When Joe Biden announced that he wasn’t running for president, he thanked those in the audience who had been good to him over his long period of deliberation. Then he added “over my whole career for that matter.” It was an aside that hit on a larger point. Biden wasn’t just saying goodbye to a presidential campaign in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, he was offering the long goodbye to his career in Washington.
As if to nod back to the early 1970s when he started his Senate career, Biden made a pitch for bipartisanship and working with Republicans:
I believe we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart and I think we can, it’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe, like some do, that’s it’s naive to talk to Republicans, I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies, they are our opposition, they’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country we have to work together. As the president said many times, compromise is not a dirty word. But look at it this way, folks: How does the country function without consensus? How can we move forward without being able to arrive at consensus? Four more years of this kind of pitched battle might be more than this country can take.
This was a subtle dig at Hillary Clinton, who had referred to Republicans as her “enemies,” but it was also a reference to a different time. Biden often tells the story of his early days in the Senate when the Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield chided him for making a comment about North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms’ heartlessness when it came to the disabled. When Mansfield told Biden that Helms and his wife had adopted a disabled boy, he also gave the young senator some advice that he repeated again and again: “Joe, never question another man’s motive. Question his judgment but never his motive.” It was Biden’s job, Mansfield said, to find the good in his colleagues.
Those days don’t exist anymore. For one thing, Biden listened to Mansfield, the leader of his party. Lots of new senators blow off their leaders if for no other reason than you can quickly make a name for yourself by doing so on television and social media. You don’t have to depend on leaders to help you rise. On the Republican side, some new members aim right at their leaders and try to depose them to gain glory. We see that with the Freedom Caucus in the House and Ted Cruz in the Senate.
It would have been interesting to watch Biden try to run a campaign on this idea. It isn’t popular in his party right now. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who understands the energy in the liberal grassroots, says that President Obama was too naive for thinking that the Republicans would listen to reason and for trying to work with them. A Sanders presidency would be founded on the idea of making Republicans “offers they couldn’t refuse,” as Sanders put it in his conversation with David Axelrod, on his Axe Files podcast.
Liberals make the case that asymmetric partisanship—the idea that Republicans are far more partisan than Democrats—means there has been a permanent shift in the Washington playing field. Republicans are permanently hostile, and Democratic leaders should treat them as such.
As House Republicans struggle to find a leader—let alone wrestle with the topics of the day—it lends support to this argument. Obama has long claimed that Republican leaders can’t negotiate because their base won’t let them compromise. That too is getting support these days.
If that’s the way it looks to rank-and-file Democrats, then Biden—who was being talked about in some circles as a Democratic savior—was going to base his candidacy on a premise his party’s base thinks is foolish. He might have talked about the middle class and seemed more authentic than Clinton, but working against those positive characteristics was another part of that authentic character, which is his belief that the congressional system can be redeemed.
This matters. How the voters see the road to progress will determine what they look for in a candidate. If only a revolution of the kind that Sanders is talking about will swamp what they see as an ideologically opposed Republican Party, then only Sanders can make progress on Democratic goals. If voters think that progress can only be brought about by a shrewd and tough inside fighter, then more voters will look to Clinton.
This difference was a hot topic of debate during the New Hampshire Primary in 2008 when Hillary Clinton argued that it required Lyndon Johnson’s skills as a president to enact Martin Luther King’s vision. It was this chord that Clinton was sounding at the debate when she said she was a progressive who likes to get things done.
Biden would have been to the right of both Clinton and Sanders in his appreciation for the system. He was trying to save it by proclaiming that it could still work. Rep. Paul Ryan is trying to do something similar in the House Republican conference, where his party’s bomb throwers have created chaos.
For Biden it was a plea at the end of a long career. If he couldn’t enact it as the next president, he hoped he might be able to inject the aspiration into the contest. It is a lovely hope that faces heavy resistance in Washington. As if to prove how heavy, on Thursday, the day after Biden’s plea, Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, testifies before the House Benghazi Committee, which will almost certainly mint new reasons for acrimony in both parties.