The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden keeps giving Republicans who ignore his win the benefit of the doubt

He’s not necessarily getting the same in return

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how the dynamic between President-elect Joe Biden and congressional Republicans could play out in 2021. (Video: The Washington Post)

This has been updated with the latest news.

President-elect Joe Biden officially won the electoral college vote, and he’s taking a remarkably optimistic view about all the reasons that’s noteworthy in the first place: His opponent has tried to undermine voting before the election, refused to concede after the election, pressured Republican leaders to overturn the election, and had Republican elected officials — including 126 in one chamber of Congress — trying to help him.

What Biden sees, according to a victory speech he delivered Monday after the electoral college voted him president, is not a democracy in distress, but one that successfully resisted all this pressure.

“In America, politicians don’t take power — the people grant it to them,” Biden said. “The flame of democracy was lit in this nation a long time ago. And we now know that nothing — not even a pandemic or an abuse of power — can extinguish that flame.”

A glass-half-full look at what happened is at odds with good-government experts’ warnings that President Trump sliced a deep cut on American democracy by claiming fraud because he lost. Polls show a majority of Republican voters believe the election was rigged or stolen. Republican lawmakers have largely acquiesced in silence.

“We have never before had a party that is just explicitly rejecting the idea of an American democracy,” Heather Cox Richardson, a Boston College history professor who has written a book on the Republican Party, told my colleagues. “It is absolutely an attack on our democracy.”

Biden had sharp words Monday for those Republicans who joined a final, outlandish lawsuit at the Supreme Court to try to overturn Trump’s loss. But overall, he has seemed to go out of his way to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt that they’re just stuck in a bad political situation while Trump’s still in office. “They will,” he replied when reporters asked him shortly after the election how he could work with congressional Republicans who won’t even acknowledge he won. “There have been more than several sitting Republican senators privately called and congratulated,” Biden told CNN more recently. “I understand the situation they find themselves in.”

Monday’s speech epitomized that sentiment of goodwill Biden wants to offer to the other side.

“In this battle for the soul of America, democracy prevailed,” he said. “We the people voted. Faith in our institutions held. The integrity of our elections remains intact. And so, now it is time to turn the page. To unite. To heal.”

That’s not how other top Democrats desire to write one of the last pages of the extraordinary past five weeks in American electoral history. They want to make sure Republicans get blamed in the history books for their actions.

“In almost any other year, both major parties would have fully and publicly accepted the will of the American people by now,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Monday as the electoral college voted. “Just how many times does President Trump have to lose before rank-and-file Republicans, before most senators, acknowledge that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States?”

It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explicitly acknowledged Biden is the winner and Trump the loser. “As of this morning,” he said on the Senate floor, “our country officially has a president elect and a vice president elect.”

After Biden reached the requisite 270 votes in the electoral college — as we knew he would for weeks — a handful more of Senate Republicans acknowledged his win.

But there are plenty of signs that Republicans don’t want to play nice with Biden, no matter how nice he is to them.

Senate Republicans who want to run against him in 2024 are coming out pretty aggressively against his Cabinet picks, using Trumpian rhetoric about populism. Other senators are gearing up to oppose one of Biden’s Cabinet picks, Neera Tanden, to lead a key budget office for some of her tweets they said are offensive.

Also in contrast to Biden’s look-the-other-way strategy are a few Republican lawmakers who have been appalled at their party’s willingness to go along with Trump to deny election results. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who got elected as part of the tea party wave, warned that this “puts the country in a very dangerous moment in time.”

On Monday, one House Republican announced he was leaving his party over all this.

“It is unacceptable for political candidates to treat our election system as though we are a third-world nation and incite distrust of something so basic as the sanctity of the vote,” Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) said in a letter to top Republicans announcing he’ll become an independent.

Mitchell is retiring in a few weeks, but he’s also a rank-and-file Republican who voted for Trump twice. He accused his colleagues of letting “raw political considerations” drive their support of Trump’s attempts to undermine the election.

“It’s all about power first,” he said in a subsequent interview on CNN, “and that frankly is disgusting and demoralizing”

Biden’s more optimistic approach to Republicans who still won’t acknowledge his win is consistent with how he’s handled politics much of his career. He talked frequently on the campaign trail about keeping his word and respecting where his opponent is coming from and not questioning his or her motives. Giving the other side the benefit of the doubt is part of his political DNA.

He may also be looking at this pragmatically. Biden has to work with Republican lawmakers next year, especially if they keep the Senate majority by winning at least one of the two Georgia runoffs in January. So why antagonize them, even if they’re actively antagonizing his presidency and centuries-old democratic norms?

They’ll come around when this is all over, Biden has said and seems to be saying now of Republicans.

It’s almost over, and so far, Biden is the only one on either side publicly saying as much.