Here’s the thing about President Joe Biden and his party in 2021: They’re no longer scared.
They’re not defensive, or constantly looking over their shoulders, or making preemptive concessions to Republicans.
They have learned an essential lesson. Voters always say they like bipartisanship, because most Americans prefer people to be nice to each other and work together. But what they care more about is solving problems and getting things done. If the party in charge fails in that essential duty, endless bend-over-backwards negotiations and a big, inclusive “process” won’t save them.
Which explains one of Biden’s most curious lines during his effective and empathetic performance during a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee last week:
“The nation is not divided.”
You can imagine the words “FACT CHECK: FALSE” flashing across the nation’s computer and video screens. We need only recall last week’s impeachment debate as testimony to our divisions.
But Biden was making a different point. Beneath our partisan rancor, there is, in fact, broad agreement on how we should move forward. He had in mind especially his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
A Quinnipiac Poll conducted from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, for example, found 68% of Americans supporting it, only 24% opposing it. That’s pretty united. Those $1,400 checks? The survey found 78% for (including 64% of Republicans), only 18% against. On hiking the minimum wage to $15, it was 61% for, 36% against.
A study released late last week Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists monitoring our nation’s democratic practices, underscored this. It found “cross-party consensus on government spending for COVID relief but stark polarization over certification of the presidential election and impeachment.”
Sure, Republican politicians will probably swing some of their supporters away from Biden’s economic plan, larger than the one tested by Bright Line Watch, by attacking it as a deficit-growing, inflation-threatening monstrosity — although the GOP’s record of bloating the deficit with tax cuts for the rich leaves the party’s credibility lower than this week’s temperatures.
But Biden and the Democrats are operating with confidence because they have finally embraced what has long been true: Progressive economic policies are broadly popular. Many of them (notably those checks) are supported by the GOP’s large working-class wing.
Let’s also recognize that when Republican congressional leaders claim to want bipartisanship, they are not operating in good faith. That’s a strong statement, but it’s rooted in reality, not partisanship. Republicans want nothing like what Biden wants. “Now is the time we should be spending,” the president said in Milwaukee. “Now is the time to go big.” The biggest counter so far, from a minority of Republicans, is only a third the size of Biden’s.
The GOP’s call for compromise is thus a posture, not an offer. And given how divided Republicans are over the previous White House occupant (like Biden, I am sick of mentioning his name), their only hope of finding unity is to rally against Biden and all his works.
We have this on good authority. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that Republicans see Biden’s package as too big and look forward to fighting it. “That will help unify our party,” McConnell said. “I don’t think many Republicans are going to be for very many of the things that are coming out of this administration.”
Is Biden supposed to pretend that McConnell didn’t say this?
The new president has the right idea: Keep talking as warmly and amiably to Republicans as possible. If they have a good idea, take it. If he can pick up a few GOP votes, great. But know that he and his party can rely only on themselves to get done what needs to get done.
They should also keep stressing that absolutely nothing in their program is radical. Take the minimum wage. It has been law for 83 years. It has fallen far behind inflation.
As Biden brought home, in an answer sympathetic to a small business questioner at the town hall, the minimum wage goes up only “gradually” under the Democrats’ proposals. The immediate increase would be to just $9.50 an hour this year and it would not get to $15 until 2025. Would its opponents propose to delay the raise until the next millennium? (Actually, many of them would, since they can’t stand the minimum wage.)
Most Americans are neither anti-government ideologues nor culture-war extremists. They turn to the federal government to act boldly in a time of crisis not because they love government in the abstract but because they understand it as the only entity capable of taking on certain large tasks. That’s why Biden is confident about the course he’s on — and it’s why he shouldn’t back down.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.