We all witnessed Congress pass historic legislation this week; or, rather, we watched Democratic Representatives Senators approve the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Not one Republican in the House or the Senate voted in favor of the package.
This absence of even the smallest shred of Republican support gave fodder to critics to declare President Joe Biden’s landmark legislative achievement a political failure. He had promised, critics say, to reach across the aisle to work toward bipartisanship and compromise, to emphasize “unity.”
Maegan Vazquez, for example, penned a piece for CNN featuring the headline, “Negotiator-in-chief Biden notches his first win but a bipartisan governing loss.”
A New York Times headline declared, “After Stimulus Victory in Senate, Reality Sinks In: Bipartisanship Is Dead.”
Washington Post opinion columnist Marc Thiessen opened his column last Friday calling Biden a liar, writing,
Remember when President Biden solemnly declared in his inaugural address, “My whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation”? It was a lie. Less than two months into his new administration, hope for unity and bipartisanship is dead — and Biden killed it.
How did he kill it? By not compromising with Republican lawmakers. Thiessen doesn’t care about how progressive the legislation is, about how many people in dire need it will help, about the extent to which the bill will address child poverty in the richest nation on the planet.
Rather, he tells us that “Biden did not campaign on a promise to be the most progressive president in American history . . . Biden campaigned on a promise to bring Republicans and Democrats together. He not only failed to do so, he didn’t even try.”
Well, that’s not true. Republicans brought their $600 billion skinny and grossly insufficient relief package to the table, a bad faith counter-proposal that made clear Republicans were playing either blind to or just callously unconcerned about the desperate financial distress Americans are enduring as well as the abiding public health threats we need to address by providing funding for vaccination efforts.
For Biden and the Democrats to the win the victory of achieving “bipartisanship” with Congressional Republicans, he would have had to betray the American people in a moment of great need, and betray as well Republicans all over the country, outside the narrow D.C. beltway where Republicans seem to float above the lived reality of their constituents.
Thiessen is right when he accuses Democrats of “trying to redefine what Biden meant by ‘bipartisanship,’ saying that his stimulus is bipartisan because polls show it has support from some Republican voters, if not their elected representatives.”
And Democrats are right and logical in doing so, and they are doing a good job of it, as are many elected Republican representatives who actually live in the midst of and have to address the needs of their constituents, governing without the luxury of floating 80,000 feet above the ground where real Americans actually reside and fend for their lives.
When 60% of republican voters support Biden’s proposal, crying out for relief, is Thiessen serious that Biden’s responsibility is to listen to elected Senators and House Representatives and not directly to the people whom they are supposed to represent? The Republican Senators and Representatives might have been elected, but they have abdicated all credibility when it comes to calling them “representatives.”
And, indeed, Biden’s plan does in fact have the support of elected Republican representatives.
West Virginia’s Republican Governor Jim Justice and the Republican Mayor Jeff Williams of Arlington, Texas are just two among many Republican leaders who have embraced the relief package because it begins to address the real need
Justice was clear that Biden needed to go big with the relief package, risking spending too much as opposed to too little:
We absolutely need to quit thinking first and foremost, “What is the right Republican or right Democrat thing to do?” I have been a business guy all my life, and I know that when you have a real problem, you can’t cut your way out of the problem. Too often we try to skinny everything down and not fund it properly.
If we ended up wasting a few dollars and it jump-started the economy, and it helped all those that were out there, as many as we can that are really hurting, would we not be one heck of a lot better off than trying to just match the shoe size to the foot and undersizing the shoe size to where you couldn’t even walk?
What needs to be underlined here is Justice’s dismissal of partisanship altogether in favor of actually addressing need—because as a governor he is actually in a position of seeing human need.
Partisanship is defined as “strong and sometimes blind adherence to a particular party, faction, cause.” In this case, the partisanship of Congressional Republicans is indeed blind to the severe need and suffering of Americans.
Biden and the Democrats, in the spirit of Justice’s comment, are moving us beyond this partisan blindness. It’s not about being bi-partisan; it’s about getting beyond the partisanship, the blindness, that characterizes beltway Republican politics.
Mayor Williams was clear about the need to see need, telling MSNBC’s Ari Melber, “And who better than a city to know where that help needs to go,” as he highlighted the need for financial support to fund vaccination efforts, to help small businesses and restaurants, to make up for the crushing loss of tax revenues state and municipal governments are facing. Beltway Republicans have ardently opposed providing funding to state and local governments for strategic and self-serving ideological reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere.
Our political discourse is out of whack, and our pundits trapped in a political cocoon, when the focus is on political compromise rather than serving the needs of Americans in distress.
Biden made many promises. First and foremost were those of leading us out of the pandemic and improving the lives of Americans.
He is doing that by choosing to see the plight of Americans rather than negotiating with a mean and greedy blindness.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.