vision 2020

Does Joe Biden’s View of the Republican Party Make Any Sense at All?

Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

One of the more conspicuous markers of Joe Biden’s old-fashionedness is his view of the modern-day Republican Party. While some of his Democratic primary rivals stress how hard they’re willing to fight against the opposition, Biden hammers home the theme of bipartisanship — an elusive thing in modern Washington, thanks largely to GOP intransigence. I spoke with political columnist Jonathan Chait and senior writer Eric Levitz about whether Biden’s thoughts are defensible from a pragmatic or political-strategy perspective.

Ben: Joe Biden has been criticized for being overly naïve about Republicans’ willingness to work with him if he became president, seeming to have learned little in that regard from the obstruction-heavy Obama years. On Sunday, he made another curious comment about the GOP, as our colleague Matt Stieb wrote:

“Describing his plan to ‘work things out’ with Senator Lindsey Graham to pass legislation if elected, Biden shared his worry that the Republican Party could suffer too great a loss in 2020, wondering what would happen if the GOP got ‘clobbered’ in November and Democrats were able to genuinely wield power for the first time in a decade. ‘I’m really worried that no party should have too much power,’ he told a crowd in Decorah, according to BuzzFeed News. ‘You need a countervailing force.’”

Biden’s bipartisan is unrealistic. Does he have any kind of point at all that single-party Democratic control of the federal government wouldn’t be an unalloyed good thing?

Jon: No. The only possible defense of that statement is that it’s pleasant-sounding crap that helps him get elected. As analysis, it’s pure insanity. You may believe that over the long run, we need a sane GOP, but it’s obvious the party has been moving right for decades and only massive sustained defeats can arrest this trend. Frankly, I am angry you even asked this question. I’m now questioning your fitness as a moderator.

Ben: I agree, this is disqualifying.

Jon: My view is that we might one day get a sane Republican Party, but first the existing one needs to die in a fire.

Eric: I mean, it would not be ideal for there to be only one nationally viable political party in the United States. But it is insane for a Democrat to be “really worried” about that prospect at a time when the GOP is America’s dominant political party and appears on pace to secure an unshakable grip on both the Senate and the federal judiciary. As Jon says, only massive electoral defeat can possibly turn the GOP into the center-right party that Biden so desperately wants to govern with.

Jon: Come on, man.

Ben: Haha.

Eric: Meanwhile, if our choice is between one-party Democratic rule and a system where there are competitive elections between Democrats and the actually existing GOP, I think it’s pretty clear that the former is preferable to anyone with remotely progressive politics. California has not struggled to expand Medicaid. North Carolina has. So yeah, I’d say Biden’s statement is malarkey.

Jon: I’m challenging Ben to a push-up contest.

Ben: I’m good with that, but I draw the line at comparing IQs.

It is true that Biden might derive some electoral advantage from this stance, as Jon mentioned (people usually at least pretend to want the two parties to work together). But given all his other “Can’t we just get along?” type of rhetoric, I get the feeling that he actually believes what he’s saying. Do you agree? And is that actually more alarming than if he didn’t?

Jon: Yes, it would be very alarming if he believes this. He lived through the Obama era (as he may have mentioned once or twice), which makes me think there’s no way. But perhaps he’s so egotistical he believes he can actually do what Obama failed to.

Eric: Yeah. The defense of his remarks is that he’s trying to make it easier for soft Republicans to reconcile their partisan identities with voting Biden in 2020.

I don’t think there’s a ton of votes to be won from that constituency. And think it would make more sense to tell anti-Trump Republicans the truth. The GOP doesn’t hesitate to tell moderate Democrats that AOC’s election — as a freshman congresswoman — is proof that the Democratic Party as a whole has lost its way/left them behind. Yet Biden refuses to suggest that the election of Donald Trump as president should indicate to soft Republicans that this ain’t their party anymore. But at least there is some logic to Biden’s remarks as a political gambit — as earnest analysis, it would constitute evidence that Biden is delusional in a clinical sense.

Ben: Let me just consult the DSM-5

There does seem to be a group of Democratic lawmakers, Biden included, that truly still believes that Republicans will come to their senses one of these days. Why do you think this fiction is such an enduring myth? Is it simply that some people still aren’t used to the asymmetric warfare going on and think the two parties can go back to the way things were in the 1970s? Or is something else going on?

Jon: Shaped by their early careers, and probably also warped by the bubble of inside-the-Beltway life. They have a lot of personal interaction with retired Republicans who don’t have to conform to the party’s agenda and can therefore express reasonable views. They also have personal interactions in the House gym and so forth with Republican officials and mistake friendliness and comity with a desire or willingness to be reasonable as public officials. Getting to know people as human beings can be distorting! It blinds you to the incentive structure that actually controls their behavior.

I mean, there’s value to it, but overly relying on personal interactions is distorting.

Eric: I think some may also be caught in an “ought therefore is”–type fallacy. If the Republican Party’s fever can’t be broken, it is going to be genuinely difficult for the U.S. government to function. Our electoral and legislative institutions are effectively designed to produce divided government. The only alternative to waiting and praying for a Republican reformation would be to think seriously about creating many new, predominantly nonwhite states to compensate for Senate malapportionment and pursue a variety of other aggressive structural reforms aimed at eliminating the GOP’s anti-democratic electoral advantages. And most congressional Dems are too thoroughly institutionalist to countenance such ideas, at least for the moment.

Jon: Great point.

Ben: Indeed.

So what should Democrats be saying on this subject? As far as I can tell, none of the front-runners are actually saying out loud that the current incarnation of the Republican Party should be crushed.

Jon: I think you need to cater to peoples’ desire for bipartisanship in some form. I prefer the Buttigieg or Booker rhetorical modes, which emphasize unity without explicitly tying themselves to cooperating with Mitch McConnell. I do think running a baldly partisan campaign is an uphill climb for Democrats, especially given the GOP tilt of the House, Senate, and Electoral College.

Eric: It’s tricky. But I don’t think the way to compensate for the biases of the House and Senate maps is to have the Democratic nominee encourage anti-Trump voters to split their tickets (as Biden sort of did here: “If you hear people on the rope line saying, ‘I’m a Republican,’ I say, ‘Stay a Republican.’ Vote for me, but stay a Republican, because we need a Republican Party.”)

Jon: Right, that formulation is nuts.

Eric: I think Biden could say that the Republican Party has lost its way and needs to be taught a lesson. You can quote Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and maybe even George H.W. Bush approvingly. Whip out a pro-immigrant Reagan quote if you must. But don’t endorse the contemporary Republican Party as vital check on tyranny in the U.S.

Does Biden’s View of the GOP Make Any Sense?