Beware Joe Biden's "national unity" campaign: Win or lose, it's a bad idea

Why is Joe Biden making smoochy overtures to "moderate" Republicans? Because he's not really running as a Democrat

Published June 9, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Gov. John Kasich; Former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) (AP/Getty/Salon)
Gov. John Kasich; Former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) (AP/Getty/Salon)

Long, long ago in the early days of the Trump administration — such an innocent time! — someone I worked with began to talk about the “national unity ticket” that would save us from this unhinged and incompetent president in 2020. Americans of all parties and propensities would surely be disgusted by this vulgar, corrupt reality-show presidency, the reasoning went, and would rally in large numbers around a unifying campaign that put patriotism ahead of ideology and united Republicans and Democrats to redeem our democracy.

My friend had a dream team in mind: Mitt Romney and Cory Booker.

I know. I’m sorry to do that to you on Sunday afternoon. I hope your computer is OK.

I thought that was a delusional fantasy at the time, and probably said something polite like “Huh” or “We’ll see” or “Did your shrink screw up your prescriptions again?” The idea that “responsible” or “moderate” Republicans were going to turn against Donald Trump, any day now, was closely related to the idea that Trump would eventually learn to be “presidential” or at least would be stuffed into a box that was then sat upon by his sage, adult advisers.

Both ideas are deeply pathetic throwbacks to a vanished era that was never all that great in the first place. Those in the political or media establishment who clung to them for so long didn’t even realize how thoroughly they’d been punked by Trump. They were all playing the role of the middle-aged dad in a slapstick comedy, trapped in a tipped-over PortaPotty with no pants while everyone outside dies laughing. That’s not even a metaphor, in this case: Many of Trump’s supporters will literally die laughing.

But watch out for the “national unity ticket,” because it’s back, and cruising onward toward destiny. If Joe Biden manages to sports-metaphor his way to the Democratic nomination — run out the clock? Take the air out of the ball? Rope-a-dope? — you just know that’s where he’s going.

OK, I don’t literally mean that Biden is likely to pick some middleweight unemployed anti-Trump Republican like Jeff Flake or John Kasich as his running mate. At least I don’t think he will — but Jesus H.W. Christ, you can’t entirely rule it out.

But ever since Biden finally and officially lumbered into the race in late April — and widened his already large lead in the early, nearly meaningless yet still disconcerting polls — he’s been making goo-goo eyes at Republican elected officials and Republican voters alike. His “Republican friends,” never named or enumerated, will have an “epiphany” once the “aberrant moment in time” that opened up in November 2016 ends and the breach in reality is healed.

It’s the most boring “Doctor Who” episode ever, with a faintly creepy aftertaste. If some of these epiphany-struck Republicans are DTF with Uncle Joe, well, it won’t really be cheating! Because he likes and respects them and anyway, he’s not one of those Democrats, the ones who talk about kinky stuff like free health care and the Green New Deal and universal socialist indoctrination.

You know I’m right about this. You know it. As we’ve just seen with Biden’s awkward reversal on the Hyde Amendment, he’s treating the entire Democratic primary campaign as an irritating inconvenience on his way to restoring adult decorum to the White House.

Biden is willing to perform a little pseudo-wokeness on command — and to ditch supposedly cherished and considered principles to make the millennial snowflakes shut up — but he doesn’t pretend any of that matters. Liberals and progressives will have to make their peace with Biden (or not) if he becomes the nominee, which is par for the course in Democratic politics. But any talk about “pushing Biden to the left” or insisting on a progressive platform at next year’s convention is idiotic. That’s all dust in the wind in the general election, when his only pitch will be that he’s a normal adult who can beat Donald Trump.

There is a certain logic to Biden’s campaign for the nomination — I mean, look at the polls that everyone on the left insists are meaningless. (We do not have that response, let us note, when Bernie Sanders appears to close the gap a little, or when Elizabeth Warren ticks up a couple of points.) There is also a logic that suggests Biden can defeat Trump convincingly, perhaps by winning a wide swath of states the latter carried by narrow margins in 2016. In recent polling, Biden appears to lead Trump in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, which would amount to a massive blowout in the Electoral College.

I make no predictions about whether any of that will work. Anyone who issues confident pronouncements about the political future has adamantly refused to learn their lesson, and should be teleported back in time to write earnest blog posts about the “unskewed polls” of the 2012 Obama-Romney race. But that’s not the point. The Joe Biden “electability” logic relies on an unspoken but obvious premise: In a general election campaign against Trump, Biden won’t really be running as a Democrat.

Oh sure, he’ll have a D next to his name, at least in some jurisdictions. I imagine he’ll be encouraged to pick a running mate who can mollify the “progressive base” at least a little: Since Stacey Abrams reportedly told him to talk to the palm, Kamala Harris may be next on the speed-dial, and will likely have no such compunctions. (Here’s a gag line for the Democratic convention, free of charge: “As long as she doesn’t prosecute me for hugging her!”) If Biden demands to know who might be available who’s “like Joe Lieberman,” his aides can gently explain why that’s no longer a good thing, while putting a permanent block on Amy Klobuchar’s number.

But no, whoever his running mate may be and whatever nonsense may be in the Democratic platform, Biden will run — and, in fact, is already running — as a one-man national unity ticket. He will run not merely to restore honesty and decency to public life, as in my friend’s well-tailored Romney-Booker hobgoblin fantasy ticket. Those are fine goals and all! But Biden’s primary goal, not by implication or inference but because he has said so, is to restore respectability to the bipartisan political system within the Beltway.

You obviously can’t do that without restoring some degree of legitimacy and credibility to the Republican Party. Which is not possible, because the Republican Party has willfully and even gleefully thrown those things away while transforming itself from the pro-business, limited-government party of yesteryear into the party of white nationalism, overt misogyny, paranoid conspiracy theory, blatant corruption and slithering authoritarianism.

You cannot treat the 21st-century Republican Party as a legitimate negotiating partner, or a principled ideological opponent, because it has abandoned all principles, possesses no clear or consistent ideology, and does not respect the legitimacy of democracy. Biden’s pitch to voters seems to be that all of that was caused by one evil man with weird hair and terrible manners, and if we can get him out of the way, everything will go back to — well, to what, exactly?

To “normal”? To the normal of the Obama administration, when Mitch McConnell blocked a Supreme Court nominee and House Republicans spent zillions of dollars investigating a single tragic event at one U.S. consulate and an ingenious gerrymander scheme locked in a semi-permanent GOP electoral advantage and (just to go bipartisan on you) the president ordered the summary execution of U.S. citizens and we found out that the NSA could harvest all our cell phone data? Because Donald Trump had literally nothing to do with any of that.

Of course it happened the other way around: Our political system stopped working — that is to say, it stopped working for a large majority of Americans — and the Republican Party was devoured from within, “Alien”-style, by its worst demons. All of that, along with the endless prevarication and triangulation of the Democrats, was part of a larger global pattern of decay that has spread through most of the Western-style democracies. Those historical conditions summoned up Donald Trump, in the uniquely terrible “Candyman” sequel that is the United States of America, circa 2019. Without them, he’d be a reality-show has-been, seeking new investors to bilk in Pakistan or Paraguay or Pascagoula.

On some level, Joe Biden understands all that, although I’m sure he’d object to the terminology. I don’t know whether Biden seriously believes that through sheer manly, genial force of personality he can somehow recreate the bipartisan comity and collegiality he remembers — or thinks he remembers — from his early days on Capitol Hill as a right-wing Democratic senator. (Who, not to be hurtful, was against abortion rights and school integration and affirmative action, and once described himself as “about as liberal as your grandmother.”)

That doesn’t sound likely, which would suggest that the real goal of Biden’s national unity campaign lies elsewhere. Biden is aware that he is dramatically out of step with the most motivated and active Democratic voters, on a wide range of issues and in terms of general sensibility. His most effective response, as mentioned above, is that none of that really matters: He’ll beat Trump. If the intersectional progressives of the Twitterverse view him as a distasteful placeholder until someone better comes along, that’s fine with him.

But it makes absolutely no sense to view a potential president of the United States that way — as a temporary employee who will have no meaningful impact on history. Entirely too many people have spent the last three years pretending that the Trump presidency isn’t real, has no prehistory and can magically be made to disappear.

There are many reasons to fear the Joe Biden national unity express and not that many ways, I suspect, that it can go well. Of course the most obvious hazard is that it simply won’t work. My colleague Amanda Marcotte has been conducting a one-woman campaign to convince the world that Biden is not as “electable” as he appears: His weaknesses will become more obvious and damaging in a general election; depressing and alienating the Democratic base all over again is the perfect prescription for re-electing Trump.  

That's possible. But there’s also the danger that it will work: Biden could lure in enough “moderate Republicans” and enough of the semi-mythical "white working class" and sweep to victory with an apparent mandate to make America normal again. Ultimately — and perhaps pretty quickly — that could have demoralizing and terrible consequences for the country, the world and the Democratic Party, which is only starting to discover some spine and purpose after decades adrift in the swampy lagoon of apology and compromise.

One could argue that the bipartisan glory days to which Biden and his backers yearn to return didn't have much to do with honor and decency and principled debate and those cherished “democratic norms” everybody drones on about. Rather, they were the days of the “Washington consensus,” an era of crony capitalism and weekend retreats with lobbyists and important decisions made by important men behind closed doors. Economic policy was driven by the bankers and foreign policy was driven by the national-security spooks and the think tanks; the public was encouraged to stay at the kids’ table with coloring books and culture-war disputes and not to think too hard about such things.

If there’s any upside to the Trump presidency, it ought to be the universal realization that there’s no way back to that status quo ante, and that it’s not worth trying. But way too many people in all quadrants of American politics are eager to go backward rather than forward.

Would the illusory short-term normalcy of a Joe Biden Republicrat regime come as an immense relief to many traumatized Americans? Of course it would. Would it do anything to address the underlying conditions that brought us Trump in the first place, or to prevent more and better Trumps in the future? Of course I don't know, because nobody knows anything. But it's hard to see how.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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