President Biden and Vice President Harris were sworn in Wednesday before a small, socially-distanced throng of observers. In his plain-spoken but hopeful inaugural address, Biden called for unity in facing the multitude of crises left to us by his unnamed, unacknowledged, and AWOL predecessor. "On this January day," Biden said, "my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation." He had the look of someone peering across the Thanksgiving table to see his nephew texting during Grace.
His face said, "Stop the malarkey, everybody." But his words appealed to a long-sought sense of bipartisan purpose. He deserves a chance to see if it works — but if he doesn't have any more luck than former President Barack Obama wrangling cooperation out of his intransigent GOP opposition, he can't waste any time pivoting to a plan B.
As far as soaring rhetoric goes, Biden's speech was a balm for a wounded nation. Whatever else his flaws may be, Biden knows how to artfully deploy civic cliches ("a more perfect union," etc.) in the service of appeals to progress. Unlike the man who escaped down to Mar-a-Lago before the ceremony, Biden was careful to address all Americans rather than just the party's activist base. "I will be a president for all Americans," he intoned somberly as he called for Americans to treat each other "not as adversaries, but as neighbors." There was no apocalyptic imagery about "American carnage," no divisive attacks, no petulant complaints about how everyone is out to get him, no designation of unfavored groups as "enemies of the people."
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
The whole experience was like drinking a Coke after years of reluctantly swilling the diet version. It was proof that Biden's efforts to deliver this hopeful message over former President Trump's hopped-up screaming during the debates was no mere political ploy. There is no question that the new president would like, as he said, to "lower the temperature." Unfortunately for him, he's a politician, not a handful of Advil.
It is one thing to call for that elusive unity, quite another to deliver it. It's been more than 16 years since Obama's stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention imploring us not to divide ourselves into red and blue states. Yet since then our predicament has worsened dramatically. Americans in Congress, and in the electorate, are more divided than ever, more ideologically distant and less trustful of one another. Most worryingly, one of our two major parties, which commands the loyalty of close to 47 percent of the country, has veered dangerously into an inchoate authoritarianism, embracing and elevating the extremists in its ranks, still unable to make a clean break with Trump himself, seemingly bereft of public policy ideas or a vision more inclusive than tormenting the left. The party's shameless pandering and transactional embrace of Trump over the past four years will be difficult for Democrats to forgive.
What might a rapprochement actually look like? Forging a new sense of national unity requires three things, two from Republicans and one from Democrats. The first is a recognition of disunity's cause. What has brought this country to the point of conducting a de facto military occupation of its own capital city to guard against a violent interruption of the transfer of power? Who is responsible for unprecedented fear and loathing that ordinary Democrats and Republicans in the electorate now feel for one another? To answer this question, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, and his friends need to do some long overdue introspection.
For a generation now, Republican elites have used procedural hardball and vicious language to achieve narrow and mostly unpopular goals. None of this started with Donald Trump, but instead, as Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann wrote in their prescient 2013 book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, during the '90s-era House speakership of Republican Newt Gingrich. It was Gingrich who took great delight in attacking his very staid Democratic colleagues as "radical" and "sick."
That shock jock mentality gradually spread from Gingrich and drive-time provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh until it was the default operating system of the GOP political elite and had spawned a vast conservative media empire dedicated to stoking partisan warfare, fueling racial and cultural grievances, and propagating obvious falsehoods about the world. Donald Trump was the first fully-realized president produced by this toxic ecosystem, but he certainly won't be the last if party leaders don't change course.
For the GOP, stepping back from the brink means more than just providing a few votes here and there for critical priorities. If leading Republicans want unity, they need to kill their own creation. Stop giving interviews to the craziest hosts at Fox News. Embargo One America News and Newsmax whose raison d'etre is exploiting fear and hatred. Surviving moderates need to fight like hell for their party, or if that fails, perhaps form a new one. Expel the most dangerous people from the caucus, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Whip the votes to convict Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and bar him from ever holding office again. Cooperate with Democrats to coup-proof the presidency and shore up the system's deficiencies that were on painful display for the last several months.
No one expects GOP support for nationalizing the health-care system. What the Biden administration needs to do is set some benchmarks for what they want to see out of Republicans in the House and Senate. They cannot allow Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to tie up COVID-19 relief legislation for months, or to filibuster the For the People Act, the most important piece of electoral reform since the Voting Rights Act. Getting to quickly vote on versions of these bills is a non-negotiable priority.
What do Republicans want in exchange for the 10 GOP votes necessary to get past the filibuster? Schumer and Pelosi must act like they command the majorities that they do. Give their counterparts deadlines that number in days not weeks. If they come back with national Voter ID requirements and demands to chop the relief bill in half, just so the chamber is given the chance to vote on legislation, they aren't serious about unity. And if an agreement is struck only to fall apart because Republicans can't actually get anyone on board with leadership's plan, that will be an early signal that outreach will be a fruitless waste of time.
For Democrats, there is also a difficult question before them. Are they willing to take somewhat less than they really want for bipartisanship? Where do they expect cooperation, and where would they understand that Republicans simply can't produce votes? They certainly can't expect a bunch of Republicans to just volunteer to help pass the Biden-Harris agenda verbatim. If the goal is to reduce the country's temperature by demonstrating how Republicans and Democrats can work together in the service of higher goals, no one is getting everything they want. Biden and his team will need to find a way to communicate this reality to an amped-up progressive base that wants swift, aggressive action on all fronts.
Alternately, they could go with plan B: Forget all of the happy unity talk, nuke the legislative filibuster, and govern the country with one contentious party-line vote after another. This option has the virtue of simplicity, will improve Democrats' chances at retaining their congressional majorities in 2022, and is supported by decades of evidence that GOP leaders won't cooperate so long as obstruction promises to deliver them back into power at the earliest possible opportunity. Better to have two years to shore up democracy, tackle inequality, and begin to address the looming crisis of climate change on terms set exclusively by Democrats than to waste valuable legislative time begging Republicans to play ball and then only correct course once the midterm elections are looming and the Biden administration is widely regarded as a failure.
I prefer the latter option to the former. But that's clearly not what Biden wants, and he's the president, not me. A big part of not descending into crank-hood is an openness to being proven wrong. And we'll know soon enough if Biden's hopeful vision is hopelessly naïve, or if he really has a plan to break the decades-long impasse in American politics.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.