Opinion: Politicians love talking about bipartisanship. But for voters, accomplishments matter more.
“As President Biden’s 100th day in office approaches, Republicans have seized on the only broken promise they can get their hands on: Biden’s failure to magically transform Washington into a bipartisan wonderland. On “Fox News Sunday,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) complained, “The bait was, he was going to govern as bipartisan. But the switch is, he’s governed as a socialist.” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) grumbled, “This is not what I thought I would get from Joe Biden.” And Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) tried to get ahead of Biden’s address to Congress this week by blaming any lack of unity and bipartisanship on the new president.
But whatever Biden promised on the campaign trail, and whatever Republicans say now, new polls show voters care a lot more about getting things done than about bipartisanship as an abstract, if attractive, ideal.
Superficially, this seems like it should be a winning case for Republicans. The bipartisan unity Biden predicted hasn’t materialized. And when the new Post-ABC poll asked respondents whether they wanted Biden to compromise on bills to win GOP support or to pass those bills unchanged, 60 percent wanted bipartisanship, including 40 percent of Democrats. Other polls have shown similar numbers.
But the attack hasn’t worked. In the same Post-ABC poll, respondents gave Biden a 52 percent approval rating — an encouraging number in an age when new presidents no longer get a honeymoon period with increasingly polarized voters. More importantly, 65 percent back the covid-19 relief bill, including 62 percent of independents and even 33 percent of Republicans. Fifty-two percent support the infrastructure package (including half of independents) with just 35 percent against. And 58 percent agree with raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, including 29 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents. All three of these measures are clearly partisan, yet that hasn’t hurt their political viability.
There are several possible reasons for this disconnect. As Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher observed, Biden’s moderate image with many voters gives him cover for more progressive ideas. “You cannot underestimate how comfortable Uncle Joe is for a lot of people,” Belcher told the Los Angeles Times. “They give an old White guy the benefit of the doubt.”
Republicans have also undermined their own case with laughable counteroffers to Biden’s plans. When Biden proposed his $1.9 trillion covid relief package, 10 GOP senators suggested less than a third of that. With Biden’s version now law and quite popular, would Republicans’ first bid in infrastructure negotiations be higher? Nope: The GOP infrastructure plan is one-fourth the size of Biden’s, and doesn’t have any room for tax increases.
Both these explanations are circumstance-specific, but there’s also a more fundamental reason: What voters say they want and what they prioritize are different things. In Washington and on cable news, it’s often assumed that nothing helps a bill more than being “bipartisan.” If that were the case, though, Republicans would have been punished at the polls for passing initiative after initiative on party lines. Sure, voters would like laws passed in a bipartisan fashion. But between a “partisan” bill that helps put food on the table and a bipartisan compromise that doesn’t, most voters will pick the former every time. Results matter, not vote counts.
Even as Democrats are seeing concrete evidence of this lesson, though, key figures are determined to forget or ignore it. Voting rights, a $15 minimum wage, a better health-care system and a half-dozen other reforms popular with voters are either languishing in Congress or all but forgotten because lawmakers such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) insist on useless bipartisan theater. Victories such as the coronavirus relief bill look to be the exception rather than the norm, even though they are both good policy and good politics. As long as Manchin, Sinema and others continue to worship the false idol of bipartisanship, the Democratic Party — and more importantly, the country — will suffer.“