The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden asks, ‘What are Republicans for?’ Republicans have already chosen not to answer.

President Biden on Jan. 19 blamed congressional Republicans for blocking his agenda during his first year in office. (Video: The Washington Post)

During a news conference held one day shy of his first anniversary in office, President Biden was asked whether he had made bigger promises to the electorate than he was able to fulfill.

Biden insisted that his administration had made “enormous progress” on his agenda, denying that he’d overpromised on the campaign trail and during his early months in office. But then he qualified that: Perhaps he did overpromise on one front.

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“One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country,” he said, admitting that his regular assurances that he’d figured out a bipartisan path forward had not panned out the way he expected.

He quoted New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) who, in explaining to the Washington Examiner why he chose not to run for Senate, disparaged the inertia of Senate Republicans in not advancing a proactive agenda. That, instead, they planned solely to use their power to keep Biden from exercising his.

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” Biden continued. “Think about this: What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.”

It’s an interesting question and not simply a rhetorical one. In recent years in particular, the Republican Party leadership has specifically declined to offer a detailed, proactive policy agenda.

In 2020, President Donald Trump was repeatedly asked what he planned to do should he win reelection. He didn’t offer any consistent answer. His party, perhaps tired of having to recalibrate to meet Trump’s often-flexible positions, offered a resolution instead of a platform.

“RESOLVED,” it read, “That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” and “RESOLVED, That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention.” And that was it. The Republican Party’s desired policy outcomes? Whatever Trump wanted.

If that’s still the guidepost, then there’s still no plan. Trump was asked by a right-wing media outlet what House Republicans should do if they win a majority in November. Trump offered no thoughts on what their to-do list might contain, instead simply bashing Biden and Democrats.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did give Axios a sneak peek on what he hoped to accomplish: using the power of the majority to punish Democratic legislators and China and fighting corporate America, particularly social media companies. Not a lot of proactive components. Instead, amplification of the culture-war concerns of right-wing media.

Last year, I spoke with Patrick Ruffini, a prominent Republican consultant. He made the point that such fights are probably good politics.

“These culture war issues do just have a resonance,” Ruffini told me. “Everybody says, all right, you need to talk about bread-and-butter kitchen-table economic issues. The challenge for both sides is it gets very hard to get people to pay attention to that, even if you have a message on those issues. It’s very hard to get people to pay attention to a purely economic, bread-and-butter, kitchen-table issues message. Particularly Republicans — and there is a real temptation to play that culture war card, where, frankly, you win more often than you don’t.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been direct about his lack of interest in outlining a policy platform. He was just a few hours before Biden spoke. Asked what his agenda would be if Republicans regained control of Congress, McConnell replied that it was “a very good question. And I’ll let you know when we take it back.”

“I actually like Mitch McConnell. We like one another,” Biden said at another point in his news conference. “But he has one straightforward objective: Make sure that there’s nothing I do that makes me look good, in his mind, with the public at large. And that’s okay. I’m a big boy. I’ve been here before.”

“I think that the fundamental question is: what’s Mitch for?” he added a bit later. “What’s he for on immigration? What’s he for? … What’s he for on these things? What are they for?”

It’s not good politics to let you know now, so he’ll let you know when they take Congress back.