Read: The kumbaya candidate
As a matter of electoral politics, this kumbaya approach, as my colleague Elaine Godfrey has described it, has worked well for Biden. During the primary, other Democrats took a more aggressive approach. Even professional Nice Young Man Pete Buttigieg wanted to pack the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Biden was running a backward-looking campaign that many observers, including me, found puzzling and unlikely to work.
We were wrong, and Biden was right. That sunny, nostalgic pitch helped power his come-from-behind primary win. It’s probably a big part of his formidable position in the general election too. In a Pew poll earlier this summer, Biden had a huge 14-point edge over Trump, for example, on the question of which candidate is more likely to bring the country together. Voters also hold Trump responsible for inflaming tensions and partisanship. Biden wants to reverse that.
“The thing that will fundamentally change with Donald Trump out of the White House, not a joke, is you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” he said in May 2019. This prediction echoed something he said back in 2012, just before his ticket with President Barack Obama won reelection: “We need leaders that can control their party, and I think you’re gonna see the fever break.”
The return to this theme is evidence of Biden’s sincere, long-standing belief in bipartisanship. It is also evidence that his theory, though it may be popular with voters, reflects a failure to grapple with the challenge of contemporary power politics. The second Obama term did not see any fevers break. In the most blatant example of the new power politics, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stonewalled Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. It worked, and Trump appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill the open seat.
Now another Supreme Court seat has opened shortly before an election. McConnell promptly promised to fill the seat, tacitly admitting what had been clear to most people all along: The Garland blockade was always about power politics, not precedent or procedure. Biden continues to act, however, as though appeals to propriety can work. Granted, he is not the president—at least not yet, though he believes he will be soon. Still, his appeal to GOP senators has provided a good test run for how his aisle-reaching might go, and it’s not encouraging.
There are simply not that many senators who are even plausible targets: a small crew of moderates, Trump tormentors, endangered incumbents, and old-school proceduralists. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (columns A and B) announced Sunday that she would not support holding a vote, though Biden probably doesn’t deserve much credit for that; Murkowski was reaffirming a position she had already staked before Ginsburg’s death. Susan Collins of Maine (columns A and C) said, even before Biden spoke, that the winner of the election should pick the next justice. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona (column C) both said they support holding a vote. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (column D) did too, and he’s retiring anyway. That left Romney (column B, and maybe a little of A and D), and today the Utahn announced that he supports a vote.