Why a GOP Senate Takeover Is the Best Thing for Joe Biden

As a vice president, it’s not ideal. But as a presidential candidate? That’s another story.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses the American Israel Public Affiars Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center March 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Biden boldly confirmed the political, historical and military ties between the two countries and emphasized President Barack Obama's support for Israel, which he will visit later this month. 
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James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Dec. 16, 2013, midnight

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.

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