President Biden’s bipartisanship seems like unilateral disarmament
A few weeks before he was elected president, Joe Biden declared, “We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country.” To those who said it cannot be done, he responded, “Well, I’m here to tell you we can and we must.”
In his eulogy for U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Biden reprised this signature theme. “When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy, we accomplish far more as a nation,” he said. “By leading with shared faith in each other, we become America at its best.”
Over 85 percent of Americans say they want a leader who will compromise. But a similar percentage also wants one who will “stand up to the other side” on important issues.
As he affirms his preference for reaching across the aisle, Biden should now also acknowledge the ascendancy in the United States of “negative partisanship.” While ruling out personal attacks, he should draw sharp, responsible, and accurate distinctions between the policies and practices of Democrats and Republicans.
Based on hostility toward the opposing party and its leaders, negative partisanship has been a staple of American politics since the nation’s founding. It has become dominant since the 1980s, as Americans sorted themselves into more ideologically homogenous parties, drawing on distinct religious, ethnic, and racial groups for support. In 1994, 21 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats held highly unfavorable views of the other party; by 2016, those percentages had risen to 58 percent and 55 percent.
By the end of 2018, half of Republicans and half of Democrats told pollsters that members of the opposing party make them afraid; 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said the other party constituted a threat to the security of the United States. In 2019, 55 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats maintained that members of the opposing party were “more immoral” than other Americans; 75 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans that they were “more close-minded”; 63 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Democrats that they were “more unpatriotic.” In 2020, 38 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats indicated they would be “somewhat” or “very” upset if their child married across the political aisle.
Two-thirds of Republicans now claim that Democrats stole the election from Donald Trump. A substantial percentage of Republicans believe the Democratic party has been taken over by socialists; 30 percent think “true patriots” may need to turn to violence to save the nation.
Republican politicians have not hesitated to stoke and stroke negative partisanship and launch ad hominem attacks. Donald Trump, who promised and failed to repair or replace our nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, and airports, recently warned Republicans in the House and Senate that those who gave “Biden and the Democrats a victory” by voting for the infrastructure bill would be purged from the party. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who supported the legislation, reported a message from an anonymous caller: “I hope you die. I hope everybody in your f—–g family dies.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that he “took President Biden at his word… when he said he was going to get COVID under control. Unfortunately, more Americans have died this year than last year from COVID.”
Amidst whispers — amplified on radio, television, and social media by the likes of Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin — that Biden is senile, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) claimed that the president is controlled by a puppeteer.
For Biden, whose poll numbers have declined precipitously, staying above the fray looks an awful lot like unilateral disarmament.
Along with — or instead of — White House and Democratic Campaign Committee officials, he should declare that Republicans are the biggest promoters of COVID-19, recklessly touting false cures, downplaying the efficacy of vaccines, masks, and social distancing, while Democrats have saved lives, reopened schools and small businesses. Biden — and Democratic surrogates — should emphasize that “If COVID-19 and inflation had lobbyists to help them kill more American jobs, Kevin McCarthy would be their favorite member of Congress.”
Biden should employ negative partisanship to build support and enthusiasm for his legislative agenda among Democrats and independents. He should stress that no Republican voted for the $1,400 stimulus payments or the $300 monthly per-child tax credit in the American Rescue Plan Act he signed in May. He should highlight hypocritical Republican governors — like Kristi Noem, of South Dakota, who derided federal appropriations as a “giant handout” fueling inflation — who are now championing the state projects that Biden measures now fund. And he should remind Americans that no Republican supports Build Back Better, which includes an extension of the child tax credit through 2022, a policy that will lift millions of Americans out of poverty, as well as additional benefits for recipients of Medicare and Medicaid.
Biden should raise the alarm bells about concerted efforts by Republicans to subvert American democracy.
He should condemn individuals who endorse lies about fraud in the 2020 election and the insurrection on Jan. 6.
He should condemn legislators who draft or support state legislation that suppresses voting, especially for members of ethnic and racial minority groups, or makes it possible for legislators to overrule the will of the people — and who use the filibuster to block commonsense voting rights reforms in the United States Congress.
Biden must convince Americans that he is a fighter.
In our hyper-partisan, polarized political environment that means he can — and should — blame, shame, and name Republicans who no longer deserve to be called members of “the loyal opposition.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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