Mainstream media are already falling for a trap laid by conservative media outlets, in which President Joe Biden’s calls for national unity in the wake of the far-right January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol are twisted to an absurd conclusion: that Democrats should not enact the policies they ran on for the country — specifically, in order to help the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic — but instead give in to the Republican agenda.
Biden met on Monday with a group of 10 Republican senators, who offered an economic relief plan only one-third the size of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, in an effort to dissuade him from pursuing a stimulus plan through the budget reconciliation process that would only require the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.
Instead, the GOP senators averred, working with them could meet a 60-vote supermajority to beat a filibuster from the rest of the Senate Republicans. This, they say, would meet Biden’s calls for unity. (The previous right-wing insurrection, and continued Republican obstruction in Congress, are conveniently overlooked.)
Too many in mainstream media are falling for their political pitch. And a key question is lost in all this: Can Democrats even realistically count on Republicans to work together after years of obstruction?
The New York Times misses the politics, pretends it’s about policy
In its overnight piece on the White House meeting, titled “Republicans Pitch Biden on Smaller Aid Plan as Democrats Prepare to Act Alone,” The New York Times wrote that “the president faced a test of whether he would opt to pursue a scaled-back measure that could fulfill his pledge to foster broad compromise, or use his majority in Congress to reach for a more robust relief effort enacted over stiff Republican opposition.”
The Times further added that “despite all the talk of comity and common ground, the White House came back with its bottom line after all had gone home.”
A major flaw in the piece was that policy specifics of the GOP effort were given too much substantive credibility, instead of examining the core political dynamics at play. After much space was used to explain the key differences in the much smaller counterproposal from Senate Republicans, it was not until the 23rd paragraph that reality was at all acknowledged: Republicans want to use the talk of “unity” in order to undermine Biden’s policies.
Members of the Republican group argued it was incumbent upon Mr. Biden to move forward in a bipartisan manner after pledging in his inaugural speech to unify the country. The coalition’s size was meant to demonstrate that a bipartisan path was still possible for a stimulus measure. Ten Republicans could band together with the Senate’s 50 Democrats to defeat a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome.
Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, described the plan as a way to “rein in” Mr. Biden’s proposal, which some Republicans on Capitol Hill are deriding as a “bailout” of states run by Democrats.
The Washington Post falls for the “unity” trap, too — forgetting actual public opinion
The Washington Post also bungled its news coverage of Biden’s meeting with the Republican senators, writing in an article published overnight that the meeting “posed a test for a new president who campaigned on his ability to make bipartisan deals — but also faces strong pressure from the left to deliver a big new relief package now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.”
The fact is polling has consistently shown for months that the American public favors a new stimulus package along the lines that Biden has proposed. But in the Post’s narrative, a strong relief package was written off as “pressure from the left,” while the notion of “bipartisan deals” was still being held up as a serious possibility.
“If he does leave Republicans behind on his first major piece of legislation, that could further harden the partisan divides Biden promised he would try to bridge, and sour chances for bipartisan legislation for the remainder of his first term in office,” the Post wrote — at first putting the onus on Biden to achieve some bipartisan harmony. “But negotiating with Republicans could drag out indefinitely with no guarantee of success, even as Democrats are demanding quick action at a precarious moment for the economy and the pandemic,” the article continues, finally acknowledging the obvious fact that Senate Republicans may not be reliable partners for the new administration.
The Post’s piece also missed a major point, in talking about the slim margins involved in getting a rescue package through the Senate:
If Democrats were to join with the 10 Republican senators, they could reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass legislation under normal Senate procedures. The Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats holding the majority because Harris can break ties.
Even if Democrats moved forward without the support of Republicans through the process known as budget reconciliation, passing Biden’s plan could still be challenging. It would mean they wouldn’t be able to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate.
Under both scenarios, in fact, Democrats could not afford to lose a single vote — but it ought to be obvious that the first option would be the more difficult one. A maneuver requiring all 50 Democratic senators plus a group of 10 specific Republican senators in order to meet a 60-vote threshold — while still being vulnerable to a filibuster if even one breaks, as Post columnist Greg Sargent points out — clearly has more possibilities for failure than just going the route of all 50 Democratic senators sticking together.
Let’s go out on a limb and suggest that Republicans would like to keep things this way for as long as possible. They want the public debate to unfold in a place where they get to refrain from saying what they’re for — that is, refrain from saying what they’re prepared to concede to Democrats — while simultaneously attacking Democrats for not being willing to concede enough to them.
That’s a sucker’s game, and Democrats shouldn’t play it.
But others in the media still seem all too willing to keep on playing this little game, despite its predictable ending.
NBC News peddles The West Wing fantasies instead of political reality
NBC News senior political analyst Jonathan Allen also has a new piece on Tuesday, positing that “President Biden faces a conundrum on Covid-19 relief, including the mettle of his unity message and the arcana of budget law.”
Allen starts off by saying that Biden’s “promise to deliver a robust rescue package is coming into conflict with his vow to be a unifier,” with Republicans offering a relief package that is one-third the size of the White House’s proposal. Allen also explained many of the difficulties of the reconciliation process itself, and policy elements that might have to be dropped along the way — but he ultimately fell back on the same tired cliches about the “political benefits of bipartisanship,” being more than just about “everyone getting along.”
Instead, bipartisan legislating is a form of insurance for the president and his party. In this case, it would mean that some Republicans would have to sell the benefits of the law to the public. Those lawmakers would want to make their constituents understand why they thought siding with Democrats was the right thing to do. With both Democrats and Republicans touting its provisions, a law is more likely to be popular and sustainable.
By the same token, it is difficult for the minority party to make political hay out of a bill that passed with support from both sides. If he cuts a deal, Biden will anger his base, but he may protect himself and his fellow Democrats in Congress.
While this all might look good in a political science textbook written by Aaron Sorkin, it completely ignores the incentive of the minority party to oppose everything as a block on the Biden administration, in order to more effectively run against the incumbent party — something that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell deliberately practiced during the Obama years.