One month before the first primary competition of the 2020 cycle, the Democratic Party was once again in disarray.
For months, the party’s two dozen presidential hopefuls had grown increasingly divided over whether defeating President Donald Trump required a restoration of the old democratic norms of the past or a complete rebuilding of the system that had him. allowed to be elected. Each presidential debate had started with a 20-minute drag on universal health care coverage versus a single-payer system. Even the rules regarding who is qualified to be present on debate stages have been the subject of furious debate.
And Joe Biden straddled those divisions, calmly calling for consensus.
“People, we need a president who can bring the country together, a leader who can not only unite our party but also who would like to unite the country,” Biden told potential supporters of a former Maytag factory in Newton. , Iowa, late January. “We are a democracy – democracies depend on consensus. There is no way to govern without reaching a consensus. Nothing happens except the abuse of power when there is no consensus.
Almost a year later, Biden is poised to take the reins of a country broken along partisan and ideological lines to an extreme degree even by the standards of the Trump era.
Now Democrats are wondering if Biden’s continued call for consensus will be a balm for a weary nation worn out by partisan grudge of a ‘dark age’, or if it’s an old-fashioned mishap that means loss. an ambitious legislative program. .
“President-elect Biden comes from a time when the Senate was still functioning, where compromise was possible and reaching deals was not a dirty word,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist with more than two decades of experience at Capitol Hill. “The problem now is that in this hyper-partisan environment, everything is picking things up from the start, which makes agreements even more difficult.”
Biden’s decades-long political career – and the successful speech he made to voters as a presidential candidate – is defined by his ability to fight against a large group of senators to pass laws like the Violence Against Women Act and Crime Bill of 1994, a scale and scope seldom adopted in modern Washington State.
Part of that penchant for building consensus is simply the way Biden is wired, a longtime former staff member said.
“He’s always been so receptive to new and interesting ideas and has been creative about ways you could somehow use the power of the presidency for external relations or for justice,” the staff member said, noting that Biden was always curious about – or new to him – solutions to policy problems, whether they came from the staff or fellow Republicans. “I would almost call it a creative impulse, his desire to create this amalgamation legislation that could attract as many people as possible.”
But the 21st century Capitol is less of an intellectual policy playground than a low-budget reboot of Celebrity Deathmatch, and Biden’s past pushing for the broadest possible consensus to pass ambitious legislation has also been criticized for helping to undermine broad democratic priorities.
Case in point: the Obama administration’s misfires on gun legislation after the Newtown school massacre.
After the 2012 attack on an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, when a man with mental illness killed 26 people, including 20 young children, Biden was tasked by President Barack Obama to lead the most campaign. aggressive for firearms reform for decades. Obama, who by then had overseen the response to several of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, was aware of the limited lifespan of the political will to act.
“I hope our memories aren’t so short that what we saw in Newtown doesn’t stick with us, that we don’t stay passionate about it just a month later,” Obama said in the briefing room of the White House days after the shooting, when he announced that his administration would send far-reaching proposals to Congress to avoid further tragedies in the future – and tasked Biden with leading the effort.
Biden, an expert on Senate legislative negotiations whose landmark 1994 crime bill included a ban on the sale of many types of assault weapons, was considered the best person to navigate a political climate in which the power of the gun lobby had reached unprecedented influence over the US Parliament.
But the attempt failed, in part, according to another former Senate staff member, because Biden went out of his way to meet with hundreds of groups and individuals involved in the gun control debate, from manufacturers. to law enforcement, parent groups and union leaders, as well as recalcitrant former colleagues who ended up being more afraid of the gun lobby than of Biden.
“I don’t mean ‘wasted’ … but he spent a lot of political capital and a lot of time trying to win over Tom Coburn [of Oklahoma], which had literally delayed legislation to improve background checks after Virginia Tech, ”the former aide said, referring to what was then the deadliest mass shooting in American history. “And when you talk about gun legislation, of any type, the window after a tragedy like Sandy Hook is just too small.
Part of that, the staff member felt, was rooted in Biden’s tireless belief in consensus politics, which he said was on his side at the time.
“There is a generic consensus – not unanimity – a consensus that is different from what existed when I did this in 1992 and 1993 to come up with the 1994 (crime) bill,” Biden told Danbury. , Connecticut, two months after the shooting. “Consensus is emerging. There is a consensus on the kinds of actions that everyone thinks are reasonable we should take.
But the narrow window to pass major legislation to deal with a current crisis is often the enemy of this type of consensus legislation.
“It often involved taking the time to let the process unfold,” Manley said. “Things didn’t happen naturally. Smart people knew to let things gel.
But for others, Biden’s desire to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill is the latest and most genuine attempt by a politician who has come in the Age of Consensus to restore Washington’s version that has sometimes does great things.
“In my experience with him, I’ve seen him apply this premise of finding the right people to build consensus, to get things done,” said Senator Darius Brown, former project assistant in Biden’s Senate office. , which helped manage its national portfolio. , told the Daily Beast, summarizing a lesson he first learned in Biden’s office. “It doesn’t matter who is elected, it’s a colleague of yours – recognize that there is an electorate who saw something good in him and elected him, so it is your responsibility to find it good. .
Brown credited this lesson – and Biden’s advice once he became an elected official himself – with helping him pass expansive, expansive legislation in Delaware, where the state House of Representatives was under. Republican control for decades until relatively recently.
“He, better than anyone, has the ability and the connections to make it happen,” Brown said. “These are the people he served for 40 years in the United States Senate with, these are the people he established a relationship with while he was vice president… those relationships are important.” If anyone can do it, it’s him.
It remains to be seen whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has an interest in revisiting this relationship. Almost six weeks after the election, McConnell finally admitted this week that Biden was, in fact, the president-elect, which in fact put him at a faster pace to come to terms with reality than many of his Senate colleagues, and Biden , for its part, clearly foresees the possibility of a productive relationship.
“As Donald Trump’s shadow fades, you’re going to see a lot of change,” Biden said on a call with supporters Monday, allowing he could possibly “eat those words.” “I know I have been heavily criticized for saying from the start [that] we have to unify the country. I think you will be surprised. It will take six to eight months to get it up and running, but I think you’re going to be surprised.
But if the kind of outsized butthurt Republicans are already showing when it comes to Biden’s election – especially nothing burgers like future Biden deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, calling them ‘fuckers’ – is a demonstration, the point of view of the Republican Party courtesy will be, finally, more narrow.
“That says a lot about her boss who calls for ‘unity’,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in response to this particular non-controversy. “They think we are deplorable and irremediable ‘F *** ers’. SICK‼ ️ “
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