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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. Washington may have gotten a glimpse of the coming months from it.
The riffs about funding—not defunding—the police. Manufacturing agenda made in America Deficit reduction. A rousing, if slightly vengeful, call to beat back Moscow’s March eastCold 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.
Biden was able to get the attention of even a divided Washington. There were many 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. Then he shifted to the next year and chased a social funding package, which most Capitol members believe is still feasible. 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 are not interested in giving Democrats and Biden any 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.
It sounded like this speech came from Biden in summer 2020. Biden, who was a moderate man who can be trusted with all people, made the pitch to voters. Biden mentioned liberal items like $15 minimum wage and a lower corporate tax rate. He also suggested easier routes to organizing unions. Democrats can afford zero defections in the Senate and just four in the House, meaning any small objection can derail Biden’s plans.
This explains why Biden might be quietly recalibrating his plans for the remaining 117th Congress. Biden was very open to progressive ideas during his first year at the Oval Office. Biden’s monthly checks to his parents and the suspension of student loan repayment were just a few examples of how he was committed to progressive ideas. RetireAfghanistan all caught liberals’ attention, especially those who didn’t quite believe the 79-year-old would actually stick with them. Biden learned in his first year that the President has limits and needs to work with a group of people at the other side 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 in the House Chamber with Republicans, rather than with his own members.
Given that reality, Biden’s strong appeal to the Republicans last night makes complete sense. Biden is at his core a deal-maker; if in doubt, take a look at the sanctions packageHe managed to put together an alliance with Europe that was united against Russia. This could be done 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. The 2018 opioid lawIt passed by the Senate 98-1. The House also backed it 396-14. Biden is hoping to develop a second raft of policies that can help America move out from its pile of prescription pads.
There is one caveat. Do Republicans really want Biden to win anything? Biden may say the right thing and offer middle-of-the road policies. Washington, however, is an insecure place. It is easy to get very jaded in zero-sum politics. Biden winning can often be seen as a win for Republicans. However, the other side can hold true. Republicans lost primaries because of lesser crimes. For instance, Rep. Scott Tipton—a Trump-endorsed incumbent in Colorado—LostLauren Boebert was his primary for not being sufficiently conservative in 2020. (Last night Boebert ridiculed Biden over his withdrawal Afghanistan and talked about Beau’s death. Denver Riggleman, Virginia Representative LostBoebert, who was also fighting for his nomination in the Republican convention as a result of presiding at a same-sex union, won the re-nomination contest.
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. Each goal is impressive if you remove politics from the equation.
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. Some people are not able to navigate intra-party rebellions as well as Joe. LiebermanLisa Murkowski have in the past, and it’s awfully tempting to fall in partisan line and keep the job in Congress.
Republicans reward those who serve the base. Senator Marco Rubio missed the State of the Union All together because he found the mandatory COVID-19 test to be “Marxist.” A Take 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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