How much bipartisanship is enough bipartisanship? A quick reading of the Washington tea leaves makes me think that, after a desultory effort to court Republican moderates, Joe Biden is about to go it alone on the first big legislative initiative of his presidency, the $1.9tn economic stimulus package he announced even before entering the White House.
That may be good politics. Polls show that Biden’s bill is hugely popular, even among Republican voters. And you don’t need a poll to know that putting money directly in Americans’ pockets is going to garner nationwide support.
More importantly, narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate mean that Biden has the votes. As Mitch McConnell reminded Democrats again and again during his five years as Senate majority leader: holding a congressional majority is the only currency that really matters in Washington.
But are short-term political considerations all that the White House should be weighing as it decides whether to try to abandon some kind of compromise package with willing Republicans? I know it sounds horribly out of fashion to suggest that policymaking is anything more than a bare-knuckled partisan brawl, but my instinct is that the country could really use a bit of political kumbaya at the moment.
Cards on the table: I first arrived as a reporter in Washington in the pre-Newt Gingrich era, when the House was led by genial moderates like Tom Foley and Bob Michel. So I’ll admit there’s probably a bit of rose-coloured nostalgia for a more civilised time (Did it actually exist?) kicking around my brain.
But I also think a bill that splits the difference between Biden’s $1.9tn and the Republican moderates’ $600bn would help set the stage for the far more ambitious priorities the White House already articulated.
During a brief photo op with the Republicans on Monday night, I noticed that Biden had replaced a portrait of George Washington above the Oval Office fireplace with one of Franklin Roosevelt — a not-so-subtle hint of the new president’s legislative ambitions at a time of national crisis. There’s a big infrastructure bill, an immigration reform bill, a rollback of Trump tax cuts, shoring up Obamacare, police reform, voting rights . . . the list is indeed Rooseveltian.
Do White House strategists really think they can push all these things through before the 2022 midterm elections on purely party-line votes? I know it’s been a while since we had a “normal” presidency, but the pre-Trump conventional wisdom was that an incoming president would be lucky to get one or two big things through Congress in his first term, never mind four or five.
Apart from the political necessity of peeling away a few Republican votes in the months to come, someone has to take the first step towards ending the partisan bloodletting that is tearing the country apart. Progressives are not wrong in arguing: “Why does it always have to be us?” Since the Gingrich revolution in 1994, Republicans bear far more of the blame for the toxicity that culminated in armed insurrectionists storming the Capitol halls that I used to wander peaceably as a young reporter.
But this is a president who campaigned on restoring America’s soul. More than perhaps any president since Lyndon Johnson, he is also a politician who has spent years doing the hard spadework of bipartisan dealmaking. I hate to be overly rabbinic, but if not now, when?
My question to you, Rana, focuses on who would lose out if Biden decides to compromise on his stimulus bill: trade unions. Almost everything that Biden would have to drop — raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, paring back aid to local and state governments — would come at the expense of organised labour’s priorities.
You have frequently made the point to me that Biden is quite possibly the most pro-union president in our lifetimes, and he clearly sees organised labour as a channel to reach those working-class voters the Democratic party has to win back if they want to maintain their congressional majorities in 2022.
At the same time, it strikes me that unions are on the verge of blowing their biggest opportunity in decades. The two most high-profile union initiatives of late seem tailor-made to anger a whole lot of Americans: teachers unions in cities like Chicago refusing to reopen schools, and police unions in places like Minneapolis refusing to discipline the bad apples in their ranks with histories of using excessive force.
Can Biden afford to disappoint organised labour this early in his administration? Or, given their recent obstreperousness, do the unions deserve to be snubbed?
Peter, nice first note from you! So my one word answer to the question you pose directly, about whether Biden can afford to lose labour support, is no. I mean come on — this man has a bust of César Chávez in his office and is close friends with AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka. There is no way he can back away from those ties without losing credibility among a crucial base of midterm and 2024 support. These are the swing voters in Pennsylvania (Trumka himself worked in the coal mines there before getting his law degree and becoming a labour leader). It took a lot of doing among the union leadership to get some of the membership to move from Trump to Biden. And while I’d agree with you that neither the teacher or police union issues you raise are popular with voters, they aren’t reasons to back away from labour, especially when your main economic platform is “work not wealth”.
That said, I totally sympathise with your nostalgia for bipartisanship, and so do a group of former high-level elected and appointed government officials; a group with a combined 1,000 years of public policy experience just released a report on why good governance itself is now out of sync with politics. Signees include Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense (someone I’ve always respected for his understanding of the security implications of economic justice); John Kasich, former Ohio governor; Bob Rubin, former Treasury Secretary; Joe Wright (Office of Management and Budget director under Ronald Reagan); Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles mayor from 2005-13); Erik Paulsen, the former Republican lawmaker from Minnesota; and Vic Fazio, former Democratic California lawmaker. I’d encourage everyone to read the piece, which is only 26 pages and has a wealth of fascinating perspective. In the meantime, see below an excerpt from Panetta, who would agree it seems with some of Peter’s observations:
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘Flash mobs, financialisation, and the future of liberal democracy’:
“I consider myself a liberal minded individual — I voted to remain in the EU, I was appalled by the Capitol Hill insurrection and Trump’s attempted coup, I see QAnon for the ridiculous lunacy that it is and I utterly despise the ‘populist’ politics we now have in this post-truth age.
But I still feel left behind and left out of the system. In a world where I earn well over 6 figures in GBP£, I still cannot afford a decent size house, and I will probably never retire because I do not have much in the way of assets (also because I send my kids to private school — my choice). I have many colleagues in a similar position to me — all earning really good money, but not enough to keep up with ‘the markets’. Many of us have never been hammered by Wall Street in one single blow, but it's happening over our lifetimes — like boiling a frog. So I cannot help but take the side of the WallStreetBets traders in this whole GameStop saga.
I think what has driven the ‘Dumb Money’ is that we all sit here in our horrid jobs, and we see ‘bankers’ making a fortune. We are preached at, that to manipulate markets is wrong, but we see it happen all the time, and the criminal masterminds rarely get punished (apart from a few sacrificial lambs).” — Toby, United Kingdom
“You write ‘there is a commonality between the Flash Mob that ran up the value of GameStop, and the band of rioters that stormed the Capitol Building a few weeks back. This is about individuals feeling that they have no voice or power within a system of American oligopoly.’ Really? The rioters storming the Capitol claimed that electoral fraud (committed by ordinary citizens) had denied electoral victory to Trump (a billionaire); they claimed that Hillary Clinton and other horrible liberals are running a paedophile ring; they called George Soros a fascist. I don’t recall any signs mentioning Wall Street, dark money, the Koch brothers or Big Oil. I had the impression that the rioters were far-right Americans motivated by racism and xenophobia who invaded the Capitol in the hope that doing so would restore their leader Trump to power.” — Peter Eggenberger, Oakland, California