In the throes of the Democratic primary debates last year, Joe Biden was attacked for his Senate history of working across the aisle with Republicans. Mr Biden had befriended racist former segregationists — and even attended their funerals, said his critic. His nostalgic calls for bipartisan civility made him a relic of a bygone era, she implied.
The rival in question was Kamala Harris, a competitor for the nomination, whom he went on to pick almost a year later as his running mate. Today, with the growing likelihood the Biden-Harris ticket has won the 2020 election, that vinegary clash is suddenly relevant again.
Were Mr Biden to be inaugurated on January 20, he would almost certainly have to grapple with a hostile Republican-controlled Senate. Nobody was planning on that. The focus in the Democratic debates was on the great plans the party would pursue after it had swept the Republicans out of town.
“Among the large field of Democratic contenders, Biden was ironically by far the best equipped to work with Republicans — the one quality nobody saw as relevant,” says Bill Galston, a former official in Bill Clinton’s White House. “He was the only one citing bipartisanship as a virtue.”
The chances are that this particular Bidenesque quality — indeed, his trademark selling point — will now be tested. It could take days, even weeks, before the US presidential race is finally settled — and there is not much hope that Donald Trump will ever utter the words “I concede”. Mr Trump is still claiming he has won the election, even as he is now behind in the vote count in key swing states, such as Pennsylvania and even Georgia. The chances that this could degenerate into a nasty recount battle in states Mr Biden has narrowly won cannot be ruled out.
To say the least, Mr Trump is unlikely to be helpful during the 10-week transition between now and inauguration day. People around him are even hinting that he might declare his candidacy for the 2024 election, which would make him only the second US president after Grover Cleveland (in 1892) to lose the White House and run again.
Even if Mr Trump goes quietly into the night, Mr Biden will have to deal with an army of undefeated Trumpians. Republicans have gained seats in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and very probably retained control of the Senate. Roughly 48 per cent of the US electorate — or nearly 70m voters — voted for Mr Trump in the largest turnout since 1900. Although Mr Biden won the most votes of any candidate in US history, Mr Trump took the second-highest total.
“We were expecting a repudiation of Trumpism, not just a defeat of Trump,” says Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, the message from the electorate was much more ambivalent than that.”
Mr Biden would be the first president to inherit divided government on taking office since George HW Bush in 1988. But the Democrats with whom Bush Senior was compelled to work were a far more pliable bunch than Mr Trump’s Republican party.
The most important relationship in Washington would be between Mr Biden and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Both men will be 78 in January. Mr McConnell, whom liberal critics dubbed “Moscow Mitch” because of his unwavering support for Mr Trump during last year’s impeachment and beyond, specialises in killing Democratic plans. For six out of Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House — after Democrats had lost control of Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010 — Mr McConnell blocked almost every White House initiative. His goal was to wreck the Obama presidency even at the expense of passing bills that would have been weighted towards Republican ends. He and Mr Obama were barely on speaking terms.
When Mr Obama needed someone to go to Capitol Hill to strike a deal, such as preventing the US from defaulting on its public debt, he would always send Mr Biden. The Republican leader and former vice-president have known each other since 1985. “If there is one Democrat who could work the field to get some Democratic priorities through the Senate it is Joe Biden,” says Rahm Emanuel, who was Mr Obama’s White House chief of staff. “He knows that institution better than anybody in Washington.”
But the sobering reality is that Mr McConnell would be unlikely to pass almost anything of what Mr Biden wants. Nor would he be likely to confirm people to top jobs who did not meet Republican approval. That looming prospect has already put paid to speculation that Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to Mr Obama, would be nominated as secretary of state. Ms Rice is reviled in conservative circles.
Likewise, all talk of Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, or another candidate from the left, as US Treasury secretary have been scotched. There is a saying in DC that “personnel is policy”. Mr Biden’s cabinet will have to meet Mr McConnell’s approval. The chances that he will nominate a Republican or two to top positions is thus high.
The progressive left, which now holds almost as much weight in the Democratic party as the nationalist-populists do on the right, is bound to be disappointed. “Biden will have to say to them, ‘Look, I’d love to nominate X or Y to this or that position, but McConnell won’t let me’,” says Michael Beschloss, a leading historian of the US presidency. “Biden will have one hand tied behind his back from the start.”
The implications for domestic policy are drastic. It is still possible Democrats could reach the magic threshold of 50 Senate seats if they win both run-offs — second round elections — for the two seats in Georgia on January 5. They are thus likely to be among the most contested Senate races in US electoral history. “The difference between 49 and 50 seats is the difference between Biden governing domestically and not governing,” says a senior adviser to Mr Biden. “The party will throw everything at those races.” But the chances they would win both are slim.
Another possibility is that Democrats will try to persuade one Republican to defect to their ranks by changing parties. The likeliest candidates are Susan Collins, the re-elected senator from Maine, and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska. Or Mr Biden could offer Ms Collins a big cabinet position, which would enable the Democratic governor of Maine to appoint a Democratic senator in her place. The bargaining price of such outliers has just shot through the roof. Again, however, these are far-fetched prospects. “Any defector would instantly become a cult hate figure in the conservative movement,” says a Republican political consultant. “McConnell would make that steep price very clear to them.”
Perhaps the best for which Democrats can hope is a kind of Bill Clinton-era triangulation in which Mr Biden manages to attach modest Democratic priorities to big Republican bills. Mr Clinton passed a draconian welfare reform law, a three-strikes-and-you’re-out crime bill, and embraced fiscal rectitude during the 1990s. His party’s left was rarely included in the conversation. The 1990s were forged in negotiation between Mr Clinton and Newt Gingrich, the firebrand Republican Speaker.
By the same token, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the leaders on Capitol Hill of today’s Democratic left — have suddenly lost their leverage. Their hopes of passing a “green new deal”, a $15 federal minimum wage and higher taxes on the wealthy now look quixotic.
The odds of a large fiscal stimulus that would include Democratic priorities, such as heavy aid for states and city governments to cope with the pandemic, are also weak. Republicans have a history of abandoning fiscal rectitude when one of their own is president — as happened with Mr Trump’s $1.5tn tax cut — only to rediscover fiscal religion when there is a Democrat in the White House.
This time is unlikely to be different. One way Mr Biden could sell higher investment spending to Mr McConnell would be to avoid any talk of tax increases — a McConnell red line. Mr Biden could argue that the US can now tap 30-year funds at 1 per cent interest that would easily pay for themselves.
“This would be a mirror image of the Reagan-Bush “starve the beast” tax cuts where the resulting fiscal deficits would eventually force Democrats to reduce the size of government,” says Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary for Mr Clinton. “If the US borrowed to invest and did it well, the investment returns would grow the economy and not lead to any kind of explosive debt growth. If there was a rapid need for deficit action the adjustment would likely come on the tax side.”
Another way of selling Democratic priorities to Mr McConnell would be to frame them as a response to the threat of a rising China. A number of Republicans, such as Florida senator Marco Rubio, talk of creating a US industrial policy on 5G and artificial intelligence to combat the spectre of an increasingly powerful China.
“Senate Republicans must ask themselves if the United States can afford two or four years of legislative stagnation if we are to compete with China,” says Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They could find common ground with Republicans on industrial policy, infrastructure and many other areas if they place competition with China at the heart of their agenda.”
Should Mr Biden find himself shackled at home, he can always spread his wings on the global stage. That might cut against his campaign’s “build back better” priority of first repairing America at home. But foreign policy would be where he had the most freedom of manoeuvre.
“A US president can forge almost any international agreement without regard to Congress as long as you don’t call it a treaty,” says Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “There are a lot more areas of overlap with Republicans on foreign policy than on domestic policy. The idea that US diplomacy should be amoral was peculiar to Trump.”
Even here, however, Mr Biden’s latitude is constrained. He could rejoin the Paris accord on climate change. But he cannot force a Republican Senate to fund alternative energy. He could rejoin the World Health Organization, but he would need Mr McConnell to authorise US funding for the body. He could bring America back into the Iran nuclear deal but any changes would have to be approved by the US Senate.
Mr Biden would, however, find some Republican support for reviving what Washington still calls “values-based diplomacy” — the stress on democracy promotion, human rights and multilateral co-operation that Mr Trump so gleefully abandoned. “We have had a four-year values holiday in American diplomacy,” says a senior adviser to Mr Biden. “Trump’s sucking up to autocrats like Vladimir Putin was something that embarrassed Senate Republicans, even though they mostly went along with it.”
Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency
Ultimately, however, Mr Biden would be boxed in by the frustratingly equivocal outcome of this week’s elections. Mr Trump may have lost. But Republicans as a whole gained nationally. There is little mandate for a progressive agenda. Nor is there much prospect that Republicans will treat Mr Trump as an aberration.
Almost straight away, the US Senate will become the scene of jockeying for the 2024 nomination, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, is also in the fray. Each will attempt to claim the Trumpian mantle. Donald Trump Junior or Ivanka Trump may also throw their hats into the ring. The scope for old-fashioned Bidenesque comity will be severely limited.
“We are now a party of the working class,” Mr Hawley tweeted giddily on Tuesday night. Whatever that means in practice, Mr Biden will find it hard to deliver the national unity on which he campaigned. It is difficult to restore a national soul that appears to be cleft in two. “You have to hope that Republicans can move on from Trump,” says Mr Boyle. “But that is a hope, not a strategy.”
Follow the latest US election news here.