On the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, former Chicago mayor and Obama administration White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel argues that his party can and should make this year’s “Biden Republicans” part of a lasting coalition. “We don’t want these voters simply to ‘rent’ the Democrat Party to remove Mr. Trump from the Oval Office. We want them to ‘buy’ into our agenda so that they fuel legislative victories through the next decade on our core issues.”
“Biden Republicans” could stay with the Democratic Party, but that scenario would require the interruption of a stubborn historical pattern. Between the Election Day victory and the inauguration, every modern president makes some reassuring noises about an eagerness to put past bitterness aside and work together with the opposing party on the challenges facing the country. And then the new president and his team get down to work, and they find the opposition party unreasonable, stubborn, and intransigent. They decide to pass their agenda on party-line or mostly party-line votes: the Clinton tax hikes, the Bush tax cuts, the Obama stimulus, Obamacare, the Trump tax cuts and repeal of the individual mandate.
Freed from any sense of needing to work with the opposition, the new administration starts heading off in directions different and generally more ideologically extreme from what the candidate promised. (Obama proposed reducing the charitable deduction during a recession; populist Trump signed a tax cut bill that was exactly what most of corporate America wanted to see.) And then, most years, the electorate recoils, concluding this is not what they expected to get when they voted for the new president. The only midterm elections that went well for the incumbent president’s party in the past generation have been 1998 (with a voter backlash against Bill Clinton’s impeachment) and 2002 (with the post-9/11 popularity of George W. Bush). Just about every other midterm, the electorate told the president, “You’re not giving us what we wanted, and we’re going to take it out on your party.”
Because we’ve had so many years of divided government, and because lawmakers know the opposition is unlikely to go along with much of their agenda, any period of united government is likely to feature the party in power passing everything they can while they still have majorities in the legislature. In a strange way, the Democrats’ best chance of avoiding a bad 2022 is if the GOP keeps control of the Senate; then a new Biden administration would have to chart a fairly centrist path to get legislation passed in the Senate. If Democrats control both the House and Senate, their lawmakers and activists will expect them to pass all kinds of progressive legislation — the kind likely to stir up passionate opposition among the GOP grassroots, setting up another midterm rebuke.
Could Biden interrupt this pattern, and define the first two years of his presidency by standing up to his party’s left wing? Sure, anything’s possible, but considering how quickly and extensively Biden moved left to cover his flank from Bernie Sanders, it seems likely that a President Biden would want every faction in his party to get along — and he would throw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Squad and the Sanders wing of the party a lot of bones to keep them happy.
If Biden Republicans were really eager to “buy” the entire Democratic legislative agenda, they would not call themselves “Biden Republicans”; they would call themselves “Democrats.” The fact that they don’t see themselves as Democrats indicates that some aspects of the Democratic agenda repel them — perhaps the tax hikes, or the idea of abolishing private health insurance, or taxpayer-funded late-term abortion on demand, or abolishing ICE or the police or whatever is exciting the progressive grassroots this week.
Donald Trump is an extraordinarily divisive political persona, the kind of man who spends his Sunday afternoon watching Fox News and then complaining that it isn’t as good as OANN. Few if any “Biden Republicans” were enthusiastic supporters of Biden before the Trump presidency. Without Trump as a contrast . . . how many Biden Republicans will remain Biden Republicans?