Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Former Vice President and current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden is a good guy. In fact, that’s his primary argument for why he deserves the presidency: He’s America’s Uncle, a literal regular Joe who wants to bring respectability back to the Oval Office, uniting the warring houses of red and blue in the common goal of mopping up the toxic sewage pouring out of President Donald Trump’s White House.
It’s a heartwarming aspiration, on the face of it. But Biden’s statement Monday that he’d be open to choosing a Republican running mate – as offhand or pandering as it may have been – underscores just how much of his appeal is rooted in made-for-TV fantasy like “The West Wing,” rather than modern political reality.
In an Exeter, New Hampshire, town hall, Biden told the crowd he’s willing to keep the option open, even if he couldn’t name a worthy cross-the-aisle veep candidate offhand. “There are some really decent Republicans that are out there still!” he said. “But here’s the problem right now: They’ve got to step up.”
Here’s the real problem: “Decent” Republicans have had countless opportunities to “step up,” beginning long before Donald Trump was elected. But those who stepped up to criticize him have fallen in line, rendering their criticism hollow. They could have condemned the racist “birther” slurs Trump used to slander his predecessor, Barack Obama. They could have rejected his public history of gross misogyny and alleged sexual misconduct. Their leadership could’ve called out the lies and xenophobia embedded in his campaign rhetoric, and that still define many of his policies as president today. Rare exceptions aside, the mainstream GOP has remained aligned in its support of Trump.
But rather than stepping up, they’ve knelt down – to pledge fealty to a President who has embraced some of the viewpoint of white nationalists, elevated kin to the highest of offices, drained America’s coffers into the pockets of his fellow billionaires (and his own, of course), corrupted our essential civic institutions and sold out long-standing foreign policy norms and goals.
Naturally, Biden made clear that he expected his running mate, regardless of party, to be in lockstep with his priorities. “We could disagree on tactics, but strategically we’d have to be in the exact same page,” he said. But how could such strategic alignment even be possible given the that the singular priority for most of today’s Republican Party seems to be defending their leader’s use of the powers and resources of the US government in a concerted political attempt to destroy Biden himself?
Biden’s persistent bright-eyed attempts to push bipartisanship aren’t evidence that he’s a relic of the past, because the past was never particularly bipartisan. Contrary to Biden’s cheery anecdotes of Senate collaboration with former segregationists, legislative compromise comes from genial backslaps and warm hugs less often than a campaigning candidate would like to admit; more often it has emerged from one dominant party slamming through its preferred agenda, and the other grinding it into a more acceptable shape.
History shows successful bipartisan executive leadership a lot less often than Hollywood likes to. The only “unity ticket” ever to win the White House came about in 1864 in the throes of the Civil War, and it arose from Abe Lincoln’s Hail Mary decision to join with Andrew Johnson, Democratic governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, to run for reelection under the hastily created and short-lived National Union Party banner.
The true inspiration for Biden’s bipartisan framing might be most evident in a fundraising pitch his campaign sent out in September under the name of Richard Schiff – the actor who played White House communications director Toby Ziegler in Aaron Sorkin’s seminal political drama, “The West Wing.”
“During this dark Trump era, it is easy to find yourself wishing we could be led by President Bartlet instead,” wrote Schiff. “Sadly, President Bartlet is just a TV character. But luckily, Joe Biden is real, and he is running for president.”
Joe Biden as Jed Bartlet? It makes sound campaign sense, given how “The West Wing” has become such a beloved text for Democrats (and a handful of independents and Trump-averse conservatives) seeking hope – or escapist relief – in the post-Obama era.
As the New York Times wrote on the very day Biden made his willingness to consider a “unity ticket” known, the show has become “something more than just a nostalgic drama … For many in the Trump era, the show is an idealistic alternative reality, an escape from the vitriol and ill-will that they see coursing like poison through contemporary politics.”
West Wingers are drawn to the way that the series portrays politics as a pragmatic arena inhabited by passionate idealists. But they also delight in the way it embraces a noble version of bipartisanship, in moments such as President Bartlet’s decision to voluntarily cede his office to the Republican House Speaker when his daughter is kidnapped by terrorists; his hiring of staunch right-winger Ainsley Hayes as deputy White House counsel; his nomination of a conservative justice to the Supreme Court as a complement to his choosing a liberal judge as the court’s first female Chief Justice; and Bartlet’s presidential successor Matt Santos naming his Republican presidential opponent as his new Secretary of State.
But on “The West Wing,” bipartisanship works because its left and right politicians are true believers who strategically want what’s best for the nation, even if they “differ in tactics.” Disagreements invariably end in begrudging compromise, or with one party – whichever one is in the wrong – shamed or exhausted into submission by a rousing monologue. There is no self-dealing or double-dealing; no collusion, no obstruction.
That’s not our world. We exist in a timeline where “The West Wing” has been preempted by “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and bipartisanship is both a myth and a trap. Joe Biden may actually believe he’s a Bartlet pair, all the way down to the initials; or he may be cynically seeking to fly “West Wing” nostalgia all the way to the White House. In either case, for a 77-year-old Democratic frontrunner for president to blithely suggest that he might put a Republican a heartbeat away from the Oval Office is disheartening at best – and disqualifying at worst.
Let me end this piece with a “West Wing” quote, a parable famously told by the show’s beloved White House chief of staff, Leo McGarry: “This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And Joe jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ Joe says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’”
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The point being: We don’t need a president who jumps into the Republican hole. We need one who’ll dig us free of it.