Joe Biden habitually attests to the basic decency of Republicans in Congress, and predicts against all evidence that they will return to reason once Donald Trump is gone.
The question of why he does this is unresolved, but the question of what he means now has an answer, and it is not a reassuring one.
On Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel asked Biden why he’s so confident that the same Republicans who blocked the Obama-Biden agenda would suddenly play nice if he became president. You can read Biden’s full, discursive answer here.
It’s hard to parse, but his response amounts to both a defense against the charge that he’s naive about the Republican Party, combined with an assertion that he will take the same approach to legislating that Democrats adopted during the early Obama years, when Republicans scorched the earth in opposition to the entire Democratic agenda. These ideas are in tension.
Biden imagines advancing his objectives by approaching Republicans in Congress, even if just a few of them, and persuading them to cut deals with him—as he did when he convinced three Republican senators to support the economic recovery act in the first weeks of the Obama administration. Should that approach fail, he argues, it’d would be appropriate to forge ahead on a partisan basis, “like we did in health care,” he says. “We won without a single Republican vote.” Should both strategies fail, his plan is to let voters sort it all out.
To Biden’s credit, this is not as naive as the least-generous interpretation of his comments would suggest. But it isn’t much better, either. It is a vision of returning to the slog of 2009-2010, without making any tactical adjustments for what we learned from that experience.
Yet that experience should shape the strategic thinking of every Democrat in Congress and every Democrat who wants to be president. When Barack Obama took office, he and congressional Democrats made securing at least minimal bipartisan support for his agenda a cardinal goal. Even in 2009, that strategy infuriated activists, who understood Republicans were intent on burying the agenda, not watering it down through compromise.
But if Obama’s approach was controversial-but-worth-a-shot in 2009, it would be madness to repeat it in 2021 after seeing how Republicans reacted then and in the years between. (There is even a saying about this.)
The Biden approach refers back to a time when Democrats accepted the filibuster as an inalterable obstacle to legislating, but had such a large Senate majority that they only needed a small number of Republican votes to pass liberal bills. The next Democratic president will be lucky to have a Senate majority of any size, let alone a 2009-like supermajority, which means the Biden approach will require Democrats—in an optimistic scenario—to persuade a much larger number of Republican senators to defy Mitch McConnell.
Nothing Democrats can do will make legislating easy, but they can at least unshackle themselves from the desire for Republican support. They can adopt a new guiding principle—not that the progressive agenda should be bipartisan, but that they will use their power to help people, and Republicans are welcome to join them.
That principle would have entailed a radically different approach in 2009: the abolition of the filibuster, or the willingness to expand insurance coverage through the filibuster-proof budget process from the start. In 2021, if Democrats win a governing trifecta, their agenda will almost certainly require such an approach.
This is not an argument for rejecting bipartisanship altogether. In the unlikely event that some Republicans were to break down and ask for concessions in exchange for votes, Democrats would be wise to consider those offers in good faith, weighing the tradeoffs between doing as much good as possible and locking in the political stability bipartisan programs enjoy. But it does reflect a recognition that governing in coalition with Republicans the way Obama hoped and imagined he would is not in the cards and should no longer form the basis of Democratic political strategy. That goes for all Democratic presidential candidates, but especially for the one who served as vice president when Republicans laid their cards on the table.