Campaigning Tuesday in New Hampshire, Joe Biden offered his hope that when he’s president, we can get past the bitter divisions that have characterized our politics in recent years. And he said this:
“‘The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends ... you are seeing the talk, even the dialogue is changing.’”
Though this is something all of us would like to believe is true, it just isn’t. And if Biden thinks it is, we should check to see if he recently suffered some kind of blow to the head.
It’s possible, of course, that Biden doesn’t actually think that Republicans will be joining him in a spirit of openness and compromise. He may know what the reality is, but also believe that it’s worthwhile to at least pretend some other future might be possible. That way, if nothing else he’ll be able to say that he gave bipartisanship a shot, and tried to be the responsible one.
The only problem with that is that there’s no evidence that there is much to be gained from being seen as reasonable and moderate. Voters don’t reward you for it. It doesn’t get you any closer to achieving your policy goals. So what’s the point?
Biden is not the only presidential candidate to have expressed hope that Republicans might have a change of heart once Trump is gone. But Biden was vice president during a period of unprecedented Republican obstruction, where every bill more consequential than the renaming of a post office was filibustered, judicial and executive branch nominations were routinely banished to an indefinite limbo, and Republicans openly deployed a strategy of denying Barack Obama anything that resembled a win, no matter how small.
All that was before Trump became the leader of their party.
As for the person with whom Biden would have to deal as president, hoping Mitch McConnell will become bipartisan is positively deranged. McConnell was the architect of the Republican strategy during the Obama years, and never tried to hide what he was up to. It culminated in 2016 when he decided that because Obama was a Democrat, his nominee to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat would not even get a hearing.
McConnell later proclaimed, “One of my proudest moments was when I looked at Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy.’ “
I’m sure McConnell was telling the truth. A career defined by bottomless cynicism and the pursuit of power and victory as ends in themselves culminated in him sneering at the Constitution and refusing to allow the president to appoint a Supreme Court justice, just because he realized he could.
Biden knows how hard Obama worked, especially in his first few years, to convince Republicans to join with him to pass legislation, and he knows how utterly Obama failed. So unless he thinks that he has magical persuasive power Obama lacked, or that in the intervening years Republicans have become more moderate (when if anything the opposite has happened), how could he possibly believe things will be different?
Most importantly, from both a substantive and strategic perspective, it makes no sense for Republicans to cooperate with a Democratic president. This isn’t temperament or pettiness, it’s that the differences between the two parties are as profound as they have been during our lifetimes. When Democrats want more people to have government-guaranteed health coverage and Republicans want fewer people to have it, where is the compromise, other than maintaining the status quo?
As for their procedural scorched-earth strategy, you can’t tell Republicans it hasn’t worked. They limited Obama’s ability to pull the country out of the recession as quickly as he might have. They stymied him on policy. They got a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. They got a stranglehold on state legislatures. They’ve engineered our elections so that there’s always a thumb on the scale in their favor even when they can’t persuade a majority of the electorate. They had two successful midterms while Obama was president, then saw their candidate win in 2016. Why on earth would they do anything differently?
All of which means that the next Democratic president needs not just to express a desire that Republicans won’t be so intransigent, but to have a plan to deal with that inevitable intransigence.
Now maybe Biden has such a plan, but he’s keeping it secret while he shows everyone that he’s eager for a bipartisanship. Or maybe he’s saying Republicans will compromise with him because he knows that idea will be ridiculed by liberals, which will be treated as a mark of centrism, and centrism is treated as a mark of electability, and the perception of electability is key to Biden’s chances at the nomination.
Maybe he really does have a plan. But it’s a plan for getting elected, not for what he’d do if he won.