A Democrat who isn’t opposed to Barrett? Biden quickly noted that he was worried about Barrett’s comments about the constitutionality of Obamacare before she became a judge, but he added it was “her right” to say such things. He then turned to a process argument, saying the nomination should be delayed until the next president is inaugurated.
While Biden clearly raised concerns about installing Barrett, he did so from a different place than other Democrats. Many of them are more preoccupied with casting Barrett as a dangerous ideologue who would undo not just Obamacare, but also Roe v. Wade. Biden’s response harked back to a time when such nominees were judged not necessarily on their judicial philosophy or litmus tests, but on basic qualifications for the job and personal character. It was a distinctly old-school answer from the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But it was also a telling one. While Biden’s calls during the 2020 Democratic primaries for working with Republicans often elicited groans and accusations that he was being Pollyannish — from his opponents and the media alike — it has remained a feature of his general election campaign. As President Trump dominates the headlines with fire and brimstone, Biden has taken advantage of his ability to run a quiet campaign more focused on reconciliation. He has stubbornly refused to take up the mantle of partisan warrior that so many Democrats seemed to pine for.
This approach was evident during a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., on Tuesday. The address called to mind Barack Obama’s “hope and change” messaging from more than a decade ago, comparing our current situation to the Civil War.
“Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for the mediation of our difference; rather, they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare,” Biden said. “Instead of treating the other party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy. This must end."
Biden added: “When I say that, I’m accused of being naive. I’m told maybe that’s the way things used to work, but they can’t anymore. Well, I’m here to say they can. And they must if we’re going to get anything done. I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American president.”
Biden sought to contrast his approach with that of Trump, who often describes Democratic areas of the country as if they aren’t really part of America and as if he bears no responsibility for them. Former administration aides like Miles Taylor have even alleged that Trump sought to punish blue states because they didn’t support him.
“The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control,” Biden said. “It’s a decision — a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, we can decide to cooperate, as well.”
Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this approach in recent weeks has been in Biden’s refusal to sign on to more drastic Democratic responses to the GOP’s Barrett gambit. These have included abolishing the filibuster and packing the Supreme Court (if Democrats retake the Senate).
When Biden sought to beg off the question at last week’s debate, moderator Chris Wallace noted that court-packing wasn’t something Republicans have injected as a wedge issue but one pushed by Democrats thirsty for retribution.
Biden, though, stood his ground.
“Whatever the position I take on that, that will become the issue,” he said. “The issue is the American people should speak. You should go out and vote.”
The posture was also evident at an NBC News town hall on Monday night. Even as critics have excoriated the White House for not being more forthcoming about Trump’s health after his coronavirus diagnosis, Biden made a point to allow that there are certain instances in which such things shouldn’t be disclosed, including for national security.
He even declined to too harshly judge the man on the hot seat right now, White House physician Sean Conley. Despite Conley practically admitting that he misled people or at least deliberately withheld information about Trump’s condition, Biden suggested he was willing to give Conley the benefit of the doubt.
“I was there when — when Ronald Reagan was shot. He was transparent, but they didn’t go into every single detail precisely,” Biden said, adding: “As moment to moment, I’m not sure that that is an absolute requirement. But you cannot mislead about certain things. And I don’t — I’m not saying they have.”
Biden in the same town hall rekindled a story he has told often about then-Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Biden noted that at the time he had, in a conversation with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, excoriated Helms for opposing a precursor to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Biden was unable to believe that Helms could take such a stand in good conscience. Mansfield (D-Mont.) allowed Biden to finish, in Biden’s telling, before informing him that Helms had adopted a disabled son.
“My point is: You stop questioning motive,” Biden said. “You go out and you debate the issues. Because we’ve all gotten down to the point where everything is about attacking the integrity of the other person.”
It was a distinctly discordant anecdote, delivered in an era in which the motives of the president and his party are increasingly a fixture of Democratic attacks. Indeed, for some of the most outspoken Trump critics, failing to ascribe motive to Trump’s actions is to give him a pass or legitimize him. Ditto for the congressional Republicans whom Democrats accuse of enabling Trump. It’s rarely about actual conservative principles or policy, in their telling, but rather about raw power.
Biden’s Helms-Mansfield anecdote is almost diametrically opposed to all that, and he has never been terribly interested in going down that path. In Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for example, Biden pursued a more moderate method of opposition than other Democrats, who cast Bork as a threat to Roe. That worked for Biden, who as the panel’s chairman oversaw the hearings, to gain the GOP votes needed to thwart Bork.
It seemed as if his approach could have been a liability for him in the 2020 Democratic primaries, in which there was a premium on defining your anti-Trump brand. Biden won the nomination anyway. And now both his consistent, sizable lead in the race and Trump’s inability to get out of his own way have allowed Biden to run a remarkably old-school campaign. It’s a campaign in which he apparently sees little value in being anything like a partisan warrior and, more important, which hasn’t pushed him to become one.
That doesn’t mean Biden’s views on working with Republicans aren’t, in fact, Pollyannish. Republicans have reaped significant results, thanks to bare-knuckle politics. That’s most evident when it comes to Supreme Court nominations. Those motivations would seem to remain intact should Biden be elected.
The danger in Biden’s approach is in possibly alienating base supporters who view him as insufficiently ready to do battle for their side. “You just lost the left,” Trump claimed at last week’s debate after Biden punted on court-packing and distanced himself from the Green New Deal.
But nearly all polls indicate that’s hardly the case. Thanks to a confluence of factors, Biden has been able to run a very un-2020 campaign — one that would seem to have the benefit of setting himself up as the kind of president-elect he has long said he wants to be. That doesn’t mean he can actually be that president, but it’s one of the more undersold developments of the race.