, unlike Sanford, Biden had never campaigned against–at Columbia’s Owen Steel Co. They were joined by Columbia Mayor Stephen Benjamin, whom Biden half-chastised for leaving a safer job.
"Mayor–that's a real job, man!" said Biden.
With South Carolina legislators and operatives in front of him, with a dozen cameras rolling, Clyburn lavished Biden with praise, calling him “this friend of South Carolina” and "this friend of rural America” as he credited him with infrastructure funds flowing into the state.
“Come on back in April and we’ll have Clyburn’s famous fish fry waiting for you,” Clyburn said, referring to his event that often kicks off the Democrats’ Southern primary season.
It was up to Foxx, for whom any political activity is circumscribed (read the Hatch Act), to ground the event in policy. “People have been asking, why would we be going through the South?” he asked. “As we project out over the next 30 years, our nation is going to grow by 70 million people. Many of those people are going to be moving to the South.”
There was no real project to announce in Columbia. Foxx and Biden both talked of the city's notorious “malfunction junction,” the congested interchange of Interstate Highways 20 and 26. “Lanes designed to carry 10-20 cars per mile now handle up to 40 cars per mile,” said Biden, talking with some emotion about workers and family members wasting hours of their lives in traffic.
But the cost of fixing the "junction" is estimated at $700 million. Neither the new Republican Congress nor South Carolina's Republican legislature–which is currently debating whether to save money by shutting a historically black college–is ponying up. That left Biden resorting to analogy. "Our highway infrastructure is at a crossroads–not just at I-20 and I-26," he said. He hoped "the debate" about spending on roads was ending, but could not promise it.
What he could offer was a speech that veered from political nostalgia to campaign jokes to multiple put-downs of China. “Your sons are not going to hear about outsourcing,” crowed Biden to a crowd shivering slightly in 48-degree weather. “They’re going to hear about in-sourcing!” This was because "intellectual property is not stolen" in America, and "American workers are three times as productive as they are in China."
Earlier in the week, Biden had been chastised for nuzzling and whispering to new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's wife, and for grounding his experience with Somali-Americans by saying he'd known Somali cab drivers in Delaware. In South Carolina, Biden stuck to safer topics. He recalled how former South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings ("he sat to my right") had comforted him after his family was killed in a car accident. He drawled out an impression of the late Senator Strom Thurmond asking him for a favor.
“Joe," said-Biden-as-Thurmond, "you mahhhhnd going to Clemson for my institute? What the hell–heck–was I gonna say?"
Later, Biden remembered a visit to South Carolina from his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid, and how many members of a crowd had raised their hands when he asked if they thought China would surpass the United States. "I don't have their names so I can't collect," he said. He looked into the crowd. "Maybe you were there, Dick!" He'd just spotted Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman who was one of the most outspoken Southern critics of Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008 CAN'T WORK WITH WAS and the campaign she may run in 2016.
At one point, Biden found himself slightly lost for words. He started quoting “the Republican congressman representing Charleston," but not naming him. "He's a good guy," said Biden, avoiding saying the full name of Sanford, the former governor who'd endured a tabloid implosion of his marriage, left politics, and returned to win a House seat. Biden was far more comfortable asking if anyone remembered the time when he'd said that New York’s LaGuardia Airport looked like it belonged to a “third world country.”
He put his hands in his pockets. A few months later, he said, a pilot was landing his plane in New York, and jokingly asked Biden if it was "safe to land." On the ground, the vice president saw eight airport workers waiting for him. "I thought, uh-oh," he said. There was no need, because the workers were there to tell him he'd been “absolutely right."
Biden finished his speech shortly after 2:30. He had one more stop to make: Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles, a restaurant with mostly black clientele, on the outskirts of town. When he arrived, a surprised crowd of late eaters raised their cell phones, snapping pictures or asking for selfies. There was no shoulder-rubbing, no joking. Biden grabbed a seat between two Democratic state representatives Todd Rutherford and James E. Smith, the former having endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries. The press was ushered out just as Biden ordered the red velvet waffles that Rutherford had recommended.