SOUTH BEND – Joe Biden, a Democrat, said something nice about Fred Upton, a Republican. How dare he! So, does that rule out Biden as the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee?
     
You would think so if you read the New York Times story detailing what Biden said in Benton Harbor, Michigan, last year. The article suggests that “the episode underscores his potential vulnerabilities in the fight for the Democratic nomination and raises questions about his judgment as a party leader.”
     
I don’t know if Biden will run or whether he could win. That’s not the point.
     
The point is that daring to praise a Republican, even amid the partisan hatred in our election campaigns, shouldn’t rule out Joe Biden or anybody else, especially when the praise was for bipartisan cooperation.
     
Nancy Jacobson, co-founder of No Labels, a group encouraging problem solving rather than eye gouging in Congress, said of the “breathlessly reported” tale of bipartisan language: “This sad little vignette exemplifies exactly what is wrong with American politics today.”
     
The facts as reported in The Times story are accurate. No fake news. It’s the interpretation that’s sad.
     
Here are the facts:
     
The former vice president had words of praise for Upton, the veteran Republican congressman from Michigan’s 6th District, in a speech to the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan, a group that has brought presidents, world leaders and stars from the entertainment field and national news media for speeches in Michiana.
     
He commended Upton for key promotion of a bipartisan medical-research law for the fight against cancer and called the congressman, who often has worked on bipartisan efforts, “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.”
     
The speech was just three weeks before the election last fall. Upton was in a tough reelection race that he won. Biden didn’t endorse Upton for reelection. He just said nice things about Upton’s work on the medical-research legislation that was important personally to Biden after the death of his son, Beau, from cancer. Nor did the former vice president respond later to Democratic requests for a public endorsement of Matt Longjohn, Upton’s opponent.
     
Upton, of course, cited Biden’s words of praise in his campaign.
     
It certainly helped Upton. Some. He had endangered his long-time image of a moderate willing to compromise as he sought and obtained a powerful House Republican chairmanship and used it to push relentlessly for destruction of the Affordable Care Act. Biden’s kind remarks brought to mind Upton’s bipartisan side. But Upton won by 4.5%, surviving the powerful blue wave in Michigan. And Biden’s few words couldn’t have built up a margin like that.
     
Longjohn didn’t like it. Of course. He had a right to be displeased.
     
There is no indication, however, that Biden was seeking in his praise for bipartisanship to help defeat Longjohn. At the time, virtually all political projections were for another win by Upton, long popular in the district. There is no indication that Biden was looking to impact the 6th District race. 

But that’s not the point. Biden responded with characteristic humor. “I read in the New York Times today . . . that one of my problems if I run for president (is) I like Republicans,” Biden said. “Well, bless me father for I have sinned.”
     
He made clear that he doesn’t regard “bipartisan” as a dirty word and doesn’t regard all Republicans as evil. He likes some.
     
A Biden spokesman stressed that the former vice president “believes to his core that you can disagree politically on a lot and still work together in good faith on issues of common cause – like funding cancer research.”
     
Point well taken. It’s a point that the eventual Democratic nominee, whether Biden or one of many other prospects, could use to create a contrast with President Trump and to draw votes.

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.