Democrats' big bipartisan mistake is already backfiring

Democrats' big bipartisan mistake is already backfiring
Sen. Tim Scott, CBS screenshot

When Joe Biden ran for president, he touted his history in the Senate and as vice president of making deals across the aisle and working with Republicans. He said that he would be able to productively cooperate with the GOP if he were elected — and that the fierce partisan divisions would cool.

"With Donald Trump out of the way, you're going to see a number of my Republican colleagues have an epiphany," he said in November 2019. "Mark my words."

And it's not just Biden. Many Democrats, especially the more conservative members of the coalition, hold up bipartisanship as a virtue in itself, much more often than Republicans do.

But about eight months into the Biden presidency, this strategy isn't paying dividends. Arguably, it's been dramatically weakening the Democrats' strategic position and backfiring on them.

This was evident in South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott's recent appearance on CBS News. He discussed his negotiations with New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker on police reform, negotiations that began in the wake of George Floyd's death and the subsequent racial justice protests. They recently publicly admitted that their efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on legislation have failed.

And not only has this effort failed, but Scott used the failure as an opportunity to attack Democrats.

"We said simply this: 'I'm not going to participate in reducing funding for the police after we saw a major city after major city defund the police,'" Scott told CBS. "Many provisions in this bill that [Booker] wanted me to agree to limited or reduced funding for the police."

The Democratic Party does not want to defund the police. Biden came out against it forcefully during the 2020 campaign, and he has consistently pushed to increase funding for cops. Booker, too, has vocally opposed defunding the police. The Democratic Party sees the issue as toxic and has desperately tried to run away from it, with a few rare exceptions in the ranks of Congress. Meanwhile, the Republicans have tried to use the issue against Democrats, accusing them of holding a position they have explicitly rejected and campaigned against. The legislation Booker and Scott worked on did consider conditioning some police funding on reforms, but this isn't an effort to defund the police — it's one of the key methods Congress uses to influence local policy across sectors. Scott is being deliberately dishonest.

But this is the reward Democrats get for trying to reach a bipartisan deal on police reform. They got no deal, wasted months of effort, and they gave their opponents an opportunity to paint them with a label they've desperately been trying to avoid.

And this was all entirely predictable. Scott himself was never a genuine, good-faith negotiator on criminal justice. Last year, in an interview with Vox, he said the biggest issue in policing was "character" — which is exactly the quality that legislation has no control over. And he flat-out rejected the idea of any reforms to the doctrine of qualified immunity, which offers sweeping protection for police abuses and violation of rights. In short, this was doomed from the start. But Democrats insisted despite the evidence that Republicans could be worked with on this issue, presenting them to the public as if they were more reasonable than they actually are.

This also happened with the Jan. 6 commission. The Democrats spent months negotiating with Republicans to establish an independent, bipartisan commission to study the Capitol insurrection. But in the end, the Republicans in the Senate blocked the proposal. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instead set up a select committee within the chamber to conduct the investigation. The wasted bipartisan negotiations left a weaker body with less authority to have less time than it otherwise would have to do its work. And it put a long delay between the event itself and the start of the investigation, which likely hinders efforts to reliably discern the truth.

The most serious failure of the chimera of bipartisanship, however, is playing out now. Despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's insistence that Republicans would take the reckless and nihilistic stance of opposing any increase to the debt ceiling — essentially threatening to throw the U.S. into default and triggering financial and legal chaos — Democrats have insisted on believing that the GOP will cooperate.

It's not clear how this circumstance will play out. And it's undoubtedly true that obstinant Republicans deserve the vast share of the blame for any negative consequences. But the Democrats' commitment to reach for bipartisanship and to believe that the GOP isn't that out-of-control destructive force that it is has helped put themselves and the country in a tough spot. Democrats could have raised, or even essentially abolished, the debt ceiling when they passed the American Rescue Plan in March. Or they could have made a plan to do it on their own weeks ago. Now they're scrambling at the last minute to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, and pass the centerpiece of Biden's presidential agenda virtually all at the same time. Even if everything ends up working out this time, governing on the precipice is not healthy for the country, and it could have unforeseen consequences.

And if Democrats weren't so devoted to bipartisanship, and to being seen reaching across the aisle, it all could have been avoided. They seem to think that they can only win elections if they convince voters that they can work with Republicans. But they ignore the alternative possibility of telling voters a potentially more persuasive story: The Republicans are dangerous and uncooperative, and they should be kept out of power.

Defenders of bipartisanship argue that they can point to one major recent success: The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate.

But that deal is not, in fact, a success. It hasn't even passed the House yet, and it might fail if it comes up to a vote this week because many of the progressives in the Democratic Party aren't on board yet. These Democrats aren't happy with passing the bipartisan deal unless the much more ambitious reconciliation package, which only needs Democratic votes, passes too.

But Arizona Democrat Sen. Krysten Sinema, one of the chief negotiations of the bipartisan bill, has threatened to tank the reconciliation package if the bipartisan deal doesn't pass first. In other words, she's using the bipartisan deal — which many progressives argue is in fact too influenced by the fossil fuel lobby to be any good on its own — as a strategic bludgeon against her own party's agenda. Is this what bipartisanship is supposed to achieve?

Moreover, there's no sign that the "achievement" of passing the bipartisan bill in the Senate has done anything from the Democratic Party's fortunes. Biden's approval rating has only fallen since then. This is largely for unrelated reasons, most likely, but it just shows that any supposed boost in public opinion that a bipartisan bill is supposed to achieve is relatively insignificant.

Of course, Sinema and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin made pretty clear they wouldn't move forward on a spending package if the bipartisan deal didn't happen first. So it's possible Biden, Pelosi, and the rest of Democratic leadership has no choice but to take this route. And it's Manchin and Sinema who are leading the fight to preserve the filibuster, which drastically limits what the Democratic Party can achieve on its own. But the point is that the route itself isn't worth taking the first place, and Manchin and Sinema's insistence on this path is not in the party's interest.

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