Joe Biden is not an imaginative man. Nor is he a particularly thoughtful man. Mostly what he is is a garrulous man, a cheerful man, a man who seems convinced he can talk his way through anything, a man who so loves the sound of his own voice he thinks you will, too.
Biden and his people appear to have a theory about how he can win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. His theory is that he can separate out the “existential threat” that is Donald Trump from the people who voted for Donald Trump—and, to a lesser extent, the politicians on the right who have sided with Trump. The Biden theme is that Trump is bad and the secret to saving America is to get rid of him. Then, the things that Americans hate about Washington—mostly, its dysfunction and the inability and unwillingness of its various ideological players to make any kind of common cause whatsoever—will become manageable problems. And he’s just the guy to manage them.
This helps explain just what the hell he might have been thinking by bringing up his ability to work with segregationist senators. It’s clear what he was trying to do was convey a political fact, which is that to get things done sometimes you have to work with people whose views you might revile. You might say he chose the worst possible examples of this, especially since one of the segregationists he chose to illustrate this point was almost certainly a psychopath; indeed, James O. Eastland once said that that “all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead n*****s.”
But to Biden’s mind, this would be the best example, not the worst, since it would support his point. That point being that he has always been self-sacrificing for the better good, and not just an ineffective moralizer who might make himself feel better by wagging his finger in Eastland’s face while failing to get his vote for something.
Buy it or don’t; that’s not the point. The point is that this goes to the heart of what Biden is promising in the wake of Donald Trump: A politics that works because he’ll work with Mitch McConnell.
Activist Democrats don’t want to work with Mitch McConnell. They want to destroy Mitch McConnell. But Mitch McConnell, or someone exactly like him, will either be the Senate Majority Leader in 2021 under a Biden presidency or a very powerful Senate minority leader with enough Republicans willing to stand in the way of Democratic legislation, capable of making sure that bills don’t move forward.
So the Biden bet is that he can convince Democrats they should not run a scorched-earth campaign promising to destroy the GOP, but rather that they should run a campaign about destroying Trump—and doing so in a way that leaves a path for them to deal with the presumably chastened Republicans who will have learned from Trump’s defeat that Trumpism was bad for their party and that they need to change fast.
It may not work. It may be too accommodationist a message. It may be too easy for his rivals to go after every one of his unfortunate statements or moves in a way that starts to sink Biden’s numbers, make him appear vulnerable, and then just let all the air out of the balloon that still has him doubling any other Democrat’s numbers nationwide. But it’s the best hand Biden has to play.
As Hillary Clinton showed in 2016, treating a significant number of the other party’s voters as “deplorables” beyond salvation is not a way to make friends and influence people. Right now, it seems most Democratic candidates feel that showing disgust not only for Trump but for every single person who voted for him, or who is uneasy with illegal immigration at the border, or who finds socialized medicine frightening is the only appropriate and moral attitude to take.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe the nation is so polarized that their loathing will resonate. But it’s an iffy proposition—so iffy you really have to wonder if Biden falls due to his own big mouth, whether another candidate will immediately move to make exactly the argument he’s making.