Joe Biden was elected president as a moderate-left Democrat, but he is not governing as one. He pledged repeatedly to work across party lines, but he is ramming through the biggest, most expensive progressive agenda in American history without any Republican votes.
Biden is almost certain to try it again with his next two spending proposals, the largest since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. As the White House pushes these mammoth bills with only Democratic votes, Americans are realizing they got a very different president from the one they bargained for, the one they were promised during the campaign.
What’s unclear is whether they will recoil from this new reality.
Throughout the summer and fall, Biden ran as a unifier who could work across party lines. He wanted to do so, he said, and he reiterated that comforting message as late as his inaugural address. It was probably his most important policy message, and Americans believed it. They remembered his years in the Senate and his primary victory over socialist Bernie Sanders.
The reality has been very different from the promises. Biden’s pledge of bipartisanship and unity turned out to be a cynical sleight-of-hand, raw partisanship masquerading as comity. In the general election, it worked well enough to defeat a divisive incumbent, whose impulsiveness, rancor and personal attacks repulsed many Americans. Now that the election is over, so is the message. Despite razor-thin Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, Biden is determined to pass an ambitious agenda with no support from Republicans.
The clearest indication of Biden’s bait and switch came with the stimulus bill. Before signaling his final position, the president reached out to Republicans, who proposed a $600 billion package, focused on immediate needs plus some fiscal stimulus.
The bipartisan meeting was all for show. Biden quickly rejected the Republicans’ proposal, made no effort to meet with them again or negotiate any compromise, and chose instead to push for a bill three times as large, much of it to be spent long after the COVID crisis has passed. The extra $1.3 trillion did not include the infrastructure and other programs he now considers essential. Those are coming in additional bills with huge price tags and associated tax hikes.
President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer knew their mammoth COVID bill would face unified Republican resistance. No matter. They pushed it through anyway, using the Senate’s arcane rule for budget reconciliation. They went big and unilateral, even though Republicans were eager to sign off on a large relief bill that would have commanded a Senate supermajority. This week, we learned Schumer has quietly asked the Senate parliamentarian if he can use the same 50-vote procedure for Biden’s latest spending bills, hoping to avoid any Republican filibuster.
Will this ram-it-through mentality characterize the remainder of Biden’s first two years? You don’t have to visit the Oracle at Delphi for an answer. The clearest indication is that the president, who ran for the Oval Office as a man of the Senate, now wants to smash long-standing Senate rules so he can pass the rest of his legislative agenda without Republican votes.
The filibuster rules, Biden says, are nothing more than “relics of the Jim Crow era.” He’s relying on the distant memory that, more than half a century ago, Southern senators used the filibuster to oppose desegregation. Yet the huge civil rights and voting rights bills of the mid-1960s still passed. What’s more, they passed with enough debate and votes to buttress the statutes with a national political consensus.
Since then, both parties have used the filibuster to oppose all sorts of bills, most of them far removed from race. The Democrats used the technique repeatedly last year, when they were in the minority. They used it, for instance, to stop a police reform bill proposed by Tim Scott, an African American representing the state that fired the first shots in the Civil War. But that’s only one example among many. When Joe Biden and Barack Obama served in the Senate, they not only used the filibuster, they explicitly defended it. So did Chuck Schumer. Were they defending Jim Crow? No. They were defending the historic role of the Senate, which grants some power to the minority party.
Now, the same Democrats want to overturn those rules, and they are cynically deploying the sensitive issue of race to do it. But race is not the real issue here. It is whether the Senate wants to afford significant rights to the minority party, as it has for over two centuries, forcing either compromise solutions or stalemate. Put differently, do senators really want to turn their chamber into something like the House, where the minority is powerless and debate is meaningless? Once they do that, they can never turn back.
Behind Biden’s choice to go big, progressive, and unilateral lie three basic calculations.
The first is that, if history is any guide, Democrats are likely to lose the House in 2022. The incumbent president’s party almost always suffers losses, often big ones, and the Democrats don’t have any seats to spare. That means Biden has only two years to pass his aggressive agenda.
Second is Biden’s judgment that voters really like big government spending. Recent polling suggests they do, for now. The question is whether that support will last and whether it will outweigh voters’ concerns about tax hikes to pay for those programs.
Third, Biden is betting that voters in 2022 and 2024 will care a lot more about today’s practical results than about yesterday’s broken campaign promises. That’s probably true. The White House also knows it can blame Republicans for any resistance to its agenda. It has a bully pulpit and a compliant media to help.
The result is a president determined to pass everything on the Democrats’ all-you-can-eat menu, even if he has to do it with strict party-line votes. As a candidate, Joe Biden promised voters a center-left agenda and bipartisanship. As a president, he is giving them neither. Biden’s deception is based on the oldest marketing technique in the book: bait and switch.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.
Reprinted with permission from RealClearPolitics.
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