There wasn’t a hand that Joe Biden didn’t shake in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade, even those holding Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump signs.
After his rousing speech championing middle-class, blue-collar workers — the men and women marginalized by today’s economy, polarizing politics, charges of racism and elite disdain for their way of life — the vice president sprinted along the eight-block route of the country’s largest Labor Day parade, followed by chants of "Run, Joe, run!" and "Give it a go, Joe!"
Beaming as he shook all those hands and took hundreds of selfies, he probably aged the lives of dozens of Secret Service agents. He also absorbed and reflected the energy of the working-class crowd.
Whether Biden runs for president or not, his ability to unite authentically with people fills a void that politics hates — the dreaded vacuum created by a bad candidate.
In one afternoon, Biden did what none of the Democrats running for president has achieved so far: He connected in a meaningful way with people who will vote in the Democrats’ presidential primary — the same voters who have no problem swinging their votes to a Republican, if they feel their voices and concerns are not heard.
They are part of the populist movement that began sweeping both parties in December 2012, but their anger went undetected because they exercised a little-known phenomenon of populism that few understood: They did not show up to vote.
More than 3 million people didn’t show up to vote in 2012, according to David Leip’s "Atlas of U.S. Elections." That number was not a show of apathy, but the beginning force of populism that sent a message to the establishment of both parties that neither recognized.
Those party leaders didn’t understand it when Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to an underfunded, unknown conservative primary opponent, or when Democrat gubernatorial candidates in deep-blue Massachusetts and Maryland lost to Republicans in last year’s midterms.
Voters keep sending a message to Washington and to the political media — and, clearly, Washington and the political media keep misreading it. Instead, they think everyone has fallen into some political fringe because they are watching Trump’s freak show.
Well, they are wrong.
People are tired of being told their values don’t count, tired of extreme political correctness. Tired of Washington being the only place in the country where you can fail upward. Tired of everything being construed as "racist," which causes the real horrors of racism to lose impact. And tired of an economy that is passing them by.
The political class, and many of those who report on it, didn’t listen as people’s anger built. Now, that populism is at a crescendo.
The question is, will it peak as it always has in the past, its energy turning to support more sensible candidates? Or will it continue to grow, with voters in both parties picking the most extreme or angry candidates as their nominees?
Either way, the possibility exists that fewer people again will show up to vote because they are not satisfied with "sensibility" but eventually fall out of love with "angry."
The conclusion is simple but jarring: Many longtime Democrats and Republicans have shed party loyalty out of disgust with Washington, which is why Washington-outsider politicians are soaring in the early stages of this election cycle.
The experts did not pick up on this populist movement because it insulated itself from the usual co-opting by political organizations that sought to benefit from it. This movement has no name — like the tea party, Netroots, or Occupy Wall Street all did — but it is still a force that demands to be dealt with.
In Pittsburgh, Joe Biden did what declared candidates need to do, on both sides of the partisan aisle, as the political silly season fades and we head toward casting votes: He reminded people that what they want in a leader is the ability to show a natural empathy with ordinary folks, however far from the concept of populism that may be.
The presidential candidate who can do that — without shouting, name-calling, or reading stiffly from a script — will not have a hard time getting elected in 2016.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).