Perhaps he didn’t mean it after all.
When President Joe Biden said in his inaugural address that “my whole soul is in this: bringing America together, uniting our people and uniting our nation,” it may have been a song and dance for people hungry for leaders who would search for common ground.
When Mr. Biden met with Republican senators to discuss Covid relief, it may have been for show. From the back of the room, Ron Klain, the president’s chief of staff, shook his head vigorously in disagreement when Republicans raised issues, apparently signaling to the president how to react.
So when White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed afterward that Mr. Biden “welcomes the opportunity to work” with Republicans, it was, to use a favorite word of her boss, malarkey.
How do we know Team Biden’s stated desire for bipartisanship is folderol? Because the administration made no serious effort to consider GOP proposals. Instead, it quickly gave congressional Republicans the back of its hand by complaining publicly they weren’t mounting “a serious negotiating effort.” For this White House, the loyal opposition must fall in line—no compromise, only capitulation.
White House officials are now briefing reporters on how they’ll use Covid relief to win that rarest of political achievements—a midterm election victory for the party holding the presidency. White House aides see the Covid package “not as a liability for Democrats, but as an election year battering ram,” as Politico puts it, and “there’s talk about midterm attack ads portraying Republicans as willing to slash taxes for the wealthy but too stingy to cut checks for people struggling during the deadly pandemic.”
After running ads in 2012 showing a Paul Ryan look-alike pushing wheelchair-bound granny over a cliff, will Democrats put up spots next year with Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy doubles ripping N95 masks off faces in a hospital’s Covid ward?
It could happen, especially since White House officials keep boasting about internal polls showing how popular their Covid relief proposal is. They should think again. An ABC News/Ipsos survey released Sunday found 49% said Mr. Biden “should work to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package with just the support of the Democrats in Congress” while 40% believe he “should work to pass a smaller coronavirus aid package with the support of some Republicans in Congress” and 10% don’t want “a new coronavirus aid package” at all. No big advantage for Democrats there.
By comparison, a Feb. 11, 2009, Gallup poll found 59% favored passing the “new economic stimulus package of at least $800 billion” proposed by then-President Barack Obama. Yet all that support didn’t amount to a hill of beans in the 2010 midterm. Republicans picked up 63 House seats and six Senate seats as voters turned against the stimulus measure as too expensive and lacking Republican buy-in. Fast forward: This new Covid stimulus costs $1.1 trillion more than the Obama-Biden stimulus and will be jammed through on a party-line vote. Republicans will point to their support for less-expensive compromise proposals and, earlier, the plan from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
A my-way-or-the-highway political approach is usually costly. Democrats could suffer significant losses in 2022, especially in the House, if voters decide they spent too much on too many blue states and constituencies, for too few good results, all on a straight party vote arranged so as to avoid the compromises necessary to swing over 10 Republicans senators.
Democrats could have won Republican buy-in and an early bipartisan victory and still gotten all the mishmash they’ve jammed into their stimulus package by breaking Covid relief into two measures. First, they could have quickly passed a package of items with big bipartisan support—funds to increase vaccinations, an unemployment benefits extension and aid for school reopening. Then they could have used budget reconciliation to later pass items the parties disagreed about and on which Democrats didn’t want to compromise.
This would have given Americans visible evidence of bipartisanship but still let Democrats crow about all the additional spending they alone provided. Then again, maybe Team Biden knows its price tag is too big. Or alternatively, it doesn’t want Republicans to claim any credit for Covid relief. That’s how the Obama-Biden administration handled its stimulus package. With the 2022 midterms around the corner, Mr. Biden would be wise to recall how jamming Republicans in 2009 cost Democrats in 2010. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.