vision 2020

Biden’s Imaginary Republican Friends Include a Running Mate

Biden continues to goose a ghost. Photo: Preston Ehrler/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

You could view this as a ridiculous question asked of Joe Biden on the campaign trail:

But you have to consider that Biden has invited this sort of speculation with regular paeans to his supposed ability to work with Republicans in Congress should the evil presence of Donald Trump be exorcised. Biden is basically telling that voter, “If I had some ham, I’d make a ham sandwich if I had some bread.” But his inability to identify a potential Republican running mate is no more of a problem than his inability to explain why the party that united in demonizing and opposing the Obama-Biden administration would become reasonable overnight if Biden were to replace Trump as president.

It’s not 100 percent clear whether Biden’s stubborn shadow-dancing with a Republican Party that does not actually exist is the product of swing voters’ desire for bipartisanship (in theory, at least) or simply a way for the former veep to evade the thorny task of explaining why his election would accomplish anything other than the defenestration of Trump (a pretty important accomplishment in itself). In his defense, it is no more fancifully ridiculous than Bernie Sanders’s pixie-dust proclamations that his election would produce a “political revolution” that will suddenly make policy proposals like Medicare for All, which has but limited support from congressional Democrats, good prospects for immediate enactment.

It’s also true that the kind of Democratic power in Congress necessary to make purely partisan decision-making feasible isn’t likely to arrive any time very soon. So 2020 presidential candidates do need some sort of strategy for marginalizing or neutralizing Republican opposition, whether it’s reforms to increase the majority’s power (most notably filibuster reform) or efforts to divide the GOP. Elizabeth Warren has probably put more thought into this than any other candidate has, and her “theory of change” is hardly a slam-dunk proposition either.

But as the 2020 Democratic front-runner and the candidate whose vision of the future is most dependent on imaginary Republican friends, Biden has a special responsibility to explain how the GOP is going to be transformed and how quickly. It is very much the elephant in the corner in any discussion of a Biden presidency. If he thinks a Republican running mate in 2020 might be a good idea but literally cannot think of anyone who could play that role, it might be a good indication that he needs a Republican-free plan of action as president. Team Biden, moreover, needs to reflect on the possibility that pandering to swing-voter preferences for bipartisanship could have the unfortunate side effect of convincing those same swing voters that there’s no really compelling case for ejecting the GOP from power and substituting Democrats. If it takes two to tango, does it ultimately matter who takes the lead?

It would be better all around if Biden continued to express a desire for bipartisanship while frankly acknowledging that its existence will require a change in the GOP more profound than one at the top of the ticket. Barack Obama himself used to confidently predict that the “fever” suffusing the GOP after his election would “break” with its defeat in 2012. Instead, the fever got much worse. There’s no guarantee that won’t happen again.

Biden’s Imaginary Republican Friends Include a Running Mate