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2016 and the Shutdown: Joe Biden Edition

Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

When President Barack Obama laid out his strategy for the current debt-limit fight in a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this past summer, Reid stipulated one condition: No Joe Biden.

And while Biden attended the White House dog-and-pony show meeting last week with congressional leaders, Reid has effectively barred him from the backrooms, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The vice president’s disappearance has grown ever more noticeable as the government shutdown enters its eighth day with no resolution in sight and a debt limit crisis looms. Biden was once Democrats’ deal-maker-in-chief, designing budget pacts with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the summer of 2011 and New Year’s Eve 2013.

Coverage of the shutdown showdown has framed it as a battle of wits between President Obama and congressional Republicans (especially those in the House). The shutdown is centered on the GOP’s efforts to defund ObamaCare and undo what the president considers his signature legacy. In that respect, this is absolutely a contest between the House GOP and Obama personally.

But it doesn’t explain all the factors involved. Reid’s behavior fills in the blanks. Today’s Politico story claims Democrats think the White House–represented by Biden–gave away too much in previous deals. The first question to ask in response to this is: So what? Is the president not the leader of his party? Is it not his name on the policy that’s causing all this friction? And since when does Barack Obama (and by extension, Joe Biden) take orders from Harry Reid?

The answer has a lot to do with the timeline. The 2011 deal that Biden helped strike was before the president’s reelection. The New Year’s deal was right after Obama and Biden won the election and the political capital that comes with it. But Obama isn’t running again. It may seem strange, but Obama’s own party is treating the president as a lame duck far more than Republicans are. The sixth-year midterms traditionally can be uphill elections for the party that holds the White House. And this time it’s Reid’s legacy (somewhat) on the line.

Reid may be an unappealing spokesman for his cause, but his political instincts are still sharp. He’s right that the 2014 congressional elections have supplanted the 2016 presidential primaries as the reference point for trying to gauge the motivations of Republicans. Reid preferred not to vote on separate, piecemeal legislation to fund certain parts of the government during the shutdown, fearing it would cascade into a line-item frenzy that favored the GOP. But when Republicans in the House passed a bill to fund active-service military personnel, Reid allowed the bill to move forward in the Senate. As Byron York writes at the Washington Examiner, Republicans plan to do exactly what Reid hoped to prevent:

GOP rebels want to focus on red-state Democrats, particularly those up for re-election in 2014, and make the shutdown a question of support for veterans. (It’s a tactic that certainly wasn’t hurt by the Park Service’s ham-handed attempts to close down the World War II and Vietnam War memorials on the National Mall.) Cruz’s Growth and Freedom Fund PAC has created a new website, Fundourvets.com, that urges people to tell Senate Democrats that “legislation to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs…needs their support.”

The GOP rebels believe those vulnerable Democrats will eventually cave on veterans’ funding. And if they do, having voted once to keep the military going, and then again to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, what is the rationale for resisting other funding measures?

This dynamic also explains why sidelining Biden was more significant than sidelining Obama. The president may not have another election coming up, but Reid isn’t the only Democrat with electoral considerations. Biden appears to be strongly considering running for president in 2016, and his work in helping craft bipartisan deals in the administration’s first term was seen as resume building.

Obama doesn’t have much to lose by being excluded from these negotiations, especially because Reid would never sacrifice ObamaCare to the Republicans. That’s not the case with Biden, who is enough of a loose cannon to push back on Reid if he deems it necessary. Thus the 2016 presidential election may not be motivating Republicans’ current strategy, but it could easily be a source of conflict for Democrats.