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Biden’s Bipartisanship Is Good for Democrats — for Now

Biden’s Bipartisanship Is Good for Democrats — for Now

Wednesday, 23 September, 2020 - 07:15

I don’t know what Joe Biden truly believes about bipartisanship in the year 2020. I only know that his continued insistence on working with Republicans is both a tragic fantasy and good politics.

The Republican Party is not an institution that Democrats, or democrats, can do much business with. It is led by an erratic demagogue who has destroyed vast swaths of the credibility and competence of the federal government. The stated principles and positions of lesser party leaders are often nothing more than naked power grabs. And the party is committed to racial politics that require it to subjugate the nation’s multiracial majority through minority rule.

That doesn’t leave much to work with.

Yet it’s clear that Biden believes in the rhetoric of bipartisanship even if he knows that the GOP is incapable of practicing it. Biden last weekend urged Republican senators not to follow President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in ramming through a conservative Supreme Court justice before the next president is inaugurated.

At most a handful of Republican senators possess either the democratic conscience or the political circumstance to weigh Biden’s appeal. Both Trump and McConnell will work to subvert any GOP pangs about legitimacy.

Biden is still correct to pay lip service to the bipartisan ideal, if only to pledge allegiance to a myth embraced by swing voters and partisans alike. “We can’t keep rewriting history, scrambling norms, ignoring our cherished system of checks and balances,” Biden said in a speech Sunday in Philadelphia.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts can afford to be more blunt. Speaking of Republican efforts to fill Ginsburg’s seat, she said: “This is the last gasp of a desperate party that is overrepresented in the halls of power.”

It’s true that the GOP is a desperate party: Who else would empower a leader whose own senior advisers and cabinet officials describe him as a national security threat and lawless ignoramus? It’s also true that Republicans are overrepresented. States with populations smaller than Brooklyn each send two GOP Senators to Congress, where those senators proceed to tell 39 million Californians what’s what. The Democratic minority in the Senate won 14 million more votes than the Republican majority. Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.

But “last?”

Precisely because the GOP exploits the rewards of the Constitution’s rural state bias, and because the party has proved ruthless in both gerrymandering and suppressing votes it believes will aid Democrats, its “last” gasp is not imminent.

Indeed, the war may have only just begun. A majority of voters may have concluded by now that Trump is unfit for office. That this is even debatable is a measure of troubled times. The Trump era has featured norm-breaking, corruption and authoritarianism on a scale too vast and frenetic for many political journalists to process. Millions of Americans with normal lives simply have not registered that the Republican Party is no longer in the democracy business.

Educating them is vital. It will also have to be speedy. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says “everything” will be on the table as a corrective if the GOP rams through a Ginsburg replacement. Many on the left are calling for Democrats to close what writer Paul Waldman calls the “ruthlessness gap” with Republicans.

An ugly bout of tit for tat is probably inevitable. Still, Biden’s strategy makes sense: First, make it clear that you’d prefer a bipartisan path, and make a public effort to forge one. Then use the resulting GOP resistance to educate the public on the anti-democratic state of the GOP; the problem goes far deeper than Trump, and extends beyond Washington. That argument will be easier to make from the White House, should Biden reach it, than from Congress.

The measures that Democrats contemplate to blunt minority rule include statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, ending the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court if McConnell and Trump’s court play can’t be stopped. Those are big changes that have been discussed among partisan activists but not much among the broader electorate. Republicans will scream bloody murder and cast them as illegitimate power grabs. (That Republicans are unwilling to compete for Black or brown votes in D.C. and P.R. is simply a given.)

To win these and future battles, Democrats must be ruthless about being reasonable. Biden has the right approach. When appeals for unity reach a near-certain dead end, it will be easier to make the case for a bolder, partisan path.


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