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Republican Nihilism Informs Biden’s Legislative Strategy

The president wants to get big things done. The GOP wants to fight culture wars.
March 31, 2021
Republican Nihilism Informs Biden’s Legislative Strategy
US President Joe Biden signs the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Extension Act of 2021 into law at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 30, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Granted, it’s early. But in terms of enacting transformative legislation, Joe Biden may prove the equal of Lyndon Johnson—against far more daunting odds.

Asked last week when he might pursue gun-safety legislation, President Biden responded: “It’s a matter of timing. As you’ve all observed, successful presidents . . . [succeed] in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. . . . The next major initiative is . . . to rebuild the infrastructure . . . so that we can compete and create significant numbers of really good-paying jobs.” Pointedly, he added, “that used to be a great Republican goal and initiative.”

In these few phrases, Biden encapsulated his grasp of the legislative terrain, the imperative of maintaining political momentum—and the nature of his opposition.

Even as they adamantly denounce Biden’s agenda, congressional Republicans bemoan his supposed dismissal of bipartisan collaboration. But Biden has been here before—as the incoming vice president in 2009.

As he later recalled it: “I spoke to seven different Republican senators who said: ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything. . . . For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.’”

Hence Mitch McConnell’s famous dictum: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one term president.” Explained former Senator George Voinovich, “If he was for it, we had to be against it.”

The underlying goal was to delegitimize a Democratic president. Back then birtherism helped inflame the base; today it’s bogus claims of massive election fraud. But the obstructionism and nihilism are the same.

In 2009 Obama’s stimulus bill to combat the Great Recession, like Biden’s stimulus bill after COVID-19, received zero GOP votes in the House. In the Senate, Obama got three more Republican votes than Biden—three. And in the 2010 midterms, the GOP regained control of both chambers, setting its template for 2022.

As Politico described the GOP’s takeaway after 2010: “The . . . decision to throw sand in the gears of government throughout the Obama era helped [it] wrest unified control of that government—even though the party establishment lost control of the party in the process. Unprecedented intransigence . . . yielded unprecedented results.”

GOP obstructionism continued throughout Obama’s presidency, from shutting down the government to stonewalling Merrick Garland. Republicans no longer had a real agenda—witness their frenetic efforts to repeal Obamacare with nothing to replace it. But it worked yet again: not only did the GOP maintain control of Congress in 2016—they elected Donald Trump.

The party establishment should not have been so surprised. Trump perfectly channeled the xenophobia, racial animus, and cultural anxiety Republicans had exploited to keep the unwashed on board for tax cuts and deregulation. High on anger, the Visigoths captured the city—and spat on Republican orthodoxy.

By 2020, the GOP was literally a party without a platform. As Jonathan Martin wrote this month, “Republicans have entered a sort of post-policy moment in which the most animating forces in the party are emotions, not issues.”

Little wonder that one panel at this year’s CPAC was “How Government, Big Tech, and Media Are Colluding to Deprive Us of Our Humanity.” Even Visigoths have feelings.

Prominent among them is the conviction that they are besieged by enemies. This Alamo sensibility bodes ill for reasoned compromise rooted in policy.

Explaining her findings to Ezra Klein, Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson noted that twice as many Republicans believe that politics is about “ensuring the country’s survival as we know it” instead of “enacting good public policy.” There’s “a real sense,” she elaborated, “that they are under siege [and that] the way of life that they have known is changing rapidly. And that makes them very anxious.”

Thus Republicans’ emphasis on cultural issues, from Dr. Seuss to Mr. Potato Head’s gender-identity crisis—preoccupations amplified and echoed by right-wing media. The GOP lacks a sustained critique of Biden’s stimulus plan, or any coherent legislative agenda. But they don’t need one either one: Trump completed their transition to the party of unreason and disinformation—Democrats are the Antichrist and that is all the base needs to know.

The lesson for Biden is this: The congressional GOP is even worse than in 2009. In 2022 it won’t run on policy, but against a mythic Democratic party bent on imposing socialism, demeaning Christianity, defunding the police, coddling menacing migrants, and propitiating unruly minorities. In the meanwhile, Republicans will filibuster any bill the Democrats can’t pass through reconciliation.

Given that, Biden’s legislative strategy prioritizes rebuilding infrastructure—reflecting a broad consensus within the electorate. It includes a commitment to confronting climate change—and creating jobs—by installing charging stations for electric vehicles, modernizing the electrical grid, and encouraging the development of alternative energy sources.

A separate proposal combats poverty and buttresses the middle class through funding childcare, universal pre-K, and free community college, while extending the child tax credits authorized by his highly popular stimulus plan. Collectively, they represent Biden’s belief that the pandemic reshaped the politically possible—opening the way to expanding the role of government in addressing our economic and societal weaknesses, and on a scale of spending hitherto deemed impracticable: over $3 trillion.

To help cover it, Biden proposes raising taxes on corporations, the affluent, estates, and capital gains. The Senate’s most conspicuous swing vote, moderate Democrat Joe Manchin, epitomizes the resulting complexities: He favors tax hikes, but insists that infrastructure legislation should be passed with bipartisan support.

Unsurprisingly, McConnell and his caucus adamantly oppose raising taxes, or using infrastructure to attack climate change. Drawing the GOP’s line in the sand, McConnell says aloud what Biden well knows: He can only pass his proposals through reconciliation, packaging all fifty Senate Democrats with a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Harris—the exact formula for enacting his stimulus plan.

This suggests a long and byzantine legislative process. As a realist Biden is content to again pass landmark legislation with no Republican support. But first he must let Manchin labor through the thankless work of establishing the GOP’s unwillingness to achieve a meaningful compromise.

Further, the president must deal with other Democrats who see this legislation as an opportunity to leverage parochial priorities. Already, some are demanding a revival of the deduction for state and local taxes.

In the meanwhile, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering parliamentary maneuvers which apply the reconciliation process to pass infrastructure before the fiscal year ends on September 30. Such are the realities of dealing with a closely divided House and a 50-50 Senate.

So what of other pressing Democratic priorities not subject to reconciliation: immigration reform, the minimum wage, gun-safety laws, the PRO Act, and, especially, voting rights? Forget bipartisan cooperation: The GOP will filibuster every one. Says a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee: “We’ve been touting the socialist agenda now for more than two years, and everything we warned voters about is coming to fruition. . . . That all makes taking back the House within our reach.”

Frustrated, some activists excoriate Biden for recognizing reality by prioritizing vital legislation he can actually pass. “I’m disappointed he has the nerve and audacity to say he’s going to do things in sequential order,” complains a vice president of Brady: United Against Gun Violence. “It’s out of order to have to bury your child. It’s out of order to be shopping for eggs and to have your life disrupted.”

Here, a personal note: I served on the Brady board for several years, and wrote a novel essentially portraying the gun lobby as an accessory to murder. But such politically otherworldly remarks blame the GOP’s depredations on a man who, historically, was a principal advocate for important gun-safety legislation—the last of which passed 30 years ago.

Until all fifty Democrats agree to scrap the filibuster, all they can do is force Republicans to say no—killing bill after bill. Watching, Democratic moderates like Manchin may conclude that abolishing the filibuster is the only way for a bipartisan group of centrist Democrats and Republicans to influence lawmaking.

Particularly important are two pieces of legislation, H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which constitute the Democrats’ only chance to stop the GOP’s widespread pursuit of yet more partisan gerrymandering and state-voter suppression rules—enhancing their prospects of retaking the Senate and, more likely, the House. This politically existential struggle may prove instrumental in building pressure among Democrats to abolish the filibuster or, at least, find an exception for legislation which impacts voting rights.

To be sure, much of this is about the fate of elected Democrats. But small-d democrats across the ideological spectrum should care about that, because the Democrats have become America’s sole governing party—and democracy’s only protector. The time is coming, it seems, when the filibuster must go for democracy to prevail.

But we are not yet there. Until that day, we have a president suited to these difficult times: a professional politician in the best sense of that term—someone who knows how to get hard things done.

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.