Ever since it became clear Joe Biden would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, politically active liberals have been engaged in internal dialogue over why he routinely asserts such a generous view of the very same Republicans who goosed birthers, sabotaged the Obama administration, abetted a foreign attack on the last presidential election, stole a Supreme Court seat, and have participated in a spree of political corruption, crime, institutional vandalism, and deceit over the last two and a half years.
“With [President] Trump gone you’re going to begin to see things change,” Biden reiterated Monday. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.”
These kinds of remarks fuel a bewildering debate, because nobody on either side of it wonders, even in passing, whether Biden might be right. It pits those who believe Biden is hopelessly stuck in a lost time against those who think he’s playing naive on purpose—because he thinks the quiet, offline masses want to believe this is all a phase or a bad dream.
But the stakes of this parlor game (deluded or cynical?) are actually rather low. Whether Biden believes what he says or not, and whether it’s the best way to win votes or not, are secondary to the question of whether it would be wise for a Democratic president to enter office in 2021 having campaigned on the premise that Republicans are one election away from redemption. If a critical mass of voters believes (or wants to believe) that politics will automatically depolarize once Trump is gone, should Democratic politicians pander to or level with them?
If telling fairytales were the only way for a Democrat to win the presidency, the answer to the question would be obvious. But in an environment where every prominent Democratic presidential candidate leads Trump in head-to-head matchups, the pandering approach is a worse choice. It’s a recipe for failure, and Biden’s own stumbles illustrate why.
The controversy over Biden’s decades of support for the Hyde amendment, and his abrupt reversal on it, has rightly been viewed through the lens of his reliability as an ally to those fighting for women’s rights. The Hyde amendment prohibits the federal government from directly financing abortion in most cases, which means its supporters have made peace with the fact that millions of Medicaid beneficiaries—poor women—have less reproductive freedom than others.
It’s natural that in the face of a full-bore conservative assault on the right to abortion, Democratic opposition to the Hyde amendment would be at its zenith. But the remnants of support for it within the party aren’t rooted in opposition to or squeamishness about abortion alone. They’re rooted in an error that undergirded the Hyde amendment in the first place—in blind faith that the conservative movement’s opposition to abortion (like its opposition to taxes, social insurance, and corporate regulation) is a bargaining position, and that culture wars can be brought to an end through compromise or appeasement.
Biden abandoned Hyde amid sustained backlash from advocacy groups and fellow Democrats, and his campaign tied the flip-flop to the GOP’s efforts to re-criminalize abortion, suggesting he didn’t see that the “compromise” had failed until his reflexive bipartisanship blew up in his face. This episode should settle the question of whether Biden really believes Graveyard Mitch McConnell will become reasonable if Trump loses (the answer appears to be yes) but it also foreshadows how things will go for any winning Democratic candidate who clings, sincerely or otherwise, to the view that a golden era of compromise will dawn once Trump is gone. These candidates will lock themselves into a mode of governing that can not work anymore. Their supporters and intra-party critics will be demoralized, their presidencies will stagnate, and they will waste precious time grasping for a better approach. (That’s if they don’t react to predictable GOP resistance by passing new, ill-conceived pseudo-compromises like the Hyde amendment.)
It’s obviously just as naive to assume that hard-nosed realism about the nature of the modern GOP will unlock a progressive revolution all on its own. But candidates who understand what they’re signing up for can take steps to prepare for governing around Republicans now, knowing it’s delusional to imagine they’ll govern in coalition with them. If Democrats win the White House but not the Senate, Democrats should be prepared to implement creative foreign and administrative policies; if they consolidate power, they should be prepared to legislate in an aggressive and likely partisan way. The next time a Democrat is president, Republicans will again want to filibuster his or her presidency into failure, so the filibuster must be on the chopping block, and the party should be prepared to legislate around its own internal center, rather than let its most conservative members set the agenda in the vain hope of securing bipartisanship.
That approach will be bruising, but the good news is candidates can help voters understand what lies ahead for the next Democratic government now, so that the GOP’s nihilism is on the ballot, and everyone knows what to expect and fight for in 2021. The alternative is a campaign of false hope far more unrealistic than Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, with demoralizing frustration at the end of it. The country deserves better than that but nobody running for the Democratic nomination should want that kind of presidency either.