The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden argues Republicans would work with him ... by pointing to Merrick Garland?

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden campaigned in New Hampshire last month. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Joe Biden is selling something to Democratic primary voters that he can’t possibly believe. Either that, or he has somehow deluded himself into believing it. You decide which is the better alternative.

At an event in Washington on Monday night, the former vice president took aim at his 2020 Democratic opponents who have accused him of being, in his words, “stuck in the past” by talking about working with congressional Republicans.

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

That quote alone will cause many Democratic activists to begin throwing things. But then there’s what he said next. To drive home his argument that Republicans would work with him as president, he pointed to none other than . . . Merrick Garland.

Via the pool report:

Biden backed up the claim by recalling when he called 12 of his former Republican colleagues after Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS nomination was blocked by McConnell and they all expressed external concerns, he said.

Biden will continue to argue Tuesday that congressional Republicans are aware they are engaged in something that’s wrong. He’s set to echo the “know better” during a speech in Iowa bashing Trump. “He is deliberately and completely ignoring the legitimate authority of the Congress,” Biden will say, according to prepared remarks, “and he’s doing it with the full complicity of the Republicans in Congress, who know better.”

Biden may be accurately relaying what his former GOP colleagues said about Garland, and he may even be correct that Republicans in Congress, by and large, do “know better” and would ideally like to chart a different course. But he seems to be getting the moral of the story entirely wrong.

The Garland situation is what proves it. Republicans took the unprecedented step of declining to give President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a vote or even a hearing in 2016, arguing that the election should determine which president was allowed to pick a replacement for the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia. It was bare-knuckle politics on a scale we’ve rarely seen even in modern politics.

And it worked in spades. Trump won the 2016 election, replaced Scalia with a like-minded justice in Neil M. Gorsuch, and now he has also replaced the swing vote on the court, Anthony M. Kennedy, with another conservative, Brett M. Kavanaugh. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has recently taken to arguing that blocking Garland’s nomination was “the most consequential thing I’ve ever done.” (And while consequential can be either good or bad, it’s clear which one McConnell means.)

The Garland stonewall was merely the icing on the obstruction cake for Republicans during the Obama administration. For the lion’s share of eight years — all of which Biden had a front-row seat for as the man presiding over the Senate — they blocked pretty much everything Obama put forward. The result was they turned a brief 60-seat, filibuster-proof Democratic majority into an eight-seat Republican majority, and then they won the presidency.

And the makeup of our country drives home the continued incentive Republicans have to throw up another stonewall against the next Democratic president, whether Biden or someone else. While our country is about evenly divided overall when it comes to the numbers of reliable Democratic voters and reliable Republican voters, there are more red states than blue states. Trump won 30 of 50 states in 2016, meaning 60 senators hail from states he won.

The situation is similar in the House, where through population sorting and gerrymandering the median district went for Trump by more than three points despite Trump losing the popular vote by two points — a hugely consequential five-point difference. To the extent Republicans can just keep Washington polarized and keep people voting as if we have a parliamentary government, they are likely to be in power for the lion’s share of the time. And they are even more likely to win seats if we have a Democratic president. History shows that midterm elections are almost always won by the opposite party of the president.

So whatever desire Republicans might have to work with a President Biden, they will also have that nagging sense that it’s counterproductive for their party’s future. It sounds cynical to talk about these things in such crass political terms, but that’s the calculation Republicans have made and are continuing to make under Trump.

It’s theoretically possible that a new Democratic president could persuade them to work across the aisle somewhat more than they have been in the past, but the idea that there will be some wholesale change in how Washington works is far-fetched. And Biden probably knows that — or at least, he should.

Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden responded to a question at the Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 8. (Video: Reuters)