Biden and the Democrats must avoid the GOP’s bipartisanship trap
The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
So said then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in October 2010, a little over a week before the midterm elections flipped the House of Representatives to the Republicans and narrowed the Democrats’ lead in the Senate. Is there any doubt he’s currently saying the same thing about Biden to his donors behind closed doors, even as he publicly extols the virtues of bipartisanship?
McConnell received his share of criticism for that soundbite at the time, criticism he characteristically brushed off in front of the conservative Heritage Foundation two days after the election. But he also had his defenders, even in the Washington Post, whose resident fact checker, Glenn Kessler, called the statement “less remarkable than it’s often depicted.”
Indeed, McConnell’s statement appears more and more unremarkable with each passing year. In the most generous light, McConnell was merely articulating a banal political truism: “We want our opponent to give up on his goals and capitulate to our demands.” Or, in McConnell’s own words, “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
Yet, McConnell did want Obama to fail, at least at accomplishing his agenda, that which Obama was elected by a sizeable majority of the country to enact. It wasn’t simply a matter of being on the opposite sides of the aisle. The central thesis of Republicanism, certainly since Reagan, has been that government doesn’t work; it can’t work. Not only would a successful Obama presidency enact policy the GOP opposed, it would undermine the defining ethos of the party. On the other hand, doing nothing had little political risk, which is how McConnell became the ghoulishly smiling face of obstructionism.
Consider what McConnell said when he justified his “one-term president” statement to the Heritage Foundation: “But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.”
Notably, not one of those legislative goals was enacting policies or using the power of government to be a positive, beneficial force in people’s lives. Consider the verbs in his statement: “repeal”, “end”, “cut”, and “shrink”. Those are words of subtraction. They advocate doing less. By contrast, the one word of addition, “replace”, is an action the Republicans have shown no interest in genuinely attempting. We’re now over a decade on since the passage of the Affordable Care Act and even with the GOP holding the presidency and both chambers of Congress within that period, they have yet to offer an alternative healthcare plan, let alone enact one (though I hear it’ll be coming in two weeks).
Here’s the rub: so long as the Republicans don’t do anything except occasionally pass a tax cut or two, they are delivering on their promises. If you’re working from the premise that “government is best which governs least”, then the only way to fail is by doing something instead of nothing. Even Donald Trump’s exhortation to “Make America Great Again” was always about extracting government from people’s lives, not getting it to do more for them. That “again” is also vital to the sentiment: it’s about going backwards; repealing, rejecting, repelling. Acting against, never for.
Fittingly, Trump’s most actionable policy initiative — Build the Wall — never materialized. Despite billions spent on it, all he managed to accomplish was replacing a few hundred miles of border barrier. Because even when Republicans do act, the changes are purely cosmetic.
Meanwhile, the Democrats campaign with words like “change” and “build”. Of course, it’s just rhetoric, but the word choice represents the broader philosophy of the party, which is that a politician gets elected to work, to make a difference, to govern. Democrats never deliver on all their promises. They are, almost by definition, the party of Overpromise, Underdeliver. After all, if compromising is a requirement of effective government (and I maintain, to a certain degree, it is), then Democrats will never be able to deliver on all their promises. That’s especially true if they refuse to fight for the policies once they’re in office.
Which is why bipartisanship is a trap. Ever since President Biden took office and the Democrats won back the Senate, McConnell has gained a deep and abiding love for bipartisanship. It is the ideal he values most in the world. It is the hallmark of democracy and the only way to heal America’s deep divides, the Senate Minority Leader believes. Now. Not so much a few months ago. It’s not just that McConnell is a hypocrite — though, of course, he is — it’s that simply prolonging the debate over bipartisanship is itself a win for him.
This insistence that the Democrats, despite possessing the trifecta in Washington, negotiate with the Republicans and allow them to water down legislation, can only hurt the Dems. The Republicans have nothing to lose by dragging out debates indefinitely. Even when Democrats paint them as unyielding obstructionists, that just plays into the GOP’s guiding philosophy. Being the “Party of No” didn’t hurt Republicans in 2014 or 2016. Being the party in power did, though. (The one lesson Republicans have never learned is that when things are falling apart, people actually want the government to do something.)
The Democrats won the White House, took back the Senate, and held onto the House. And now the refrain from both Republicans and the political media is that the Dems need to learn to play nice with the GOP. Negotiate in good faith. Uphold the filibuster. Get bipartisan support for every bill. That’s how Democrats — and only Democrats — are expected to govern.
“Elections have consequences”, unless of course the Republicans lose, in which case, elections are just a stopgap between now and the next election.
The Democrats can’t afford to wait until the next election. They can’t let themselves get bogged down in yet more bad faith bipartisan-roleplaying with the Republicans while Americans struggle. The totemic Single Mothers and Working Class Dads need help now. Inequality unchecked will only get worse.
Why would Republicans support effective governance when the Democrats are in power? If things get worse, the midterm election ads write themselves. If the Democrats fail to deliver on their campaign promises, the Republicans can crow to their base that government doesn’t work and appeal to on-the-fence voters that Democrats are liars. That’s a powerful, albeit cynical motivation to sit on their laurels. But what has McConnell done in the last 10 years that would suggest he is anything but a purely politically motivated actor?
It’s worth noting that the policies Biden campaigned on — expanding healthcare coverage, raising the minimum wage, canceling school debt, sensible gun legislation — are generally more popular than the Democratic Party itself. There’s no reason to think their razor thin majority in both chambers of Congress won’t vanish if they get to 2022 having accomplished none of those supposed priorities.
Which means the Democrats must sidestep the filibuster altogether — not just make it harder — and leave fretting about bipartisanship to the talking heads who miss dissecting Trump’s antics. If there’s one thing Biden can learn from Trump, it’s that the professional pundits can scold you until their wagging fingers fall off, but the voters only care about what you do for them.
If Biden doesn’t want to be a one-term president, it’s time for him and his Democratic colleagues to do something.