Politics

What Might Happen if a President Joe Biden Faces a Republican Senate

Biden’s strategy could depend on which voters get him to the White House.

McConnell and Biden shake hands while Elaine Chao smiles in the background
Mitch McConnell, his wife, Elaine Chao, and Joe Biden at a mock swearing-in from 2015. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz recorded an emergency episode of the Political Gabfest for Slate Plus members, chewing over the latest results of a still-undecided election. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: I want to turn to some of the less specific questions of this election, which is that even if Biden wins the presidency, he’s extremely unlikely to win it with a Senate majority. The Democrats haven’t lost their House majority, but it’s narrowed. In a bunch of state races where Democrats expected to recapture legislatures or dig into legislatures—notably, Texas—they have failed to do that. Whatever massive sort of blue wave election people may have been expecting or hoping for clearly has not materialized.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Emily, what does that mean? More people have voted for Donald Trump by a significant number than voted for him in 2016.

Emily Bazelon: Right, and he looks like he is doing better with groups, particularly Latino voters, which might seem from the outside sort of surprising. On the other hand, there’s been outreach through evangelical churches, and I think the Latino community is just more mixed, more of a multitude of opinions and thoughts, than we sometimes think of it as, and so that helps explain what’s happening.

So I think that it’s going to be so difficult, if Joe Biden wins the presidency, to govern with either a very closely divided Senate or—I think you’re right—potentially Republican control of the Senate, and that just complicates what the next four years are going to look like to such a degree. It’s hard for me to even get my mind around. Will Mitch McConnell’s Senate, if indeed he is Senate majority leader, refuse to confirm Cabinet appointees? Will we have big fights over the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which I’m going to have to go brush up on?

Advertisement
Advertisement

John Dickerson: It will be very interesting to watch the McConnell-Biden relationship, if McConnell is still the majority leader, because they have this long relationship that goes way back, and they also have a kind of baseline agreement about what and how the Senate should work to get to agreements even among partisans. We’ll see. That could all burn up in a minute. But it’ll be fascinating to watch at least for its early stages if Joe Biden becomes president.

What I wonder about, though, is you’re going to have both parties begin a very serious internal questioning about what the route to the future is, because, as David sketched out, the blue wave didn’t happen. There are some ways in which it was a complete disaster and a lot of money was spent. So there will be a big debate, not just about what happened in the past but what should happen in the future and whether to become a more proudly liberal party, which would be interesting because Joe Biden, if he does win, it will be because he basically said, I need to be the kind of candidate who can win in the Midwest.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

So if the Midwest is responsible for getting him his victory, that’s an interesting signal. Except, add in a little bit more complexity: What if Georgia helps him get his victory, in a way that is different than the kind of politics you have to perform as a Democrat in the Midwest?

So there’s going to be a huge, interesting debate going on in the middle of the branches fighting, and the Republicans are going to go through the same thing. I think a super clear signal to Republicans is that Donald Trump’s brand of Republicanism is absolutely popular with their base. You saw Marco Rubio in Florida applaud the pickup trucks that surrounded a Biden-Harris campaign bus and escorted it out of Texas. When he applauded that, you see how far Marco Rubio has come in flying to the flame of Trump. But there will be other Republicans who say, “No, we can’t do that.” So there’ll be all that internal political fighting going on, too.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Plotz: Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like that fight is going to be much of a close fight, John.

Dickerson: You mean in the Republican Party?

Plotz: In the Republican Party, it’s clear which side has won.

Dickerson: I agree with that.

Plotz: Even if Trump loses the presidency, you have Madison Cawthorn, who’s basically a neo-Nazi—a 25-year-old neo-Nazi wins a House seat in western North Carolina. You have QAnon people winning and getting really close to winning in a couple other places. It is a Republican Party that is animated by these kind of conspiratorial, authoritarian, cult of personality, “own the libs” motivations that are not really receptive to a calm, reasoned, “let’s make ourselves a big tent” party arguments.

Advertisement

Bazelon: And disinformation.

Plotz: Yeah. Even though one of the things that is very clear just from what’s happened in Florida and in the Rio Grande Valley is that this doesn’t have to be—the Republican Party doesn’t have to be a white party. It actually can be a party that reaches nonwhite Americans with the right kind of appeal. So, figuring out how to do that more systematically, I would turn to Ross Douthat. If I were running the Republican Party, I would go to Ross Douthat and say, “What’s a kind of good populist Republican message that we can run that doesn’t completely alienate these charismatic, conspiratorial Trump people, but also wins us some of the Black and especially Latino Americans who are receptive to conservative values?”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Bazelon: But it’s the Republican leaders who know how to reach that group, right? Because, anecdotally, just from the stories coming in about people’s reporting, it seems like Latino voters responded to some of the disinformation about Joe Biden, just these extreme ideas about identity politics that he doesn’t embrace. Then there’s always abortion as a wedge issue. So I feel like we don’t understand yet, or I don’t understand, how to unpack that shift.

The rest of this emergency episode of the Political Gabfest is available exclusively to Slate Plus members. Slate Plus members help support Slate’s ongoing news and politics coverage, and they get access to bonus segments and exclusive episodes from Political Gabfest, Trumpcast, Amicus, and more. Sign up now to keep up with all the news and analysis to Election Day and beyond.

Advertisement