Does Biden Really Believe in Bipartisanship?

Mr. Nice Guy.

Photographer: Joshua Lott/Getty

A lot of Democrats, liberal and otherwise, have been up in arms over Joe Biden’s analysis of the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Biden talks about Trump as an aberration, implying that a more cooperative spirit will return in a Biden administration. Plenty of people are fed up with that kind of talk: After all, they say, Republicans didn’t exactly show a lot of bipartisanship during Barack Obama’s presidency.

So what should we make of Biden’s wishful thinking?

I like how Kevin Drum put it: “There’s zero reason to think he truly believes what he’s saying here.” It’s just campaign talk, designed to appeal to those who idealize bipartisanship. Given that reality, Greg Sargent argues, Biden should be prodded to explain how he’d deal with what any Democratic president is likely to face from the opposition. The truth is that rising polarization means that there simply isn’t much hope for bipartisanship, in some cases because the parties don’t agree on much and in others because strong electoral incentives discourage cross-party deals.

It’s worth examining the issue through the lens of representation. If we think of it that way, the question becomes one of promises: Biden is making a promise to voters that he’ll act in a certain way – that he’ll be a certain person – if he’s elected. Politicians try to keep their promises, and these kinds of behavioral pledges are especially important; they might matter more than specific policy promises. 

What that means is that Sargent is right. Democrats should press Biden on this issue, just as party actors would press any candidate who had murky or unorthodox policy positions. The difference is that it’s usually easy to understand candidates’ answers on policy questions: They’re either for or against a particular piece of legislation. Behavioral promises, by contrast, are often wrapped in symbolism and rhetorical flourishes.

It’s important to note that, in both cases, compromise is possible. Although Biden may be trying to satisfy specific voters for now, he could eventually modify his wording to appeal to the broader electorate. The same applies to those candidates now aiming for strongly partisan voters; they’ll likely adopt more universal language when they’re trying to represent the entire party. If organized groups have strong preferences for either governing style, such compromises become even more important.

Of course, the candidates are who they are: Biden really might personally favor bipartisanship more than his opponents do. And even if he compromises, he’d likely have a different style in office than, say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The nomination process won’t entirely erase those differences, of course, but it may align the winner more closely to the party’s overall stylistic preferences. 

At least, that’s how things should work with a healthy party and process. The extent to which Democrats have either in 2020 remains to be seen.

1. Dan Drezner has suggestions for how Trump should put pressure on other nations.

2. Vanessa Lide at the Monkey Cage on protests in Hong Kong.

3. Here at Bloomberg Opinion, Stephen L. Morgan has suggestions for 2020 Democrats.

4. Ronald Klain on why a conservative Supreme Court will likely have relatively little respect for precedent.

5. And Molly Redden on Republican efforts to recruit more women for office

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Jonathan Bernstein

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