When Biden joined the Senate, that meant working with senators of all stripes and cutting deals to get your legislation through. That doesn’t work these days, or at least there’s little evidence that it does; hardly anyone tries, in part because the political risks outweigh the political benefits. But cramming legislation through on a party-line vote using the obscure parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation does work in a 50–50 Senate with a Democratic vice president.
Some people in politics deeply treasure bipartisanship as an end in itself. They believe that having members of both parties supporting legislation is better for both political and policy reasons, and they are willing to make sacrifices on substance to achieve it. (Think of No Labels, Third Way, the Bipartisan Policy Center, or the dubiously named Problem Solvers Caucus. Think also, perhaps, of Senator Joe Manchin, though the West Virginian’s practice of working through things in public makes it hard to tell.) Others reject bipartisanship outright, preferring ideological purity over compromise. A third group views bipartisanship as a sometimes-useful tool—a means to achieve things.
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During the presidential race, Biden often suggested that he was closer to the first camp, extolling the virtues of “civility” with a confusingly told anecdote about working with the segregationist Dixiecrat James Eastland of Mississippi. Critics took this to mean that Biden felt it was okay to work with racists as long as you could form a strong personal bond with them. They looked at Biden’s long record and his ideological flexibility and read him as a milquetoast deal-cutter who would be knocked flat by today’s Washington.
But there’s another interpretation of the Eastland anecdote: It’s a story about gritting your teeth and doing whatever unsavory things you have to do to accomplish what you want. “Working with [southern Democrats], as Biden and many liberals of his generation did, was not a matter of artificial comity or keeping peace in the valley; it was the only way they saw to do their jobs in Congress,” Todd S. Purdum wrote in June. The “civility” of the 1970s was a veneer, just like the enduring practice of referring to a colleague as the gentleman or gentlelady from this or that state while eviscerating them.
Purdum’s view has aged well—much better than mine. The scope of Biden’s accomplishment in pushing through the COVID-19 package has been understated. While Biden’s 2019 prediction that “you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends” once Donald Trump was out of the White House has not held up well, it also hasn’t mattered much so far. One reason is that Republicans are in disarray. Although they have not suddenly come around to the Democratic view, and every Republican in Congress voted against the COVID-19 package, the GOP was also unable to mount any serious opposition, or even a rhetorical stand, against it. The bill’s passage seemed almost anticlimactic, despite the huge sum attached.