The 2020 presidential race is not just about policy. It’s also about power. Many Democratic candidates, from Senator Bernie Sanders to Senator Elizabeth Warren to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have sketched out how they would overcome Republican efforts to structurally tilt American democracy in conservatives’ favor. Joe Biden, the current frontrunner, has not. His campaign is built around the idea that Republicans should be seen as work colleagues, not political opponents—and that once President Donald Trump leaves office, Biden will unleash his superpower to convince them to come to the negotiating table.
“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House,” he told reporters last month in New Hampshire. “Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
Every Democratic contender has to answer how they’ll get anything done with Congress so deeply divided along ideological lines, especially given the difficult of winning the Senate in 2020. But of all the answers so far, Biden’s may be the most unrealistic.
When it comes to Donald Trump himself, Biden is relatively unsparing in his criticism. He described the president as an “existential threat” to the United States in an interview this week. When Biden announced his presidential bid this spring, he pointed to Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people” among the white nationalists at Charlottesville as a personal turning point. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” he said. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
When it comes to the political party that keeps Trump in power, however, Biden is far more gracious. It’s become a recurring theme for the former vice president to praise Republicans on the campaign trail. Though he faced criticism for his remark in New Hampshire, he picked up the theme again this week.
“With Trump gone, you’re going to begin to see things change,” he told a crowd on Monday, referring to Republican lawmakers. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.” His evidence: In 2016, a dozen unnamed Republican senators allegedly expressed concern to him about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
There’s no reason to doubt Biden’s recollection of events. What’s doubtful is the sincerity of those Republicans who spoke to him. The conservative movement today is unified in its drive to acquire power at all costs. It’s why state-level Republicans have passed wave after wave of restrictive voting measures. It’s why the Senate all but stopped passing legislation and became a judge-confirming machine, building a conservative judicial redoubt if they lose elected office for the next generation. It’s why Republicans fought to the last breath to place Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. It’s why the court’s conservative members appear ready to uphold partisan gerrymandering and a citizenship question on the U.S. Census, further warping American governance for at least the next decade.
Biden’s theory is rooted in nostalgia. The early 1970s, when Biden was elected to the Senate, were hardly a period of stability for American politics, but Congress was significantly less polarized than it is today. He also arrived in Washington at a time where broad cross-ideological appeals were still possible. Earlier this week, Slate’s Jim Newell looked back at Biden’s 1972 campaign, when the 29-year-old Delawarean downplayed his liberal credentials in favor of a broader appeal.
“By targeting unshaped young minds rather than the student activists of the time, Biden was able to harness the youth energy without adopting a liberal line across the board,” Newell wrote. “In fact, he worked hard to create some distance between himself and the left, as one of his greatest risks was being perceived as one-and-the-same as George McGovern, the liberal Democratic presidential nominee that cycle.” He later added, “Biden would offer a position that could appease liberals without offending more middle-of-the-road voters.”
This remains Biden’s strategy today, and yet, he knows better than most why it won’t work. As vice president, he spent eight years watching Republicans oppose virtually everything proposed by Barack Obama out of hyperpartisan pique. His willingness to praise those figures now and say he’ll work alongside them is drawing unusual criticism from those he fought alongside for years. The Daily Beast quoted a half-dozen former top Obama officials and allies on the record on Tuesday, all of whom criticized him on the record for his conciliatory stance. Adam Jentleson, Harry Reid’s former chief of staff, told the Beast it was either “delusional or dishonest.”
Biden seems undeterred. “Part of this is, I just think we have to be a lot more civil in the way we engage in things,” he told The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel on Tuesday. “This is dangerous. Our politics are broken. The system is not broken; the politics are broken. And the idea that we’ve got to have a new system? The same people that say, ‘We’ve gotta have somebody totally new. We’ve got to change the system.’ Well, guess what? The system’s worked pretty damn well.”
There’s a profound irony here. Biden’s view sets him apart from the rest of the Democratic slate of candidates, but it also loosely resembles that of the only Republican he’ll enthusiastically criticize. “Look, I don’t think it’s naive, I don’t think it’s old-fashioned way of doing things that says the system has to be restored,” he told a crowd in Iowa during a speech on Tuesday night. “You know, I think it’s time to—he says let’s make America great again, let’s make America, America again.”
Trump’s 2016 campaign was fueled in part by a racialized boomer nostalgia. “Make America Great Again” promised to return the country to a halcyon era before police violence protests, transgender activism, and multiracial governance. Biden doesn’t want to turn the clock back that far, of course. But he, like the president, dreams of a world that no longer exists—and maybe never did.