The Biden-McConnell Relationship

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S1: There’s this question I keep asking myself as I try to game out with the next few weeks are going to look like in Washington, is Joe Biden’s version of unity going to be a rallying cry or a punch line? You can already see some Republicans starting to sneer at this word, implying that rolling back a ban on transgender service members or pushing for a stimulus plan are somehow antithetical to unity. And then you hear some Biden allies calmly staying the course, implying we got this.

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S2: It was a beautiful day. It was an historic inauguration.

S1: And I think this is Senator Chris Coons. The day the president was sworn in, he replaced Biden in the Senate. They’re close. And you can tell he’s really embracing the whole unity idea.

S2: And I think President Biden gave a great address that called on us to look at the moment in our history, when we’ve overcome division, when we’ve tackled great challenges and when we’ve made progress together.

S1: But when Senator Coons is pressed about whether Biden can really do the kind of unifying he wants, he has this revealing exchange.

S2: He says, the way we think about unity, it’s going to hinge on one person and the fact that majority leader, outgoing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Joe Biden for worship this morning and scheps Donald Trump’s departure ceremony from Andrews Air Force Base and that he has indicated an openness to proceeding with impeachment is a small but encouraging signal.

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S3: So I guess that that’s like the optimistic take. Alex Thomson covers the White House for Politico. He just wrote a big piece on Biden and McConnell. It’s called Enemies A Love Story.

S4: But if you’re expecting that because McConnell went to church with Joe Biden, that suddenly he’s going to change his stance on the Green New Deal or any other sort of 15 dollar minimum wage, then that’s a mistake.

S3: Hmm. Yeah. You talked to Coons and he had this quote that he gave. You thought that was interesting. He said, A majority of senators have never served in a functional Senate. And this moment right now is the best chance we have to get more functional. And it just made me wonder, like what is functional right now? Like how how much can we expect?

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S4: I mean, to be completely honest to you, I’m not sure.

S1: The funny thing about unity, Alex says, is that it relies on a Senate that might not exist anymore. A Senate that Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell grew up in, a Senate that is open to a return to regular order.

S4: When Chris Coons is talking about a functional Senate, what he is meaning is that, you know, that they’re actually like committee hearings and subcommittee hearings and legislation is drafted and there’s like work across the aisle and some people win and some people lose. But, you know, there’s it is actually like a I guess like a legislative body.

S1: The thing is, the Senate hasn’t worked like this for more than a decade.

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S4: When Mitch McConnell became majority leader in twenty fifteen, his big thing, the one thing he’s like, I’m going to restore regular order. Hmm. That didn’t happen. Well well, it happened for like four months. He did a huge speech about it, like it was actually something he really cared about. And what happened is that a lot of members at that time, it was like the Ted Cruz’s of the world were abusing, doing Showboat amendments and sort of just throwing wrenches in the process for their own political gains and to make a point rather than to actually help the process go forward. Eighteen months later, his entire ambitions were dead and like restoring regular order. And so there is this open question of like even if Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell want to restore order, want to recreate the Senate that they came up in, there’s this open question about whether or not they even can if they wanted to.

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S3: I love that story. Makes makes the Senate kind of sound like a preschool where the teacher was like, we’re going to do some Montessori just like choose what you want. And then, you know, there was crayon all over the wall.

S4: I think sometimes I think equivalent to a preschool might be giving them too much credit.

S3: Today on the show, unifying the country is one thing, unifying Congress is another, will Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell be able to do the kind of work that brings people together? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: OK, so let’s talk about the relationship between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, because you start off your piece by talking about all they share. And I didn’t realize how much they shared that they were born just nine months apart and they were both really into Senate history, but they are temperamentally very different.

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S4: Can you explain how there’s so I mean, Mitch McConnell’s first you staff in 1985, just like sort of chortled when I said when I asked how they’re different and because she she was like, they’re not in the same universe in terms of personality. And what’s sort of interesting about them is they’re both excellent politicians. I mean, you don’t become senator and then stay there for as long as they have. And then also in Joe Biden’s case, like finally become president, you do not do that unless you have tremendous political skill. But they’ve done it in such different ways. So Joe Biden is very much like the car salesman, car salesman who became a senator, like that’s sort of his you know, he has the grip and grin with those flashy teeth and the hair.

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S1: McConnell I can’t even picture his teeth like Joe Biden. I feel like I see those gleaming pearly whites all the time. But like Mitch McConnell, I never see his teeth. His mouth is always closed.

S4: That’s true. Even even his smile is closed. I should have put that in the piece. That’s a good I should talk to you before I publish. That’s like a good detail. His smile is always like a smirk.

S1: You explain something else, which is that they both kind of evolved with their parties, like they started out as moderates within their different parties. But then as the Democratic Party moved left, Joe Biden went that way, too. And as the Republican Party went right, McConnell went that way.

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S4: Yes. So while they have different styles and how they achieve their political goals, the thing that they share is that they are very ideologically flexible, I guess like the nicer way to to put it, like they have a really good pulse on where their party is and where their party’s voters are. And as any, like, astute politician does, you move to where your voters are, to where your people are. I mean, one of my favorite, like, ads that I found going through this is eighty four. Mitch McConnell is running for his first term. Joe Biden is running for his third term. And Joe Biden is running ads in Delaware promising a constitutional balanced budget amendment and talking about how he’s going to, like, crack down on spending a conservative conservative principle. Exactly. I mean, like no Democrat, as in the Senate right now, is supporting a balanced budget amendment at all. And Joe Biden is proposing literally to add two trillion dollars in debt in his first hundred days.

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S1: You know, so it’s it’s like how do you avoid being called a flip flopper in that kind of situation?

S4: I mean, I think you can call him a flip flopper. I mean, they are. Well, they’re not. That matters to voters. Look, a different question. Joe Biden has changed his mind a bunch things. Mitch McConnell’s changed his mind on a lot of things that Mitch McConnell used to be pro campaign finance reform. Now he’s a.. He used to court labor support in Kentucky. Now he’s supporting a lot of like what would be considered anti-union judges. The court used to court abortion rights groups. Now he’s pushed through Amy Barrett and reform the entire Supreme Court in a way that’s probably the most hostile to abortion rights that we’ve had since Roe v. Wade. So they’ve both changed, you call it, and flip flopping. But I also think it speaks a little bit to their style of doing politics. And the reason they’ve had such longevity, they are not fixed. They are not steel. They’re not metal. They’re rubber. You know, they they very much bend with the times.

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S1: Would you call them friends?

S4: I would call them Washington friends, which is a little different. A very, very different. Joe Biden has actually flip flopped on this question, which is like in twenty eighteen he was asked about Mitch McConnell and he was like, me and Mitch are friends. And then a year later, when he’s running the Democratic primary, he’s like, Mitch and I aren’t friends. And and but they do respect each other in a way that is not always usual, especially nowadays.

S1: You focus on a couple of moments in particular that you think are really revealing of the McConnell Biden relationship. I don’t want to start with Robert Bork and the battle over him potentially joining the Supreme Court. It’s 1987. And you said that this was a moment that kind of set the stage for what was to come from the start. There was all this liberal opposition to Bork and Joe Biden, who was chairing the Judiciary Committee, had to manage this. So tell me the story of what he did here, too.

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S4: Things are going on with Joe Biden at the time that will actually probably sound familiar. The left wing of the party wants to make the Bork fight all about Roe v. Wade and about like the Civil Rights Act and about segregation.

S1: I mean, they were saying stuff like, if Bork is. Put in this position, we’re going to have like segregated lunch counters again.

S4: That’s right. Ted Kennedy said that on the Senate floor.

S5: Robert Bork’s America is a land of which women would be forced into back alley abortions. Blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution.

S4: And Joe Biden was like that rhetoric is too hot if we want to actually defeat him now. Joe Biden wanted to defeat Bork, but his strategy for doing so was I’m going to focus on like. Issues that are 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 and was like an issue at the time in Bork had written about it and sort of cast doubt on the decision. And so that’s where Joe Biden wanted to defeat Bork, and he did it by focusing on his ideology there. So that will sound familiar to a lot of left wing groups there, just like why doesn’t Joe Biden say this? And it’s because Joe Biden’s entire political approach is I need to focus on the moderate Republicans in order to get to 50 plus one.

S1: And it sounds really, really smart when you put it like that. But you also say it’s important to pay attention to this moment because it kind of changed the rules around what the Senate does when it comes to Supreme Court nominees. How so?

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S4: In the decades before Bork, for the most part, the way that the Senate evaluated judges was only really based on are they competent? Are they like sufficiently credentialed? And do they have any, like, personal scandals, you know, ideology? They deferred to the president. Now, what happened with Bork is that they replaced that old standard, which was more about credentials, and they replaced it with an ideological one. That you’re saying that Bork was objectionable because of his ideology was new. And Joe Biden admits this in his memoir. In fact, he he sort of boasts about it, saying that he had changed the Senate by articulating this new standard. Now, Republicans who obviously want to Bork on the bench were furious and no one was more furious than a young freshman senator named Mitch McConnell, ideological opposition to a nominee. So McConnell goes to the floor of the Senate when it’s clear that Baucus is being defeated.

S6: The result of such opposition will probably be to politicize the selection process, not to shift the court either to the left or to the right.

S4: But he says, listen, the rules are changing and I am nothing if not pragmatic. And so in the future, when we’re in charge, if a Democratic president nominates somebody and we don’t like them, we’re just not going to vote for him and we do it for any reason we want. And especially in retrospect now, after what happened with Merrick Garland, after what happened the last four years, the Trump court, it’s like Chekhov’s gun on the C-SPAN video channel.

S6: And the senator from Kentucky will do that with some relief. As I indicated earlier, it was such a foreshadow of what was to come, because, after all, it’s not easy for us politicians to restrain ourselves.

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S4: All the seeds of what has happened in the last five years, from Garland to Gorsuch to Cavenagh to replacing RBG after she died in the last two months before the election, all the seeds of those actions, if you want to understand why he was so unapologetic and was disrupting the norms, is because he felt that the norms had already been disrupted three decades ago. And he actually said out loud, what? We have new norms now.

S7: So remember, when we come back, the other story that illustrates the Biden McConnell relationship. It shows how these two negotiate. It also shows why those deal sessions make some Democrats sweat.

S1: 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. And this is when Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell began negotiating directly. And it’s sort of a funny story because McConnell reached out to the White House like himself, to basically be like, hey, negotiate with me about this. Can you explain why this moment was so important and what happened?

S4: Yes. So end of 2012, the Democrats had just won. Obama won re-election. Democrats kept the Senate narrowly. And there was a series of deadlines that basically on December 31st at midnight, we would go over the fiscal cliff, which basically meant seven hundred billion dollars in combined tax hikes and spending cuts. So that would have been like it could have sent the economy spiraling. The economy was fragile. And if you when the economy’s fragile, if you just raise taxes on everybody and also cut back in spending, it’s like a form of austerity that could have ended up crippling the economy at a very sensitive moment. You know, just it’s basically like pulling the emergency brake while you’re while you’re driving. That was sort of the fear. But they had designed it that way. That was on purpose because the Senate was so broken, the only way they could get both sides to the table was to design these series of deadlines that would force everyone to actually do something.

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S1: And this sounds very familiar now, having watched all these coronavirus packages expire and expire, expire, it seems to be what Congress does exactly.

S4: The Obama campaign the entire time on raising taxes, on people making over two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year. Harry Reid Harry Reid was the majority leader when the Democrats were in control under Obama. Exactly. And Harry Reid was intent on keeping that promise. And when McConnell said, like, we’re not going to do that, we’re only going to raise taxes on people making over five hundred thousand dollars, Harry Reid said no. And so you have this incredibly tense standoff between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and neither was blinking. So now we’re at December 30th. So staring over the precipice of the fiscal cliff. Exactly. Thirty six hours. And McConnell’s people basically haven’t heard from Harry Reid’s people for twenty four hours. And McConnell’s people begin to realize, I talked to people that were involved in this. They began to realize Harry Reid’s going to go over the cliff. And I’ve talked to Harry Reid’s people and Harry Reid’s people were like, yeah, we were ready to go over the cliff. Harry Reid’s plan was to go over the cliff, have all the tax hikes go into play and then start negotiating on which people’s taxes to cut. So like to reframe the debate as like now we’re going to cut taxes instead of prevent tax hikes because the taxes were going to go up anyway. That was sort of his theory. Now, McConnell’s people thought that A, the level of chaos that that would create, it made it unpredictable, like it probably was the smart political play, but like it very easily could have been read. And but instead of McConnell’s people were like, well, what can we do? They figured that while the White House may not be as enthusiastic to play with the global economy this way, and so that’s when McConnell calls Joe Biden and says, is there anyone that over there that can make a deal? And Biden goes to Obama and is like, Mitch wants the deal. What do you think? Obama dispatched Biden to the Hill and then they basically, Mitch McConnell very cleverly goes around Reid and gets a willing partner in Joe Biden. Now, Harry Reid, who had had this in his mind, all game doubt, is furious. And then Joe Biden ends up cutting a deal with a modest tax hike on people making over four hundred fifty thousand dollars instead of twenty or fifty thousand dollars. He basically preserves a lot of Bush tax cuts. As Mitch McConnell told his caucus, you could argue that we have now permanently enacted ninety nine percent of the Bush tax cuts because there was no expiration date.

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S1: I think a lot of liberals look at this story and it gives them just the heebie jeebies. It sounds like Biden got played.

S4: I mean, Biden’s argument and the White House’s argument, you know, this wasn’t Biden just going totally rogue like this was also an Obama thing, which is that did Biden get played? Perhaps, but he also helped the country avoid a disaster. Even so, like Harry Reid is so upset at the deal, it’s cut. He says, like, I’m not going to sell to my caucus. Joe has to come and do it himself. How did he sell it? I’m Joe Biden and I’m your buddy. So, I mean, I talked to Chris Coons about this, and he is like it was a tough room, like everyone was there. New Year’s Eve. Everyone had to stay over the holidays. Everyone’s spouses were like. Planning about them not being able to go on their family vacations and then to come in and Biden swoops in and cut the deal with McConnell, and everyone thinks that they give up their leverage. You know, as Chris Coons told me, it like it wasn’t an easy sell. And probably the only person in Washington at that moment that could was Joe Biden, because he did have political capital stored up. And Jason Furman, who was on the Obama economic team at the time, he framed it as, listen, every time there’s a deal, you need somebody to absorb the brushback from your own side for the things they don’t like. And Joe Biden was willing to be that person.

S1: The liberal press was less inclined to praise the intercepts. Ryan Grim characterized the deal as McConnell picking Biden’s pocket. But if Biden himself felt ambivalent about the negotiation, he never let on.

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S4: Nope, nope, not at all. Like Joe Biden thinks of this deal as is actually like a huge victory and sort of evidence that he can make Washington work. I mean, during the primary to the way that he framed is listen, I got Mitch McConnell to agree to six hundred billion dollars in tax hikes and I prevented the economy from a cataclysm. His thinking is that was this deal perfect? Definitely not. But did I move the ball forward a little bit? And do they make things like a little bit more progressive? Yes. Now, you’ve got to think that Chuck Schumer’s nervous about this happening again to him, that he’s going to be the one holding the bag now. Exactly. And you saw like a little you saw a little microcosm of this on Friday night with the impeachment rules where Chuck Schumer was dragging his feet and and objecting to McConnell’s schedule of doing, like waiting till February to start the Senate trial. And then Joe Biden came out publicly and said, no, I think, Mitch, his schedule is good. And then Chuck had to, like, sort of swallow his tongue. And and now he went along with Mitch, his schedule, you know, based on their history. You’ve got to think that Schumer and Pelosi are worried about Joe Biden wanting to cut a deal and in their minds, undermining them.

S1: You mentioned how the Senate is still negotiating the rules under which it’s going to operate the power sharing agreement that’s sort of being negotiated now. And I wonder if you see that is almost a first indicator of what’s going to happen with the Biden McConnell relationship with the legislation that’s going to head to the Senate. What do you see there?

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S4: Well, the back and forth of the power sharing agreement is not a promising start to Joe Biden’s ambitions to make things better because it’s been a mess and it’s really around whether or not Democrats will take getting rid of the filibuster off the table.

S1: Now that Democrats have taken over the Senate, the filibuster is the last, best hope for Republicans who want to stymie Biden’s agenda. This rule allows the minority to hold up Senate legislation unless you can marshal 60 votes, which is a tough threshold to clear, especially now. Some Democrats have called for scrapping the rule to avoid the kind of disappointments that haunted Barack Obama’s presidency. But McConnell is holding his ground.

S4: Yeah, I mean, if you’re Mitch McConnell right now where you are minority leader, the filibuster is what keeps you powerful because it makes Democrats come to you and require at least 10 Republican votes in this current Senate. I will also say, if you read Mitch McConnell’s book and this was it came out in 2016 when he was majority leader, you know, he talks a lot about how much he loves the filibuster. And it’s not just because he employs it all the time. And his theory of the case, the filibuster is fantastic because it’s what makes the Senate sort of a unique American institution. And it’s one of the reasons behind what he defines as like American success, because it basically means you can’t do anything big without Buy-In from the other side. He thinks that change in America really only happens when there’s bipartisan Buy-In. Is that true? I mean, his argument for it is sort of, again, like the recent history that he experienced and also that Joe Biden experienced, you know, Civil Rights Act. That only happened because you did have big bipartisan majorities that ended up voting for it. You had the sort of the New England Republicans group with the non Southern Democrats. That would be sort of the classic example of what he’s talking about in that case. Hmm.

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S1: You know, you explained that both Biden and McConnell kind of flip flopped. Ideologically, but they both seem to care a lot about norms and rules and doing things to the letter, which is kind of interesting.

S4: Yeah, there is an inherent tension in both of them because at the same time, they’ve both been they care a lot about the rules, but they’ve both been party to a lot of the changes in the norms and especially in recent decades. So they’re not around judicial or now, you know, this is what Joe Biden is really facing over this question over the filibuster, which is like the ultimate Senate rule. It’s the one rule that that forces the Senate to do bipartisan compromise and the fact that Joe Biden, of all people, is willing to maybe ditch it so that he doesn’t have his entire agenda blocked is itself interesting. At the same time, Joe Biden is reluctant for those reasons you outlined, like they love the Senate. I think, like Joe Biden sort of hyperbolically called it, like the greatest institution ever created by mankind. Yeah, it was OK. And Mitch McConnell, like as a kid, his dream was to be a senator. They both love the Senate, but at the same time, they have presided over and been in it as it’s changed in ways that they they claim they don’t like.

S7: Alex Thompson, thank you so much for joining me. And thanks so much for having me. I’m a big fan of the show. Oh, thanks. Subscribe and read. Alex Thomson covers the White House for Politico, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Davis Land, Elena Schwartz, Danielle Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. You can catch me over on Twitter at Mary’s desk and I will be back on your feet tomorrow.