What worked for Biden in Delaware might not in D.C.

Delaware's bipartisan political culture helped shaped Joe Biden's career. But it remains to be seen if that spirit of compromise will work in the White House.

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President-elect Joe Biden celebrates after delivering his victory speech Saturday, Nov. 07, 2020, at the Riverfront in Wilmington, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

President-elect Joe Biden celebrates after delivering his victory speech Saturday, Nov. 07, 2020, at the Riverfront in Wilmington, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Delaware politicians are known for their civility and a spirit of compromise. It traces back to one of the state’s oldest traditions: Return Day, an 18th-century ritual that includes a carriage ride, a town crier, and a hatchet that literally gets buried in the sand. It usually occurs every two years and attracts the state’s leading elected officials, though the coronavirus limited the celebration this year.

Still, President-Elect Joe Biden is a fan of Return Day and seldom misses one. 

How have Return Day and Delaware’s unique brand of politics shaped Biden? And will he be able to carry Delaware’s ideals to the White House?

Our guest, Mark Eichmann, deputy managing editor of WHYY’s Delaware desk, explains this historic Delaware tradition.

Interview highlights

On the modern-day Return Day

It became this kind of party, a celebration. Everybody was in town. So they wanted that to keep going, even when we got more modern technology to find out who won the election in a quicker way. So this this pomp and circumstance has kind of grown over the years.

…Two days after the election, there is still the reading of votes. But now there’s also the ox roast. There’s a big parade through town where the winners and losers in the previous election ride together in their little horse-drawn carriages, which is still done today. They’ll ride through town, all the way to the courthouse where they hear the results. Then, after the results are read, the two opponents will get together. There’s kind of a glass box, a glass case filled with sand. And each of them will take a hand on a hatchet, kind of a ceremonial fancy hatchet, and they will literally bury the hatchet, kind of symbolizing that the race is over. We’re no longer opponents.

On Biden’s presidential campaign incorporating the ideals of Return Day

The reason it’s part of the campaign is because it’s been a part of his political life. He’s worked in the Senate for 36 years. He’s built relationships with lots of folks in Congress on both sides of the aisle. And it’s part of something that he even came under attack for during the Democratic primary, from some of the more progressive members of the party. They were critical of some of those friendships, most notably his friendship with former Senator Strom Thurmond, a noted segregationist. So there’s pluses to his career in the Senate and as vice president. And there’s also minuses to those relationships he’s built.

On taking the “Delaware Way” of politics to the national stage

 I really couldn’t see President Trump sitting down for a carriage ride with Joe Biden at this point. I can’t imagine a world where that happens, and maybe that’s part of the difficulty of exporting Return Day to the national stage… He’s just going to face a really tough climb. You know, the United States is a very different place than little Delaware.

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