Talking Points

Partisanship is up, but party strength is decimated. Can Biden adapt?

There's an old and possibly misguided aphorism in politics: "Democrats fall in love. Republicans fall in line." President Biden's plan for passing the imperiled $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill apparently relies on an entirely different dynamic: He expects Democrats to fall in line.

"He's not gonna beg," an anonymous official tells Axios. "His view is: 'You're Democrats, and you're with your president or you're not.'" 

Biden's attitude is hardly surprising. He has always been a party man, having spent half a century in service of country and party as a senator, vice president, and now president. Along the way, he often fell in line himself, even for policies he thought were misguided or flawed. As Axios notes, the president is "from a generation of politicians for whom party loyalty is automatic." Now Biden expects the same, including from a younger generation. 

That might be a mistake. For all the talk about America's increasing political polarization, the parties themselves have grown weak. "The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong. What we've known about party organizations has long indicated that they are weak, with little to hold over candidates or officeholders," Marquette University's Julia Azari wrote in 2016. She added: "Voters do not have to listen to elite signals. Elites do not have to listen to each other's signals. Parties have been stripped (in part by their own actions) of their ability to coordinate and bargain."

That weakness is magnified by Democrats' thin margins in Congress. A huge wild card in the reconciliation bill negotiations is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who appears more interested in being a "maverick" than in keeping her party happy. She's been a vocal opponent of ending the filibuster and in March gave an ostentatious thumbs-down vote to creating a $15 minimum wage, which has been a longtime Democratic priority. She isn't all that popular with her state's Democratic voters and doesn't show many signs of caring. In a 50-50 Senate, though, efforts to pass reconciliation rest entirely on Sinema falling in line. 

One of the big questions about Biden's presidency has been whether he can adapt to a less cohesive political environment than his decades-long heyday in the Senate. The next few days will probably give us the answer.