By Shivaji Sengupta
First, the odds. Democrats have rarely won special run-off elections in Georgia. The Republicans have had a much better ground game in this heavily conservative state. So, chances of the Democrats unsettling both incumbent senators on January 5 elections is slim, very slim.
Then why the hoopla? Obviously, because for only the second time since 1948, have a Democratic presidential candidate won the state. Biden’s victory, however narrow, has restored the faith of Democratic workers. Stacy Abrams who is credited with getting out the vote (especially the African-Americans), which caused the victory at the top of the ticket. Down ballot, however, Democratic senatorial candidates didn’t have it so easy. Rafael Warnock beat Republican Kelly Loefflier without either of them getting 50% of the votes. David Perdue, Republican, also couldn’t amass 50% though he defeated Jon Ossoff. A run-off is required because, according to Georgia’s laws governing elections to the federal Congress, a candidate must garner 50% or more of the votes. None of the four candidates were able to get that. It’s not just the Senate majority on the line in Georgia’s runoffs.
Should Senate Republicans win the fight to keep their majority, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have unilateral authority to stifle Biden’s picks to the federal judiciary, weakening Democrats’ hopes to make up for four years of confirming conservative judges, and two years of a McConnell blockade during President Barack Obama’s final years. While an increasing number of Republicans say they’re willing to work with Biden on his Cabinet nominees, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin isn’t optimistic about GOP cooperation on judicial nominees. In an interview, Durbin, who is vying for the top spot on the Judiciary Committee, predicted Biden will have “very little” impact on the federal judiciary if Republicans keep the Senate in January and remained skeptical they’d approve his appointments to the federal bench. “If the last two years of the Obama administration were any indication, they’ll freeze them out,” Durbin said. “Hope springs eternal but I believe in history.” Biden, who chaired the Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995, will be confronting an institution that’s only become more partisan since he left it, especially when it comes to the courts. Last month, Amy Coney Barrett became the first Supreme Court justice in 151 years not to receive a single vote from the minority party. Even though most Republicans still won’t recognize that Biden is the president-elect, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee next year, said that he would “of course” consider Biden’s judicial nominees. But the again, can you trust politicians’ word? Didn’t Lindsey Graham say it was wrong to consider a lame duck president’s nominee for the Supreme Court when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court? Didn’t he say if he did otherwise in the future, we could quote him? What happened when Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barret just weeks before the presidential elections? Senator Graham supported it thoroughly! You still say we can believe Chuck Grassley?
Of course, given the current political situation, when the two parties simply don’t trust or support each other on anything, a president Biden could use Executive Orders to get things done. This has been the trend ever since a divided government stone-walled Barak Obama’s every action during his second term. But that would only confirm the popular notion that Congress is becoming growingly ineffective. Joe Biden, who has served in Congress for almost fifty years, does not want to accept that. He would rather consult with, apart from the members of his own party, with senior Republican congress people and senators He is dead serious about projecting himself as a unifying figure. Said a senior Republican who didn’t want to be identified, “If that’s really how he wants to hopefully set the atmosphere, then you don’t take Elizabeth Warren and stick her as Secretary of the Treasury, because you are picking a fight. We’ll see what they choose to do,” he said. Moreover, Biden himself may not be too keen to name Democratic stalwarts like Elizabeth Warren into his cabinet. As he explained in his CNN interview this evening to Jake Tapper, to take away Democratic Senators would seriously endanger the Democrats in the Senate. “One must be very careful!” Biden warned. For “one must be very careful,” read, “One mustn’t do that!” The Republican senator, Conrad, agreed: “Picking a senator, particularly one from a state where a Republican governor could name the successor, as in Massachusetts in Warren’s case, is dicey.” Many in the Senate think McConnell would be willing to block Biden nominees. “I think McConnell has demonstrated he puts partisanship above everything else,” Conrad said. Now, given all of that, think about Biden’s challenge if Democrats manage to win back Senate control in Georgia early next year. He will be constantly pressured by liberals — particularly in the House — to push programs like the “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All” and all sorts of other progressive wish list items. (Biden, of course, has already made clear he doesn’t support those massive liberal initiatives.) And he will also be pushed to pick liberal favorites for top Cabinet posts — like Elizabeth Warren at Treasury or Bernie Sanders at Labor. It would be a massive headache for Biden. While he could try to go his own way — in terms of Cabinet picks and his first-term agenda — he would face opposition from the liberal left at every turn. And while Biden’s primary win over several more liberal options does suggest the pragmatic center of the Democratic Party remains vital, there is little doubt that the passion (and donor dollars) are primarily located on the ideological left.
Now, consider the alternative. Biden is president while his old friend McConnell is Senate majority leader. (In 2016, as Biden was leaving his role as vice president, McConnell described Biden as “a real friend … a trusted partner. … We’re all going to miss you.”) Biden can credibly make the case that there is no point in pushing through certain legislation in the House because it will be DOA in the Senate. While liberals might hate that, they’d struggle to deny the obvious political reality. Which would leave Biden in the role he not only campaigned on but spent decades in the Senate (and as vice president) perfecting: Cutting deals on major issues facing the country that might not make everyone happy, but which move the ball slightly closer to the goal. You tell me: Which scenario sounds more appealing.
So which is it to be? Biden losing the Senate seats in Georgia, losing majority in the Senate, and able to make moderate policies regarding healthcare, the economy and foreign affairs, or winning a Senate majority, and being hounded by the progressive members of Congress who would rein him in at every opportunity?
This is Joe Biden’s dilemma. All his political life he has taken the middle road, excelled in cutting deals with politicians on the other side of the aisle. This is what he is good at. And this is, what he believes to be good for America. Let us take up just one example: the crisis of the Affordable Care Act of 2017.
Shortly after Donald Trump became president, he, with Republican majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, moved to repeal ACA. All the Democrats in the Senate voted to protect it, while enough Republicans joined them, so that it came down to one man’s vote: the late Senator John McCain, a Repubican held the key to the life of ACA. He voted against the motion. ACA was saved, and thrives to this day.
What most people do not know is Joe Biden’s behind-the-scene role in convincing his old friend, John McCain not to kill the Affordable Care Act. To be sure, McCain was not satisfied with the Republican alternatives to ACA. He came from Georgia, teeming with poor African Americans and even poor White. ACA comes with protection for people with pre-existing conditions. It allows the medically insured to keep their offspring in their plan until they are twenty-six years old. The poor needed this. But McCain was also a Republican. And Republicans, following the lead of the president, had made ACA one of the election issues in 2016. If he voted no to the repeal, wouldn’t he let the Republicans down? He was suffering from terminal brain cancer and would have to retire in 2020. Would this, pro health care vote be his swan song? Would that go down well with his own image of himself as a lifelong Republican. Ten years ago, running for president against Barak Obama, he had opposed the latter’s concept of affordable healthcare, and had voted against it in the Senate. Now, would he go against his own position?
Enter Joe Biden, now no longer-in government, but still McCain’s old pal. It’s not known who approached whom. What is known, is that they met privately and had intense discussions. Biden had been instrumental in the creation of the law. McCain was its opponent and had voted against it in 2010. But that was then. This is now. He was a Victim of cancer, had realized how critically important ACA was to people who, unlike him, couldn’t afford health care without government help. These thoughts came to fruition during discussions with Joe Biden (among others) who, coincidentally, had lost his eldest son to brain cancer. Besides, as mentioned before, Senator McCain was deeply disappointed at Donald Trump’s inability to propose a viable alternative to ACA before getting the Republican lawmakers to bring the motion to the House and the Senate to repeal it. The motion passed the House. It came down to that one vote in the Senate. John McCain voted no.
Joe Biden has never claimed credit for convincing his friend, John. Indeed, to do that would be disrespectful to the memory of the late Senator. After all, Biden is no Donald Trump. But the Biden-McCain tete-a-tete is well known Washington’s corridors of power. And McCain is from Georgia. In fact, it is the seat he vacated that is being contested, with the Republican candidate, Kelly Loefflier, the most unlikely character to succeed the erstwhile Senator: talk about irony!
Which brings us back to January 5, and Joe Biden’s dilemma.
I purposely spent some time on the Biden- McCain friendship and the history of their working together to save the Affordable Care Act to illustrate a couple of points.
One is, of course, the power of dialogue and negotiations: two (or more) rational human beings sitting down to talk, respectfully, affectionately, can achieve a lot as proven by the above story. Biden has friends among Republicans, not the least of which is the present Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnel. True, he has not yet publicly accepted Biden’s election as the president-elect, but that is publicly. When in the CNN interview Mr.Tapper brought up Mitch McConnel’s silence, Biden said with a smile and twinkle in his eye that many “silent” senators have already called to congratulate him. Do not underestimate the soft power of privacy between political opponents. Politics, as Eva Perrin famously said,” is the art of the possible.
Secondly, in the offchance, the Democrats do corner the two Senate seats, Biden can bring the same negotiation skills to his own party as he has been wont to do with Republicans. Why should we imagine Biden being burdened by the progressive elements of his party to the extent that he cannot govern his own party members? Hasn’t he already done it, the way he managed to get Bernie Sanders’ in his corner? Hillary Clinton couldn’t? His succeeded in convincing Kamala Harris to join his ticket after she had humiliated him mercilessly in the very first primary debate.
These are troubling times. On inauguration day, President Biden would be inheriting at least four crises: COVID, the consequent economic precariousness, racial unrest, and diminished respect for the U.S. around the world. He would need all his interpersonal and political skills, as well as managerial ones to bear. If he gets a Democratic majority in Congress, well and good. But if he doesn’t, he has confidence he can make things happen.
We wish him all the best.
By Shivaji Sengupta