Does Joe Biden Understand the Modern GOP?

The president-elect insists he can work with Republicans. Some fellow Democrats have doubts.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The dissonance between the first and second halves of Joe Biden’s landmark speech this week encapsulates a central strategic challenge he’ll face as president.

During his victory speech on Monday, following the Electoral College vote, Biden denounced more forcefully than ever before the Republican Party’s legal maneuvers to overturn his win, arguing that they constituted an effort “to wipe out the votes of more than 20 million Americans ... a position so extreme, we’ve never seen it before.” Yet in the speech’s final sections, Biden pivoted to a more familiar message, promising to “turn the page” on these skirmishes and insisting that he’s “convinced we can work together for the good of the nation.”

The big question his remarks raise is whether the Republican Party that Biden described in the speech’s first half is truly open to the kind of cooperation and partnership he promised in the second.

The answer is already dividing centrists—who believe that Biden has no choice but to seek agreements with congressional Republicans—from progressives, who fear that he will sap his momentum and demoralize his coalition if he spends weeks on what could prove to be fruitless negotiations over COVID-19 relief and other subjects. The divide is not only ideological but generational too: Compared with Biden, who came of age in the more collegial Senate of the 1970s and ’80s, younger congressional Democrats forged by the unrelenting partisan warfare of the modern Congress—a group some Democrats think includes Vice President–elect Kamala Harris—are generally less optimistic about finding common cause with Republicans.

Biden will obviously need to be more cooperative with Republicans if the GOP maintains its Senate majority than if Democrats control the chamber by winning both of the Senate runoffs in Georgia next month. But even if Democrats achieve a narrow 50–50 majority (with Harris casting the tie-breaking vote), Biden will face ongoing questions about how much he’ll compromise his agenda in order to win the 60 votes required to pass most legislation.

Biden’s recent criticism of the GOP is notable because the president-elect has generally downplayed Donald Trump’s attempts to subvert the election while emphasizing his own optimism about future cooperation. Biden aides told me that his priority has been to project his victory’s inevitability, and to avoid giving what one top adviser called “any additional lift or credibility” to Trump’s groundless claims of election fraud, even as more Republicans have embraced them. But that choice has come with what some Democrats see as a serious consequence: a failure to alert the public to the magnitude of the president’s assault on a democratic election, and to the broad willingness inside the GOP to join him.

The president-elect struck a different tone in Monday’s speech, when he condemned a Texas lawsuit to toss out the election results in four swing states where he won—litigation endorsed by about two-thirds of both GOP House members and Republican state attorneys general. Appearing on behalf of the Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia on Tuesday, Biden kept the pressure on, lashing the state’s two GOP senators for endorsing the lawsuit, which would have invalidated the votes of nearly 5 million of their own constituents.

That messaging marked a subtle but significant departure from Biden’s usual language during the campaign, when he mostly presented Trump as an aberration within the GOP, and repeatedly predicted that once he was defeated, more in the party would return to centrist dealmaking. Biden’s broad criticism of Republicans on Monday may have been his most candid acknowledgment yet that much of Trump’s party has followed him over the past four years toward more radical positions, particularly by abetting his serial assaults on the rule of law.

But the senior Biden adviser said that in targeting the GOP’s postelection actions, the president-elect’s goal was not “trying to score points against Republicans” or branding them as anti-small-d democratic. Rather, his intent was to reassure Americans that the failure of Trump’s efforts, even with the support of so much of his party, underlines the fundamental resilience of American democracy. “It was … more about trying to lay out the scope and the magnitude of the crisis that we had just navigated,” said the adviser, who like others I talked with for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

Although almost the entire Democratic Party remained silent during the first weeks of the postelection period, more recently some members have raised sharp alarms about the long-term implications of the GOP’s actions. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut delivered a blistering floor speech on Friday in which he declared that Republicans who support Trump’s efforts to overturn the election “are engaged in a treachery against their nation.”

In an interview yesterday, Murphy told me that he fears Republicans may grow even more brazen in seeking to subvert future elections. “You can foresee a circumstance in which a Senate election is overturned in a red state in 2022, because I think the majority of Republicans have come to the conclusion that if a Democrat wins in any place other than New York or Connecticut, it must be because of fraud,” Murphy said. “That’s the point at which the blue states start to say, ‘Hey, can we be in this together with states that aren’t actually committed to democracy and the free will of voters?’”

The GOP’s unprecedented postelection maneuvering poses an inescapable question for Biden: whether reaching bipartisan agreements is possible when many Republicans have become so radicalized that they still refuse to acknowledge Trump’s defeat.

In public, Biden has unwaveringly insisted that the answer is yes. “I think you’re gonna see a lot more cooperation than anybody thinks,” he told Time magazine when it named him and Harris Person of the Year this week. In private, he’s been just as steadfast on that point, aides told me. “He absolutely believes there is the opportunity to work together,” the senior adviser said. Biden aides cite as evidence the growing likelihood that Congress will finally reach agreement this week on a COVID-19 economic-relief package. Murphy likewise said that the prospect of such an agreement “gives me enough hope that there is still an ability to work together, despite how outrageous Republican behavior has been in the wake of this election.”

But many progressives find that mentality deeply naive. In an open memo published late last month, four leading progressive groups said such optimism could prove electorally dangerous for Democrats—by luring the party into dead-end negotiations that demoralize the Democratic base heading into the 2022 election. “The only question is whether Democrats spend the next two years playing into Republicans’ hands by feeding the pretense that [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell is seeking to negotiate in good faith,” the groups wrote.

Biden should target McConnell almost immediately, says Sean McElwee, a founder of the progressive polling-and-analysis firm Data for Progress, one of the organizations that signed the open memo. “Democrats really need to start making people understand that Mitch McConnell is leading a do-nothing Senate that should be replaced in the midterms,” McElwee told me. “You want to make Mitch McConnell the enemy, and we need to get his favorables down to nil and then tie all of the Republicans to” him.

By contrast, the centrist Democratic group Third Way this week released a poll showing that a strong majority of registered voters want political leaders in both parties to seek compromise. In the survey, 85 percent of self-identified Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans said they prefer political leaders who will “compromise in order to get things done.”

Matt Bennett, the group’s executive vice president for external affairs, told me that while Republicans’ behavior since the election has been “openly seditious,” Biden has no choice but to seek agreements with them. Referring to Biden’s remarks after the Electoral College vote, Bennett said: “He couldn’t make the entire speech the first half; he had to have the second half. You simply can’t enter office as a new president convinced that there is no hope of working with your political opponents.” (He added one qualification: “I guess Trump did that, but that resulted in the worst presidency in American history, so that’s not one to emulate.”)

In practice, these two perspectives may not really be all that different. McElwee agrees that Biden should work, wherever possible, to divide the GOP by seeking to attract at least a few Republican senators to his policy priorities. And Bennett said that while Biden must continue to pursue agreements “in the hope that Republicans will come to their senses, he also needs to be mindful that they may not.”

The real difference among Democrats may be over where to strike the balance between conciliation and confrontation—between seeking agreements and building a case against McConnell as a blindly partisan obstructionist, the same way Republicans have worked for years to paint House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a radical.

Biden probably lands much more on the conciliatory end of that continuum, both because of his long experience in the clubbier Senate of decades past and because of his belief that he’s negotiated productively with McConnell before (a view not all Democrats share). But his is not the only viewpoint in the incoming administration. Jen O’Malley Dillon, his campaign manager and future White House deputy chief of staff, expressed the flintier perspective common among younger Democrats in an interview published this week in Glamour. Dillon said that while Biden must pursue the “bipartisan ideal” he offered voters, she, at least, will enter any negotiations without illusions: “I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of fuckers,” she said. “Mitch McConnell is terrible.”

A wild card in how Biden will approach Senate Republicans may be his vice president. Harris entered the Senate in 2017, so all she’s known is the unstinting partisan warfare of the McConnell era. As a result, some progressives think that she may temper Biden’s tendency to keep talking, and to keep offering concessions, in pursuit of bipartisan agreements. “Kamala Harris is a creature from the current Senate, not the 1970s and 1980s Senate,” Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, told me. “She is most known for grilling [Republicans] in her Senate committees.” As Biden decides how to approach congressional Republicans, he added, “one place of hope is that in those rooms Kamala Harris will have a different perspective based on her experience of the Senate as a place of asymmetric conflict.”

The senior Biden adviser told me that the president-elect and Harris share the same beliefs about the possibility of winning cooperation from Republicans. But another source, who has worked closely with Harris, agrees with Shahid that the incoming vice president’s instincts may be more confrontational than her boss’s. This source pointed to Harris’s public opposition in 2019 when many Senate Democrats agreed to trade funding for Trump’s border wall for legal status for the “Dreamers,” the young people brought to America illegally by their parents. If Senate Republicans dangle agreements with Biden provided he makes just one concession, the source said, “I think her instinct, given how she was raised in the Senate, would be to say, ‘Fuck you.’”

Amid these contrasting ideological and generational impulses, the one thing that’s clear is that Democrats will grant Biden considerable leeway in his dealings with Republicans—at least at first. “I think people have spent a lot of time and used a lot of ink in the last year and a half underestimating Joe Biden and not believing what he said,” Murphy told me. “If Joe Biden says that … he has a unique ability to work with Republicans to get big stuff done, I don’t think right now is the time not to believe him, given what he has achieved over the last year.”