Joe Biden and the Disastrous History of Bipartisanship
Biden wants to bring the parties together. But for 50 years, that's meant the Right winning every time.
August 22, 2019
The Democratic presidential campaign playbook has, for decades, included grand promises to reach out to the GOP to solve the nation’s ills.
In 2020, some candidates are throwing that playbook out the window.
“If the Republicans are going to try to block us on key pieces that we’re trying to move forward, then you better believe we gotta keep all the options on the table,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said, referring to the possibility of eliminating the filibuster. In a speech to the 2019 California Democratic Convention, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pledged “no middle ground” on issues dear to progressives. Even centrist Michael Bennet, at the June Democratic debate, acknowledged that working with Republicans would be impossible in 2021: “Gridlock will not magically disappear.”
Four progressive lawmakers elected in 2018—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—model what a rebellious Democratic approach can look like. The “squad,” as they’re known, has proposed far-reaching measures like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal while combating right-wing attacks and calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. While mainstream Democrats still pledge to build bridges, this new generation is more likely to occupy them.
It’s a remarkable turnaround. If worship of the U.S. Constitution is an American civic religion, with the Founders as prophets and Capitol Hill as a place of worship, then bipartisanship is its holy sacrament.
This uncompromising approach from young progressive legislators and presidential candidates like Warren and Sanders is also an implicit rebuke of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is campaigning on the promise of an outstretched, bipartisan hand.
For Biden and his generation of Democratic lawmakers, bipartisanship has long been hailed as a worthy end in its own right, no matter the result. He has pledged that a new day will dawn once Trump is removed from the White House. “This nation cannot function without generating consensus,” Biden said in May. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
But as moderator Chuck Todd told Biden at the first Democratic debate, “It does sound as if you haven’t seen what’s been happening in the United States Senate over the last 12 years.”
An increasingly far-right GOP has ruthlessly obstructed Democrats while dangling cooperation to lure them rightward. The outcome has been a disaster for progressives. The parties have cooperated to water down or kill left-leaning measures and advance a right-wing agenda, from shredding the New Deal to ramping up deportation, turning the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama into graveyards of progressive policies. Democrats increasingly understand that, if they want to generate consensus, they’ll have to do it some other way than meeting a right-moving GOP in the “middle.”
In the first round of the Democratic primary debates, Biden was the only candidate (besides little-known centrist John Delaney) to say “bipartisan.” Biden, however, is not the only one clinging to faith in cross-party cooperation.
In April 2017, New York Times columnist David Brooks speculated that, assuming the departure of Trump in 2020, Congress would again enjoy a “world with the possibility of bipartisanship.” Politico Magazine’s Michael Grunwald explained that Biden’s “bipartisan friendships, Washington experience and genial Uncle Joe approach really can help produce results.”
Indeed, “discomfort with open division is part of the DNA of the nation,” says historian Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. “It’s all about repressing this original fissure: Slavery. The entire history, for the first half of the 19th century, is this all-consuming attempt to keep this genie in the bottle.”
To get slave-owners to at least pay lip service to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Founders compromised that three out of every five slaves would be counted in a state’s population when apportioning congressional seats. Slave states wielded this inflated electoral power to ensure slavery continued in the new republic, while the Compromise of 1850 facilitated slavery’s westward spread and made the federal government responsible for recovering “fugitive” slaves.
These compromises “came at a tremendous cost,” says historian Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. “If you think of slavery as a gross abuse of human rights, then compromise doesn’t sound so good.”
This compromising dynamic outlived slavery. The Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, made room for Jim Crow and, by pulling federal troops out of the South, gave a green light to racist terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet Biden and others who yearn for the “pragmatism” of days past aren’t inventing things. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days—so consequential they would turn that number into a measure of success for every president thereafter—likely would have failed had he not secured pivotal support from Republicans and even put several in his cabinet. Four-fifths of Republicans in Congress voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.
All of this was possible, says historian Thomas Frank, in part because “there was a time when the parties were not divided by ideology or by their place on the political spectrum. The parties were regional and ethnic.”
In the early 20th century, Republicans dominated politics as a party of the Northeast, white Protestants, business owners, African Americans and the middle class, while Democrats foundered as a largely agrarian party of the South and Great Plains. Things changed when Roosevelt cobbled together an ultimately unstable coalition of Southerners, Catholic immigrants in urban areas, blue-collar workers and, crucially, African Americans, who fled the GOP as they began economically benefiting from the New Deal. In practice, this meant progressive politicians from both parties could work together to get things passed.
So what happened? Commentators across the spectrum name one culprit: Partisanship.
“Too much estrangement on both sides,” groused Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) in 2018. A 2017 Atlantic Council report on U.S. political dysfunction blamed a “dangerously codependent” partisan divide birthed by gerrymandering that made officials accountable to partisan radicals. Bruce Wolpe, who worked on the Democratic staff in Congress during the first Obama administration, charged that Congress was beset by “hyperpartisanship” defined by “no compromise, no consensus” and “no working together in the national interest.”
In June, Biden echoed these sentiments, bemoaning the loss of “civility” that marked his salad days in Congress when he worked with segregationists despite disagreements.
“We got things done,” Biden said. “We got it finished.”
These analyses omit, however, the key agent of this growing political polarization: the GOP.
Soon after FDR took office in 1933, a coterie of conservative intellectuals, prominent political figures and wealthy businessmen (such as the Du Pont brothers) began organizing against what they saw as the “socialistic” overreach of the New Deal. With a messianic resolve and a seemingly bottomless pit of cash, they created think tanks, books, periodicals, colleges, television and radio programming and more. The result was an alternative intellectual landscape that demonized government and deified the free market.
Electoral politics followed. Frustrated with the “dimestore New Deal”-ism of the postwar GOP, what came to be called the “New Right” engineered a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, resulting in the 1964 presidential nomination of hardline conservative Barry Goldwater. While Goldwater lost spectacularly, liberalism’s triumphs only fueled right-wing organizing. A well-cultivated conservative and evangelical backlash against the civil rights victories of the 1960s and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision culminated in the 1980 victory of Ronald Reagan, previously viewed largely as an unelectable ideologue out of step with the times.
“The election of Ronald Reagan was a symbol of the eclipse of the Rockefeller Republicans by the Barry Goldwater wing, sending a signal to the party to get on board,” says Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Reagan used his bully pulpit to popularize the idea of getting “the government off the backs of the people.”
“The conservative wing of the GOP established hegemony over not just the Republican Party, but the American political order,” says Robin.
Testimonies from the conservative Hoover Institution at the close of Reagan’s presidency attest to that fact. As historian Stephen Ambrose put it, while Reagan “failed to break the Democratic hold on Congress, he did force the Democratic Party to move to the right.” Historian Karl O’Lessker wrote that “Reaganomics may well have caused a fundamental shift in the political community’s approach to fiscal policy. … There has been little if any disposition among congressional Democrats to advocate, still less vote for, big new spending or taxation programs.”
The GOP came to explicitly align itself with the agenda of super-rich, right-wing patrons like the Koch brothers, while the Democrats, shell-shocked from electoral defeats, began relying on big-dollar fundraisers that hastened a rightward turn.
“[Republican Party patrons have] turned the GOP into a kind of Leninist party of the Right, one in which no dissent is allowed after the course has been set,” says historian Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. “It wants to dramatically diminish the power of the federal government in order to remove the reins from capitalists.” And yet, she says, “We are still operating as a nation as if there is a Republican Party.”
The newer, more strident class of Republicans who entered Congress in 1979 “had not been exposed to the demoralizing impact of Watergate, the Agnew and Nixon resignations, the Ford defeat, and maneuvering in a Congress dominated by two-to-one Democrats,” read a 1979-1980 internal report commissioned by GOP congressional leadership. “Where older members saw persistence and shrewdness, the freshmen saw timidity and indecision.” Newt Gingrich was one of them. In the 1990s, he would continue the process that Reagan began by spearheading the tactic of obstructionism by the minority.
Gingrich fancied himself “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times” and called for “large-scale, radical change.” Working to polarize debate between the parties, he pioneered the threat of a government shutdown as a political strategy. He calculated that obstructionism would nurture popular contempt toward the institution of Congress, which would serve the Right’s anti-government agenda.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who served as House Majority Whip when Gingrich was Speaker, later wrote about the GOP’s strategy under Clinton. Knowing that Clinton and the Senate would tack to the center, he explained, the GOP would “start every policy initiative from as far to the political right as we could” to move “the center farther to the right” and achieve a “much greater success rate than we had ever known.” DeLay boasted in his memoirs, “We moved the whole of American governance to the right.”
The old-guard Republicans joined in. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole pioneered the filibuster-threat strategy now synonymous with Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), making 60 votes necessary for anything to get done, from healthcare reform to a stimulus package.
This rightward shift led scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein—at the Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute, respectively—to declare in 2012 that the GOP had “become an insurgent outlier.” The party was “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science.”
Joe Biden’s political career is an exemplar of the price the Democratic Party paid as the Right slid into the dark reaches of the political spectrum.
As overt racism faded in polite society after the 1960s, those committed to beating back the advance of civil rights found proxy issues to dog whistle a racist tune: crime, drugs, welfare and busing. They found a willing partner in a 30-year-old freshman senator: Biden.
Biden hailed from Delaware, whose culture and borders straddled the Mason-Dixon line and whose political and economic life was dominated for decades by the Du Pont family that had helped jumpstart the rebellion against the New Deal. (As Biden would later assure a Republican Rotary Club in South Carolina in advance of his 2008 presidential run, Delaware, a slave state, had only “fought beside the North. … because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South.”)
As conflict over court-ordered busing roiled his home state, Biden led a crusade against the civil rights measure, later boasting that he made it politically acceptable for other liberals to oppose it. He built alliances with Republican racists like Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), the record-holder for longest filibuster in history, a 24-hour attempt to stall the Civil Rights Act of 1957. During the Reagan administration, Biden, Helms and Thurmond would help usher in an era of mass incarceration, working together to establish racist crack cocaine sentencing guidelines and harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences.
Biden also led the way on budget-slashing: In 1984, with Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Nancy Kassebaum (Kan.), Biden put forward a budget “freeze” that cut deficits by $100 billion more than Reagan proposed and eliminated scheduled increases to Social Security and Medicare. Biden also ranked among the sizable number of Democrats who gave their stamp of approval to signature Reagan victories like increased military spending, privatization and lower taxes for the rich.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was cutting his teeth in this same punishing era. In 1980, Clinton lost his bid for reelection as governor of Arkansas after raising car license fees to fund highway repairs and trying to rein in the timber industry. The loss taught Clinton to eschew challenging corporate power and, instead, embrace what Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page editor Paul Greenberg termed “the politics of ultraconsensus.”
While Clinton’s presidency is remembered as a time of partisan warfare, bipartisan consensus was a quiet fixture throughout. Clinton brought in his own personal Rasputin in the form of political operative Dick Morris, who laid his strategy out in a memo: “fast-forward the Gingrich agenda” to make “Republican issues less appealing” and take the wind out of their sails. Unbeknownst to Clinton, Morris also created a back channel to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a former client, whom he giddily told: “We’ll pass everything.”
“Everything” meant measures like welfare reform, a balanced budget, cuts to Medicare and an immigration overhaul that helped create the deportation state currently operated by Trump.
Biden was an important player in these bipartisan deals. As Senate Judiciary Chair under Clinton, Biden led the passage of the infamous 1994 Crime Bill and worked to make sure Clinton would fulfill his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” With Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Penn.), Biden lamented “the polarizing partisanship and presidential politics that have permeated the issue” and insisted that a “tough, bipartisan welfare reform bill is easily within reach.” In 1996, the Senate passed welfare reform (what Lott described as “the Holy Grail of [the GOP’s] legislative master plan”) thanks to the votes of 51 Republicans and 23 Democrats.
“These were great monuments to consensus in Washington,” says Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? “They were just downstream of racism.”
Bipartisanship reached its apogee after September 11, when Biden swiftly became one of the most prominent Democrats to hitch himself to President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The terrorist attacks created a stunning uniformity of opinion, and Biden, up for reelection in 2002, would soon be heavily criticized in the Delaware press for a speech that appeared dovish. Biden told reporters they should count him “in the 90%” of voters who backed Bush. He stacked a hearing on Iraq with pro-war voices and made regular TV appearances parroting the administration’s talking points about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. And, like 28 other Democratic senators, Biden voted to authorize the war in Iraq.
In 2008, Vice President Biden found a home with “postpartisan” Obama, who, Perlstein says, “was wedded to the myths of consensus in a way that a lot of his supporters hadn’t realized at the time.”
Obama had risen to stardom with his 2004 convention speech denying the existence of a “red” and “blue” America, a feeling that suffused Democratic politics. Nary a 2008 primary debate went by without Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), for example, pledging something or other of a bipartisan nature: a “bipartisan process” to tackle Social Security, a “bipartisan way” on immigration reform, even “bipartisan diplomacy” headed by “bipartisan emissaries.”
But once president, “Republicans used Obama’s own longing for consensus and bipartisanship against him,” says Frank.
Obama ran aground upon a decidedly partisan opposition that took advantage of racist sentiments against him. He tried for months to secure minimal Republican buy-in on Obamacare so he could slap a “bipartisan” label on it, only for “moderate” Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) to use it as leverage to endlessly delay and erode the bill. Obama ramped up deportations as a bipartisan gesture, and the GOP continued to obstruct immigration reform.
Nothing spoke more to Obama’s futile attempt to reach common ground with Republicans than his 2011 attempt at a “grand bargain” on cutting the deficit. Biden was dispatched to negotiate with a radically anti-tax, anti-government GOP. He capitulated to every Republican demand, including cuts to food stamps, Medicare and Social Security, while agreeing to rule out new taxes. Ironically, it was only thanks to the Tea Partiers’ obstinacy that the deal did not pass.
The public was not so lucky in 2010, when Biden made a deal with Sen. McConnell to extend unemployment insurance in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts and cutting the estate tax. The deal was so lopsided that it outraged even conservative Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and prompted an eight-hour filibuster by Bernie Sanders. Two months later, in the midst of affectionately paying tribute to McConnell at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center (named for the senator), Biden pointed to the deal as “the only truly bipartisan event that occurred in the first two years of our administration.”
“We both got beat up, but we knew we were doing the right thing,” Biden said. “The process worked.”
He explained to the audience that, whether they were liberals, conservatives, Tea Partiers or Blue Dogs, little actually divided members of Congress.
“We basically all agree on the nature of the problems we face,” Biden said, as McConnell, leading a historically radical campaign of obstructionism against the Obama administration, looked on.
A continuing faith in compromise may well be the last gasp of a dying era.
“A lot of the things that made bipartisanship sound attractive are now vestigial,” Perlstein says. “Like a lot of neuroses, it was a response that was useful for dealing with trauma that was present and important at the time, but has outlasted its usefulness.”
Or, as Robin says, bipartisanship is “a mourning for a neoliberal accord between Democratic and Republican party elites.”
Today’s Democrats increasingly recognize the folly of seeking progressive change by partnering with a GOP that’s fundamentally opposed to it. A new generation of Democratic lawmakers is taking a combative, unflinchingly progressive approach reminiscent of the 1979 class of freshmen GOP legislators that included Gingrich.
As Ocasio-Cortez told journalist Ryan Grim, “The older members really cling to the idea that things are going to go ‘back to normal’ [after Trump]. For us, it’s never been normal, and before that, the bipartisanship was shitty anyway and gave us the War on Drugs, [the Defense of Marriage Act] and stripping the leg[islative] branch of everything.”
These young progressives are backed by social movements whose adherents have no desire to cooperate with nativists and corporatists. Together, they are seeking to remake the existing governing consensus in their image, just as Reagan managed to do four decades prior. The irony is, they’d be following the Right’s own road to success.
“The rise of the Right is the closest thing we have to an example of a political success story in our time in America, and it was largely achieved by smashing consensus,” Frank says.
But MacLean warns it would be a mistake to believe that obstructionism alone is a path to victory. “The radical Right is winning now because its chief architects played a very sophisticated, well-funded, integrated long game and built a vast infrastructure that is well-aligned to achieve their agenda,” MacLean says.
For inspiration, today’s progressives might look back to the anti-slavery movement, which went from a relatively small band of uncompromising, “radical” activists to controlling the presidency and Congress.
“Abolitionists were never anywhere near a majority in the North or anywhere else,” says Eric Foner, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. “They were a vanguard.”
Abolitionists worked at both the grassroots and official levels to enact change, whether through legislation and court decisions or direct action and education. They made pioneering use of cutting-edge technology such as the printing press, the railroad and the telegram to spread their message. Their efforts helped lead Abraham Lincoln to drastically shift his thinking, jettisoning ideas like gradual emancipation and instead embracing black citizenship.
“Abolitionists and radicals were able to shift the pendulum to the left, and were able to make moderates inhabit radical ground,” says Sinha. “In the end, it wasn’t the abolitionists who abolished slavery,” Foner says. “It was more moderate people like Abraham Lincoln. But without the abolitionists, there’s no Lincoln. There’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Political shifts require years of movement building, but change ultimately happens suddenly. Thirty years after the abolitionist movement took off, there were nearly 2 million more slaves in the United States. Three years later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
“The abolitionist movement lasted for a long, long time, and for a long time failed abysmally,” Foner says. “Radicals have to not give up.”
The time is looking ripe for another hegemonic shift. The Trump administration has sparked a wave of political activism and organizing by Americans previously disengaged from politics. A bevy of socialist intellectual organs and figures have risen to newfound prominence, their arguments cited by mainstream news outlets and shared quickly and easily over the internet, much like the cheap, ephemeral books and magazines passed around by conservatives in the mid-20th Century. Workers are showing a renewed militancy, from the teachers who went on strike in red states across the country to the flight attendants who helped end the government shutdown in January.
Polls suggest the public has moved left, supporting everything from Medicare for All and the Green New Deal to a much higher minimum wage. Even as Trump stokes a racist anti-immigrant campaign, polling shows a public more pro-immigrant than ever.
Republicans will demonize these movements. The Democratic establishment will try to ignore them. But as the ranks of today’s radicals grow, and the more a concerted movement to remake the country expands, the harder it will be for even the most committed centrists to hew to their vision of consensus. As Biden told the audience at the McConnell Center eight years ago: “Reality has a way of intruding on one’s tightly held view.”
This investigation was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.
Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where he received his Masters in American history, a fact that continues to puzzle everyone who meets him. You can follow him on Twitter at @BMarchetich.is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020
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