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Joe Biden’s Frantic Defense of the Status Quo

The former vice president's unending promises of reconciling with Republicans may be designed to forestall a future of radical demands.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

With the entry of former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick into the Democratic primary race, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg exploring a bid, and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, rising in the polls, Joe Biden will likely spend the next few weeks reemphasizing the case for his presidency to party moderates. Part of that case will include a claim he has made repeatedly since he entered the race—that under a Biden administration, the Republican Party, freed from the pressures and influences of the Trump presidency, would be more willing to work with Democrats to pass major legislation, including new health care and climate bills.

One of the oddest renditions yet of this argument came last week during a CNN town hall. “It has become so, so difficult for Republicans to be able to—unless they have real courage—stand up and take on the president even if they think he should be taken on, because he has such vitriol,” he told the audience. “He has no empathy. And what happens is he controls now somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of the electorate, which is the bulk of the Republican Party. I’ll give you an example.”

Biden’s example was a recounting of the Merrick Garland nomination, which Senate Republicans—during the Obama administration, before Trump—blocked. He described confronting those senators. “I said, ‘Do you realize what you’re doing to the Constitution?’ They said, ‘We know, Joe. But here’s the deal. I’m in a state where if the Koch brothers drop in $10, $12 million dollars, I will lose a primary.’” He closed this tangent with a jab at Trump. “The politics has gotten just so out of whack,” he said. “But it’s going to come back and whack this guy.”

Over the course of his campaign, two explanations for Biden’s promise of a political reconciliation to come have been offered. One is that Biden genuinely believes that the Republican Party will change after Trump leaves office. In this view, Biden’s own personal history and career—the relationships he built with segregationists in the Senate, his work on now-reviled bipartisan legislation like the 1994 crime bill—have inspired within him a deep and abiding faith in the possibility of political comity and co-governance with the right. This faith persists against all contrary evidence provided not only by the Trump era—in which the party has, among other things, abetted Trump’s attacks on Biden’s own son—but also by the Obama era, during which Biden saw, as his own recollection of the Garland saga illustrates, the GOP both frustrate Democrats with strategic intransigence and lean in to a conspiratorial racism that presaged Trump and will endure after his presidency.

The second explanation is that Biden is simply telling voters and donors what they want to hear. In this view, Biden knows better than to expect the Republican Party to change. That he insists otherwise is largely because bipartisanship remains popular as a value both for the broader electorate and within the Democratic Party, even given rising polarization. Voters, in general, tend to like the idea of politicians reaching across the aisle to pass legislation, even as their policy preferences make collaboration increasingly difficult. Given that more aggressive partisans aren’t likely to support Biden in the first place, he’s probably strategically better off consolidating his support among milder primary voters and potential financial backers, who could be turned off by a different rhetorical approach, as other centrists step into the mix. This second possibility seems more likely than the first: It strains plausibility that Biden could be quite that naïve about our political reality, having served in the Obama administration. And for all the stories he tells about successfully working with political rivals, he would have seen the ideological gulf between the two parties widen firsthand over the course of his tenure in the Senate.

But political calculus may not fully explain Biden’s rhetoric either. Years into his post-presidency, with no more races to run, Barack Obama still sounds much as he did as a candidate when he talks about our own political divisions. It’s not difficult to imagine Biden doing the same—his talk about reconciliation doesn’t seem like an ordinary political pose he could easily shrug off during the presidency or afterward.

There is a third, less discussed possibility. Yes, Joe Biden may well know better than to expect change from the Republican Party. Moreover, he may indeed see political advantages in implying he does in spite of this. But Biden may also have a larger goal in mind: He wants to preserve the American people’s belief in the Republican Party because he wants the American people to retain their faith in the American political system. If the Republican Party is beyond redemption, that system—having evolved into a duopoly whose norms and institutions depend on the responsible stewardship of each party—is no longer workable. And if the people most disadvantaged by the state of the system come to realize that it’s no longer workable, they are bound to start making demands as radically disruptive as the system is radically out of whack—demands not only for political reforms, such as the abolition of the Electoral College or packing the Supreme Court, but for a new class of leaders, or perhaps no class at all. The entire political infrastructure built around the status quo—the foundations and think tanks, the strategists and consultants, the respected donors and esteemed thought leaders—would then begin to collapse. Figures like Biden and Obama would find themselves helpless and irrelevant.

Biden might be weighing, too, how Republicans might respond to a Democratic Party wholly convinced that the GOP is beyond repair. We’ve seen, over the past few years, more and more men on the right turn to political violence out of frustrations and hatreds that persist even under right-wing government. In an essay for The Atlantic’s issue on “How to Stop a Civil War” this week, Yoni Appelbaum sketched out where Republicans might take the country if racism and nationalism continue to animate the party:

If the center-right decides to accept some electoral defeats and then seeks to gain adherents via argumentation and attraction—and, crucially, eschews making racial heritage its organizing principle—then the GOP can remain vibrant. Its fissures will heal and its prospects will improve, as did those of the Democratic Party in the 1920s, after Wilson. Democracy will be maintained. But if the center-right, surveying demographic upheaval and finding the prospect of electoral losses intolerable, casts its lot with Trumpism and a far right rooted in ethno-nationalism, then it is doomed to an ever smaller proportion of voters, and risks revisiting the ugliest chapters of our history.

Of course, the Republican Party made the choice Appelbaum considers an open question long ago. Well before Trump became a central figure on the right, Republicans engaged in concerted efforts to suppress the minority vote and deployed racial demagoguery to serve their electoral and ideological ends. We are destined for ugliness—for years on end of right-wing bitterness and backlash—especially if the Democratic Party, less empowered so far by demographic change than the right imagines, enacts political reforms that enable the passage of existentially necessary legislation before climate change fully ravages us and before the structural advantages our system grants the most conservative regions of our country deepen any further.

It is possible figures like Obama and Biden promise reconciliation not because they fail to understand that the Republican Party is bad and likely to get worse, but because they understand this all too well—because they believe that keeping Democratic partisanship in check could forestall political instability and prevent, if only for a time, the crises for which we’re destined. The falsity of the promise of a new Republican Party, however, will be revealed as soon as Trump leaves office, whenever that may be. If the Obama-Biden message of reconciliation remains their party’s message, the collapse of faith in the system that follows may well be accompanied by a collapse of faith in the Democratic Party. Democrats should reject political impotence and the fantasy of reconciliation. In its place, they should speak with candor about where we’re headed as a country and then steel themselves with enough resolve to fully address the problems we face, come what may from the right.