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Unifying the country is one thing; unifying Congress is another. President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have executive and legislative control, but their margin in the Senate is razor-thin, which allows Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a little more leverage than liberals would naturally prefer. But Biden and McConnell have a decadeslong relationship, both as fellow senators and as deal-makers (and -breakers) during the Obama administration; the two have professed respect for each other, and they were spotted praying together at church before the inauguration.* But none of this necessarily means that Biden can use McConnell for his own agenda. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Alex Thompson—who covers the White House for Politico and recently wrote a big piece on the Biden-McConnell relationship—about what we can expect from these two men as the president knuckles down for his first term. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Both Biden and McConnell have evolved with their parties. They started out as moderates, but as the Democratic Party recently started moving left, Biden went that way, and as the Republican Party went right, McConnell went that way.
Alex Thompson: While they have different styles and political goals, the quality they share is they are ideologically flexible. They have a good pulse on where their party is and where their parties’ voters are. And as any astute politician does, you move to where your voters are, to where your people are. One of my favorite ad cycles is from 1984: McConnell is running for his first term, Biden is running for his third, and the latter is running ads in Delaware promising a constitutional balanced budget amendment and talking about how he’s going to crack down on spending.
A conservative principle.
Exactly. No Democrat in the Senate right now is supporting a balanced budget amendment. And Biden is proposing to spend nearly $2 trillion in his first 100 days. He’s changed his mind about certain things—as has McConnell. McConnell used to be pro–campaign finance reform. Now he’s against it. He used to court labor support in Kentucky. Now he’s supporting a lot of anti-union judges. He used to court abortion rights groups. Now he’s pushed through Amy Coney Barrett and reformed the entire Supreme Court in a way that’s made it probably the most hostile judicial institution to abortion rights since Roe v. Wade. So they both changed.
You focus on a couple of moments in particular that you think are revealing with regard to the McConnell-Biden relationship. I want to start with Robert Bork and the battle over his Supreme Court nomination in 1987—you said this was a moment that kind of set the stage for what was to come. There was all this liberal opposition to Bork, and Biden, who was chairing the Judiciary Committee, had to manage this. So tell me the story of what he did here.
Two things are going on with Biden that will actually probably sound familiar. The left wing of the party wants to make the Bork fight all about Roe v. Wade and the Civil Rights Act and segregation. Biden said that rhetoric was too hot if they wanted to defeat him. Biden’s strategy was to focus on issues that were going to matter to moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats—so instead of talking about abortion rights, he talks about contraception and married couples being able to buy birth control, which was in Griswold v. Connecticut, a decision Bork had cast doubt on. That will sound familiar to left-wing groups: Biden’s entire political approach is I need to focus on the moderate Republicans in order to get to 50 plus one.
In the decades before Bork, for the most part the way the Senate evaluated judges was based on: Are they competent? Are they sufficiently credentialed? Do they have any personal scandals? Ideology was deferred to the president. What happened with Bork is that they replace that old standard with an ideological one—that you were saying Bork was objectionable because of his ideology was new. Biden admits this in his memoir. In fact, he sort of boasts about it, saying he changed the Senate by articulating this new standard. Republicans who wanted Bork on the bench were furious, and no one was more furious than a young freshman senator named Mitch McConnell.
The second moment you focus in on happened in 2012. A series of tax cuts were about to expire—this was referred to as going over the fiscal cliff. This is when McConnell reached out to the White House himself to negotiate. Can you explain why this moment was so important, and what happened?
So at the end of 2012, Obama won reelection, Democrats kept the Senate narrowly, and there was a series of deadlines. If they couldn’t renegotiate by midnight on Dec. 31, we’d go over the fiscal cliff—which basically meant $700 billion in combined tax hikes and spending. When the economy is fragile, if you just raise taxes on everybody and also cut back on spending, it’s like a form of austerity.
So you have this incredibly tense standoff between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and McConnell, and neither was blinking. Then McConnell’s people began to realize Reid was willing to go over the cliff, to have all the tax hikes go into play and then start negotiating on which people’s taxes to cut. So, to reframe the debate as we’re going to cut taxes instead of preventing tax hikes because taxes were going to go up anyway. That was sort of his theory.
That’s when McConnell calls Vice President Joe Biden and says, is there anyone over there who can make a deal? And Biden goes to Obama and is like, Mitch wants a deal, what do you think? Obama dispatched Biden to the Hill—basically McConnell cleverly went around Reid and got a willing partner in Joe Biden. Reid is furious, and Biden ends up cutting a deal with a modest tax hike. McConnell told his caucus, “We got permanency for 99 percent of the Bush tax cuts.”
If Biden himself felt ambivalent about the negotiation, he never let on publicly.
Not at all. Biden thinks of this deal as actually a huge victory, evidence that he can make Washington work. During the primary he framed it as listen, I got Mitch McConnell to agree to $600 billion in tax hikes, and I prevented the economy from a cataclysm. His thinking is: Was this perfect? Definitely not. But did I move the ball forward a little bit, and did I make things like a little bit more progressive? Yes.
You’ve got to think Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s nervous about this happening again to him. You saw a little microcosm of this Friday night with the impeachment rules, where Schumer was dragging his feet and objecting to McConnell’s schedule of waiting till February to start the Senate trial. Biden came out publicly and said, no, I think Mitch’s schedule is good. Then Schumer had to swallow his tongue and go along with Mitch’s schedule. Based on that history, you’ve got to think Schumer and Pelosi are worried about Joe Biden wanting to cut a deal and, in their minds, undermining them.
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Correction, Jan. 26, 2021: This post originally misstated that Biden and McConnell prayed together after the inauguration. It was before the inauguration.