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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Biden and Dems Should Stress Bipartisan Successes, Hold GOP Accountable for Polarization

From “What Message Should Biden Use in the Midterms? Blaming Republicans can only get you so far. The president needs to embrace his bipartisan successes and lay out a plan for more” by Bill Scher at The Washington Monthly:

In the 2020 presidential primaries, progressives scoffed at Biden’s repeated odes to bipartisanship. After he won the nomination and general election, some of those critics grudgingly acknowledged that his positioning was smart politics, at least for 2020. Following Biden’s January presser, The New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued that while “there was a political argument for indulging in this kind of fanciful talk” in 2020 when voters craved “a return to normalcy,” believing that Republicans would wake from “their fever-dreams and suddenly Congress would start working again” was “a theory that had no basis in reality.” Shephard praised Biden for slamming Republican obstructionism because “acknowledging the failure of bipartisanship is crucial to righting an administration that has, in recent months, gone badly off the rails.”

One problem with Shephard’s argument is that voters still want a return to normalcy. They want the pandemic to lift. They want prices to drop. And they want politicians to compromise.

In December, a poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 55 percent of voters want a congressperson who “compromises to get things done,” while 45 percent want one who “sticks to their principles, no matter what.” Well, you might say that’s just a slim majority, and appealing to the mushy middle by selling compromise won’t help energize the Democratic base. However, that majority is fueled by Democrats and liberals, as 76 percent of each camp takes the pro-compromise view. They are mostly joined by moderates (63 percent) and suburbanites (58 percent). The opponents of compromise are largely Republicans (35 percent) and conservatives (32 percent).

This is not a fluke result. Various forms of the “compromise” question have been polled in the past 12 years, and almost every time—regardless of which party holds the most power in Washington—a majority of Democrats supports compromisers and a majority of Republicans does not.

Granted, as the political scientist John Sides explained in The Washington Post back in 2019, just because people support compromise “in the abstract” does not mean they will all readily “agree to any specific compromise.” In turn, upon taking control of the Senate and the White House in January 2020, Democrats understandably proceeded on the notion that the quality of policies they delivered mattered more than parliamentary procedures and roll call vote tallies. The Democratic push to roll back the filibuster this winter did not, in and of itself, put the party at odds with its compromise-friendly base; a January Economist/YouGov poll found 76 percent of Democrats (and 54 percent of all voters) believe that the filibuster does not “promote compromise” but instead “impede[s] passing the legislation.”

But now that filibuster reform has fizzled, Democrats must run on what they achieved. As Biden noted, that largely rests on the “two real big ones”: the partisan American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In selling that record, Biden can either treat the infrastructure bill as a mere exception to the Republican obstructionist rule, which means Democrats must be kept in power if anything else is to come from Congress. Or he can tout the infrastructure package—a compromise measure that is also popular—as the strongest evidence that he got Washington to work again. With that, Biden can argue that if Congress is going to keep compromising and enact more popular bills, the current balance of power in Washington should be kept.

At a time when Biden’s job approval numbers are in the low 40s and Republicans beat Democrats in generic congressional ballot polls—on top of the fact that midterms typically go horribly for the president’s party—for Democrats to run on a strictly partisan message at odds with Biden’s declared goals of bipartisanship and compromise is a hell of a bet.

Biden can make a better choice. When he declared victory in November 2020, he said, “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make … And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate. That’s the choice I’ll make.” Biden can now say he delivered on that mandate, not just by working with Republicans to pass the infrastructure bill, but also to avoid defaulting on America’s debt, to aid military veterans, and to ban imported Chinese goods made with forced Uyghur labor. All are bipartisan achievements that have often been ignored, not just by the media but also by Democrats reluctant to share the spotlight with their opposition. Yet the 117th Congress may not be done with bipartisanship: Talks between the two parties are currently under way to address election integrity and help America better compete with China.

Of course, Presidents Biden and Obama were both right to always stand for more bipartisanship. To do otherwise is to court disaster. Leadership is about bringing people together – building bridges, not walls. it’s unfair that Democrats are more frequently held accountable for failed bipartisanship. It’s as if no one expects Republicans to take any bipartisan initiatives, and so they don’t. But that’s the way it is.

On the whole, Democrats have been more open to bipartisanship than have Republicans. There are still “Blue Dogs,” but no “Red Dogs” in congress. If you had to pick only two words to explain the failure of bipartisanship in current American politics, you couldn’t do much better than “Mitch McConnell.” And yes, it would be good if Sens. Manchin and Sinema would once in a while criticize Republicans for their extremely weak track record of bipartisanship outreach. Regarding the need for getting more attention for Biden’s bipartisan successes, built-in media bias still gives conflict more coverage than cooperation.

Looking toward the midterm elections, Scher provides a good soundbite Democratic candidates ought to consider: “The strongest Democratic message is one grounded in reality: If you give Democrats control of Congress again, we will continue to work with Republicans to the greatest extent possible and will try to deliver for the American public on our own when necessary. But if you give Republicans control of Congress, you will empower Donald Trump, who will use his bullying tactics to prevent the Republican leadership from cooperating with us, and grind government to a halt.”

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