The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rhetoric or obliviousness? Biden predicts a post-Trump ‘epiphany’ for GOP.

Former vice president Joe Biden looks over his choices at a stop for coffee in Concord, N.H., on Monday. (Cj Gunther/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Former vice president Joe Biden, at the moment leading the 2020 Democratic presidential field, stopped in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where speaking with voters, he offered a prediction for how American politics would be reshaped after President Trump is out of office.

“What’s happened is, between gerrymandering and unlimited campaign spending, we found ourselves in a position where an awful lot of Republicans have become intimidated by the president,” Biden said, according to CNN’s David Wright. “If you notice, most Republicans — leaders, don’t lose from the left. They lose on the right. … I think there is not a middle ground.”

Biden is not wrong that the Republican response to the Trump era has largely been to embrace the president. In last year’s GOP primaries, Trump had a good track record of getting his chosen candidates to the general election (although there, they weren’t as successful). Trump has heightened the importance of his own endorsement, using a post-midterm news conference in November to bash losing Republicans for not having embraced him more fully.

But Biden’s subsequent comments about what will happen once Trump is gone raised some eyebrows.

“I just think there is a way, and the thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House — not a joke — you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” he said. “And it’s already beginning. In the House now, you’ve seen people that in fact were not willing to vote for any Democratic initiative, even if they agreed with it, because they didn’t want to be the odd person out if it wasn’t going to pass. There’s no sense in getting politically beaten for something that’s not going to happen. But you are seeing the talk, even the dialogue is changing.”

It’s hard to reconcile Biden’s stated optimism with what Democrats have seen on the ground in Washington in recent years. After all, it’s not as though there was broad bipartisan comity before Trump’s ascension in the party, something that Barack Obama’s vice president should certainly know.

After Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Republican leaders in Washington made an explicit effort to block his agenda, with then-House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) promising that his party would “do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) famously announced that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Still, Obama made a prediction similar to Biden’s ahead of the 2012 election.

“I believe that if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break,” he said of Republican obstinance, “because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that.”

The fever didn’t break. Although McConnell didn’t make Obama a one-term president, he was successful at stymieing Democratic legislation during his presidency. McConnell allowed a government shutdown in 2013 in an effort to defund Obama’s Affordable Care Act and blocked numerous judicial appointments, including Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee. McConnell effectively held the seat open until after the 2016 election, allowing Trump to appoint his first justice right after taking office and to fill 112 other federal bench seats.

Since Trump has taken office, he has prioritized policies and executive orders focused on appealing to conservatives, choosing a reelection strategy of reinforcing his existing political base instead of trying to broaden it. There has been only a limited effort to reach across the aisle — and Republicans are comfortable with that.

In late 2017, Monmouth University asked respondents whether they thought Trump was sufficiently willing to work with Democrats. Although 46 percent said he wasn’t willing enough to reach out to the opposition, only 14 percent of Republicans shared that view. In January, an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll asked a similar question. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they thought Trump was doing too little to work with Democrats, but only a quarter of Republicans agreed. Two-thirds said he was doing the right amount — or even working with Democrats too much.

There’s no question that there has been a unique aspect to Trump’s presidency, but, on the surface, Biden’s comment seems to echo a comment he made in the video announcing his candidacy.

"I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” he said in that video. The key part of that sentence is “all he embraces,” suggesting that there’s something sui generis about Trump’s rhetoric.

In fact, the reason Trump was successful in 2016 was that he was openly echoing a line of argument that was popular in conservative media and with Republican voters. While established Washington politicians weren’t willing to amplify Andrew Breitbart’s or Lou Dobbs’s arguments about immigration and terrorism, Trump was — and that endeared him to a large block of Republican voters. He surged into the lead in the GOP field in 2015 only after his feuds over his comments about immigration became national news stories. His arguments about the purported dangers of immigrants were common in conservative media outlets from at least 2014 on.

There’s a reason, after all, that Republican voters supported Trump-endorsed candidates in 2018: They like and support what Trump is doing. That’s a message that Republican politicians have internalized.

It’s interesting to contrast Biden’s comments with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s rejection of a town hall event Tuesday on Fox News Channel. The Massachusetts Democrat wouldn’t participate because “Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class.”

Trump was a weekly contributor to Fox News Channel from 2011 until he announced his candidacy.

When we interviewed prominent Republicans last year about the future of the GOP, none of them viewed Trump’s tenure and rhetoric as being aberrant. Instead, they considered Trump a representation of the party broadly, particularly a slowly shrinking group of older white voters skeptical about where the country is going.

But perhaps this isn’t Biden being either stunningly optimistic or dense. Perhaps, instead, it’s Biden trying to be strategic.

A CNN poll last month found that two-thirds of Democratic primary voters thought it was very important that a Democratic presidential candidate be able to work with Republicans. It was about the same percentage as believed that a candidate should support progressive policies, something that probably is at odds with a goal of working with Republicans.

Biden’s comment, then, may be a way to get at that point: If you want someone who will at least try to mend a broken Washington, Biden is your guy. Calling back to Obama’s optimism reinforces Biden’s history with the still-popular president and the pre-Trump era. Arguing that the country will revert to an Obamaesque state is, in itself, an argument for supporting Biden. It’s a way to be the wise adult, suggesting that the current unpleasantness can be waved away.

Maybe Biden doesn’t believe Republicans will have an epiphany but, instead, believes that voters want to hear that there will be.

Or maybe he thinks there will be an epiphany and Republicans will seek to work with President Joe Biden. If he does, recent history suggests that he’s in for a surprise.