Joe Biden, touring Iowa, told reporters, in so many words, that his plan is to have an ineffectual, failed presidency. Or, as Biden put it more pithily, “Ending the filibuster is a very dangerous move.”
Biden is expressing one of his most deeply held beliefs, which is his boundless faith in the goodness of the Senate. This is the point Biden was attempting to make in his controversial nostalgic riff about his history of working with segregationists. The Senate brings people together, even people as different as Joe Biden and the segregationists. (Biden failed to anticipate that some Democrats would interpret this to mean that Biden and the segregationists were not so different after all.)
Biden has clung to this conviction in the face of overwhelming evidence, including eight years in an administration in which opposing party senators followed a strategy of scorched-earth opposition and were rewarded for it.
The prospective concern with Biden is not that he would somehow revive the old Dixiecrat coalition, but that he is nostalgically trapped in the bygone world of his youth, unable to grasp the tectonic changes that have reshaped American politics. Biden’s nostalgia for the villains of his political youth, and his belief that the institution can be restored to its bygone manners, is a symptom of a more profound disorder that you might call “Senatitis.”
Senatitis is an irrational reverence for the folkways and culture of the upper legislative chamber. Those afflicted believe that the Senate gathers together 100 of the finest statesmen in American life, or at least transforms ordinary politicians into such giants through its mystical traditions. To the extent they see any problems with the operations of their beloved chamber, it can only be ascribed to the corrupting effects of non-senatorial politics, and the solution is always to make American politics more senatorial. If you hear somebody unironically use the phrase “world’s greatest deliberative body,” you have located an acute sufferer.
The Senate is undemocratic by design, giving disproportionate representation to residents of low-population states (which tilt rural and white.) It compounds this quality with a supermajority requirement, the filibuster, which senators often justify as permitting “unlimited debate,” but which does not require any speechifying and is typically used to prevent debates from taking place. For decades, the filibuster was primarily used to block even modest civil-rights measures, like anti-lynching measures. After decade upon decade of the Senate serving as a graveyard for civil-rights legislation, the movement finally broke through in the 1950s and 1960s.
This history, to the chamber’s enthusiasts, is a happy story that justifies its workings. In reality, the success of civil-rights legislation, and the flowering of bipartisanship, was the product of a unique circumstance. The Republican Party, founded as an organ of activist central government and more egalitarian social policy, spent the 20th century moving right. The Democratic Party, once hostile of big government and protective of white supremacy, moved left. The process by which the two parties swapped identities occurred at a glacial pace, as progressive Yankee Republicans and white southern Democrats died off. In the long interregnum, bipartisanship was truly possible — not only on civil rights, but also on social and economic policy.
Biden joined the chamber in 1973, in the heyday of its culture of bipartisanship. This was the heyday of the old Senate that Biden recalls so lovingly. The older men (they were almost all men) would take the younger ones under their wings, teaching them to wait their turn. It was considered bad form to filibuster anything unless you had especially strong objections. Disagreements could generally be worked out over drinks, like gentlemen.
That culture began to deteriorate in the 1980s. During the Clinton presidency, Republicans filibustered any bill they could, and by the Obama administration, Republican senators were using the filibuster as a mass blockade tactic to keep judgeships and even Executive-branch positions permanently vacant. When Democrats rallied around George W. Bush after 9/11, the halo of bipartisanship helped Bush’s party win seats against the Democrats in the midterm elections and use their powers to pass more tax cuts. When Mitch McConnell refused to negotiate any major reforms with Barack Obama, voters blamed the mess on Obama. And when McConnell took the at-first-shocking step of denying any vote for any Supreme Court nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, he was rewarded first with a charged-up base in the election, and then an open court seat he could fill. Bipartisanship is for suckers. Partisanship works.
But even senators who joined after the decline absorbed its institutional memory and sense of its better past self. “We should not be doing anything to mess with the strength of the filibuster,” New Jersey senator Cory Booker said earlier this year. “It’s one of the distinguishing factors of this body.” Even the famously irascible Bernie Sanders insisted that he was “not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” which he defends as a tool “to protect minority rights.”
Yet none of the Democratic senators running for president can match Biden’s adoration. The Senate’s traditions form his model for how politics ought to be conducted. “The system’s worked pretty damn well,” Biden recently told a reporter. “It’s called the Constitution. It says you have to get a consensus to get anything done.” In his presidential announcement speech, Biden frontally challenged the notion that the system had changed and made large-scale bipartisanship obsolete. “Some of these people are saying, ‘Biden just doesn’t get it. You can’t work with Republicans anymore. That’s not the way it works anymore.’ Well, folks, I’m going to say something outrageous. I know how to make government work — not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus.” A key tenet of Senatitis is the belief that any negative developments in politics are but temporary setbacks, not in any way resulting from systemic incentives, and can be overcome though force of personality.
Voters lap up this kind of happy talk, so Biden would have reason to say this kind of thing even if he knew better. But if he were saying this out of political calculation, it would be odd that he would express the idea in such an uncalculating way — Democrats running for president in the 21st century usually try not to go out of the way to associate themselves with segregationists.
In any case, Biden has been delivering his senatorial restoration riff for so long, and so insistently, that there’s little reason to doubt his sincerity. Biden’s 2007 memoir laments “our bitter and partisan party divisions,” but insists, “from inside the arena none of it feels irreversible or fatal.” The dozen years since, under three presidents, ought to have confirmed that the partisan trend was indeed irreversible. Yet Biden did not seem to grasp that “the arena” he was “inside” was a bubble all along.