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What a President Biden Could Do with a GOP-Controlled Senate

The art of the possible.
November 18, 2020
What a President Biden Could Do with a GOP-Controlled Senate
US Vice President Joe Biden calls Betty Pagel from Yuma, Co., Senator Cory Gardner's (R-CO) grandmother, after reenacting his swearing in to the 114th U.S. Congress with Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Start with a signal accomplishment: By appealing to our better selves, Joe Biden won a broad and decisive victory in a sharply polarized country.

He captured the popular vote by 5 million and counting, receiving 13 million more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He took the Electoral College by 306 to 232—the very margin by which his sulfurous opponent had defeated Clinton. He reconstructed the “blue wall” in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. He turned two formerly red states purple—Arizona and, most surprising, Georgia. He generally ran ahead of Democratic candidates in the House and Senate.

But that last augurs the problems to come. Biden’s triumph was more personal than ideological, a call to decency after four years of Donald Trump’s divisive psychodrama. His broad and diverse coalition—disaffected Republicans, suburbanites, young people, minorities, moderates, and progressives—is an impressive accomplishment which nonetheless, in the crucible of a deadly pandemic and, it appears, a divided Congress, will challenge his skills as a unifier.

Fortunately, age has served Biden well. As they grow older many people become fossilized personifications of their gravest failings. Aging has made Biden wiser, calmer, and more judicious—attributes amply displayed in his measured reaction to Trump’s efforts to upend the election and stonewall the peaceful transition of power which undergirds our democracy. America’s oldest president-elect is, quite likely, the only man who could have defeated Trump and then dealt so gracefully with his post-electoral sociopathy.

But new difficulties await. Already, the divergent groups which supported him—particularly progressives—are demanding the political equivalent of room service. It is one thing to say “you couldn’t have won without me”; quite another to insist “you only won because of me”—thereby demanding that Biden prioritize your passions over political reality.

The immediate points of contention involve cabinet appointments, and how to deal with a Senate which—pending two runoffs in Georgia—will be run by Mitch McConnell. But looming ahead is a fight over how Democrats should position themselves for 2022.

The latter dispute is sharpened by the Democrats’ losses in the House, and their failure to make the anticipated gains in the Senate. House moderates lost promising new members in swing districts across the country—in New York, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, New Mexico, California—doomed, they assert, by GOP exploitation of progressive enthusiasms for “defunding the police,” “decriminalizing the border,” single-payer healthcare, and democratic socialism.

House majority whip James Clyburn, a key Biden supporter, has been particularly vocal on this point—and with reason. Progressives who thrive in immutably blue urban districts would perish in less hospitable environments. This reality is hardly obscure: Biden carried Nebraska’s generally suburban 2nd Congressional District by 7 points; the Democratic House candidate, a Sanders-style progressive, lost by 5. That 12 percent difference is about running the race your local demographic requires.

Given that, the political obliviousness of some ardent progressives is truly impressive. Enter Naomi Klein: “Even if the Democratic Party base was much more politically aligned with Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, in their support for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, for racial justice, the party was sure that Bernie Sanders was too risky. And so, as we all remember, they banded together and gave us Biden.”

Earth to Naomi: In 2016 and 2020, the Democratic primary electorate “banded together” to drub Sanders by margins that would sober all but the politically insensate. Yet Sanders advisor Nina Turner insists that Biden must pass Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as written because “anything less is unacceptable.”

To whom? one wonders. These progressives’ quarrel, it seems, is less with Biden than democracy—specifically, with the voters who decisively rejected their hero and his proposals.

They forget that the Democrats’ House majority in 2018 was built on mainstream proposals salable in swing districts: protecting Obamacare and lowering prescription drug prices. And they don’t even attempt to tell us how Biden is supposed to push hard-left proposals rejected by voters in his own party through a Republican Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell. Such is Biden’s reward for having worked with Sanders supporters to craft a detailed agenda which, while falling short of their fondest dreams, is the most progressive policy blueprint ever proposed by Democratic presidential candidate.

No doubt Biden very much needs the support of progressives. Equally, they must recognize that he is their only path to meaningful change. In effect, the electorate of 2020 voted for divided government: Despite our severe partisan polarization, a significant number of voters chose Biden while opting for Republican congressional and senatorial candidates. Dream as they might, progressives need a leader prepared for the gritty work of extracting whatever he can from a tough political and legislative environment.

The only mercy for Biden is that his first order of business—coping with the tragedy of COVID-19—has the potential to unify Democrats by postponing more ideological issues while, at least, sobering some of the Republican senators and representatives who must seek re-election in 2022. The pandemic is not only a public health crisis which has inflicted economic calamity on millions of Americans; it has mercilessly exposed the racial and economic disparities progressives decry.

Biden has endorsed the $2.2 trillion package passed by the House. No doubt trillions in pandemic relief pressed by a Democratic president will cause Republicans to rediscover their situational passion for fiscal discipline. But the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is an unpromising occasion for unbending legislative resistance. The vexing question for Biden and his party will become not only where and whether to compromise, but when—in a lame-duck session, or after Biden becomes president?

The negotiations will be arduous, the decisions painful, and the needs acute. Some 3.6 million Americans have been unemployed for six months or longer—including a disproportionate number of women and minorities—and millions more have been stuck with only part-time work for months. Unemployment benefits are set to expire at year’s end. Some state and local governments face fiscal calamities which threaten vital services. Both large and small businesses continue to struggle in the face of a resurgent virus.

Every week that relief is delayed exacerbates these crises. Do Democrats press for quick action, even if the package is deficient? Once passed, will such a compromise render follow-up legislation less likely? When the fate of so many Americans hangs in the balance, these are critical political and economic judgments—not least for Republicans.

As president-elect, Biden will engage with his party’s legislative leaders on strategy during the lame-duck session. As president, he should convene Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi in a high-profile effort to get a package which provides real relief to those who need it most urgently. That is where Biden’s experience counts—and where progressives must support him in the difficult business of getting all he can as swiftly as possible. Scale matters, but so does celerity.

In parallel, Biden must lay the predicate for economic recovery by acting to curb a pandemic whose second wave—accelerated by encroaching winter and Trump’s unconscionable indifference—is already exceeding the first. We can expect from a Biden administration a uniform national policy which emphasizes targeted measures to protect public health, educates Americans in essential safety practices, promotes universally available testing, makes schools safer, and preserves essential economic activity to the extent practicable.

Regarding the development and distribution of a vaccine, Biden has warned bluntly—and appropriately—that “more people may die” if Trump does not coordinate with the incoming administration on a plan for mass distribution. He should keep up the pressure on Trump and the GOP to put Americans first. Once in office, through an Emergency Use Authorization Biden can speed the distribution of any vaccine shown to be safe and effective by sufficient testing.

As to his broader agenda, until further notice Biden must prepare to deal with a Republican Senate—as well as moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. That means pursuing worthy compromises on his overall legislative agenda. But he should put McConnell to the test by pushing hard for popular measures like a $15 per hour minimum wage; infrastructure spending that creates new jobs and promotes green energy; immigration reform; and broadened access to healthcare that includes a public option.

Such an effort would be more than symbolic. By forcing McConnell to choose between compromise and adamant opposition, Biden can lay the political predicate for the aggressive use of executive orders.

Here it is imperative that Biden have united support of his party—including progressives. That begins with their acceptance that Mitch McConnell is real, not an excuse for inaction on a notional progressive agenda which, in any event, lacks sufficient support in their party—let alone the country.

Nor need Biden bend to their blanket demand that he shun cabinet appointees with corporate connections. While progressives’ mistrust of “corporate Democrats” attached to the donor class is understandable, such a ban would rule out many experienced people Biden needs to govern—including men and women of color. Talent and integrity are not confined to universities, NGOs, and progressive think-tanks.

Rather, Biden should find diverse and progressive-minded secretaries for key domestic departments and agencies like Labor, HUD, HHS, the EPA and, especially, the DOJ. This should facilitate significant policy changes sought by the party’s minority and progressive constituencies.

Further, Biden should make Kamala Harris his liaison to progressives and other groups important to Democrats. That will help confirm that they matter while enlisting their input and support.

Finally, Biden should consult with progressives in formulating executive orders when needed to effectuate, as much as possible, the agenda agreed upon between the party’s factions.

Ideally, substantive change should be accomplished through legislation. But Biden should reverse Trump’s own numerous and noxious executive orders. And the prospect of gridlock argues for the use of presidential power to sidestep a Republican party which has abandoned responsible governance to serve its donors and placate its base.

Biden can act to protect Dreamers, assist refugees from war and privation, revisit the public charge rule, and raise the cap on legal immigration. His Justice Department can rigorously review potentially abusive policing, enforce voting rights, and reinvigorate the existing antitrust laws.

Foreign policy initiatives will include re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement, abrogating the global gag rule, repealing the Muslim ban, and rejoining the World Health Organization. Further, Biden can cancel billions in student loan debt, raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, and strengthen the right of government workers to unionize.

Perhaps no area is more important to many progressives than protecting the environment, and nothing more vital to future generations than combating climate change. Yet a Republican Senate will surely reject Biden’s ambitious plans to spend trillions on transitioning to clean energy while creating millions of new jobs.

But there is much he can do even without a Democratic Senate majority. To start, he can rescind the plethora of executive orders through which Trump gutted rules designed to reduce greenhouse gases, raise energy efficiency standards, strengthen fuel economy regulations for cars and trucks, and stop mining, fracking, and drilling on federal lands. He can end the suppression of scientific reports, and fire the climate deniers and shills for the fossil fuel industry whom Trump placed in key positions.

But these measures merely restore the status quo ante. Biden can promulgate rigorous new standards for fuel efficiency; promote the development of biofuels; promulgate rigorous efficiency standards for appliances; require that federal infrastructure projects reduce pollution; mandate that public companies disclose climate risks and greenhouse gas emissions inherent in their business; and increase our conservation of public lands.

Let the GOP complain—even as they throttle legislation which affords the only real hope of forestalling the catastrophic climate change already manifest in record temperatures, rising seas, proliferating storms, melting icecaps, and deepening droughts. Ever more Americans are conscious of the need to protect our environment for future generations—and from the Republican party. Biden’s imperative is to accomplish all he can while accelerating public awareness.

All this is hardly enough to save America’s future. But it is way more than nothing. If the disparate elements of his coalition rally to support him, he can yet hope to become the truly consequential president who reversed our decline, restored our civility, reinvigorated our governance, built a new political majority, and opened the path for more progress to come.

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.