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Biden Needs Party Unity—or Else

Here’s what squaring off against Mitch McConnell will look like.
December 15, 2020
Biden Needs Party Unity—or Else
US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (R) speak virtually with the National Governors Association's executive committee during a meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 19, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

To win the presidency, Joe Biden crafted a diverse and ideologically fractious coalition unified by loathing for Donald Trump. But its inherent tensions—particularly between moderates and progressives—threaten his ability as president to navigate an arduous political terrain occupied by a single-minded legislative saboteur: Mitch McConnell.

By stonewalling Biden’s agenda in the Senate, McConnell means to provoke factional recriminations among Democrats which could effectively destroy Biden’s presidency. Five weeks before inauguration day, the dangers of disunity are already clear—as is the character of McConnell and his party. The question is whether the Democratic party is suited to governance in such difficult times.

The first legislative priority is one of historic urgency: providing economic relief from the ravages of a surging pandemic. In a saner polity, such a crisis would mandate bipartisan cooperation. Instead we see partisan guerrilla warfare that stymies solutions as Americans suffer.

Last spring the GOP supported a massive stimulus package which buttressed an economy in crisis and, not so incidentally, Trump’s presidency. But its benefits have largely expired, as has McConnell’s interest in the spiraling disasters suffered by millions of fellow citizens less cosseted than he: failing businesses, rising evictions, proliferating hunger, and state and local governments facing fiscal crises which threaten vital services. The question is how much more human misery it takes for McConnell to reimagine himself as a public servant.

Apparently, quite a lot.

Having rediscovered the GOP’s situational passion for fiscal discipline, McConnell has killed Democratic proposals for $2 trillion in additional relief. Particularly offensive to his rarefied sensibilities is federal aid to struggling states and cities which he dismisses, with partisan disdain, as a “blue-state bailout.”

Never mind that, as the New York Times notes, “six of the seven states that are expected to suffer the biggest revenue declines over the next two years are red—states led by Republican governors and won by President Trump this year.” Those who imagine McConnell cares misunderstand the game.

But a few Republican senators are refusing to play. Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and Lisa Murkowski have joined Joe Manchin in working toward a bipartisan compromise designed to get Americans through the next fiscal quarter.

The $908 billion framework now under discussion includes rental assistance, relief for small businesses, supplements to unemployment insurance and additional funding for airlines, Amtrak, education, coronavirus testing, the postal service, and childcare.

Citing the urgent need for immediate relief pending further legislation, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer backed off their insistence on a $2 trillion package, and President-elect Biden urged Democrats to support the bipartisan framework. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce added its endorsement.

But within the negotiations thorny issues remain. Democrats want substantial aid to states and cities—which the negotiators seem ready to include—and another round of checks to the unemployed; McConnell demands a liability shield for businesses which exposed workers and customers to COVID—no matter how careless of public-health measures those businesses may have been.

External actors are complicating the negotiators’ task. Even as they edged toward agreement, at the eleventh hour the White House, which had been largely uninvolved in the discussions, introduced a $916 billion proposal which includes the liability shield and aid to states and cities, but contains minimal benefits for the unemployed—a nonstarter for the Democrats. McConnell then contributed his own bit of mischief, suggesting the removal from Trump’s proposal of both the liability shield and funding for state and local entities—further undermining the negotiations.

From the left, Bernie Sanders announced that he could not support the compromise proposal unless it eliminated the liability shield and included direct checks of least $1,200. Citing the logjam he had done so much to construct, McConnell suggested that legislation sorting out important details might have to be shelved until 2021.

Most notable throughout this byzantine process is how McConnell has played pandemic relief and its protagonists. He refused to consider the $2 trillion relief package passed by House Democrats. He sat back while the President-elect and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate supported the compromise effort by cutting their demands in half; no doubt chuckled when Sanders issued demands of his own; and bestirred himself only to narrow the road to a final agreement.

Some package may yet emerge before Congress adjourns. But if this is McConnell’s template in a time of indubitable crisis, one can but despair of meaningful progress on Biden’s legislative agenda. And Sanders may have provided a worrisome sign of Democratic fissures to come.

Sanders protested that “this bill will set the agenda for the first two years of the Biden administration. . . . And if we allow Republicans to set the agenda, to set the parameters of the debate, the next two to four years will be a disaster. . . . So the question is, are we going to return to Mitch McConnell’s austerity politics, or are we going to build a dynamic economy that works for everyone and not just the 1 percent?”

Bernie Sanders’s frustration with McConnell is utterly justified—but not his implicit assumption that indignation will overcome McConnell’s fortified position as the autocratic leader of a Republican majority. The ultimate question is whether Democrats can unite to help Biden achieve optimal progress in the face of McConnell’s trench warfare, or grant their antagonist his fondest wish—a bitterly divided party mired in mutual recriminations.

Biden’s incoming economic team is notably progressive, a diverse group of experts concerned with raising wages, combating income and wealth disparities, expanding childcare, providing paid family leave, fortifying the bargaining power of labor unions, protecting vulnerable workers, and ameliorating minority unemployment. Given a Democratic Senate, they could help drive genuine change.

But, pending two upsets in Georgia’s senatorial runoffs, Biden and congressional Democrats must deal with McConnell. Here, past is surely prologue—indeed, the hysteria of the Republican base is likely to render McConnell even more obstructive then he was during the Obama administration.

One need not reprise that history in detail. McConnell helped shrink the stimulus package through which Obama sought to relieve the Great Recession; denied a single vote to a healthcare plan modeled on that enacted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts; and killed climate change legislation altogether. Congress all but ceased to function.

As majority leader, McConnell can simply keep Biden’s legislative proposals from reaching the floor. Set aside any optimistic speculation about McConnell and Biden potentially having a productive working relationship: A party unwilling to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election will no doubt deny the legitimacy of his efforts to govern.

Even a narrow Democratic majority will make major legislation unlikely. With considerable understatement, Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin told the Associated Press: “There’s so many areas, which we value so much that Republicans do not, that it will be tough to guide [compromise legislation] through the Senate.”

Indeed, the principal power of congressional progressives may involve the potential to kill what Waleed Shahid of the Justice Democrats calls “toxic compromises with McConnell.” The obvious risk is that progressives will turn their frustration with McConnell into antagonism toward Biden. As progressive Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) told the Washington Post:

If we really want to torpedo our effort to do anything meaningful, let’s spend our energy on the intraparty battle. . . . It would be much better for all of us if we really reach out and work together to focus on the issues before the American people; health care, and housing, and education. Good-paying jobs, equality, climate change, infrastructure. Let’s focus on the path to get those things.

So what is the path? As a first step Biden should put McConnell to the test by pushing hard for popular measures like a $15 per hour minimum wage; infrastructure spending that creates new job and promotes green energy; humane immigration reform; and broader access to healthcare.

Such an effort would be more than symbolic. By compelling McConnell to choose between compromise and scorched earth, Biden can lay the political predicate for aggressively using executive orders to advance his agenda—after warning McConnell that he will do so.

One can already hear Republicans denouncing Biden’s “dictatorial” actions. Were they responsible participants in democratic governance, that would carry some weight. But given that they are not, let them complain—as long and loudly as they want.

As president, Biden has a bigger megaphone. He should use it to tell voters what the Democrats are doing and why they are doing it—with McConnell as the poster boy for GOP obstruction. This could have two salutary affects: making government work, and uniting the Democratic party.

Obviously, on Day One Biden can unwind Trump’s most noxious executive orders; rejoin the Paris Climate Accord; protect Dreamers; reform our treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers; and direct his cabinet officers to protect voting rights, workers’ rights, and civil rights. But there is much else he could do should McConnell set out to destroy his presidency.

No doubt McConnell will scuttle meaningful climate-change legislation.

By executive order Biden can raise energy-efficiency standards, strengthen fuel economy regulations, invest in public transit, compel federal infrastructure projects to reduce pollution, require public companies to disclose climate risks stemming from their businesses, and increase our protection and conservation of public lands.

Republicans will surely decry such measures as an attack on jobs and prosperity. But concern for the environment is not confined to progressives and the young: Ever more Americans perceive the evidence for climate change all around us—record temperatures, catastrophic fires, rising seas, killer storms, disappearing icecaps, and widening droughts—not to mention the grave dangers to air and water resulting from pollution regulations reversed by Trump.

Other examples abound. Should Republicans refuse to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Biden can mandate it for the employees of federal contractors. And if the GOP blocks measures to make college affordable and reduce student debt, Biden can cancel such debt altogether.

Already Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren have penned an opinion piece arguing that $50,000 in student-debt cancellations would give “Black and brown families across the country a far better shot at building financial security” while constituting the “single most effective executive action available to provide massive stimulus to our economy.” Advocates further note that this would eliminate the debt of 75 percent of student borrowers.

There are respectable arguments against debt relief on that scale—including that it’s costly; would encourage more borrowing; motivate colleges to jack up tuition; and reward affluent borrowers who don’t need relief. But, as Annie Lowrey points out in the Atlantic,

millions of low-income and middle-income families, as well as young people without the fallback of familial wealth, are also burdened. . . . This is a policy that would help middle-class families, could be passed instantly, and would advance racial justice. Student-loan debt is suffocating an entire generation. Why not, during this miserable pandemic, magic at least some of it away?

So what, if anything, would Republicans do? If they have better proposals to address the burgeoning cost of higher education, they should introduce them. If not, then Biden can propose legislation to reduce student debt—and do so by executive order if Republicans refuse to act.

Relentlessly, Biden and the Democrats should connect cause and effect: Republican legislative stonewalling begets Democratic executive action. And they should make Mitch McConnell the public face of GOP obstruction—in speeches, writings, and on television, radio, and the internet—listing each measure that Republicans have killed.

For their own sake, and that of the country, the Democrats cannot acquiesce in their own undoing, or dissolve in fratricidal bickering. In the congressional elections of 2022, Democrats should pose this choice: Do you trust Joe Biden, or Mitch McConnell? McConnell, that shadowy creature of the Washington swamp, may find such exposure to political sunlight distinctly uncomfortable.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount in COVID-19 relief Senator Sanders is seeking. The figure was $1,200, not $12,000.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.