The Importance of Temperament in Politics

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
December 11, 2020

For the past four years it has not been hard to find Republican members of Congress willing to express—privately, mind you—their frustration with President Trump’s personality, style, and governing approach. But they’ve rarely voiced any of that publicly, lest they incur the wrath of the often-petulant chief executive. In short, Trump's temperament has been an impediment to successful politics.

The political question that no one has the answer to is whether his temperament will continue to burden GOP officeholders after Jan. 20, but things ought to improve at least a bit for the Republican rank and file. The key is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (no matter whether he winds up leading the majority or the minority come January). McConnell will be in the position to nod assent when some of his less-ideological members decide that they can back something proposed by Joe Biden, or cast the look that suggests that doing so would not be welcomed.

While the country has been and is likely to remain gripped by the worst partisanship since the Civil War and Reconstruction, I am now hopeful that we may see a disruption in that pattern. As I argued in a column last month, Biden is a member of the congressional tribe, having been a member of the Senate or presiding over it as vice president for more than half of his 78 years. He understands the ways of Washington and the institution of Congress—the process, the personality quirks—in a way that really only President George H.W. Bush has in the past 44 years, when the era of governors and/or outsiders in the Oval Office began.

In July, this column recommended Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption, the 2010 biography of Biden by veteran political reporter Jules Witcover, for a solid background of who Biden is and where he came from. In October, a newer and considerably thinner book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, by National Book Award-winning author Evan Osnos, gave a more penetrating look into the future president-elect, getting more into the personality and temperament of Biden and how he looks at and approaches life and politics.

In a recent interview on James Carville and Al Hunt’s podcast, The War Room, Osnos spoke of Biden's growth over his half-century-long career. He reflected on Richard Ben Cramer’s observation during Biden's first run for president in 1988 that he was 75 percent ambition and 25 percent content. Now, Osnos argues, the proportions have reversed. Biden now has the experience, expertise, wisdom, and temperament that he lacked when he first auditioned for the job. In the three-way conversation about Osnos's book, Hunt quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s line about Franklin Roosevelt, that he possessed a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. Hunt suggested that applied to Biden as well—at a time when temperament will mean as much or more than intellect.

The temperament comes into play in part because of the political configuration that is likely to be in place by the time Biden takes office next month. Democrats will have a microscopic majority in the House. Similarly, whichever party controls the Senate will do so just barely.

Partisanship thrives and takes over when a party in a dominating position jams policy and process down the throats of the minority party, taking unfair advantage of its position. Regardless of what happens in Georgia next month, neither party, in the House or Senate, is going to be in a position to jam anything down the throats of the other party. If Democrats have majorities in the House and Senate, with margins this narrow, they can hardly succeed with the kind of progressive agenda that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Squad would prefer. Conversely, even if McConnell winds up with a 52-48-seat majority, he can hardly force through conservative legislation that would outrage Democrats and liberals. Successful policies will be built from the center out.

I may be crazy, but I see the next two years as likely a stark contrast with the previous four. Republicans are probably not going to be lucky enough to have Trump fade away. He will be a migraine for them for a while to come. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t get done, and it is likely to start this month with the lame-duck.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on December 8, 2020.