As President-elect Biden prepares to make important decisions about the policies and personnel he believes will get this nation back on its feet, he and his transition team are appropriately preparing a strategy for navigating a divided government.
Most importantly and most fundamentally, the Biden transition would be well-served by not assuming the good faith or fair dealing of Senate Republicans. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, President Obama said Republican resistance to him was not due to “a lack of schmoozing.” Rather, he said, “the issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party. This was amplified by media outlets like Fox News. Their voters believed this, and over time Republicans became so successful in their demonization that it became very difficult for them to compromise, or even be seen being friendly.”
The painstaking refusal of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many members of his conference to publicly acknowledge what they privately know—that Joe Biden won this election fair and square—presages the challenges ahead. Unwillingness to concede the legitimacy of Biden’s election reveals everything you need to know about their political judgment.
The Biden team will remember well that McConnell used the Senate’s filibuster rules in unprecedented ways to stymie and block President Obama’s agenda and nominees. This pattern is likely to repeat itself—whether through further abuse of the filibuster rules, or, if McConnell keeps the majority, through unilaterally blocking Senate consideration of all major Biden agenda items. Republicans will proffer the language of deal-making and camaraderie, all the while moving the target and never allowing Biden to hit the elusive sweet spot.
To be clear, this is not the way I want politics to operate nor am I excited that we’ll have to struggle in this fashion. But we have to be honest about the fact that Republicans, buoyed by Trump’s stronger-than-expected performance, are already licking their chops for the opportunity to take back the House in two years and the White House in four years and will be operating with every intention of tanking Biden’s popularity to do so.
Don’t misunderstand this as an argument against working with Republicans. We should absolutely engage in bipartisan negotiations to move agenda items whenever it’s possible. That’s the obligation of serving in government; we should not be like Trump and his allies who recoil at the very notion of talking to elected members of the opposite party. All I’m asking is that we not get snookered by those conversations.
If Biden and his team are to move their legislative agenda, they won’t make progress solely by picking up the phone and having pleasant conversations with Republican senators. They’ll need to back that effort up with brass-knuckle politics.
For that reason, one of the most important decisions facing the Biden transition is how to stand up a strong political operation. While the chief of staff and cabinet nominees are certainly important and attention-grabbing, I’d argue that the White House political team and the DNC operation will play an unusually important, even vital role.
Biden and his administration must be prepared to actively campaign for their agenda. That will entail traveling to Republican states, convening town halls in places that Democrats don’t usually go to, and demanding that voters in those states pressure their Republican senators to do the right thing. Biden will need to be on local TV early, often, and repeatedly. His team must think hard about choosing legislative items early on that will be difficult for Republicans to oppose, and that they can make headway on unilaterally. For example, as we push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage nationwide, the administration should use its federal powers to require government contractors to adopt that minimum wage.
As the administration makes the case that Republicans are blocking popular priorities, the Biden team will need to show that it is impatient for action and doing everything in its power to move the system. The president will need to demonstrate, convincingly, that when he could act without Congress, he did. Biden can and should use the Vacancy Act and other powers to staff his government if Republicans stand in the way, and use emergency powers like the Defense Production Act to create jobs and suppress COVID-19. On criminal justice, the Biden administration should use the clemency power robustly and deschedule marijuana. On immigration, Biden should not only renew DACA and apply it broadly, but also fight to reunite all migrant children with their parents, many of whom are, unbelievably, still missing. And that is just the beginning.
Republican senators will predictably decry Biden’s executive actions—shallow and empty whining, to be sure, from the very people who coddled Trump’s rampant abuses. They will unfairly castigate Biden for destroying bipartisanship because he took unilateral action. He should embrace the friction, and tell the story of how he’s disrupting Washington to make it work for regular people.
Republican senators won’t be moved to support Biden’s legislative agenda with sweet talk or kind platitudes or by inviting them over for beer at the White House. They’ll have to be dragged to support Biden’s agenda against the will of their party. The pressure on them will have to cause such consternation and anxiety that they’ll be compelled to break loose from McConnell’s grip, which comes with strong financial leverage.
Biden’s presidential campaign benefitted from an all-in, team-oriented coalition that was willing to do whatever it took to help get him across the finish line. That work must continue in order to get a multiracial working class agenda passed. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris must call on all their allies, celebrities, local leaders, the Crooked Media team, and everyone in between, to once again adopt states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Alaska, where Republican senators will be up for reelection in 2022.
The DNC and progressive grassroots organizations will have to engage in tight collaboration around organizing on-the-ground activities with volunteers and local leaders and activists. There will need to be a concerted state-focused media strategy. That strategy will require back-up from a quantitative and qualitative research operation. Digital infrastructure will need to be targeted on key messages and maintain a steady drumbeat of information about the stakes at play.
McConnell, fresh off his own re-election, will resume his role as a legislative “grim reaper,” chief caretaker of the Senate graveyard for House-passed items. The Biden political operation will require going around him to peel off senators in his caucus, which will require more than appeals to their good conscience.
Many of those Senators—Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, Richard Burr, Lisa Murkowski, and others—will occasionally moan and groan that the Biden team isn’t being fair by criticizing them because they don’t run the Senate. They may even say that they disagree with McConnell. Don’t fall for it. That’s when you know the strategy is working. They’ll come to the right position, only after every escape route for them has been closed off.
People are demanding change, and they are impatient for action. The Biden team must not only build a multiracial working class agenda that excites people, it will then have to pound the pavement and mobilize the public in a way that no White House has done before.
Faiz Shakir was campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, political director at the ACLU, and senior adviser to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.