the national interest

Only a Democratic Senate Can Produce a Moderate Biden Presidency

Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Republican strategist Mike Murphy argued on the Bulwark podcast that, despite the particular loathsomeness of the party’s candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff, he would like at least one of them to prevail, in order to prevent President Biden from going “left wing.” Murphy is a staunchly anti-Trump Republican, and his sentiment reflects a series of misunderstandings that still have purchase in Washington.

One of those mistakes is a transposition of the political debate that exists among activists, mainly on social media, with the debate that exists between the two parties. Among progressive activists, Barack Obama is a controversial figure because of his moderation, and goals like socialism and defunding the police receive respectful attention. In the actual arena of national politics, socialism and police defunding are off the table, and Obama’s goals would be too left wing to stand any chance of enactment even if Democrats controlled Congress.

Biden would not be implementing a “left-wing” agenda even if he had won a landslide in both chambers. If Democrats win the Georgia runoffs and gain 50 Senate seats, they will have the chance to govern in a centrist fashion. Should Republicans win, gridlock will prevail.

But wait, you might be thinking. If Republicans retain narrow control of the upper chamber, by one or two seats, then the balance of power will be held by moderate Republicans, right? The likes of Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney will hold the whip hand, and compromise will be the order of the day.

Well, no, that won’t happen. And to see why it won’t, you don’t need to imagine the future, but merely look at what is happening in Washington right at this moment.

There are currently majorities in both chambers willing to vote for a significant economic rescue package, and almost certainly have been for months. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked a bill like that from emerging. Recently, a moderate bloc has been negotiating a work-around, compromising between the expansive relief passed by the House and McConnell’s stingier offerings. The three most moderate Republican Senators have been joined by Republican Bill Cassidy and Democrats Joe Manchin, Mark Warner, and Maggie Hassan.

But McConnell has shot it down when the compromise emerged on December 1. And he’s continued to oppose it. The Washington Post explains that his staff “told leadership offices in both parties Wednesday night that McConnell sees no possible path for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to reach an agreement on two contentious provisions that would be broadly acceptable to Senate Republicans.”

That last part — that would be broadly acceptable to Senate Republicans — is key. The moderate bloc has more than enough votes, in combination with the Democrats, to win a vote on the floor. But McConnell won’t bring a bill to the floor unless most Republicans support it. That means having 50, or even 60, Senate votes to go along with the support of the president and the House majority isn’t enough to pass a bill. You need a majority of the majority, which means, in practice, 75 Senate votes.

And since almost all Senate Republicans are archconservatives, the chances of passing a bill to relieve the economic pain from the coronavirus, or do anything at all, are extremely slim. When Biden takes office, the Republican incentive will lean heavily toward demonizing any Biden-supported initiative as a fiendish socialistic plot, making broad GOP support almost impossible.

In theory, under Republican control, a handful of Republican moderates could join with Democrats to override McConnell and bring their bill to the floor. In practice, such an act is considered so insubordinate none of them would ever dare attempt it.

If Democrats win the Georgia runoff and have a majority, they will have no votes to spare. Moderate Democratic senators will be very reluctant to pass party-line bills, all of which would require them to each be the decisive vote. Moderate Republicans would have enormous leverage to demand concessions to give them some bipartisan cover.

If Republicans control 51 Senate seats, though, Republican moderates will be as powerless as they are right now. The veto point for legislation will be something on the order of the 75th-most progressive senator. Which is to say, Biden won’t be passing much of anything, moderate or otherwise. The specter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders driving the Democratic agenda is a Fox News fantasy. If Joe Biden isn’t moderate enough and you want somebody to push him further right, then the people who can do that job have names like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Angus King, and Jon Tester.

A Moderate Biden Presidency Needs a Democratic Senate