When you get down to it, you could argue that President Obama has done more harm to congressional Democrats than good. After centrist members of his party were forced to cast tough votes on health care and climate change during his first term, many of them lost their jobs and the House flipped to GOP control. Three years later, Democratic moderates in the Senate are still being dogged by Obamacare, with its website woes and sinking popularity clinging to them like dryer lint. That has raised the real possibility that the Senate, too, could follow suit and change hands next year.
Now, don't expect Democratic strategists—nor, for that matter, Harry Reid—to see it this way, but some good could be gained if the party surrenders the Senate. And no one is better situated to reap the benefits of a GOP takeover than one Joseph R. Biden. A Republican Congress would play to Biden's strengths as a retail politician more than to those of any other potential 2016 Democratic candidate, including Hillary Rodham Clinton. Here's why:
1) It would make Republicans own the problem. For years, the story in Washington has been Obama and Biden pitted against a do-nothing, obstructing Republican caucus. But were the GOP to control both the House and the Senate, the onus would land on that party to generate ideas, solve problems, and, yes, legislate. Seasoned hands such as former Majority Leader Trent Lott have called on his former colleagues to do just that. "You have got an agenda you can talk about that will appeal to everybody," Lott told PBS earlier this fall. No longer could the GOP hide behind the excuse of a Democratic Senate blocking its fiscal and regulatory goals. Which also means, no longer could it blame the White House for everything.
2) It would dramatically expose the Republican Party's widening fissures. In power lies a trap. Would the GOP be able to follow through with its enduring threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act, just to see Obama veto the repeal bill? Would Republican majorities roll back Obama's global-warming initiatives? Senators such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul would make life miserable for the new majority leader, whether it's Mitch McConnell or someone else. The extremists in the party would make governing and legislating as difficult as it is now—and on a larger stage—along with a corresponding surge of infighting, all for the 2016 voting public to witness.
3) It would create a larger cast of villains. Once Bill Clinton lost Congress in 1994, he spent much of the rest of his term condemning its GOP leadership, a strategy that helped propel him to a second term. When Al Gore, the best historical antecedent for Biden, ran for president in 2000, he campaigned as much against the Republican Congress as he did against Bush. Polls show that neither McConnell nor House Speaker John Boehner is particularly popular with voters—and they likely would be front and center—together—as an old-white-male symbol of GOP hegemony. Add to the mix the likes of Cruz, Paul, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio, and a candidate like Biden would have a field day, because …
4) No one takes it to the GOP like Biden does. As Obama's No. 2, he has relished the role of administration attack dog. At a fundraiser last month for Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, for example, the vice president warned the crowd of the perils of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget. Earlier this year, stumping for now-Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, he sounded the alarm over Cruz. Less abstruse than Obama, more congenial than Hillary Clinton, Biden can come across like your arm-squeezing uncle, even as he pulls out the shiv. Moreover, the more extreme portrait Biden can paint of the GOP, the more he comes off as an old-school centrist. At that Hagan fundraiser, even while blasting the Ryan budget, he spoke of the need to work together with a "mainstream conservative" Republican Party.
5) It would allow him some distance from Obama. Like any vice president, Biden would be running as much on the president's record as his own plans for the country—and, right now, polls show Obama at the nadir of his popularity. A fully Republican Congress would relieve the administration of total responsibility for the state of affairs, and would help make Biden appear less of the clubby insider he has been and more of the populist he would need to be, by allowing him to play offense, not defense. At the same time, he would be able to make a subtle case for divided government, warning that a GOP takeover of the presidency could hand too much power to the opposition. A Republican Senate would also relieve Biden of the responsibility of having to cast a potential tie-breaking vote in a closely divided chamber should the Democrats keep it—a role that would only emphasize his ties to the current White House.
Democrats live in fear of it. The White House dreads it. And Biden, naturally, could never be a loyal member of his party and ever hope for it. But his best chance to become president lies in a revamp of the existing narrative, one that casts Biden as a white-haired knight riding to the rescue of the middle class, saving the country from the shadowy menace of GOP power. For that story to be written, the Senate has to fall.
This article appears in the December 14, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Pain and Gain.
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