Partisan Pugilists Are Still Throwing Punches

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
February 9, 2021

It’s hard for anyone to argue against doing more to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, against more testing and faster distribution of vaccines. After all, the country can’t regain some semblance of economic normalcy until this public-health scourge is tamed. Even though relief packages were enacted by Congress in March (the $2.2 trillion CARES Act) and December ($900 billion in additional stimulus), many Americans remain out of work or have had their hours cut back substantially. The questions regarding a third round of stimulus are only about how fast, how much, and exactly how to do it.

Earlier this week, this column questioned the strategy employed by President Biden and Democrats to muscle a $1.9 trillion package through Congress as quickly as possible with little attempt to win Republican support, despite Biden’s campaign promise to do things differently. Indeed, the next day Senate Democrats took the first step to force the measure through via the reconciliation process, on a 50-49 party-line vote.

An item in Politico's Playbook Wednesday morning quoted a “longtime Joe Biden advisor,” who said the hard-line negotiating stance seemed “more like Ron Klain than Joe Biden,” suggesting the chief of staff’s more partisan edge is prevailing over Biden’s preference for dealmaking. “Vintage Biden would not have been that harsh,” said the source.

As justification for their own partisanship, Democrats keep coming back to the charge that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell from the very beginning was out to make sure Barack Obama would be a one-term president, though that story is often misattributed to have been said in the earliest days of the Obama administration. (It was actually said by McConnell in a National Journal interview just before the 2010 midterms.)

My own view is that McConnell never liked or respected Obama, that he probably saw him as someone who’d never paid his dues, an unsuccessful House candidate who got elected president of the United States on his charisma, just four years removed from the Illinois state Senate, who had spent half of his four years in the U.S. Senate running for the White House job. One person close to Senate GOP leadership said that when the leaders would be summoned to the White House to negotiate with Obama, “it was described to me as having one hour on his calendar for a negotiating session, that he’d take 50 minutes to explain to you why it was in your best interest to go along with him and allowed only 10 minutes for actual negotiations.”

Some kind of package will pass, though it is certainly going to end up less than the $1.9 trillion that Biden and congressional Democrats have pushed for, and more than the $618 billion that a group of 10 Republicans have offered up. Both proposals allocate $160 billion for COVID vaccines and testing. But the Democratic proposal reeked of overkill. A spirited debate can and should be waged over whether the federal minimum wage should be increased from $7.25 to $15 an hour, but should that really be in an emergency relief package for a public-health emergency? No one begrudges getting help to people that are hurting, but do salaried people who haven’t lost a dime in income be getting a check?

The highly respected, nonpartisan Tax Foundation estimates that 74.3 percent of tax filers would be eligible to receive payments under the Republican plan, while the average stimulus check under Biden’s plan would be $2,273 per household, with 94.6 percent of tax filers eligible to receive a payment.

The point of this is not to poke holes at the Biden/Democratic plan but to suggest that there is and from the beginning has been an enormous amount of room for compromise here. Suffice it to say that Biden was not well served by those who put their fighting instincts ahead of pragmatism and optics.

But the larger question is why is bipartisanship so hard? For starters, veterans of the political wars on both sides have so much accumulated scar tissue from previous fights that many have great difficulty, or are absolutely incapable of, cutting through it. Too many bad memories make it impossible to have any confidence in a good-faith effort from anyone on the other team.

But this vicious cycle only gets broken if someone chooses to break it, and takes a chance. We lost one opportunity to allow a crisis to bring the country together again after 9/11, and we may miss this one too. There is a chance to make this work if partisan pugilists on both sides don’t sabotage things.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on February 5, 2021.