The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Biden may already be turning down the temperature of American politics

President Biden speaks and signs executive orders in the Oval Office at the White House on Jan. 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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After the most hellish year most of us will ever live through, here’s a headline that should make us all feel better, and give the Biden administration something to celebrate:

Top House Republican demands Psaki apologize over ‘disgraceful’ Space Force quip

You might be asking, who cares? Some silly attempt to gin up a microcontroversy over White House press secretary Jen Psaki seeming to imply that the standing of the Space Force is not the most urgent item on the new president’s agenda? What could that matter?

Precisely.

After a lifetime’s worth of chaos compressed into four years of unremitting madness, politics is showing signs of returning to what used to pass for normal: Profound policy disagreements between the parties, legislative wrangling, insincere posturing, and manufactured disputes that burn brightly for a moment and then are promptly forgotten.

Don’t get me wrong: American democracy is still in sorry shape, we face a profound threat of domestic right-wing terrorism, the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the country, and economic misery is at unacceptable levels. Things are not good, by almost any measure.

But when Biden predicted in 2019 that once Donald Trump was gone, Congressional Republicans would begin to “change” because they “know better,” he was half right. Republicans haven’t changed at all, but the environment has changed around them. The result is that we can care deeply about what happens in politics without feeling like we’re losing our minds.

The Biden administration seems to be succeeding in its own version of Barack Obama’s “No Drama” strategy. By turning down the temperature in some very intentional ways — and benefiting from features of this moment that they didn’t create but can exploit — Biden may be able to diminish the GOP’s ability to pull us all back into the chaos and rage Republicans have used so effectively in the past.

Perhaps the most important cause of this is that Trump has lost his grip on our attention. Despite the upcoming impeachment trial and his continued hope to control his party, he’s off Twitter and can’t drive the news cycle in a moment-to-moment way. He’s just one story among many, without the power to keep the whole political system at a perpetual Defcon 1.

And with Republicans no longer in control of Congress, they’ve lost a critical link in the process they used to use to take minor disputes and turn them into five-alarm media fires. You might call it the Benghazi Cycle: Something happens, then conservative media start shouting that it was the Crime of the Century, then Republicans mount investigations and dramatic hearings, which are duly reported by the mainstream media, then conservative media shout even louder, and on it goes.

But without the institutional power, it’s just a bunch of people on Fox pretending something minor is a bigger deal than it actually is.

Speaking of Fox, its voice seems remarkably muted, at least for the moment. The network that has dominated cable news for so long has now fallen behind CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, perhaps because many of its nuttiest viewers have decamped for the fantasy worlds of Newsmax and OAN.

It also may be the case that while conservatives will try to create outrage at any Democratic leader, their ability to do so successfully depends in part on how threatening a figure that person is, and Biden just isn’t as frightening to the Republican base as Obama or Hillary Clinton was.

Meanwhile, Biden and congressional Democrats are taking an approach to their Republican colleagues that has changed the entire dynamic in Congress, one that diffuses rather than intensifies conflict.

It’s not that Biden has brought unity to Capitol Hill. Instead, he and Democrats have a new attitude about Republican demands and Republican outrage, one that goes at least some distance in depriving it of oxygen.

In the first major legislative battle of the Biden presidency, over a new covid relief bill, the majority is saying to the minority: We’ll listen to what you have to say, but we’re going to give it only the attention and concern it deserves, and no more.

So if Republicans want to make a counterproposal to the Democrats’ covid relief bill, Democrats are happy to discuss it on its merits, but they won’t spend months chasing an agreement that will probably never come. They’d be glad to have bipartisan support, but the idea that bipartisanship is a vital end in itself, more important than the substance of what gets passed, has lost its grip.

Which means that the conflict can be resolved more quickly and drains it of some of its drama. We won’t waste endless time asking whether Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) or Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will vote for the bill, because Democrats have made clear that in the end it doesn’t really matter: If Republicans join with them that’s fine, but if not then they’ll pass the bill through reconciliation, which only requires a majority and not a supermajority. The important question is what’s in the bill and whether it will meet the country’s needs.

The next few years will be as important as any of our lifetimes. We’ll find out whether we can save our democracy, whether we can recover from the myriad effects of the pandemic, whether we can address our appalling inequality, and whether we can fix our depraved health care system, among other things. Politics has seldom been more consequential. But maybe, just maybe, we can go about it in a sane way.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Has Mitch McConnell been struck by a Jewish space laser?

Jennifer Rubin: The latest attempt to normalize the Republican Party

Dana Milbank: The ‘civil war’ for the soul of the GOP is over before it began. Trump won — again.

The Post’s View: It seemed the GOP might show some self-respect. Now it’s crawling back to Trump.

Kathleen Parker: The GOP isn’t doomed. It’s dead.

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