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Party politics

William Reinsch

Last week’s column produced a lot of comments, so I’ve decided to continue on with the bigger picture for another week. This column will be about the upcoming fights we are going to see, not between the two parties—though those will occur—but within each party, which may turn out to be a lot more interesting.

First, the Republicans. It is becoming obvious that Donald Trump has no intention of leaving the scene after January 20. Whether he immediately announces a 2024 run or not, he will certainly try to maintain his grip on the party and his voters. This is not good news for the Republicans who have their own plans to run in four years, such as Vice President Pence and Senators Cotton (R-AR), Hawley (R-MO), and Rubio (R-FL). And there may be more—it has always been hard to find a senator who did not want to be president. They were no doubt hoping that Trump, like an aging vaudevillian, would quietly exit stage left and let the next crew take over. But they had no such luck, and now they have to figure out how to ease him off stage without alienating his voters. If one of them reaches for the hook, he does so at his peril, and you can expect some time to pass while they each wait for someone else to do it and devise a strategy for being the last man standing after Trump leaves.

Fortunately, they have about three years to sort that out, and a lot can happen to Trump in that time, including civil suits, criminal investigations, and health crises. In the short term, however, there is also the challenge for Republican congressional leaders of managing a former president determined to involve himself in every media-attracting issue that comes along. Trump is not easy to marginalize, but it is hard to see how they can grow the party if he persists in playing only to his base and keeping everyone else out of the sandbox.

The Democratic party’s fights are more immediate—they started even before the inauguration—and the lines are drawn more clearly. The progressives will attempt to push the administration to the left, arguing that bold action is needed to address the country’s problems, and the moderates will argue that is a failing strategy, both substantively (because the Republicans will block most of his initiatives in the Senate) and politically (because they will lose even more seats in 2022 than they lost in 2020).

One of the progressives’ arguments is that Biden’s belief he can work out compromises with Republicans is naïve, because the Senate, in short, ain’t what it used to be back when Biden was in it. On that, they don’t know their history.

The Senate has been broken to some extent for the past 25 years, and Biden was there for most of that time. He knows the problems with the institution, and he knows the people responsible for them, some of whom are still there. He may not succeed in working out compromises, but he’s not naïve, and I think most Americans want him to succeed. Voters have repeatedly signaled in election after election that they want divided government, and polls indicate they want the parties to work things out. That may not be the best course of action, but in a democracy, the people get the last word.

The Republicans could simply decide to oppose him across the board, as they did with Obama, but they read the polls too and know the people are expecting results. If they decide to engage, there is a path forward. My 20 years on the Hill taught me a few things about how to get to “yes.” Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t burn bridges—what goes around, comes around. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle. People who are certain they know the answer should be viewed with suspicion.

If you think these strategies tilt the debate toward the center, you would be right. That is what the founding fathers intended for the Senate with its longer terms and smaller numbers—to be a step away from the heat of the moment and to cool the ardor of the House. They designed a system of government that would gravitate toward the center and thrive on compromise. There have been times in our history when that didn’t happen, but it has been a long time since Congress has been as polarized as it is now. The times may call for bold action, but there is a lot to be said for trying to restore our institutions to the way they were intended, because that will keep our democracy intact. Joe Biden is a veteran of those institutions, and it is natural he would take on that task. It is also timely, since he arrives in the wake of someone who spent four years attacking them and left them badly in need of repair. Restoring confidence in our institutions and in our democracy is as important for the long term as addressing our economic and health crises is for the short term.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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