Biden's Democracy Dilemma

At this point, the GOP is an anti-democratic institution. How can working with them buttress American democracy?

Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, President Joe Biden said, “Democracy itself is in peril, here at home and around the world. What we do now, what we do now, how we honor the memory of the fallen, will determine whether or not democracy will long endure.”

There are those – not just on the right but also centrists and leftists – who will dismiss Biden’s words as just so much partisan scare-mongering. I’m not one of those. I think the threat to democracy, in America and around the world, is real. This can be seen in the USA in the January 6 insurrection and, more distressingly, the GOP’s continued legislative attempts to limit voting access.

But even if Biden can articulate the importance of this moment, is he really up for the job of defending democracy? Biden served in the American Senate for 36 years. He’s an institutionalist. His instincts are to work with institutions like the Senate, to preserve norms like the filibuster, and to do bipartisan outreach.

On this last point especially, I have significant concerns. The two parties are at loggerheads. The threat to American democracy is the Republican Party. To govern with bipartisan outreach means working with people who are directly threatening democracy. It also necessarily means watering down Biden’s agenda, which carries the political risk of weakening his reelection chances. Again, if we accept that the Republican Party is threatening democracy, then that is an outcome to be avoided.

On Saturday, we discussed how the Democrats’ voting rights measures are stalling in the Senate thanks to a handful of lawmakers who share Biden’s devotion to the filibuster and to bipartisan outreach. 

Writing in the Financial Times, Ed Luce argues that the addiction to bipartisanship is also weakening planned infrastructure spending:

Washington in the early summer of 2021 is beginning to feel awfully familiar. Biden’s initial infrastructure plan was $2.3tn, which is far less than it sounds when you spread it over the bill’s eight-year time horizon. By comparison, the US Society of Civil Engineers estimates America needs to spend $5.6tn over the next decade to maintain existing infrastructure. 

Biden has recently come down to $1.7tn to meet Republicans a quarter of the way. Republicans have in turn upped their offer from $600bn to $928bn, which sounds like a lot until you realize that only $257bn of their proposal qualifies as new spending. The remainder comes from the existing baseline transport budget. In other words, they are proposing around $30bn a year in fresh investment, which would barely repave Washington DC, let alone upgrade US roads and bridges, not to mention rural broadband. I predict that Biden will meet them at about $1.2tn, which would be just over half of his original total and render hollow much of this talk about a transformational presidency. But the outcome would be bipartisan, which would make it OK. Who could possibly be against that?

This is the choice Biden faces: bipartisan outreach or a strong pro-democracy agenda (which includes robust spending). He’s trying to have both but will in fact be forced to pick. The painful truth we have to confront  is that he’s leaning towards bipartisanship. 

(Edited by Emily Keeler).

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