Unity, though not a virtue in and of itself, can nevertheless be a noble thing to pursue. Obviously, there is nothing to celebrate when consensus is reached on the wrong ideas, or when some arbitrary orthodoxy is foisted upon recalcitrant minorities. But our form of government does require a kind of procedural unity — some compromise, give-and-take, and horse-trading — for the necessary work of Congress to get done. And any country with at least a degree of agreement on principles and objectives is better off than one without any at all.
Joe Biden, for better and worse, ran for president promising to unify the country. He reiterated that promise at his inauguration. He may even have been earnest when he did so, but there’s little evidence to suggest his administration is making any earnest attempt to triangulate. To the contrary, it appears that the forces around him are determined to chart a highly partisan course, and the president seems content to be along for the ride — even if that course runs counter to his instincts.
Just ask the Senate Republicans most willing to compromise.
Susan Collins is one member of a group of ten Republicans who presented Biden with a $600 billion relief package that could have acted as starting point for negotiations. Biden rejected it out of hand, insisting on a $1.9 trillion bill — conceived of by the White House, not Congress — that is purportedly meant to address the pandemic, but is in truth mostly aimed at crossing off items on the Democrats’ wish list. After a recent meeting with Biden, Collins called the president “attentive,” but observed that [White House chief of staff] Ron [Klain] was shaking his head in the back of the room the whole time, which is not exactly an encouraging sign.” She expanded on that by submitting that Biden was being “countermanded” by his staff and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, according to NBC News’ Sahil Kapur. This would confirm prior reporting from Politico that Klain, still bitter over GOP opposition to the Affordable Care Act more than a decade later, is using his position to push Biden away from bipartisan talks.
Retiring Ohio senator Rob Portman has been surprised and frustrated by the administration as well. Another would-be relief-package dealmaker, Portman writes in the Washington Post about how:
The Biden administration’s partisan approach repeats the same mistake that Barack Obama made early in his presidency. It sets the wrong tone for the beginning of a new administration and risks undermining other bipartisan efforts going forward.
Mitt Romney published an op-ed of his own in the Wall Street Journal, blasting the White House’s package as a “clunker.” Romney begins:
Democrats are anxious for any excuse to blow up the Senate filibuster, the last procedural hurdle to one-party government. Their latest is that Republicans oppose the president’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Despite having passed five bipartisan Covid-19 relief bills to date — including one barely seven weeks ago — they claim our opposition demonstrates historic intransigence.
We [Senate Republicans] stand ready to negotiate a plan that helps America recover, both physically and financially, from this dread disease. We are willing to compromise in an attempt to get the administration to come down from its ill-considered $1.9 trillion plan and instead provide need-based relief. We have shown a willingness to compromise — which the president and Democratic congressional leaders have yet to reciprocate.
Collins, Portman, and Romney — three lawmakers whose records are largely defined by their bipartisanship — don’t sound merely taken aback or disappointed with the administration’s unwillingness to bargain in good faith; they sound angry. No one expected Biden’s presidency to be defined ideologically by down-the-middle centrism or needless concessions to the GOP. That said, everything from Biden’s appointments (Neera Tanden and Xavier Becerra) to his approach to legislation (drafting bills in the White House and conceding nothing to the actual legislature) suggests that his White House will be just as lecture-heavy and compromise-averse as Barack Obama’s.