If President Joe Biden stands for one idea, it is that our system can work. We live in a big, diverse country, but good leaders can bring people together across difference to do big things. In essence, Biden is defending liberal democracy, and the notion that you can’t govern a nation based on the premise that the other half of the country is irredeemably awful.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is skeptical: The Republican Party has gone authoritarian. Mitch McConnell is obstructionist. Big money pulls the strings. The system is broken. The only way to bring change is to mobilize the Democratic base and push partisan transformation.
If all you knew about politics is what goes on in the media circus, you’d have to say the progressives have the better argument. Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene — healthy bipartisan compromise seems completely hopeless with this crew.
But underneath that circus, there has always been another layer of politics — led by people who are not as ratings-driven, but are more governance-driven. So over the past 20 years or so, while the circus has been at full roar, Congress has continued to pass bipartisan legislation: the Every Student Succeeds rewrite of federal K-12 education policy, the Obama budget compromise of 2013, the Trump criminal justice reform law of 2018, the FAST infrastructure act, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, the Trump-era ban on surprise billing in health care. In June, the Senate passed, 68-32, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which would devote roughly $250 billion to scientific projects.
Matthew Yglesias and Simon Bazelon call this the “Secret Congress” — the everyday business of governing that works precisely because it isn’t on cable TV.
When COVID hit, the same two-track pattern prevailed. The circus gave us the mask and vaccination wars. But Congress was productive and bipartisan. The Senate passed a COVID-relief measure 96-1 in early March 2020, another 90-8 in mid-March 2020, another 96-0 in late March 2020 and another 92-6 in December. The House votes were also landslides. If you had told me two years ago that Congress would respond to a pandemic in some ways better than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I would have been surprised, but that’s what happened.
After Biden was elected, the two-track pattern was still going strong. The circus realm gave us the horror of Jan. 6. But the dull, governing part of America carried on. For example, the Senate confirmed Biden’s Cabinet picks in largely bipartisan fashion.
Biden’s legislative strategy owes something to each side of the Democratic Party. He wants to ram through a lot on party-line votes using reconciliation. But he also insists on a bipartisan approach whenever possible. Over the past few months, the bipartisan track has, somewhat surprisingly, been moving faster than the partisan track.
Republicans and Democrats have been involved in a complex set of negotiations about infrastructure spending. It has been messy and complicated, the way politics always is, but the two sides have worked together productively.
“You can tell the difference between an adversarial negotiation and a collaborative one,” Mitt Romney told The Washington Post. “In this case, when one side had a problem, the other side tried to solve the problem, rather than to walk away from the table.” When the Senate advanced the roughly $1 trillion measure by a vote of 67-32, that was a sign that experienced politicians can, as Biden suggested, make the system work.
The Biden administration has moved to separate government from the culture wars. It has shifted power away from the Green New Deal and Freedom Caucus show horses and lodged it with the congressional workhorses — people such as Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Mark Warner, who are in no danger of becoming social media stars.
The moderates are suddenly in strong shape. The progressives say they won’t support this Biden infrastructure bill unless it is passed simultaneously with a larger spending bill. But if the Democrats can’t agree on that larger bill, will progressives really sink their president’s infrastructure initiative? In the negotiations over the larger bill, the moderates have most of the power because they are the ones whose seats are at risk.
We have come a long way since the AOC glory days of 2019. Biden won the presidential nomination, not Bernie Sanders. Progressive excesses such as “defund the police” cost Democrats dearly down-ballot. Over the past months, there have been primary contests between regular Democrats and progressives, including House races in Louisiana, New Mexico and Ohio, a governor’s race in Virginia and a mayoral race in New York. The party regulars have won all of them.
As former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel notes, the problem with the progressive base mobilization strategy is that progressives think they’re the base. But a faction that keeps losing primaries can’t be the base. Joe Biden is the base. And Biden and the 91% of Democrats who view him favorably want to make the system work. American politics is in god-awful shape, but we’re seeing a reasonably successful attempt to build it back better.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.