Biden’s pragmatic approach to bipartisanship and unity

Biden’s new bipartisanship reflects reality

Courtesy+of+Joe+Bidens+official+Facebook+page%0A

Courtesy of Joe Biden’s official Facebook page

By Benjamin Schnurr , Collegian Columnist

House and Senate Democrats successfully passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package last week without a single Republican vote in either chamber. Despite this lack of Republican support in Congress, the Biden administration has continued to sell the stimulus bill as bipartisan. Biden’s aids point to polls that show widespread support for the stimulus, like the Morning Consult poll that found that 76 percent of the public supports the bill — including 60 percent of self-identified Republicans — to justify this characterization. Still, it is fair to say that Biden has struggled to reach across the aisle. Both the stimulus bill and the recent impeachment of former President Donald Trump have garnered little to no support from Republicans in Congress.

Unfortunately, while Biden’s approach may not fit the traditional definition of bipartisanship, it is the only one that can work. Most Republicans in Congress have shown no intention of working constructively with Democrats. If Biden wants to unify the country, Democrats will need to appeal to the population at large, rather than allow Republicans in Congress to dictate what is bipartisan.

Biden’s message of unity is a response to the disturbing events of 2020. Last year the United States witnessed the onset of a deadly pandemic, nationwide protests over racial inequality, a troubling rise in political violence and open attempts by Republicans to undermine a legitimate election. The government’s role amid all of this has been abysmal: The U.S. response to the pandemic was among the worst in the world and subsequent relief programs have been lacking. Because the Republican Party has largely been corrupted by Trumpism and is not interested in compromising on policy, it is incumbent upon Democrats to fix these problems.

For this reason, Democrats cannot pursue far-left policies that are only popular with the Democratic base. Progressive ideas like defunding the police have been used against moderate Democrats to frame them as radical leftists. Several Republican candidates in New York benefited from this sort of demonization in 2020. Democratic congresswoman Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who flipped a Republican seat in 2018, has similarly noted that far-left rhetoric almost cost her her seat in 2020.

Commentators like Ezra Klein have argued that Democrats should focus on implementing policies that create immediate and visible improvements in people’s daily lives. While partisanship can cause people to vote against their self-interest, they can be persuaded to do otherwise if the policy has a big enough impact on their lives. As the political scientist Amy Lerman has observed, people “experience [these policies] as a parent sending their child to school or a patient visiting a doctor, not as a Democrat or Republican.” Klein points to the vaccine rollout and the stimulus bill as good opportunities to improve lives. In order for Democrats to maintain popular support, they must find ways to meaningfully address the needs of Americans with tangible policy solutions.

However, Democrats cannot rely upon Republican support in Congress for these policies. While Democrats should be open to working with Republicans, past experience has shown that many Republicans are more interested in thwarting Democrats than they are in compromising. Barack Obama’s presidency is a prime example of this. Attempts at bipartisan negotiation under Obama  stifled his legislative agenda while diluting the effectiveness of his reforms. Many Democrats now realize that bipartisan cooperation may not be possible in some cases. Since Democrats have majorities in both houses, they would be foolish to squander their opportunity. As House majority whip Jim Clyburn told Biden, “you can’t allow the search for bipartisanship to ruin the mandate the American people gave you.” The COVID-19 relief package reflects this sort of rationale. Democrats could have gained more Republican votes if they reduced the cost, but that would also reduce the effectiveness of the stimulus. Democrats have argued that the price of the stimulus needs to be high in order to be effective. Passing a strong stimulus bill without Republican support will be far more beneficial than passing a weak stimulus with some Republican support.

Biden’s emphasis on unity is not a traditional approach to bipartisanship but a more enlightened one. While Republicans have been quick to accuse Biden of reneging on his promise of unity, it is worth noting that Republicans are the true partisans. In fact, congressional Republicans decided before Obama even took office that they would obstruct his entire agenda. If anything, such uncompromising partisanship has only grown more prevalent within the GOP. See, for instance, Mitch McConnell’s handling of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee compared to Trump’s.

Biden has shrewdly recognized that Republicans will likely be a barrier to Democratic policy goals no matter how much they reach across the aisle. Thus, the most strategic option is to utilize the Democratic majority to prioritize policies that will improve people’s lives. This approach can lead not only to short-term electoral successes for Democrats, but it can also contribute to the more long-term repudiation of Trumpism and the far-right.

Benjamin Schnurr can be reached at [email protected]