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June 23, 2021
SE Cupp: Will Biden dance with the one who 'brung him'?

Biden Cabinet battles signal a larger struggle over his strategy

Moderate Democrats believe Biden needs appointees with the experience and inclination to build coalitions for his ideas that include Republicans and business groups beyond the party base.

“Joe Biden … won the Democratic nomination and the presidency because he was a moderate and, frankly, because he could work with the other side,” says Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “That wasn’t a bug, that was a feature, and I expect that the majority of the people in his Cabinet are going to be those who can work with the other side.”

But many on the left say that trying to advance Biden’s agenda by negotiating compromises with a sliver of Republicans, especially in the Senate, is a fool’s errand in an era so polarized that hardly any of them will even publicly acknowledge that he has won. Instead, they want him to mobilize public support for his proposals — and to target congressional Republicans as obstructionists if they block them. And for that, they say, Biden needs appointees more inclined to sharpen than to smooth differences with the GOP.

“Democrats will face a fork in the road when it comes to the issue of bipartisanship,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “On many issues, a majority of Republican voters support a position that zero Republican politicians in Washington are willing to vote for. At that moment does bipartisanship mean cutting an unpopular deal with corrupt out-of-touch politicians like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell? Another option is rally the public and … we hope that’s where [Biden] goes.”

Objections from the left

The left’s agitation over potential Biden nominees is only one of the many crosswinds buffeting his selection process. Biden has also faced sustained pressure to ensure diversity in his picks, both in terms of gender and race. Insiders say the selection process has also been marked by frustration among some that so many of the key positions have gone to veterans of the Obama administration, such as Jeffrey Zients and Brian Deese, top Obama economic officials whom Biden has named, respectively, to coordinate the response to the coronavirus outbreak and lead the White House’s National Economic Council.
But the pressure from the left has been unique in that it’s been focused at least as much on blocking potential appointees as on elevating them. A loose constellation of social-media savvy groups that includes Justice Democrats, the political organization affiliated with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and the rest of “The Squad,” the Revolving Door Project at the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, Demand Progress, which focuses on government reform and internet regulation, and the Sunrise Movement, which organizes young people on climate change, have publicly objected to a substantial list of potential nominees. Other organizations have mobilized against specific targets on a more ad hoc basis.
The possible nominees who have faced public resistance from the left include Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (who was considered a favorite for the Health and Human Services secretary position but announced last week that she would stay in her post), Heitkamp (who has been floated as a potential agriculture secretary), Michael Connor (a deputy interior secretary under Obama discussed for the top job now) and Neal Katyal (an Obama acting solicitor general floated for various top Justice Department jobs). Black Lives Matter protesters have gathered outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home for weeks demanding that Biden not select him for any top position. Deese’s appointment to the National Economic Council also drew some liberal fire.
Amid all this agitation, liberal groups have mobilized perhaps most intently against potential positions for Emanuel and Reed. (I’ve known and reported on each of them since Clinton’s first presidential campaign in the early 1990s.) Liberal publications have argued in vitriolic terms against any position for Emanuel, and Justice Democrats circulated a petition (eventually signed by Ocasio-Cortez and other “Squad” members) opposing Reed’s possible appointment as director of the Office of Management and Budget as “a major test for the fight for the soul of the Biden presidency.” (The nomination eventually went to Neera Tanden, the former top domestic policy adviser to Hillary Clinton and president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.)
The bill of particulars against each of these potential nominees varies. Many face complaints that outside of government, they have worked for corporate clients. Environmental and left-leaning farm groups charge that during her Senate term, Heitkamp was too deferential to agribusiness interests. Raimondo clashed early in her tenure with public employee unions in Rhode Island. Emanuel, with his brusque style, clashed with almost every Democratic interest group at some point during his time in the White House and as Chicago mayor. His deepest rift with the left came over charges — which he has always denied — that as mayor he permitted the withholding of dashboard camera evidence in the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Liberal critics have targeted Reed over his work on key bipartisan agreements during the Clinton administration — particularly the crime and welfare bills — and his later position as executive director of the bipartisan “Simpson-Bowles” commission, which in 2010 recommended a mix of cuts to federal entitlement programs, including Social Security, and tax hikes to close the federal budget deficit.
In this July 25, 2012, file photo, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner testifies during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In many ways, these arguments merely extend familiar ideological disputes from the Clinton and Obama administrations. Many liberals thought that Clinton, with his promise of finding a “third way,” conceded too much to conservative arguments, even before Republicans seized control of both congressional chambers in 1994. If anything, liberal disappointment with Obama may have been more intense because their expectations for him had been so much higher: after generally running to Hillary Clinton’s left during their epic 2008 primary battle, he surrounded himself with many centrist appointees, including Emanuel and an economic team (from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to White House economic adviser Larry Summers) with close ties to Wall Street.

“When it comes to who we are opposing [now] there is a lot of trauma that progressives have from 2008 and 2009,” says Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats.

But the arguments over potential centrist appointments such as Emanuel, Reed or Heitkamp don’t only look back toward positions they took in the past. They also encompass a much more immediate dispute over how Biden should proceed now.

Compromise — or polarize?

In most cases, the potential centrist nominees drawing the most fire from the left have a track record of negotiating agreements that advanced Democratic goals while accepting concessions that attracted substantial support from either Republicans or ordinarily Republican-leaning business interests, or both. Heitkamp helped to negotiate the 2018 farm bill at a time when Republicans controlled both legislative chambers. For all the liberal complaints about Emanuel, he was the principal architect of the deals with key elements of the medical establishment (including the groups representing doctors, insurers and drug companies) that allowed Obama to succeed where Clinton, Richard Nixon and Harry Truman all failed — and pass legislation that vastly expanded access to health care, the Affordable Care Act.

The left has now branded the bipartisan deals Clinton reached in the 1990s as serial capitulations to Republicans. But while incorporating ideas important to conservatives, each of those agreements also advanced substantial liberal goals: the 1994 crime bill (negotiated primarily by Reed, Emanuel and Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain) banned assault weapons, devoted billions of dollars to new prevention programs and grants meant to encourage communities to adopt community policing, and included the landmark Violence Against Women Act.

The welfare overhaul bill provided unprecedented new resources for job training and child care, and the balanced budget deal Clinton reached in 1997 expanded tax credits for families with children and created the widely praised Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance to children in working-poor families. Reed played a central role in all those negotiations.

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Embedded in these personnel fights is the strategic question of whether such Clinton- and Obama-style agreements provide a good template for Biden, who centered his campaign on a promise to unify the country and restore bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Given the narrow partisan balance of power that he will inherit, most centrist Democrats believe he needs appointees with the proven capacity to work with Republicans and other groups outside the Democratic coalition.

Kessler, of the centrist group Third Way, says that whether or not Democrats win Senate control in the two Georgia runoffs next month, the compromise Covid-19 relief bill recently proposed by a small group of senators from each party previews the kind of legislation most likely to become law through Biden’s first two years.

“Welcome to the future,” Kessler says of the bipartisan Covid proposal. “This is what the next two years is going to look like, and if we’re fortunate there are going to be lots of these.”

If Biden is indeed hoping to replicate such agreements, Emanuel in the Cabinet and/or Reed in a top White House policy post could be important assets to do so.

But the liberal groups agitating against Biden’s potential centrist nominees believe he’s doomed to failure if he tries to advance his priorities by peeling away a handful of Republican legislators, as Obama tried to do on his stimulus (which ultimately won just three Senate Republican votes after substantial concessions) and health care plans (which no Republicans supported).

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“I think that view of politics is just impractical,” says Shahid. “In 2009, you couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for the ACA, and in 2021, Congress is even more polarized than it was in 2009. I am afraid of Joe Biden and the people around him pursuing a political strategy developed in the 1980s and 1990s that doesn’t fit the nature of our polarized Congress today.”

To activists on the left, a strategy built on seeking agreements with Senate Republicans ensures months of delay that ultimately end in failure and flagging momentum. Rather than negotiating at length with McConnell and other Senate Republicans, these groups want Biden to stick to his ambitious campaign proposals on issues such as health care and climate and build public pressure on Congress to endorse them.

“The only question is whether Democrats spend the next two years playing into Republicans’ hands by feeding the pretense that McConnell is seeking to negotiate in good faith,” the Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and two other left-leaning groups wrote in an open strategy memo to Democrats late last month. “Instead of letting McConnell play his game, Democrats must run against him from day one. This aggressive approach reflects the political realities of our time.”

Mixed signals so far

Biden has offered somewhat mixed signals on his strategy toward congressional Republicans. At times, he’s acknowledged that compromise may be more difficult than it was during his Senate career — a likelihood underscored by the refusal of almost all congressional Republicans even to acknowledge that he won the election. But more often, he’s stressed his commitment to rebuilding bridges to the GOP and highlighted (sometimes exaggerating) cases where he did reach agreements with McConnell for Obama.

Biden's cabinet picks send a clear message

Those around Biden seem certain that he’ll start his presidency offering an open hand to McConnell, rather than the updated version of Truman’s 1948 attacks on the “do-nothing Congress” that some on the left are urging.

“You can’t run Harry Truman’s strategy from day one of your presidency for four years and think that’s going to change things,” said one Biden adviser who asked for anonymity to discuss internal discussions.

For all the agitation against potential nominees, so far Biden’s actual appointments have successfully bridged the party’s tightrope; his team to date hasn’t provoked a serious backlash from either the center or the left.

“Thirty thousand foot zoom out, things feel extremely different now than they did even at the start of the Obama administration,” says Green.

Both ideological factions feel comfortable with Klain, who has built relationships across the party, as chief of staff. And Biden has found several high-profile selections (such as Janet Yellen at the Treasury Department and Xavier Becerra at Health and Human Services) broadly acceptable to both groups.

Yet this consensus will be tested very quickly once Biden takes office and faces the daunting task of winning congressional approval for his agenda — starting with an ambitious Covid relief package that Senate Republicans have blocked for months. Biden’s personnel choices have satisfied such a broad range of Democrats partly because they haven’t tipped his hand on how he will approach that puzzle.

The real test will begin soon after the inauguration, when Biden’s actions reveal more about whether he’ll center his dealings with Republicans on conciliation or confrontation.