Friday, February 9, 2024

What Biden and Democrats learned from Obama

Last October, the Biden administration was in the process of preparing a supplemental funding request for aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan. Here's how Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson responded

What we've said is that if there is to be additional assistance to Ukraine, which most members of Congress believe is important, we have to also work in changing our own border policy.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that demand, stating that "Legislation that doesn’t include policy changes to secure our borders will not pass the Senate."

In response, the Biden administration released a supplemental funding request that included measures to secure the border. But Republicans rejected that one because they didn't think it "adequately" addressed the border issue.

In response, a bipartisan group of Senators worked on a compromise. This week, they released their bill, which basically embraced a lot of what Republicans have wanted. But once again, Republicans played the role of Lucy pulling the football just as Charlie Brown tried to kick it. Speaker Johnson immediately called it "dead on arrival."

We could stop the story there and have a typical pundit-style conversation about how Democrats continue to be naive in thinking they can negotiate with Republicans - because this is what always happens.

But the truth is that the story is still unfolding. Yesterday this happened in the Senate:

The Senate voted Thursday afternoon to proceed with a stripped-down bill that would provide aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, one day after Republicans in the chamber rejected a bipartisan border security and foreign aid bill.

The vote of 67-32 means the Senate can begin consideration of the $95 billion package, although the next steps are uncertain and it’s not yet clear it will have the votes for final passage in the chamber.

You might notice that what is under consideration in the Senate is what Biden initially proposed BEFORE Republicans had their temper tantrum about the border. So in a sense, we've gone full circle back to where this all started.

Commentators are right to suggest that Republicans in general - and Speaker Johnson in particular - blew this one big time. They had leverage (funding for Ukraine and Israel) to get most of what they wanted on border security. But to be successful, they'd have to compromise a bit and risk Trump's ire for taking the issue off the table. So they got nothing.

This whole scenario reminded me that during the Obama administration, Jonathan Chait coined a term for the president's approach to negotiations: "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy."

This apparent paradox is one reason Obama's political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it's all the same thing. Obama's defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.

Mark Schmitt captured it with this description of Obama's theory of change:

The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith. It thrives on protest, complaint, fear: higher taxes, you won't be able to choose your doctor, liberals coddle terrorists, etc. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.

I'm not suggesting that Biden and Democrats knew all along how this would play out. But they certainly drew Republicans into a conversation about how to solve the "border crisis." In doing so, they demonstrated that all the opposition has is fear-mongering - and they're not willing to give that up by actually solving the problem. 

1 comment:

  1. Biden and the Democrats have, essentially, forced the hands of the Rs in both houses, making them paint themselves into corners they thought they'd never see. Now, the problem is, of course, that the Rs are waiting for the paint to dry so that they can walk our claiming that the Democrats never met their demands. The floor is still wet with paint, Rs, and you'll be wearing this a long time into the future. Nancy's reference to Obama's "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy" is a veritable insight into what is needed now in the Biden administration. Maybe a few late hours meetings with Mr. O could take place to help develop this 'conciliatory rhetoric'? Or, better, some 'ruthless strategy'. I don't for a minute believe that President Biden has never known of 'ruthless strategies'. He's a Scranton man, after all.


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