It does mean a civil tone in the White House briefing room and a willingness to correct errors. It does mean a refusal to engage with his unhinged and disgraced predecessor. It does mean meeting with and listening to Republicans’ concerns; and it does mean appointing nominees who with some notable exceptions get overwhelming bipartisan support. It does meaning his holding fire when the other party sinks a nominee. (Today’s opponent is tomorrow’s dealmaker.)
It does not mean giving up on policy positions overwhelming popular because Republicans in the House and Senate remain intransigent and out of step with the country. The latest Monmouth poll shows the coronavirus rescue plan has over 60 percent approval. While bipartisanship sounds nice, “Preference for bipartisanship plummets, though, when the public is asked this same trade off about the direct stimulus checks specifically. Willingness to make cuts to this component of the bill in the name of bipartisanship stands at just 25%.” Likewise two-thirds of Americans — including more than half of Republicans — want $1,400 checks even without Republican support.
The Biden team agrees. Citing polling, support from business and labor, and backing of bipartisan groups of mayors and governors, they are not equating bipartisanship with “giving into an unpopular minority position.”
Bipartisanship also does not mean giving stupid policy decisions a pass. The Post reports, “Biden on Wednesday sharply criticized the decisions by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) one day earlier to lift coronavirus restrictions in their states, calling the moves ‘a big mistake.’ ” Biden declared, “The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking — that, 'In the meantime, everything’s fine. Take off your mask. Forget it.’ It still matters.” He is not calling all Republican governors Neanderthals (although a few more, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, might qualify), nor is Biden threatening to deny those states aid. But he is turning up the heat on monstrously stupid decisions that defy science.
Indeed, Biden could add his voice in other contexts where states act in ways contrary to our national values and interests. Republicans’ efforts underway in dozens of states seek to deny ballot access, suppress votes and disenfranchise millions of African Americans and other minorities. In issuing its support for passage of H.R. 1 the Office of Management and Budget made a generic reference to voting bills restricting access. “In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy,” the OMB statement said.
A White House official also reiterated that Biden is committed to working with Congress on both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and on H.R. 1. He believes actions are needed both to mitigate the damage to the Voting Rights Act and to build a more robust infrastructure for participation. As these voting hurdles pass through state legislatures, however, it will be necessary that the president personally address voting rights, perhaps in a national speech, just as President Lyndon B. Johnson did before the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Once Merrick Garland is confirmed as attorney general, he should devote resources and effort to defeat assaults on voting rights.)
Biden has, for the most part, threaded the needle between the desire, on the one hand, to elevate the public discourse and unify the country (the public support for his rescue plan is certainly a sign of unity) and, on the other, the need to defend core values and goals against an opposing party that no longer embraces truth or majority rule. As he moves forward with his agenda, Biden should not shy away from calling out Neanderthal thinking — be it about covid or about democracy.