Ronald Reagan and Tip'Oneill
Once upon a time, unity meant bipartisanship

We’re a little more than two weeks into the Biden era and we already know that, for the first time in decades, Republicans will not be able to define unity on their terms. During the two Democratic administrations that punctuated the now defunct Reagan era, unity meant bipartisanship. This enabled Republicans to shape the Clinton and Obama agendas even when they didn’t control Congress, because their ability to withhold consent allowed them to frame anything Democrats did on their own as divisive and extreme. The Affordable Care Act is a case study in this dynamic. Desperate to claim bipartisan support for the largest social program in decades, Obama spent months trying to find points of compromise with Republicans, giving them the chance to undermine public support for the program before deciding in unison not to vote for it.

What made this strategy insidious is Republicans of this era were not good faith governing partners who engaged Democratic presidents as the loyal opposition, content to make the case against liberal policies while working to nudge them to the right. Committed to the Reagan philosophy that government is the problem, their means to survive these periodic Democratic interregnums was to make sure their opponents got nothing done, thereby validating the claim that the government cannot work. The biggest threat to their longterm viability was the possibility that a Democratic initiative would become popular with the public (like Obamacare would eventually), undermining the appeal of limited government and contradicting the Republican contention that government is hopelessly broken. So from the Gingrich era forward, Republicans have been invested in the failure of Democratic administrations as the most effective way to protect the rationale for re-establishing Republican majorities. They were prepared to use this playbook against Biden, using the standard of an elusive bipartisanship as cover for obstructionism. 

Joe Biden isn’t playing this game. Speaking on Monday, Biden said, “If you pass a piece of legislation that breaks down on party lines, but it gets passed, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t unity, it just means it wasn’t bipartisan.” He added that while he would “prefer” bipartisan outcomes, the test of unity is whether government is serving the interests of the American people. Biden appreciates that you can’t have consensus with people who don’t want to consent, but more importantly he appears to recognize that it isn’t 2009 and that he doesn’t have to play along. Crisis moments tend to create their own urgency, and after four years of a president who ignored 60 percent of the public, governing for the majority can look a lot like building consensus. This is permitting Biden to slip free of the trap Republicans successfully created for his Democratic predecessors. 

Biden met with 10 Republican senators at the White House earlier this week and made it clear that when the situation arises he is happy to talk to the other side. But he has made it equally clear that he is not compromising for the sake of bipartisanship because to do so would undermine what the public needs — which is to say he is defining what the public needs on his terms. 

It helps a lot that Biden’s agenda is popular. Polling indicates overwhelming support for the key components in Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan, including $1400 stimulus checks and raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. The bill cleared a key procedural hurdle early Friday morning when Kamala Harris cast her first tie-breaking vote to secure Senate approval of a budget resolution that would allow the package to pass by majority vote. No Republican supported the measure, and in past years, that would have been enough to generate howls of scorn against Democrats for going it alone. Not this time. 

It is equally noteworthy that Democrats are starting to show the first green shoots of legislative effectiveness with the narrowest majorities. This also bodes well for their future success. Obama and Clinton had a lot more congressional Democrats to work with. For that matter, so did Jimmy Carter. But they were operating in different political eras. Carter was president when the New Deal coalition had decayed into warring factional interests. Obama and Clinton were presidents of the minority party when the prevailing assumptions of the Reagan era were to varying degrees still robust. That Biden appears not to be constrained by these assumptions is evidence — still preliminary but nonetheless noteworthy — that we may be on the cusp of a new political age.

We are only moments into the Biden administration. As hard as it is to believe, Donald Trump was still president a mere sixteen days ago. Still, the effortless and professional way Biden, Harris and their top appointees have defined the terms of engagement brings to mind thoughts of 1981, the last time lasting regime change came to Washington amidst the breakup of a party that had long dominated government.

And right on cue, Republicans are facing an existential crisis as they grapple with the fall of their leader, making it clear that it’s their party and not government that’s broken right now. More on that shortly.