Biden is running against a myth about Trump
By FRANCIS WILKINSON | Bloomberg News | Published: May 3, 2019
Between 2011 and 2017, six different national surveys by the Pew Research Center produced similar results. Democratic voters said they liked elected officials who would compromise with opponents. Republican voters said they preferred officials who wouldn’t compromise.
As recently as July 2017, the contrast was stark. Among Democrats, 69 percent said they liked officials who compromised. Among Republicans, only 46 percent did — a 23-point gap.
Between July 2017 and March 2018, a time-lapse approximation of Donald Trump’s first year as president, Democratic support for compromise plummeted. In the 2018 Pew poll, only 46 percent of Democrats said they supported officials who compromise, roughly equal to the 43 percent of Republicans who said so.
Former Vice President Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with an appeal to the shrinking ranks of Democrats who can imagine a Republican Party capable, and worthy, of compromise. In announcing that “we are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden established political time as Before Trump and After Trump. Before, America was a land of decency. After, Nazis were called “very fine people” from the highest office in the land.
If Trump is re-elected, Biden warned, “He will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
The myth that Trump has single-handedly degraded the nation is a comforting one. If the U.S. survives his sustained assault on democratic law, norms and culture — Trump’s thuggish calls to arrest his political opponents are now standard presidential rhetoric — that myth may even become necessary as the nation attempts to stitch democratic life back together.
In that case, the news media will pretend, as Biden does, that Trump was an aberration from, rather than a culmination of, Republican politics. Republicans will pretend their support for Trump was qualified and their criticism of him was vocal and constructive. And to help the nation move on, some Democrats (surely not all) will pretend to believe it all.
This is a highly unlikely course of events; Biden surely understands that. He was in the White House when Republicans decided, quite consciously, that they would prefer a second Great Depression to a successful economic intervention by President Barack Obama.
He was there when Republicans manufactured bogus scandals to achieve purely partisan ends — Benghazi to undermine Hillary Clinton’s electoral prospects and the two-fer of the Internal Revenue Service imbroglio, which successfully shielded conservative political groups from oversight while battering the federal tax bureaucracy.
And Biden was there when Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell decided that, with the balance of the court on the line, Supreme Court justices shall be named by Republican presidents only.
Along the low road from Newt Gingrich to Bush v. Gore, from birtherism to the white-power programming on Fox News, the GOP concluded that the nation was moving faster than it could successfully adapt. The party could sustain white Christian dominance or it could sustain democracy.
In 2016 the GOP made its decision. Millions of white cultural conservatives, the Trumpist base, will vehemently resist a course correction: There will be no compromise with Biden or any other Democratic president.
The greatest challenge for the Democratic presidential field is not choosing Medicare for some or all. It is figuring out how to chart a viable national path in a fractured nation. What is the proper course of democratic politics when vengeance is destructive, compromise is unobtainable, and political power, at least in the near future, will rest on narrow, and likely unstable, majorities? What agenda can overcome obstruction without negating, and further radicalizing, the obstructionists?
All of this, of course, presumes that the wounds inflicted on democracy by a vicious presidency are not fatal.
On the hustings, many of Biden’s opponents skip forward to a time when Democrats have the power to overwhelm Republican opposition. Democratic Congresses will pass their legislation, and they will sign it into law. Yet even under that scenario — plausible enough once the Senate filibuster has been eliminated — a Republican Supreme Court majority, itself the product of democratic norm-breaking, may blockade democratic action.
Instead of skipping forward, Biden skips back. He will find a constituency among Democrats of goodwill who wish to follow him back to an era of compromise, calm and bipartisan comity. It’s an appealing, sentimental journey, and millions would love to take it. But it ends in the smoldering ruins of a 20th century Pompeii.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of The Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.