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What Hillary’s claim that Republicans are her ‘enemies’ is really about

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Hillary Clinton’s Democratic rivals are now faulting her for joking (sort of joking, anyway) during the Democratic debate that she is proud of the fact that she has made “enemies” out of Republicans. The candidates had been asked: “Which enemy are you most proud of?” Clinton responded by citing a predictable litany of bad guys (the NRA, the drug and health insurance companies) before adding, with a big grin: “probably the Republicans.”

Today, Joe Biden responded with this:

“I really respect the members up there and I still have a lot of Republican friends. I don’t think my chief enemy is the Republican Party. This is a matter of making things work.”

This was apparently not a throwaway line. Biden said something very similar yesterday:  “I don’t consider Republicans enemies. They’re friends.” And during his withdrawal presser today, Jim Webb also took a shot at Clinton over this.

Given that Biden has tacitly criticized this Clinton remark for two days running, and in today’s version explicitly linked this criticism to the suggestion that befriending Republicans (as Biden has done) is necessary to “making things work,” it’s reasonable to assume Biden is road-testing an actual argument about how best to approach governing in a bitterly divided Capitol that he may employ against Clinton if he runs.

That’s what Ezra Klein argues in an interesting piece. He suggests that this remark from Clinton could “haunt” her all the way through the general election, and that Biden’s criticism of her remark could prove “the core rationale for his campaign.” Klein notes that Biden has indeed been a key dealmaker with Republicans during the Obama era, having repeatedly negotiated the country out of destructive standoffs with Mitch McConnell, though he also points out that Republicans might have found this easier, because they could make the deals with Biden they actually wanted to make with the administration while still pretending Obama couldn’t be negotiated with, because, well, you know, he’s Obama.  Still, Klein says this might be a decent argument for Biden to make:

The next Democratic president is going to be facing a Republican House and will need to work with Republicans to get big things done. Hillary Clinton is loathed by Republicans, and she loathes them back — working with people she describes as enemies is not likely to be her strong suit. Moreover, voters are exhausted by bickering in Washington and disappointed that Obama’s much-hyped era of unity never came to pass.
…relationships do matter in Congress, and there’s little doubt that Biden has among the deepest congressional ties of anyone in Washington. The result is that Biden’s backslapping bonhomie with congressional Republicans lets him draw a contrast with both Obama’s cerebral style and Clinton’s more Manichean worldview, and that may be a contrast that voters find appealing.

But Phil Klein makes a contrary argument: This won’t hurt Clinton with Democratic voters, because “right now, the Democratic electorate believes that Republicans are intransigent, that they cannot be worked with, and that Obama’s presidency was at its weakest when he tried to deal with GOP leaders in Congress.”

It’s not clear what calculation is driving Biden here. Does he think criticizing Clinton for being overly confrontational with Republicans will appeal directly to Democratic voters who want a president who can avoid endless partisanship and gridlock? Or is Biden making a roundabout electability argument — is the suggestion supposed to be that swing voters in the general election will agree that a Biden presidency holds out the promise of less confrontation and more compromise, and that Dem voters will realize this, and thus see him as more viable in the general as a result? Either way, as Phil Klein says, it’s not clear that it will win over Democratic voters.

But whichever it is, if we are going to have an argument over how a Democratic president can best achieve functional government with one or both chambers of Congress in GOP hands, it seems like a real reckoning with recent history might be in order. On the one hand, it’s obviously true that deep connections to the Hill, an ability to forge relations with Republicans, and a proven record of negotiating deals — all of which Biden has — are attributes in a presidential candidate.

On the other hand, we should scrutinize the assumption that a willingness or an ability to compromise and make deals with Republicans — that being liked and trusted by them — is all it would take, or even primarily what it would take, to achieve functional government under the next Democratic president.

After all, in a number of instances in the recent past, the Obama administration achieved settlements with Republicans that broke through seemingly intractable stalemates precisely because he was unwilling to compromise at key moments along the way. The whole point of Obama’s repeated refusals during his second term to negotiate on the debt limit was to break the Republican addiction to using leverage in fiscal standoffs to extract concessions from Democrats. The idea was that, even if these standoffs continued to be treated falsely as conventional negotiations, they had in fact strayed on to unconventional, dangerous grounds. The ground rules needed to be reset, so that these standoffs no longer threatened to unleash extreme damage (say, if we defaulted), if something were to go wrong and a deal were to fall through. And it worked. In this sense, it was the refusal to negotiate with Republicans that in the end produced more functional government.

All of this was, in a way, foreshadowed by the 2008 Democratic primary. Barack Obama argued that a bitterly divided country could be united if enough good will, hard work, and willingness to compromise were brought to the task of finding common ground. Clinton thought that was naive — that our differences are mostly unbridgeable and that politics is mostly a struggle in which one side does sometimes have to accept defeat and disappointment. It’s true, as Phil Klein says, that Democrats often thought Obama was too slow to accept the latter view even when it was clearly necessary to do so. Obama did eventually accept that latter view, and in those cases where he did, he was right to do so — it paradoxically made the system work better. When Clinton says she is proud of making “enemies” of Republicans, she’s signaling, in effect, that she continues to operate — and has long operated — from a place of extreme realism on this underlying question.

Clinton very well may come to regret that quote. Perhaps it was a ham-handed formulation that could end up alienating swing voters. But in one respect, she may not be wrong — maybe a refusal to compromise is just what is necessary to make the system function better under certain circumstances. Given what we’re seeing from today’s GOP, it’s not unreasonable to assume that we’ll be seeing more of these circumstances under the next Democratic president, if we get one. Yes, Clinton must be pressed to explain in more detail how she will work with Republicans where it is possible to do so, given how much she and they dislike each other. But in similar fashion, those who are going to condemn Clinton over this should be asked why, given recent history, there isn’t some truth to her underlying analysis.