[Speaker of the House John A. Boehner] and I had a perfectly good relationship, but he had to act a certain way for his caucus. He would badmouth many of them to me, in private. Much as John McCain did. The issue was never personal — Mitch McConnell is not buddy-buddy with anyone. I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time. They’ve known each other for a long time. I have quotes from Biden about his interactions with Mitch McConnell. The issue with Republicans is not that I didn’t court them enough. We would invite them to everything: movie nights, state dinners, Camp David, you name it. The issue was not a lack of schmoozing. The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party. This was amplified by media outlets like Fox News. Their voters believed this, and over time Republicans became so successful in their demonization that it became very difficult for them to compromise, or even be seen being friendly.
There are going to be plenty of differences between the Obama presidency and the Biden presidency, but his point about the cycle of opposition is an important one: Republicans demonize the entire Democratic Party, the conservative media amplifies and exaggerates that demonization even further and any Republicans tempted to join with Democrats on a meaningful piece of legislation remember they’ll be pilloried as traitors and risk a primary challenge.
Just look at how they’re acting now. Every Republican in Congress knows that President Trump has lost this election, but almost all of them are too scared of their own voters to say so — because they think their voters are a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists whose loathing of Democrats and maniacal devotion to Trump has blinded them to even the most obvious facts.
So to understand how things will work in Congress, you have to understand where people’s interests lie and what they’ll see as the risks and rewards of different courses of action.
Now add in the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will almost certainly deploy the same strategy with Biden that he did with Obama: near-total opposition. As McConnell knows well, gridlock in Congress won’t be blamed on Republicans; it will be blamed on “Washington,” and the president will pay the price.
To be clear, the personality of the president matters, even if Biden’s oft-expressed belief that he can convince Republicans to work with him seems naive. Recall that he got lots of ridicule during the primaries for claiming that once Trump was gone, the GOP might come to its senses. “Because these folks know better,” he said in 2019. “They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.” That prediction echoes one Biden made before the 2012 election: that if Obama won, congressional Republicans would say, “‘Hey man I no longer have an obligation to stick with the right of the party’ … I really believe you’ll see movement. Real movement.” Events proved him wrong, but it’s possible, maybe even likely, that Biden still believes that all politics, foreign or domestic, is personal and the relationships he has or can build will allow him to shape events in the ways he wants.
But think about that experience from the Obama years. Biden and McConnell may not have been friends, but they got along better than McConnell did with Obama. As a creature of the Senate, Biden well understood the context McConnell was operating in as he jockeyed for advantage while trying to keep his caucus together.
Here’s the problem: The vast majority of the time, Biden’s deep understanding of McConnell’s perspective and ability to communicate freely with him didn’t matter in the end. Apart from a couple of deals that kept the government open and prevented the country from defaulting on its debt, Biden couldn’t break through McConnell’s simple calculation that total and complete opposition to everything the administration wanted to do was the best political play for Republicans.
McConnell was right, which is why he’s likely to play things the same way now. He won’t be inclined to help Biden do anything, both because Republicans simply don’t agree with what Biden wants to do and because any win for the president helps Democrats, while gridlock helps Republicans.
They will also be operating in the midst of a right-wing backlash to the Biden presidency, which we know will happen because there’s a right-wing backlash to every Democratic presidency. Just as Republicans were terrified of antagonizing the tea party, they won’t want to show any mercy toward Biden lest they be charged with insufficient devotion to the cause.
Then there’s Trump. While he himself might or might not still be a powerful force in the party, the vicious style of Trumpism will definitely remain. Conservative media will be on a constant lookout for heretics, and the party’s base will continue to be in the grip of lunacy. As Obama said in his Atlantic interview, campaigning in Iowa in 2008, he could at least get a hearing from a small-town Republican newspaper editor; today that newspaper is gone, and “now you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring.”
Finally, every congressional Republican will have the thought of 2022 in their minds from the moment Biden is inaugurated. Their dream is that it will be a repeat of 1994 or 2010, a sweeping midterm win that allows them to shackle the administration from that point forward. And it certainly could. Which means that for Republicans, all the incentives will push them in the direction of doing everything they can to make Biden fail. Maybe he can overcome that with his personal relationships. But I wouldn’t bet on it.