Biden’s Bipartisan Illusions

Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association via AP Images

If Biden truly doesn’t understand it’s not the 1970s any more, he shouldn’t be running for president.

If Joe Biden wants to focus his campaign on getting rid of Donald Trump, there is, I concede, some electoral logic to that theme. But to assert that once Trump is gone, the Republican Party will be susceptible to bipartisan appeals and respect empirically verified reality—which Biden assures us it will—is dangerous folly. So dangerous, if he actually believes it, that it should disqualify him for the Democratic nomination.

“History will treat this administration’s time as an aberration,” Biden told an Iowa ballroom-full of supporters last week. “This is not the Republican Party,” he continued, noting his longstanding ties to “my Republican friends in the House and Senate.” 

Indeed, as The New York Times has reported, “in the Obama White House, he was known as the ‘McConnell whisperer’ for his skills in striking agreements with the often recalcitrant Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell.”

And how well that worked! Don’t take my word for it: Ask Supreme Court Justice Merrick Garland. Behold how many Republicans voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act once it was bringing affordable health care to tens of millions of their compatriots. And note the swarms of Republicans who opposed the Trump tax cut for directing a trillion or so dollars to the already super-rich.

Exactly what Republican Party is Biden talking about? When he entered the Senate in 1973, yes, there were still Republicans like New York’s Jacob Javits who actually supported the New Deal and civil rights, and Republicans like Richard Nixon, who, let us remember, signed the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Save in the mind of Joe Biden, however, such Republicans are dead and gone. 

The remaining vestiges of that party were swept away in the mid-1990s, with the ascent of Newt Gingrich to the House speakership and the creation of the Republicans’ war on empiricism through the vehicle of Fox News. Well before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy in 2015, the GOP had long since locked itself in as the party of angry white men, xenophobes, and laissez-faire fundamentalists.

During the past few days, in fact, congressional Republicans have moved to Trump’s right on what is supposed to be one of the only issues alleged to have bipartisan appeal: rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Following Trump’s meeting with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, in which all agreed that a $2 trillion infrastructure project was a good idea (details to follow), sources close to McConnell said he’s opposed to the plan, while the number-two and -three ranking Senate Republicans, John Cornyn and John Thune, threw cold water on it as well. Trump’s own acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is also reported to be against it.

And Joe Biden thinks he can persuade them even when Donald Trump can’t?

Being in dialog with a long-gone Republican Party is just one of the two ways in which Biden remains a creature of the 1970s. The other is the way in which he personifies the cross-class nature of 1970s Democrats. The former vice president kicked off his campaign last week with a high-dollar fundraiser of corporate executives, hosted by the executive vice president of cable-overbiller Comcast, and a rally in a Pittsburgh Teamsters union hall with labor leaders and activists. Ironically, many of the unions assembled there had opposed all the trade agreements—NAFTA, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—that Biden had supported. Biden’s calling card in the Pittsburgh rally, perhaps even more than his generally (though not invariably) pro-union stance, was his regular-guy bonhomie with white male blue-collar workers who’d voted for Trump in 2016. His calling card in the high-dollar fundraiser was that he’d voted Wall Street’s way over those workers’ opposition.

In the 1970s—before big business, then still constrained by New Deal regulations, had begun major offshoring, financializing, breaking its unions, and winning deregulation—this kind of cross-class straddle was the common posture of Democratic pols. And in the 1970s, reaching across the aisle to win occasional Republican support for modest improvements of the common good was still an option for Democrats, too.

Maybe Biden’s promise to restore an idealized past is his way to play the decency card against Trump. But if Biden truly doesn’t understand it’s not the 1970s any more, he shouldn’t be running for president.

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