Joe Biden’s Proud Bipartisanship Is Not What the U.S. Needs
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that Joe Biden is officially running for president, one crucial aspect of his pitch to voters is clear: He represents a return to the feel-good bipartisanship of an earlier era. He himself, if not (yet?) his presidential candidacy, has been endorsed by the McCain family, and he has frequently praised Republicans.
Unfortunately, this appeal is doomed to fail. Yes, Biden inspires respect across the aisle and is well-liked generally; he really does seem like the kind of person who could bring the country together. Because of America’s unique constitutional and political arrangements, however, a Biden campaign and presidency is more likely to drive the country further apart.
Most nations make a distinction between the head of state and the head of the government. The head of state is usually the president or, in constitutional monarchies, the king or queen. The head of government usually goes by the title of prime minister or chancellor. The logic behind this separation is that the head of state represents all citizens, while the head of government is there to advance the agenda of his or her own party. Consequently, the head of state is often an affable and respected figure, while the head of government is usually a hard-nosed dealmaker.
The American president is required to be both at the same time. It’s already a difficult task, and is made more difficult when the president clings too tightly to the mantle of bipartisanship.
Consider this hypothetical: There are almost certainly relatively moderate Republicans in Congress right now who would prefer Biden to President Donald Trump. What should they say when Biden starts criticizing and attacking Trump? Or when Trump starts attacking Biden?
By siding with Biden, they could exemplify the very spirit of bipartisanship he is appealing to. Moreover, you might think, speaking out is the right thing to do. Why get into politics if not to stand up for what you believe in?
But think through the consequences. Speaking out would all but guarantee they would face a primary opponent. A primary opponent would almost certainly be more extreme. And primary voters tend to be more partisan, so the extremist would likely bring down the incumbent. So the result of this brave moderate crossing party lines would be to produce a more extremist party.
This outcome is so devastatingly predictable that, in the 2018 midterm elections, dozens of Never Trump Republicans chose to retire. At least in that case, there is a chance for a new untarnished moderate to win the primary.
There is, however, a way out of this dilemma, and for the country to begin the process of political healing: The Democrats should pick an unabashedly partisan candidate. That gives moderates some space to operate. A socially moderate but free-market Republican could credibly claim to prefer Trump to, say, Bernie Sanders, while being deeply uncomfortable with both.
That moderate Republican could then serve as a bridge builder that Democrats can work with. This is a phenomenon that is already evident, ironically, on the Democratic side. Kyrsten Sinema was elected to the Senate from Arizona on an anti-Trump message, but she has long embraced a centrist platform that puts her in a good position to be a dealmaker.
Congress needs more members like her on the Republican side — and the way to get them is for the Democrats to eschew feel-good bipartisanship and elect a fire-breathing liberal. Joe Biden is by all accounts a great guy and seems to genuinely believe in reaching across the aisle. But he’s not what the Democrats, or the U.S., needs right now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Karl W. Smith is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina's school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.