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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Biden’s bipartisan fantasies

Former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes a selfie with an attendee during a campaign event on Tuesday, in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden takes a selfie with an attendee during a campaign event on Tuesday, in Ottumwa, Iowa.(Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

For a guy who has been around Washington for most of the past 50 years, Job Biden is a bit naive about the way things are done inside the Beltway.

At a fund-raiser earlier this week, he again underscored a theme that has become a major flashpoint in the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary — that the Republican Party is redeemable.

“With Trump gone you’re going to begin to see things change,” Biden claimed. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.”

To make this claim, one needs to brazenly ignore the trajectory of the Republican Party over the past decade-and-a-half. Has Biden simply forgotten the scorched-earth approach to governing that defined Republican politics in the Obama years, when he was vice president? Has he simply filed away, down the rabbit hole, the GOP’s mindless obstruction of every Democratic legislative proposal; the flirtations with birtherism and conspiracy theories; the growing use of racist rhetoric to describe undocumented immigrants and people of color; and the constant demonization of President Obama and his administration?

Does he need to be reintroduced to Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, the Tea Party caucus, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News? Was Biden taking a long nap when the Bush administration pushed through two reckless tax cuts, started a war under false pretenses, which took 4,400 lives and cost upwards of $6 trillion, brought back torture, created secret prisons, wiretapped Americans without warrants, denied the science of climate change, and politicized the Department of Justice — all with hardly a peep from congressional Republicans?

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Trump didn’t just appear out of the political ether. He was the manifestation of the GOP’s descent into political crackpottery, lawlessness, and demagoguery. Over the past two-and-a-half years, congressional Republicans and the party’s grass-roots supporters have either been silently compliant or actively cheerleading Trump’s attacks on the rule of law, his shredding of political norms, and the endemic corruption and law-breaking that has defined his tenure in office.

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If there are Republicans in Washington who “know better” and “know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing,” they’ve certainly been awfully quiet.

Now, it’s possible that the former vice president really is this blinkered, and that he believes the deals he cut with McConnell to avert government shutdowns and debt limit defaults can be replicated in a Biden administration. Biden wouldn’t be the first out-of-touch Beltway denizen to convince himself that he can break through the seemingly intractable gridlock of Washington and “get things done.”

But the most likely explanation is that Biden is playing a cynical political game — and that he believes speaking the soothing language of bipartisanship will win over Republican-leaning voters. Maybe he’s right. After all, plenty of Democrats who won in 2018, particularly in red or purple states, did so by talking the talk of political compromise and reaching across the aisle. There are still many Americans who believe that under the right leadership Washington can and will do the right thing.

They’re wrong. Republicans are no more likely to work in a collegial, constructive way with Biden than they were with Obama. Obstructionism is their leifmotif, and demonizing liberals and Democrats is what sustains their most rabid supporters. It’s hardly a coincidence that Trump is winning more than 90 percent of Republican voters. Or that elected officials in Congress are following his lead. Trump is the id of the modern GOP, and Biden is spoon-feeding Democrats a warming elixir of bipartisanship that will never materialize were he to take office.

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In some respects, his Democratic rivals, who rarely portray Republicans for who and what they really have become, are playing a similar game. Elizabeth Warren has lots of plans, but if Democrats don’t take back the Senate, none them of will come to fruition. However, she’s at least honest about the need for filibuster reform to get any progressive legislation passed in Congress.

Most of her Democratic competitors talk a big game when it comes to their plans, but are more quiet on the challenges of getting them through the morass of Congress. From a political standpoint, it’s far from clear that this approach is wrong or that Biden should resist the inclination to tell voters what they want to hear about his ability to fix things in Washington. There are likely more than a few Republican voters who, disgusted with Trump, will warm to the view that it’s he, not the party, that’s the problem. For low information voters who have soured on Trump, a pledge to work across the aisle might sound a lot better than a sweeping denunciation of the GOP. Biden wouldn’t be taking this approach if he didn’t think it was in his political interest to do so.

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But what they need to hear from Biden and his fellow Democrats is the truth: If all that happens in 2020 is that Trump is defeated, things are unlikely to change. The Republican Party of 2019 will almost certainly be the Republican Party of 2021: a party devoted to the racist, dishonest, norm-violating agenda of the man who currently resides in the Oval Office.

Joe Biden isn’t going to change that.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.