HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Still recovering from a crushing November loss, Florida Democrats turned to the 2018 election cycle Saturday with the help of the man who remains their party's biggest cheerleader: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Without ever mentioning President Donald Trump, Biden rejected the new president's rhetoric and assured Democrats there is a way for them to recover their political standing.
"The state the nation is today will not be sustained by the American people," Biden said. "We are better than this."
At times funny, at times so serious he was whispering, Biden spoke to Democratic activists in Hollywood for more than 50 minutes, sounding like a potential candidate for president in 2020 — or at least like one of the party's most impassioned messengers for 2018. Biden created a new political action committee, American Possibilities, last month, fueling speculation that he is considering a presidential bid.
Though he discussed making community college free and narrowing the wage gap — the sort of issues that make up Democratic presidential platforms — Biden made no reference to the PAC or 2020, when he will be 77 and Trump will be 74.
Instead, Biden began by making a case for the re-election of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who will likely face his biggest challenger yet next year in Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Florida Democrats have struggled to win in non-presidential years, when fewer of their voters have shown up to the polls.
"No one, no one, no one has ever questioned his word when he's given it, and no one, no one that I've met in my entire time in the Senate and eight years as vice president doesn't respect Bill for his moral courage and his physical courage," Biden said. "Bill, I'll come back to Florida as many times as you want — to campaign for you or against you, whichever helps more."
The annual Leadership Blue fundraiser, held at the Diplomat Beach Resort, gave Florida Democrats their first chance to regroup in a festive environment since Trump won the state last November. Some 1,300 people attended, according to the party, which boasted raising more than $1 million to expand grassroots community engagement ahead of 2018.
The event was the first under Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, who took the reins in January after a contentious internal campaign, and under new Party President Sally Boynton Brown, the former administrator of the Idaho Democratic Party. Earlier Saturday, the party's progressive caucus hosted a forum for the three candidates running for governor, who avoided clashing with each other and instead criticized Trump.
Democrats across the country have spent months grappling with how best to react to Trump's triumph. Biden implored the party to stop thinking it can't appeal to Trump's working-class base without spurning progressive values.
"We can't get bogged down — and I hope I don't offend anyone here — in this phony debate in the Democratic Party," he said, likening the false choice to saving your soul by cutting out your heart. "There is no need to choose. They are not inconsistent."
Working people elected him for decades, Biden noted. "They voted for a black man named Barack Obama!"
"We didn't talk much to those people lately," he said. "We have to let them know we understand their fears, their concerns and that we have some real answers."