Opinion

How Biden can save his agenda under divided government

All hope is not lost

When all the major networks called the presidential race for Joe Biden on Saturday, celebrations erupted in cities around the country. But by Monday morning, it was already clear that the victory being celebrated was a largely negative one. Yes, Donald Trump would be removed from the White House, however unwillingly. But facing a likely Republican Senate, much of Biden's expansive agenda seemed likely to be dead in the water.

As a consequence, we're told, the most the Democrats could hope for is continued trench warfare. Start with a furious effort to win two Georgia Senate runoffs, which would give Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. If that effort fails, retreat to government by decree. Extensive use of executive orders would enable Biden to enact at least some of his agenda. Acting appointments would allow him to bypass the Senate confirmation process. Finally, the Democratic House would prevent any legislative rebuke to these moves, and would send a series of progressive laws to the Senate to set up a campaign in 2022 to replace "do-nothing" GOP Senators in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

That would be one approach. But notwithstanding the hyper-partisanship of recent years, I don't believe it is the only possible one. I think there's a better option — better for Biden politically, and better for the country.

Joe Biden will ascend to the presidency in a position of distinct partisan weakness. But he will also have distinct personal strengths. If he uses the latter effectively to counteract the former, he could actually make progress on the most important parts of his agenda. And doing that may be the key to reviving the flagging fortunes of his party.

Biden's personal strength doesn't stem from his warm personal ties to many Republican Senators. Those don't hurt, but they aren't likely to overcome powerful partisan incentives. Rather, it is rooted in his popular support. Biden not only won decisive majorities in both the popular vote and the Electoral College; he also ran notably ahead of his own party. While Biden improved on Hillary Clinton's numbers and rebuilt the "blue wall," the Democratic House majority looks likely to shrink, and in several states — most notably Maine, but also Georgia, Michigan, and Minnesota — Biden outperformed the Democratic Senate candidates.

He also ran notably ahead of much of the progressive agenda where that agenda was put to a serious electoral test. Consider the results of a series of initiatives in California, one of the country's most liberal states and the home state of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. By clear margins, Californians rejected a proposal to reverse the state's ban on affirmative action; rejected a proposal to eliminate cash bail; rejected a proposal to expand cities' ability to enact rent control; and approved a proposal to allow companies like Uber and Lyft to continue to hire gig workers as contractors rather than be required to treat them as employees. While not every vote went against the left — property tax proposals are still too close to call, and the voters did approve restoring voting rights to citizens on parole for felony convictions — the overall tenor of the vote strongly suggests that even in California, most voters are not yet sold on much of the progressive wish list.

Biden, then, is in a very strong position to personally claim a mandate for compromise in the service of the issues at the heart of his agenda as he himself describes it: fighting the pandemic and restoring the economy first and foremost, followed by fighting climate change and systemic racism and improving access to quality health care. On many of these issues, I believe there are opportunities for precisely that kind of compromise — provided the Biden administration prioritizes action.

Start with the pandemic. Donald Trump turned the coronavirus into another front in America's omnipresent culture war — but not every Republican sees the matter through that lens. Mitch McConnell has been avoiding the White House for months precisely because of its laxity on masking, for example; he's not in denial about the virus itself. If the priority is fighting COVID, McConnell is a potential partner across the aisle — and an absolutely necessary one if Biden is going to try to jawbone GOP governors into more aggressive mask mandates. But McConnell will only be a partner if his interests are taken into account.

What are those interests? McConnell's priority for months has been limiting business liability for the spread of coronavirus. His other likely concern about any proposal to build a large federal corps of workers to do testing, tracing and other covid-related public health tasks is that this would expand the ranks of public-sector unions. (This is the same issue that bedeviled the creation of the TSA during the Bush administration.) Those are not negligible points of difference with the Democrats — but for that very reason, if either issue became the sticking point for passing a bi-partisan bill, it's not clear to me which party would be viewed as holding negotiations hostage. Indeed, it's entirely possible that McConnell is holding the better hand. Biden should approach negotiations, then, with a view to figuring out how to accommodate those specific concerns, and focus on what he wants to get in exchange: more money for his own priorities.

The same dynamic applies to economic stimulus and relief. McConnell has been very willing to provide relief for favored industries. He's been much more reluctant to continue providing support to individuals through extended unemployment insurance — ironically, since that support is probably one thing that buoyed his party's fortunes in the election. He has been exceptionally reluctant to bail out cities whose finances have been devastated by the pandemic. In the latest wave of the pandemic, though, rural areas are getting hit harder than cities are, even as numbers are rising everywhere. At a time when interest rates are at zero and the Federal Reserve is begging for fiscal stimulus, Biden should try to simply outbid GOP resistance by offering a formula of support that provides needed help to cities but is disproportionately favorable to rural areas.

Meanwhile, the best strategy for economic recovery has always been to get the virus under control until a vaccine is available, and then to distribute the vaccine as aggressively and quickly as possible. Biden should have no trouble finding allies across the aisle for the latter. What he needs to do is make clear that efforts on the former aren't a last-minute power grab with a vaccine just over the horizon, but are even more sensible in precisely that context, since the herd immunity that a vaccine would provide is far more effective when viral prevalence is generally low.

The same approach could be used with respect to climate change. Biden is going to face the greatest GOP resistance when seeking to impose additional taxes or regulations. The former is simply a non-starter. The latter can be accomplished partly through executive orders that Republicans will inevitably denounce but may not be able to stop. But Biden will need GOP partners to spend money: on a better electric grid; on non-carbon transportation infrastructure; on adaptations to improve resiliency to climate catastrophes. He should make it a top priority to find them. There's a segment of the GOP that is increasingly warm to industrial policy, and some of its members — like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are from states that are acutely vulnerable to climate change. The Green New Deal as a whole is always going to come in for GOP mockery, but the portion thereof that consists of infrastructure spending and subsidies to favored domestic industries shouldn't have to wait for 2022 — provided, again, that the administration is willing to give GOP senators wins of their own as part of any compromise.

Does the above approach amount to the kind of triangulation that will depress progressive supporters and lead to a split in the Democratic Party? Perhaps. Biden's interests are not perfectly aligned with Democratic Senate hopefuls, who would like to blame the GOP Senate for obstructing everything. But they aren't entirely misaligned either. If nothing at all gets done, particularly on fighting the pandemic and providing economic stimulus and relief, voters are as likely to blame the Democrats as the Republicans — perhaps more so. And Biden can perfectly well champion bills coming from the House to provide a public option within ObamaCare, to hike upper-bracket tax rates, and to boost the minimum wage — all popular proposals that will be dead on arrival in the GOP Senate, and that will give plenty for Democratic Senate candidates to run on — while still positioning himself as compromiser-in-chief on issues where compromise is possible.

And what about the buzz saw of GOP hyper-partisanship? Isn't it in McConnell's interests to refuse to strike any deals with Biden, just as it was in his interest to obstruct Obama at every opportunity? And won't a phalanx of Republican talking heads, led by the ex-president, make compromise toxic anyway? Perhaps. McConnell certainly can't afford to be seen as helping Biden politically, or as having been out-maneuvered by him. But he's in a different position than he was in 2009. Then, the Democrats controlled all branches of government, so McConnell bore no consequences for anything that went poorly. Amplifying partisan polarization made life maximally difficult for vulnerable Democratic senators. Now, it's McConnell's own caucus that could come under pressure — provided Biden makes a pitch aimed at those senators' median voters, and not to the median Democrat.

There's no guarantee that such an approach could work, either in terms of getting practical legislative results or in terms of positioning the Democrats well for 2022. But it strikes me as far more promising than the alternative. The core message of the Biden campaign was that he would de-escalate the partisan warfare that has increasingly characterized our politics. The same election that gave him victory further entrenched those partisan divisions. If Biden has a mandate for anything, it's to govern across that divide. He has to try.

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