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Coming from a Democratic President, Joe Biden’s first State of the Union sure had some moments that felt downright Republican. It may give Washington a hint about the months ahead.
The riffs about funding—not defunding—the police. A made-in-America manufacturing agenda. Deficit reduction. A rousing, if slightly vengeful, call to beat back Moscow’s march westward with Cold War belligerence. If someone claimed Peggy Noonan, Michael Gerson or David Frum had huddled with Biden in his private office to discuss themes, it wouldn’t stretch the imagination.
Even in a bitterly divided Washington, Biden managed to elicit a number of bipartisan ovations during last night’s State of the Union, an affair he’s attended many times before but had never delivered. With uneven pacing and confidence, Biden ticked through the accomplishments of his first year in office, including the current unified Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And then he pivoted to the year ahead, which has him clinging to a chase for a social spending package that most of the Capitol believes is still mothballed in the back of Sen. Joe Manchin’s closet, plus what Biden branded a Unity Agenda of popular policies like helping veterans and ending cancer.
Biden enjoys the narrowest of majorities in Congress, an advantage that is in grave peril come November’s elections. Republicans have consistently shown little interest in giving Democrats or Biden anything passing for a win. And while they may have nice things to say about pieces of Biden’s proposals, the GOP base will punish lawmakers who dare say they support Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, a litany of proposals that didn’t draw one utterance by name from the man who proposed it in the first place.
Instead, this speech sounded like it came from the Biden of summer and fall of 2020, who pitched himself to voters during the campaign as a pretty moderate guy who could work with anyone. While Biden did mention liberal wish-list items last night like a $15 minimum wage, a minimum corporate tax rate, and easier paths to union organizing, it was clear he knows the math. Democrats can afford zero defections in the Senate and just four in the House, meaning any small objection can derail Biden’s plans.
All of which explains why Biden may quietly be recalibrating for the remainder of the 117th Congress. Biden leaned pretty hard into progressive notions during his first year in the Oval Office. The monthly checks to parents, the pause on student loan repayment, and an unprecedented retreat from Afghanistan all caught liberals’ attention, especially those who didn’t quite believe the 79-year-old would actually stick with them. But the reality Biden discovered in his first year is that there are limits to what the President can do unilaterally and he needs a coalition of partners at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And, with Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema holding back on the most progressive elements of Biden’s agenda, Biden might have to do some trading from his left flank. (Manchin even sat with Republicans in the House Chamber last night instead of with members of his own party.)
Given that reality, Biden’s strong appeal to the Republicans last night makes complete sense. Biden at his core is a deal maker; if you have doubts, look at the sanctions package he was able to cobble together with a unified Europe against Russia. He could do this in Washington. After all, fighting the opioid crisis is one of the planks of his proposed Unity Agenda, and the pills don’t much care about your political affiliation when they hook you. A 2018 opioid law passed the Senate by a 98-to-1 margin, and the House backed it 396-14, and Biden hopes to build a follow-up raft of policies to help America dig out from the pile of prescription pads.
But there is one major, major caveat: Do Republicans want to give Biden anything approximating a win? Biden can say all of the right things and propose middle-of-the-road policies, but Washington is a craven place. Zero-sum politics can get gnarly quickly. A win for Biden can be spun as a loss for Republicans, and the opposite can be just as true. Republicans have lost primaries for lesser offenses. For instance, Rep. Scott Tipton—a Trump-endorsed incumbent in Colorado—lost his primary to Lauren Boebert for being insufficiently conservative in 2020. (Last night, Boebert heckled Biden for his withdrawal from Afghanistan as he talked about the death of his son Beau.) Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia lost his re-nomination fight the same year as Boebert at the Republican convention for presiding over a same-sex wedding.
Which comes back to this point: Republicans can help Biden push major pieces of a popular agenda across the finish line, and they can actually make life a little easier for Americans struggling with addiction, seeking mental health treatment, transitioning from military life, and fighting cancer—all pieces of the so-called Unity Agenda. Take politics out of the equation and each is a pretty great goal.
But to do so, Republicans would have to count on their party’s base not to purge them in coming elections as penance for working with Biden. Not everyone can navigate an intra-party uprising the way Joe Lieberman and Lisa Murkowski have in the past, and it’s awfully tempting to fall in partisan line and keep the job in Congress.
The Republican Party rewards those who perform for the base. Sen. Marco Rubio skipped the State of the Union altogether because he found the mandatory COVID-19 test to be “Marxist.” A poll taken last month showed Rubio’s re-election this fall carrying 91% support among Republicans and a 10-point lead among independents, a sign he’s playing hard in a state he knows well—and a signal that for all his temperate talk last night, Biden may be chasing votes that just aren’t available.
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