Fans of the perpetual Democrats in Disarray narrative are having fun this week amid widespread progressive angst over President Biden’s extended negotiations with congressional Republicans over an infrastructure package. Politico’s headline on the situation says it all in terms of the conventional wisdom: “Biden can’t quit infrastructure talks and progressives are losing their minds.” The idea, of course, is that the president’s institutionalist obsession with pursuing impossible Republican cooperation will doom his agenda (as it did Obama’s, except for that Affordable Care Act trifle) to the great frustration of his party’s progressive wing, which had momentarily trusted the old centrist after the passage of his impressively ambitious American Rescue Plan in March.
Some Democrats fear Biden’s persistence in these negotiations as just another example of their party’s habit of compromising before it has to, while others are concerned that the talks are leading to a narrow definition of “infrastructure” that will exclude new funding for programs and services critical to the Democratic base. Everyone is naturally worried about timing, particularly now that the Senate parliamentarian has thrown an apparent monkey wrench into Chuck Schumer’s plans to pass multiple budget-reconciliation bills this calendar year. For much of Biden’s agenda, in other words, the future is now.
So what’s the deal with bipartisan negotiations that never seem to end? Is Joe Biden really Charlie Brown running up to the football held by Lucy, hoping against hope that this time she won’t yank it away?
It’s possible; one of the big complaints about Biden before he became the 2020 Democratic nominee was that his “theory of change” depended too much on his personal sway with Republicans. But an important examination of public opinion on bipartisanship by Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight suggests another possibility: Joe Biden is doing what the American people want before he moves on to enact as much legislation as he can, probably via the same kind of partisan power play that he utilized on the American Rescue Plan.
As Skelley notes from some precise Morning Consult polling, there’s not much public support for an approach that claims it’s enough to sway the other party’s rank-and-file by proposing initiatives they like (the approach I dubbed “grassroots bipartisanship” when Barack Obama promoted it early in his presidency):
When given three interpretations of the word “bipartisan,” only 10 percent of voters said it involved getting broad support from voters across the political spectrum; 32 percent said it had to involve wide support among lawmakers from both parties, while 43 percent said it was best defined as including support from both lawmakers and voters across partisan divides.
In other words, when the public craves bipartisanship, they want to see some visible wheeling and dealing in Washington. Obviously, the much-reported negotiations between the White House and Senate Republicans scratch that itch. Is Biden raising expectations he can’t reach? Possibly. As Skelley observes, though, Americans of both parties say they value bipartisanship, but what they really want is to enact the (largely partisan) priorities they prefer:
[A] 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center found that despite majorities of Democrats (69 percent) and Republicans (61 percent) saying it was very important that elected officials be willing to compromise, members of both parties thought it was more important for officials from the other party to compromise than it was for officials from their own party to do so.
The prevailing view seems to be, “Let’s compromise: Do it my way!”
According to a 2014 study by political scientists Laurel Harbridge, Neil Malhotra, and Brian F. Harrison, respondents preferred legislation when their party got more of what it wanted and when it dominated the coalition that passed the bill versus the outcomes that were more bipartisan-oriented. In fact, respondents sometimes viewed bipartisan tradeoffs as the equivalent of a legislative defeat for their party …
In other words, voters like bipartisanship more in theory than in practice. But that doesn’t mean bipartisan support isn’t still important politically. Voters may prefer more partisan policy results, but their stated desire for bipartisanship means that politicians can still benefit by at least trying to work together.
And so far, Biden’s approach seems to be working out for him:
[V]oters in the Morning Consult survey did think that among the major figures in Washington mentioned, Biden was the most interested in achieving bipartisanship: 53 percent agreed that he cared about getting bipartisan support for major legislation while only 34 percent disagreed. Democrats overwhelmingly agreed with this view, of course, but so did about one in five Republicans. By comparison, less than 40 percent of voters said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cared about achieving bipartisanship, and less than 30 percent said the same of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
So it’s entirely possible that by extending negotiations with Republicans beyond what seems to be necessary to illustrate the opposition’s bad faith, Biden is storing up political capital for the inevitable lurch back into purely partisan legislative or executive activity.
I am aware that this defense of Biden amounts to saying that the incoherence of public opinion on bipartisanship justifies an insincere effort to reach a deal on infrastructure with a reciprocally insincere opposition party. It all seems depressingly cynical. But as the saying goes, you can’t take the politics out of politics. And whatever else he is, Uncle Joe is a politician who is perhaps craftier than he sometimes appears.