SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) -- VICE-President Joe Biden is an unlikely saviour of American democracy. If one thing unites voters, it is contempt for politicians too long in Washington. Mr Biden has spent 40 years in the capital, 36 of them in the Senate (two presidential bids ended in failure). He has called the Senate his “second family”. He loves dealmaking and will talk, and talk, to that end.
Some years ago, it is recorded, Mr Biden spoke at such length during a Senate hearing that a newly elected Illinois senator, Barack Obama, passed aides a note reading: “Shoot. Me. Now.” This month, swearing in the Senate after a new-year budget crisis that exposed poisonous divisions, Mr Biden played it like a cruise-ship compère with Republicans and Democrats alike, flirting with senators’ mothers—“Beautiful eyes, Mom!”—and younger companions—“You are so pretty. God love you. Holy mackerel!”
The Washington consensus is that Mr Biden earned his good cheer. He brokered an 11th-hour budget fix with Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate’s Republican minority, after talks failed between Mr Obama and the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner. Now Mr Biden has another daunting task: drafting new gun curbs after the killing in December of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut school.
The vice-president is hailed as the “McConnell whisperer”. Fans praise his geniality and experience, calling him a Lyndon Johnson to Mr Obama’s aloof John Kennedy. His back-slapping, difference-splitting skills, it is said, free the president to scold and shame Congress from the White House bully pulpit.
Not so fast. Mr Biden deserves credit for succeeding where his boss failed, but the budget deal he struck with Mr McConnell was terrible, sparing most Americans a tax rise but doing nothing to address larger fiscal woes. A budget crisis will return in weeks and both sides are dug in, with Mr Obama demanding more tax revenues, and Mr McConnell (Mr Biden’s pal) growling that tax talks are “finished”, and by the way, there will be no time to discuss gun control while budget wrangles continue.
This is not all Mr Biden’s fault. America’s problems are larger than the deals that a vice-president can cut. Even LBJ would struggle to master today’s Congress, in which small-government conservatives—backed by the tea party and allies on the airwaves and online—have raised the political costs of dispensing federal pork and favours. Mr Boehner—a Republican who actually controls one chamber of Congress, unlike Mr McConnell—has ruled out more one-on-one talks with Mr Obama, amid serial rebellions by members far less frightened of him than of primary challenges by conservative voters.
Even Mr Biden’s gun-control task-force risks not changing much. Richard Stanek, a Minnesota sheriff, addressed Mr Biden’s group on behalf of the country’s largest sheriff’s departments. His meeting ranged from curbs on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines to tighter background checks on gun owners, the sky-high costs of posting armed police in schools (the favoured solution of the pro-gun lobby), violent video games and the treatment of the mentally ill. Yet, as Mr Stanek told Mr Biden, vast numbers of assault rifles and large magazines already circulate, while the “dirty little secret” of background checks is that most states do not (or will not) feed histories of mental illness into the federal database used to vet gun owners, and most relevant criminal convictions are missing.
Does Mr Biden matter at all, then? Lexington would answer yes, and point to an old Senate belief cherished by Mr Biden: that fellow-politicians may be wrong but are rarely bad. Mr Biden likes to recall his shock as an angry young senator on learning that a seemingly heartless Republican foe of disability rights, Jesse Helms, had adopted a disabled orphan. Members are elected by states that see good in them, Mr Biden was chided by a Democratic elder: question senators’ judgment by all means, but not their motives. To do that is to doubt their voters.
Faith in human decency
Such generous assumptions are arguably easier in the Senate, where members are elected by whole states. They are harder, and increasingly so, in the House of Representatives, which has rarely looked so partisan (in 2012, just one in 15 members was elected by a district which voted for the other party’s presidential candidate, the lowest level of ticket-splitting in more than 60 years). In a country divided into safe seats and politically homogeneous regions, it is too easy to conclude that opponents are scoundrels with the worst of motives, elected by voters with alien values.
Examine the sharpest Washington disputes, and the doubting of motives is both rampant and damaging. As Mr Biden haggled with Mr McConnell on New Year’s Eve, Mr Obama in effect called Republicans wicked, warning them not to “hurt” the aged, students or middle-class families with spending cuts that spared “millionaires or companies with lots of lobbyists”. Republican chiefs accuse Mr Obama of having no intention of cutting “spending of any consequence”, in part because lots of Republicans think Democrats use welfare to buy the votes of the feckless.
Gun control inspires still angrier suspicions. On the day of the Connecticut school shooting, says Mr Stanek, applications to his department for gun permits tripled, because gun owners think the government is coming for their weapons. Worse, lobbies such as the National Rifle Association tell members that by bearing arms they are a bulwark against tyranny: an appeal to narcissism, built on a belief that American democracy is a fragile sham.
Mr Biden’s faith in his opponents’ human decency should shame both Mr Obama and Republican zealots. It explains his dealmaking success. But backroom deals cannot save America. That will take leadership, right from the top.