Biden’s Myth of Bipartisanship Takes a Hit

In January, Joe Biden assumed the leadership of a nation in disarray. On Donald Trump’s watch, the US had struggled for nearly a year to come to terms with a pandemic that disrupted not just the economy, but people’s lives and relationships. Last summer, an unprecedented protest movement against the brutal treatment of black Americans rivaled the COVID-19 pandemic for headlines. These parallel events underlined deep contradictions that have long existed in the social fabric. As a parting gesture, Trump chose to put on display the apparently irreparable division of the body politic by encouraging a mob to assault Congress as it prepared to validate his election loss.


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Those particular events were dramatic enough. But in the background lay other pressing issues. First among them was the rapid decline of the health of the planet due to anthropogenic climate change. At the same time, the effects of wealth and income disparity became ever more visible inside the US and across the globe. In the background was the persistence of wars, terrorism and global instability accompanied by a very real nuclear threat, aggravated by powerful nations’ obsession with producing increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Arms sales had become essential for the economies of Western nations, exacerbating instability in entire regions of the world. Not only the American people but also the global population were becoming increasingly aware of the stakes implied by these converging issues. In this context, expectations grew for Biden’s FDR-style change in American politics. Not that he would challenge the existing order, but that he would for once address the real issues.

President Biden thus entered the White House with an implicit mission to restore a semblance of order, whatever that meant. Observers quickly discovered that today’s version of US democracy entertains two possible approaches to restoring order. The first, which to many people appears logical, requires assessing the nature of the crises and promoting policies designed specifically to address the perceived causes. The second is clearly less logical but represents a long-standing tradition a seasoned politician such as Joe Biden fully understood. It consists of weighing the opinions and interests of the two parties that share power and devising solutions that do not threaten their specific interests. It also implies relegating the needs and desires of the nation’s population to a secondary position.

Biden quickly put his well-honed skills to work. The New York Times describes the dramatic scene in which he “strode to the cameras on the White House driveway on [June 24], flanked by an equal number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, to proudly announce an overall infrastructure agreement totaling $1.2 trillion over eight years that could cement his legacy as a bipartisan deal maker.” 

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Bipartisan:

A descriptive term for any agreement between the two dominant parties designed to buttress the status quo, bipartisanship becoming a necessary ingredient when the status quo itself has become exceptionally dysfunctional, built on policies that are unpopular with the majority of the electorate but considered vital to the preservation of donor support by the political class

Contextual Note

Progressive Democrats wasted no time expressing their displeasure with a bill that fails to address even the most tepid of Biden’s campaign promises concerning the real problems the nation was facing. Emboldened by his belief in his own bipartisan superpowers and wishing to appease progressives, Biden explained, in response to a question from the press, his commitment to pushing through another bill that would deal with those issues. He even promised to reject the bipartisan version he had just negotiated if it was not accompanied by the partisan version. The Times commented: “It may not seem like much, but it was enough to upend Mr. Biden’s proud bipartisan moment.” Pride certainly appears to be a more powerful motivator for the president than problem-solving.

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Revealing the strategy that would have had a chance of working only if left unmentioned, Biden announced, “if this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it.” This set off a firestorm among his bipartisan partners, who judged they had been taken for a ride. Over the next 24 hours, Biden had to find a way of walking back his imprudent remarks. He dutifully promised to back the original bill with no conditions, and peace was restored. Republicans now have a clear path to devise ways of canceling the threat of action being taken on the issues that matter.

There is still a small chance Biden could succeed by mobilizing every member of the Democratic Party to pass the “real” infrastructure bill through reconciliation. But the odds seem rather long. This leaves some observers wondering whether the gaffe was inadvertent. Perhaps Biden’s real bipartisan aim was to provide his opponents with a pretext for ensuring that the second bill never gets passed.

“The drama does not appear to have sunk the deal,” The Times writes reassuringly, “but Mr. Biden admitted that his comments on Thursday left ‘the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to.’” That was ‘certainly not my intent,’ he added.” This glib explanation of the confusion may sum up the public’s perception of the first months of the Biden presidency. There is a thick fog around his intent.

Politico reports that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell criticized accused Biden of “‘completely caving’ to the party’s left wing and has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to derailing Biden‘s progressive agenda.” What this means is that the nation must prepare for a direct confrontation between the ideologies of the two parties, the very opposite of bipartisan government. The logic has come full circle, as often happens these days in Washington.

Historical Note

The myth of bipartisanship in US politics is relatively new. It is linked to the emergence a century ago of a binary political system in which only two dominant parties could legitimately claim the right to govern. It took new meaning in recent decades once the parties had settled into their stable ideological identities. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the Democratic Party drew its capacity to govern from its force as a coalition of Northern liberals and Southern segregationist Dixiecrats. The Republicans had their own two factions: Northeastern liberals and heartland conservatives. In such circumstances, bipartisanship was both an inevitable ingredient of almost all legislation and a meaningless concept. Once the Democrats became “the liberals” and the Republicans “the conservatives,” bipartisanship would become a real challenge.

Joe Biden entered Congress at a time when the old bipartisanship was fading but not yet deceased. At one point, progressives excoriated Biden for expressing his nostalgia for the days when he collaborated respectfully with white supremacists. The progressives were right in their reproach, but not for the moral reasons they cited. Rather for what it indicates about Biden’s inability to dissociate himself from an irrelevant past. He still hasn’t adapted to today’s very different reality.

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The idea of bipartisanship may be the central myth of the Biden presidency. Conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans have fallen in love with it and revere Biden for his commitment to it. Senator Mark Warner, a conservative Democrat, lauded Biden’s successful negotiation in these terms: “The message it sends to the American people, and also to our friends and adversaries around the world, is so important. In a post-Jan. 6 world, it shows that people who come from different political views can still come together on national priorities.” The fiasco that followed Biden’s threat to veto his own bill demonstrates the absurdity of this maudlin sentiment.

Despite persistent public quarrels about budgets and taxation required to maintain the conservative or liberal label of the two parties, bipartisanship has actually been the norm in recent decades. And it is a destructive norm. Critiquing Biden’s brazenly illegal bombing this weekend of Iraq and Syria, Glenn Greenwald makes this historical point: “This has continued for close to two full decades now because the establishment wings of both parties support it. Neither of them believes in the Constitution or the rule of law, nor do they care in the slightest about the interests of anyone other than the large corporate sectors that fund the establishment wings of both parties.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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