Why Biden Didn’t Bite on Bipartisanship

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
February 12, 2021

One of the more unpleasant aspects of my chosen line of work is the gradual realization and acknowledgment (first privately, then in public) that I have been wrong about something important. Over this past weekend, that unpleasant feeling visited me again, as it became clear that President Biden was not going to seriously pursue negotiations with congressional Republicans over the coronavirus relief package, and was instead content to ram the proposal through using the budget-reconciliation process, avoiding the need to get 60 votes in the Senate.

My decidedly minority view was that by temperament, experience, and circumstance, Biden would be determined to break the vicious cycle of partisanship that we have increasingly experienced over the past 30 years. The result has been an alternation between total policy paralysis on the one hand and ping-pong policy development on the other. One party gets control of everything and pushes too hard in one direction, then they are thrown out of power and the other party pushes just as hard in the opposite direction, the result being lousy policy development and an economy being whip-sawed to the point that nothing is stable or predictable.

For the first time, we now have four presidents in a row who have lost both their parties’ Senate and House majorities during their White House tenures. Two of them (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) lost both majorities in their first midterm election; one (Donald Trump) lost them over the course of four years and two elections; and the other (George W. Bush) took six years and a second midterm election to see the whole thing go up in smoke.

With all that in mind, my view was that Biden’s preference was to work out a deal to get at least half a loaf, then work on trying to get as much of the other half as possible. My theory was that as the first real “Senate guy” to become president since Lyndon Johnson, he would try to pull things back in the direction of the old days. Especially with the Senate evenly divided, it certainly seemed like a time to hit the partisan reset button and try to break the vicious cycle.

Apparently not. Multiple reports from the Feb. 1 meeting between 10 GOP senators and Biden in the White House suggested that while Biden’s words and body language suggested an inclination to find some middle ground, staff in the room conveyed facial expressions that showed the opposite, a skepticism that negotiating with Republicans could ever bear fruit and a distaste for the exercise altogether. As this column noted last week, “the accumulated scar tissue from previous fights,” particularly from 2009 and 2010, might be too hardened to be penetrated.

While going the reconciliation route would probably work this time, solving a short-term challenge, the problem is in the intermediate- and long-term. There is no un-ringing this bell. On the next issue and the next and the next, when Biden goes looking for Republican support, the GOP’s most aggressive partisans will invariably point to the fight over this relief package to make the case that there is no point in dealing with Biden or Democrats.

In telephone calls, emails, and text messages in recent days, current and former members of the House and Senate from both parties expressed considerable regret over how this is playing out. There had been a hope that this new captain might just try to chart out a different course, whether he reached the desired destination or not.

To quote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from 2013, when Senate Democrats chose to deploy the nuclear option on district- and appeals-court nominees, “You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think." A lot of Democrats probably did come to regret that, at least those who dislike how President Trump remade the federal courts.

This less-than-enjoyable partisan merry-go-round will now keep turning. Maybe if Biden had persevered in working out a package, it might have stalled. We will never know, but now we can count on yet another layer of scar tissue hardening over our body politic.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on February 9, 2021.