DES MOINES, Iowa – Just days after Hillary Clinton made her much-anticipated return to Iowa, Vice President Joe Biden made his own pilgrimage to the state, even as he was catching some flack from Jewish groups for a controversial remark back in Washington.
Under a cloud-streaked sky in front of Iowa’s capitol, Biden revved up a crowd of more than 300 with a populist invocation at the kickoff of event for a bus tour of progressive Catholic Nuns.
“I can’t believe this! I can’t believe that the Vice President is coming to our teeny event!” said Sister Simone Campbell, who leads the Nuns on the Bus tour, organized by NETWORK and Faith in Public Life, two liberal religious groups.
Biden thanked the nuns, as well as state legislators and labor union leaders who came out to hear him speak, but spent most of the time decrying the accumulation of wealth in the top 1% of Americans and calling for better policy to address economic inequality.
“There’s nothing inherently bad about corporations or wealthy people, they’re just as patriotic as other people,” Biden said, “but something is out of whack.”
The vice president has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, and Wednesday was no exception, when he referred to Asia with an anachronistic term. Biden said he had recently met with the president of Singapore, whom he called “the wisest man in the Orient.”
At one point, Biden made a lengthy reference to a quote from writer Thomas Pynchon: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” He encouraged the audience to ask “the right questions” about corporate power’s hold over democracy.
“This isn’t a populist rant, this is about how you rebuild America,” he said.
Biden’s appearance in Iowa – the first in the nation caucus state – so soon after Clinton’s raised obvious questions about a potential presidential run in 2016. Biden, a former Delaware senator, also sought the Democratic nomination in 2008 but dropped out after receiving less than one percent of the vote in Iowa.
“I think the timing is somewhat deliberate. It’s been about a year since Biden has been in Iowa. He has made a lot of really strong friendships here over the years and it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to stay away for too much longer,” said Sam Roecker, an Iowa Democratic strategist.
While shaking hands along a rope line after the speech, Biden denied that his presence has anything to do with presidential politics. “There’s plenty of time to make that decision. And that’s the least of my worries and concerns right now,” he told reporters.
Instead, Biden said his focus is on the midterm elections and helping the nuns. “I haven’t made a decision to run or not run for real, but if the nuns asked me to go to Memphis with them I’d be in Memphis. I’m going to be coming back here campaigning for Democratic candidates. I’m going into 107 races around the country,” he said.
Teri Goodmann, a Democratic official and longtime Biden supporter based in Dubuque, said she saw the event as a “perfect fit” for the vice president, who often speaks of his Catholic faith. During Biden’s 2008 campaign, sisters in Dubuque sent him off with a prayer they often sing to sisters going off on mission, Goodman said.
“Most of the Catholics that I know do relate to him,” Goodman said. Just under a quarter of the state’s population is Catholic.
Despite the 2016 buzz among the press, many attendees seemed there for other reasons. Jill Kent, a social worker from outside Des Moines said she didn’t known Biden was thinking about a run. “I thought he was too old,” she said. Biden is 71.
Still, if he decided to run, Kent said she would “give him a good look” and that he and Clinton would make for some “very exciting choices.”
At least two people wore Ready for Hillary t-shirts to the event. Mazie Johnson, an organizer for Planned Parenthood Voters was one of them, but she said she meant no disrespect to the vice president and that she just wanted to wear her “most recent political shirt.”
Even while focusing on Iowa, the garrulous Biden – known for some eyebrow-raising gaffes – was forced to respond to the fallout from yet another verbal slip.
Speaking before the Legal Services Corporation’s 40th anniversary conference on Tuesday, Biden decried financial “shylocks,” a reference to the ruthless Jewish moneylender from William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
After being criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, Biden apologized Wednesday and agreed he made a “poor choice of words.”