The Biden Method

For Joe Biden, the pursuit of compromise is an end in itself. That's what happens when you see politics as a giant boys’ club rather than a site of struggle.

Former vice president Joe Biden addresses the Moral Action Congress of the Poor People's Campaign on June 17, 2019 at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Even in the days when I got (to Washington), the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. . . . . You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.

Joe Biden, 2017.

During his recent address to the Poor People’s Campaign, Joe Biden fielded a question from MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid about how he would pass legislation in a future Congress controlled by the Republican Party.

True to form as a candidate whose campaign pitch primarily revolves around restoring the “normalcy” that supposedly prevailed in earlier political eras, Biden doubled down on the idea of compromise:

Joy-Ann, I know you’re one of the ones who thinks it’s naive to think we have to work together . . .  The fact of the matter is, if we can’t get a consensus, nothing happens except the abuse of power by the executive branch. Zero…you can shame people into doing the right thing.

Yet in more ways than one, his own vice presidency is a case study in how the pursuit of bipartisan consensus leads to disaster — even on its own narrow terms.

Back in the halcyon days of 2011, Biden played a significant role in the Obama administration’s efforts to lower the deficit by offering the Republican Party cuts to both Medicare and Social Security.

While the former vice president could be accused of many things, a lack of enthusiasm for the ensuing negotiations certainly wouldn’t be one of them. Biden in fact entered into talks alongside Mitch McConnell with a zeal for compromise that amounted to preemptive legislative surrender. As journalist Bob Woodward notes in his 2012 book The Price of Politics, the then-vice president’s single-minded obsession with reaching a bipartisan agreement drew the ire of Democrats who felt he was offering McConnell far too much.

Unsurprisingly leading the charge was Bernie Sanders, who vowed to do everything in his power to defeat the eventual proposal as tabled. But even some conservative figures like Dianne Feinstein and Steny Hoyer registered their discomfort. This opposition was more than validated: the deal that emerged proved nothing short of a Democratic capitulation to huge portions of the Republican agenda. Not only that, but one of the Obama administration’s central legislative priorities — ending the infamous Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy — was now dead on arrival.

As Jacobin’s own Branko Marcetic sums it up:

The final deal extended the Bush tax cuts, cut payroll taxes by $112 billion and met a host of other Republican demands: a lower estate tax with a higher exemption, new tax write-offs for businesses, and a maximum 15 percent capital gains tax rate locked in for two years. In return, unemployment insurance was extended for thirteen months and the Opportunity Tax Credit for two years.

This outcome was undeniably a political defeat for the administration and a material disaster for many ordinary Democratic voters. Yet Biden didn’t see it that way. In fact, a mere three months later he would tout the deal as a resounding success and a noble example of bipartisan compromise.

In later negotiations, Biden would again offer the GOP huge spending cuts in the hope of securing the holy grail of a “grand bargain.” This time, Republican intransigence ended up preventing a bipartisan entitlement-gutting — but it was not for lack of trying on the vice president’s part. “We’ve given up on revenues, we’ve given on dollar-for-dollar,” Biden reportedly said to McConnell. “All the major things we’re interested in we’ve given up. So basically you’ve pushed us to the limit.”

Given that Biden’s own vice presidency constitutes a case study in the lunacy of his renewed pitch for bipartisan compromise, we are left to ponder just what the hell he can be thinking. One explanation is simple naivete. Another, in many ways the simplest, is that Biden’s own politics have often seemed closer to those of a typical GOP house member than of a rank-and-file Democrat attempting to compromise across the aisle.

But the most plausible explanation, particularly given his history, career, and recent effusive words for various segregationist senators, is that to a politician like Joe Biden, the pursuit of compromise is ultimately an end in itself. When you see politics as a giant boys’ club rather than a site of struggle or contestation, finding common ground with those in the opposing camp fast becomes the ultimate mark of enlightened magnanimity, even (especially?) when it involves selling out your own side. It’s a worldview that can only be sustained if you don’t think there’s anything fundamentally unjust about the status quo, an outlook Biden has managed to maintain for going on five decades.

Again and again, he has told us as much. In fact, only hours after addressing the Poor People’s Campaign, Biden spoke to an assembled group of wealthy donors in New York — offering the following portrait of what his presidency would look like:

We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.

Is it any wonder that someone still capable of seeing the world in these terms in 2019 wants nothing besides more “compromise”?