“But we have to remember the purpose of our politics isn’t total unrelenting, unending warfare. The purpose of our politics, the work of the nation, isn’t to fan the flames of conflict, but to solve problems, to guarantee justice, to improve the lives of our people.
“We may be opponents, but we’re not enemies. We’re Americans, no matter who you vote for.”
Biden’s words might be sincere, but he has been around in DC long enough to know that to many they will sound hollow.
Biden’s first run for the presidency was in 1988, the same year that the Republican New Gingrich was making a name for himself by stirring a revolution among young radical congressmen.
The problem with the Congress, Gingrich believed, was that there was too much compromise and collegiate effort. He urged a cadre of radical young congressmen to upend these traditions, at one point even drafting a memo on the use of political language for his young fans called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”.
It was not enough to describe Democrats as wrong, he explained. Better words for them included sick, pathetic, traitors, radical and corrupt.
Gingrich’s “Republican revolution” made him famous and powerful. He was one of the architects of a campaign that ended the Democratic Party’s 40-year majority in the House and he served as House Speaker from 1995 to 1999, cementing his vision of politics as bloodsport.
On the night Biden became vice-president to Barack Obama in 2008 Gingrich was in DC too. As a party elder he had been invited to dinner in an expensive steakhouse called The Caucus Room. He was one of 15 Republicans gathered to work out a plan for how to tackle the new president and his politics of hope.
According to Robert Draper’s heavily-reported book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the US House of Representatives, the group decided on a simple and effective strategy. They would wreck everything. Obama and Biden were not to be allowed a single legislative achievement. Despite the spiralling economic collapse, they would start by opposing Obama’s rescue package.
“You will remember this day,” Draper reports Gingrich as saying to his elected colleagues on the way out. “You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”
Despite following the strategy the party failed to win the 2012 race, but their dogged obstructionism and fierce partisanship helped create an environment in which a man like Donald Trump could be elected president.
It is also a strategy ruthlessly employed by the current Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who has just won his seventh term in office with a thumping victory in Kentucky.
This is the man Biden will need to deal with should he win office without a solid Senate majority, as appears likely.
“The tallies aren’t just numbers,” said Biden in Delaware as the count dragged on.
“They represent votes and voters, men and women who exercise their fundamental right to have their voice heard.
“What is becoming clear each hour is that record numbers of Americans of all races, faiths and religions chose change over more of the same, and have given us a mandate for action on COVID, the economy, climate change, systemic racism.
“They made it clear. They want the country to come together, not continue to pull apart.”
They are fine words, but the campaign just finished demonstrates that around half of Biden’s fellow citizens do not necessarily agree on his priorities.
Nor is there any evidence that the partisan rancour that has overwhelmed American governance since Biden first ran for the office he may win will soon lift, even in the absence of Donald Trump.
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.