WASHINGTON—One of the most potent visions Joe Biden sold on the campaign trail was a return to normalcy for America. Casting a vote for him, was, essentially, a way to hit rewind and dial down the extreme partisanship and divisiveness of the Trump years.
“With Trump gone, you’re going to begin to see things change,” Biden said during the primary, predicting that Republicans would have an “epiphany” on Capitol Hill and begin working with Democrats again.
Now, after an election that revealed the country to be even more divided than we imagined, an election called for Biden on Saturday morning by major news organizations, that promise could face the ultimate test.
At 77 years old, Biden has suggested he would only serve one term, making him a transitional figure who would be unburdened by the political considerations of most presidents whose sights are already set on the next election. He also owes little to the progressive left wing of his party, whose candidates he defeated in the primary.
But the former vice president could face a Republican Senate led by Senator Mitch McConnell—a man who waged war against the Obama administration’s legislative agenda and had explicitly promised to block liberal policies if a Democrat won the White House this year.
“If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper,” McConnell told community leaders in Kentucky last spring. “None of that stuff is going to pass.”
Senate control is not yet officially decided, with Democrats still hoping for a moonshot performance in what will likely be two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January that they would need to sweep.
But if Biden does have to contend with a Republican-controlled Senate, his allies say they are counting on his skills as a negotiator, and long history of striking deals with Republicans in years past, to overcome McConnell’s publicly stated commitment to obstruction. They point out that McConnell, who served for two decades with Biden in the Senate, has called him a “real friend” and was the lone Senate Republican to attend the funeral of his son Beau Biden.
“If there is one politician today who believes in working with the other party and crossing the aisle and bringing governing coalitions together, it’s Joe Biden,” said Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who served as Defense secretary in the Obama administration. “He and Mitch McConnell go back a long way. They like each other.”
Moe Vela, a former adviser to Biden, said Biden’s respect for members of the opposing party is deeply sincere, which will boost his efforts to broker compromises. “He’s not kidding about this unity message,” Vela said.
But there are early signs that unity message—as much as the nation might need it after four tumultuous years and a bitter election—doesn’t appear to be mutual. As Biden vowed from Wilmington on Wednesday that there would be no “red states and blue states” when he’s president, an anonymous McConnell ally warned a reporter that Republicans would reject any liberal Cabinet nominees Biden selects.
For some Democrats, it’s a triggering reminder of McConnell’s effective campaign against Obama’s agenda and nominees—and a preview of what’s to come.
“Republicans spent eight years of the Obama-Biden presidency reflexively opposing everything. And there is no expectation that will stop with a Biden presidency,” said Scott Mulhauser, who served as Biden’s deputy chief of staff during the 2012 presidential campaign and was on the front lines of the battle to pass the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats on the left of the party—who spent much of the past year pressing Biden to embrace more liberal policies—are licking their wounds, realizing that their dreams for meaningful legislative action on climate change, health care, raising taxes on the rich, and other issues are likely out of reach.
“Do I believe that Joe Biden has prospects for co-governance with Mitch McConnell?” asked Jennifer Epps Addison, the president of the liberal grass-roots group the Center for Popular Democracy. “Absolutely not.”
Epps Addison and other progressives believe Democrats should use their majority in the House to send ambitious bills to McConnell’s desk—where they would almost certainly die—and then focus on convincing voters to give Democrats the majority in the 2022 midterms.
“If Biden can convince the Republicans we need a $15 dollar minimum wage, or a big stimulus or investment in child care, or student debt relief—that’s something we should applaud,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California. “But what we can’t do is compromise our agenda in a search of elusive bipartisanship.”
With legislation off the table, Democrats believe any real action would happen in the executive branch, through administration changes or executive actions. “It becomes important that progressives have voices in the Cabinet because Biden is not going to be able to do meaningful legislation,” said Ian Russell, the former political director of the House Democrats' campaign arm.
Compared to this sort of rhetoric, Biden’s attitude is like a relic from the past. But some of his bipartisan victories are not that old. He convinced Senator Susan Collins of Maine and two other Republicans to support a scaled-back economic stimulus bill when Democrats controlled the Senate in 2009. He also negotiated the expiration of the Bush tax cuts with McConnell in 2011 and 2012—in a deal that some progressives resented but which averted tax hikes on lower-income people.
“Biden, frankly unlike President Obama, has a decades-long history of being able to find common ground and reaching across the aisle to find bipartisan accomplishments,” said Michael Steel, who served as a top aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican.
But the partisan atmosphere of the Senate—which was already acrid during Obama’s first term—devolved swiftly after Republicans gained the majority in 2015, and has never recovered. McConnell blocked Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat in 2016. Voters rewarded the move in the election that year, turning the House and White House red. Under Trump, Republicans passed a sweeping tax bill with no Democratic votes and filled the nation’s judicial vacancies—which McConnell had fought to keep open by blocking Obama’s nominations—with conservative justices.
Biden may again set his sights on moderate Republicans like Collins and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, seeking opportunities to cut deals on some of his more bipartisan policy goals, like investing in transportation or passing another COVID-19 relief bill. But as majority leader, McConnell wields almost absolute control over what bills reach the Senate floor, meaning he would need to be on board for most compromises to come to a vote.
“I have to be honest and say there’s simply no chance of cutting a deal with McConnell,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Democratic Senator Harry Reid, when he was majority leader. “And the quicker they realize that, the better off they’ll be as they try to put together their strategy for the next four years.”
Down-ballot Republican candidates ran stronger than Trump on Tuesday and House Republicans gained seats, which is leaving the party feeling confident despite being on the verge of losing the White House and a lackluster performance in the suburbs. “We expanded this party that reflects America, that looks like America,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters this past week.
Some Republicans however, are more hopeful than progressives about the possibility for incremental bipartisan action in a Washington divided between Biden and McConnell.
“If you have a hopefully somewhat chastened progressive left, a President Biden who has said quite clearly that he intends to be a transitional figure, and a slim Senate majority—that’s a pretty good recipe for not monumental change, but the ability to do steady progress on meaningful issues like immigration, energy, infrastructure,” said Steel.
Biden, for his part, has called for a new tone, and to turn the page from a president who referred to Democrats as traitors. “The purpose of our politics isn’t total, unrelenting, unending warfare,” Biden said in a speech Friday night. “We may be opponents, but we’re not enemies. We’re Americans.”
After four years of rancor and bitterness, it is certainly a nice thought.