Maybe it is bad strategy for Joe Biden to recount the times he was a young senator and sat at the table with segregationists to get things done. At least, maybe it is a bad strategy in the Democratic primary.
Liberal commentators have rushed out to remind Joe Biden that Democrats are fooling themselves if they believe compromise is on offer. Hosts of The View pointed out that Neil Gorsuch sits on the Supreme Court because Mitch McConnell and Republicans were unwilling to compromise and vote for Merrick Garland. And didn’t Republicans bat down every chance to make compromises with Barack Obama because they made it their mission to deprive him of any accomplishments? The only option is to defeat Republicans, they say. Or possibly alter the constitutional system in order to defeat their current advantage in the Senate. Or pack the Supreme Court. Shouldn’t we play by the rules that are operating? Or even escalate? That might be the more appealing strategy in the hothouse of party primaries. And ambitious candidates have floated radical ideas for reforming the constitutional system.
But Biden may be onto something powerful.
Biden’s fundamental claim is that we are living in an aberrant part of American history. He is playing to what he believes is a common feeling; people feel that there is more anxiety, contention, and polarization surrounding politics now than before. Maybe it is the pervasive belief identified by Will Rahn: Americans of every political persuasion “feel like they’re losing.” Biden basically attributes the gridlock to Trump and tries to satisfy Democratic partisanship by making Trump the concentrated symbol of contentious politics. But in fact this sense of polarization and anxiety goes back at least to the 2000 election results, in which our language of “red and blue” America was inaugurated, if not to the impeachment of Clinton or to the 1994 congressional election. Each party has a narrative around these events in which the other was the aggressor. Biden’s pitch is that he remembers how to compromise. And it’s not surprising that he reached for a pre-1994 example to demonstrate it.
Let’s stipulate that Biden’s own history isn’t always one of civility and mollifying his opponents. Today, Biden brags about the times he came to the table to compromise with actual segregationists. In 2012, though, he warned black voters that a President Mitt Romney would “put y’all back in chains.”
And yet, there is something powerfully appealing in the promise to usher out an old generation of American politics. One of the reasons Donald Trump won the presidency is that he promised to break up a generation-long consensus and stalemate on issues including trade, immigration, and foreign policy. Underneath all the partisan rancor, Washington had settled on a kind of passive bipartisan consensus on these issues. Trump changed the electoral map by promising to return them to democratic debate, input, and contest.
Biden’s generational case can be that Trump represents the final crest of an ongoing logic of escalation and enmity in America’s democracy. One of the historic boasts of American democracy is supposed to be that our form of politics not just sets the rules on which we contest great issues, and reconciles us to the results, but that the process of democratic contest and compromise ultimately reconciles us to shared membership in the nation.
There is to America’s culture war an escalating logic that is beginning to frighten its participants. The fear is driving some liberals to dream about abolishing the Senate, and some conservatives to dream of a post-liberal future. Historically it was the desire to avoid (or postpone) ultimate conflict that drove the career of Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser” who helped arrange the Missouri Compromise, the Tarriff Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850.
Biden’s new championing of the genius for compromise may be appealing to moderate voters precisely because there is a desire for de-escalation and for a new durable, livable settlement in America. How can Democrats or Republicans possibly hope to escalate from Trump’s form of combat? Isn’t it time for a new paradigm?
The promise of great compromises might be a good general-election pitch in 2020, but there is a serious problem for would-be compromisers. Sometimes history doesn’t permit the durable settlement you desire. Clay’s legacy was left in tatters, and his compromises were exposed as delays — even immoral evasions — just eight years after he died. If the enmity is sufficient and the disagreement deep enough, no politician can postpone conflict forever.