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History suggests that Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to have a tough two years and a disaster in the midterms. Here’s their plan to avoid that.
Joe Biden’s team is planning a party. His inauguration on Wednesday, held under threat from the coronavirus and pro-Trump extremists, wasn’t much of a celebration. But the Biden administration hopes that January 20, 2022—a year from now—will mark what some aides are describing as a “renewing of the vows,” an anniversary that could be a genuinely happy moment.
By then, Biden hopes, he will have made Americans feel like they’ve put the horrors of 2020 behind them. More than anything, that depends on whether he can dig the country out from the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine distribution and economic recovery will be key.
Basic competence of government could go a long way: Imagine the political boost Biden could earn when people start going to the movies again, or children start seeing their grandparents. Biden is already planning to push ahead on an additional $1,400 in relief checks (a disappointment to those who wanted another $2,000) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—both part of a $2 trillion relief package. He’s also planning an infrastructure bill that would create new green jobs, and include other measures to help fight climate change.
Biden is trying not to repeat the mistakes that have led to rocky starts for other presidents, and midterm disasters for their parties. So Biden’s team and allies in Congress are planning the most aggressive legislative agenda and political strategy Democrats have advanced in decades.
The success of Biden’s agenda will of course depend on Congress, which is starting off the year having to finish Trump’s second impeachment. “We have to see the Senate as it is”—narrowly divided, with the Democrats’ majority dependent on moderates such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia—“not as we want it to be,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told me. He was in the House at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency; he’s part of a generation of senators who were not in the chamber the last time Democrats had control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and have a different understanding of party politics than their predecessors did. “While I’m sure that Biden is going to want to spend some time trying to explore whether there’s bipartisan buy-in for his priorities, we all have to be willing to take no for an answer.”
Though Murphy and other Senate Democrats are hoping that their Republican colleagues will be ready to work with them, he thinks they need to be prepared for Republicans to quickly revert to the obstructionism of the Obama years.
“There’s a consensus that one of the mistakes of ’09 was playing footsie for a long time with Republicans who never had any intent to actually get to yes,” Murphy added. “And the dynamics in the Republican caucus have gotten worse since then, not better.”
The trick, says Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, will be lowering the expectations of an impatient Democratic base that is eager to press the party’s slim advantage by forcing votes on issues like Medicare for All or by making structural changes that could secure the party’s power. Booker says there aren’t enough votes to pass statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico right now, nor for expanding the Supreme Court. He’s taking his own lesson from the early Obama years.
“I applaud Obama for doing health care and saving the economy, but a lot of Americans felt that that was them losing their autonomy over their health care and a big Wall Street bailout. Then we got demolished in the midterms,” Booker told me. “This is a chance for the Biden administration to do the kind of things that immediately make a difference in people’s lives.”
Democrats are planning to vote early and often in the new Congress, and to essentially dare Republicans to stand in their way on politically popular measures. In recent years, the fight over the momentum-halting filibuster in the Senate has centered on somewhat arcane issues like Cabinet and judicial confirmations. Going forward, look for arguments over the filibuster to instead focus on COVID-19 relief (which will almost certainly end up tied to the infrastructure bill) or a new Voting Rights Act.
If Republican senators hold those bills up by filibustering, Democrats would accuse them of standing in the way of helping Americans, or standing in the way of voting rights. Ending the filibuster would then be an easier sell.
As important as the filibuster requirement is, ending it is not the only way to get around Republican opposition. Democrats are already looking into expanding the process known as reconciliation, a quirk of Congress that allows certain bills to pass with simple majorities. The new Senate Budget Committee chair, with significant influence over reconciliation, will be Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is very supportive of Biden’s relief proposal.
Biden’s history of making concessions to Republicans to seal deals during his time as vice president has many Democrats concerned. After one negotiation in which then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thought Biden bent too much to Mitch McConnell, the Nevada Democrat didn’t talk to Biden for months. “I’ve worked with Senator McConnell, and I wish [Biden] luck,” Reid, still skeptical of Biden’s attraction to bipartisan dealmaking, told me in 2019.
Yet despite Biden’s commitment to healing the country, he has little interest in following Obama’s lead in performative bipartisanship, like the year Obama spent chasing Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act—votes that never materialized. Biden’s instinct is to try compromise first, which is why he pushed back on Democrats who wanted to pass a coronavirus relief bill immediately, with or without Republican votes. Biden doesn’t want Democrats to go it alone without first trying to make a deal. If the GOP is seriously interested in uniting the country, he will eagerly engage. But if they use calmer rhetoric as a feint for obstruction, he is prepared to call that out.
And if the Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election continue to push their claims of voter fraud, or if any are found to have had more direct involvement in the attack on the Capitol, that will change Democrats’ negotiating strategy, too. “There are so many moving parts to this that we still do not yet know in terms of people’s involvement,” Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware told me, after reflecting on her own traumatic experience in the riot. “I am a believer in healing, but I know that in order to get there, we have to go through it, not around it.”
Biden will have an aggressive political and congressional-affairs team in the West Wing. The Democratic National Committee will be more integrated with the White House political operation than it ever was under Obama; Biden picked former South Carolina Senate candidate Jaime Harrison to be DNC chair, with a mandate to better connect local activists to what’s happening in Washington.
All modern presidents’ parties have lost congressional seats in their first midterm elections—Bill Clinton, Obama, and Donald Trump all lost control of the House entirely. The decennial redistricting process, in which Republicans have a strong advantage because they control more state legislatures and governors’ mansions, will help the GOP draw more Republican-leaning districts before the next elections. House Republicans don’t see a wave coming their way, but they do believe they can squeak through enough wins to have a GOP speaker sitting behind Biden when he gives his 2023 State of the Union address.
That will happen only if the Republicans win back the suburban voters who fled the party in the past four years, said Sean Maloney, a New York congressman and the new chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “The Republican Party hasn’t learned anything from the 2020 election, and they continue to be addicted to Donald Trump,” he said. “They’re so hooked on Trump, they forgot about the voters they need to win in competitive districts.”
Yet Democrats were shocked at how effective Republican talking points were in 2020, especially their focus on progressives’ talk of socialism and defunding the police. Abigail Spanberger, one of the Democrats who flipped a Republican seat in 2018 and barely held on in 2020, told me in a podcast interview for The Ticket in November that she thinks Democrats’ decision to push those ideas nearly made her lose in November and will probably make her lose in 2022 if the party doesn’t make a hard turn away from them.
“My job is not to whine about what activists say. My job is to win races,” Maloney said. “George Floyd got murdered, and a lot of people thought we should do something about that. [Republicans] demagogued racial justice to win a couple of seats. If they’re proud of that, I guess that tells you something about their value system, and ours. As a gay guy who’s won a Trump district five times, I’m not surprised that the other side is going to throw the sink at us. I haven’t won it by being naive or hoping for the best. I’ve got a plan, and I believe that will preserve and expand this majority.”
If Republican primaries keep producing QAnon adherents, and QAnon keeps getting more known and starts getting less popular, Democrats see even more opportunities.
The problem with Democrats’ promises about future House races, says Tom Emmer, a Minnesota congressman, who chairs the House Republicans’ campaign arm, is that Democrats were also making rosy promises about the 2020 races, and those didn’t come true. Emmer says the formula for reclaiming a majority in the House in 2022 is the same as the one that won Republicans at least 14 seats (one race is still pending) in November.
Over the course of a 15-minute phone conversation, Emmer kept bringing the conversation back to the “radical left,” “socialism,” “defunding the police,” or the Green New Deal.
“We’ve tested these messages that they’re putting out there. They do not work. And I will stand by the November 3 result in the House in saying they’re going to continue down this path where they think they’re actually talking to America. But what they’re doing is they’re talking to each other,” Emmer said. Full Democratic control in Washington, he argued, will only help Republicans in 2022, as voters look to put a check on what he assumes will be overreach.
Trump, who in 2020 proved to be the biggest turnout motivator in 244 years of American elections, won’t be on the ballot in 2022. Republicans have never voted in anywhere near the numbers that they did for him. Democrats have never voted in anywhere near the numbers that they did against him. Biden, unlike Obama and Trump, has no cult of personality around him—which means voters likely won’t turn out because of him in anywhere near the numbers we’ve gotten used to in the past decade.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, and especially in the primaries, Biden was mocked for insisting that Trump would drive Republicans to a breaking point and that they would have an “epiphany,” then rediscover some interest in collaborative government. The January 6 Capitol insurrection, some feel, may have actually been that breaking point. In the immediate aftermath, at least, several Republican senators have recoiled from that extremism, determined to distinguish themselves from the Republicans who voted against certifying the election for Biden (a group that includes a majority of the House Republican caucus and its top two leaders).
“It’s not implausible that the Republican reaction to this crisis involves taking real steps to lower the temperature and finding some ways to set an example by working across the aisle,” Murphy told me. “I feel like I said some version of that six other times, and at some point, I maybe should learn that … I’m Charlie Brown. But this is obviously different.”
Edward-Isaac Dovere is a staff writer at The Atlantic.