On Sunday, Joe Biden made a personal appeal to Republican senators considering whether to hold a vote on President Donald Trump’s anticipated Supreme Court nominee, asking them to wait for the result of November’s election before filling the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s spot.
“Please, follow your conscience,” Biden said. “Don’t go there. Uphold your constitutional duty, your conscience; let the people speak.”
This was a test, and the results came quickly. This morning, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah announced that he supports taking a vote on the nominee when the nomination comes before the Senate, and will determine his vote based on her qualifications—almost certainly a yes. That likely gives Republicans the votes they need to confirm the nominee.
The quick consolidation is a vivid rebuke to Biden’s theory of the presidency. He believes that once Trump is gone, Republicans on Capitol Hill will return to the low-key, courteous mien that Biden remembers (or thinks he remembers) from his long career in the Senate. Rather than relentlessly attacking these Republicans, Biden has chosen to reach out to them. This bipartisan comity may well deliver the White House to Biden. But the flop of his Supreme Court appeal also suggests that if he wins, he’ll struggle to turn his theory of politics into real success.
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.
In short, Biden’s heartfelt appeal doesn’t appear to have moved a single senator. If he wins, Biden will have to reckon with the shortcomings of this approach quickly. He would inherit a country in economic collapse, still suffering grievously from COVID-19, and facing the challenges of four years of toxic management by Trump. If Republicans hold the Senate—and at the moment, the odds are roughly even that they will—they’ll be able to block anything he wants to do, if they can stick together as a bloc. Even if Democrats win control, Republicans could filibuster—a tool that many Democrats want to eliminate, but that Biden, himself a proceduralist, prefers to keep.
If Biden’s appeal to old-fashioned values were a cynical ploy, he’d only have to abandon it when it proved unworkable—say, January 30, 2021, or so. Instead, Biden seems to be walking into the same trap that his friend and old boss did in a different national crisis 12 years ago. Obama ran for president on the promise of changing the way Washington worked. Voters, who always hate how Washington works, ate it up. Once elected, though, Obama ran into the buzz saw of a Republican opposition that wasn’t interested in working with him to forge a new kind of politics—but rather, was interested in winning, and in making Obama a one-term president.
They didn’t manage that last part, and Obama collected some notable wins during his two terms. He never did bring a new way of working together to Washington, though. Now his vice president is promising to bring an old way of working together back to Washington.
As the Republican rally around the Supreme Court shows, he’s unlikely to be able to deliver. Biden is right that if he wins, the election will produce an epiphany. It’s just that he’s going to be the one with the rude realization.