Can Biden navigate a GOP Congress?
Photo: AP Images
Tevi Troy is a Washington veteran and best-selling historical scholar. An Orthodox Jew who served in several capacities in the Bush White House before being appointed deputy secretary of the Health and Human Services Department in 2007, Troy has since authored three books about presidential politics, the most recent titled Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
We spoke with Troy ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, asking for his prognosis on what President Joe Biden should do if the results follow the decades-old pattern of the party controlling the White House losing at least one chamber of Congress. It seems to happen about a year or so after a new president is inaugurated in an atmosphere of goodwill; a disappointment takes hold among the public that snowballs into a landslide midterm loss. It’s a pattern that has not been ameliorated by an American politics that has become more and more polarized, with reasonable voices in the center pleading for bipartisanship falling to the wayside.
Our conversation took place last Motzaei Shabbos, when most polls were predicting the Democrats would lose at least the House and showing their grip on the Senate was weakening.
How have different presidents dealt with their losses in the midterms, and what lessons could Biden learn if it happens to him?
The first thing you look to is a post-election statement by the president in the immediate aftermath of the midterm defeat. We saw this with Clinton and Bush, Obama and Trump. We now have four straight presidents who have lost at least one house of Congress during their term. And that post-midterm statement is an important signal for how the president is going to handle the defeat.
We just saw news, actually, on Friday, right before Shabbat, that Biden’s team is suggesting they may not even make that statement, which I think is in itself a sign of weakness. The speculation in the articles I’ve seen about why [Biden] might not do it is because they think he might make a mistake and might say something wrong. So there are a variety of reasons for their approach. But I think that signal is really important for setting the tone for how the president is going to deal with the new Congress.
Bill Clinton was elected on wave of hope in 1992, but his grand plans ran aground on the GOP sweep in the 1994 midterms. How did he handle it?
Clinton accepted responsibility in his statement right afterward. And we saw in his behavior that he changed how he approached things. He had a very left-wing orientation for two years, and he changed tack in the next two years and moved back a little bit toward the center. And he called it “triangulating.” He brought in Dick Morris, a more conservative advisor who clashed with the liberal advisors [on] policy, and he was successfully reelected in 1996.
George W. Bush was the last GOP president to receive a majority of the popular vote in 2004, and his party improved its position in both houses of Congress, but those gains were reversed in the 2006 midterms. What did Bush do in response?
Bush also had a somewhat gracious approach to this. He called the election defeat “a thumping,” but he also said that he recognized that there’s a time for campaigning and a time for governing. And he reached out a hand to the Democrats. He also made changes. He got rid of Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, who some people said he should have gotten rid of before the election, but just waited until after the election. So that is one approach.
How about Barack Obama? He was also elected on a tremendous wave of hope, but experienced setbacks along the way.
I would say that the subsequent two presidents, Obama and Trump, have been less gracious. Obama is the only president in recent memory who had two midterm defeats, in both 2010 and 2014. And he called his defeat a “shellacking.”
But he also kind of lumped himself in with his predecessors. He said other presidents who were also great communicators, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, had been in that position. So he kind of minimized, I think, the impact of the election.
And in 2014 he did something similar when he said, “I heard you, but I also hear the voice of the two-thirds of people who didn’t vote” — somehow implying that the results of the election were less than fully legitimate. And he did not have a lot of legislative victories with the Republican Congress in the years ahead.
Donald Trump certainly did not send any conciliatory messages after his midterm defeat.
He had some qualified praise for Nancy Pelosi, but his immediate post-election press conference was the one where he yelled at Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter, calling him a rude, terrible person. And I think that signaled that Trump was not going to change his approach. Not with the press, and not with anyone else.
What do you think Biden should do if he loses one or more houses?
I do think that he should give` a post-election press conference. I think he should acknowledge the defeat and that he hears the voice of the people. And then I also think he should backtrack a little bit on some of the rhetoric he’s used in the last year. I think he alienated people by calling people who oppose him on voting rights “Bull Connor.” And I don’t like the “fascists” and “ultra MAGA” rhetoric.
I think he can say that his rhetoric has been a little too harsh, while also criticizing the other side and saying now’s the time for governing, like Bush did. And I think he can also hearken back to his previous reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker. I think that was what he was known as in the Senate, and that was the image he was trying to project. But I think as president, he has really not been pushing that forward. He’s really been more, “I have a narrow majority and I’m going to jam through as much as I can on a partisan basis,” as opposed to trying to get cooperation.
Yes, but allow me to push back a little bit. We should also remember that on the other side, you have Republicans who don’t want to give Biden any victory, who have refused to work with him on many legislative issues, and even questioned whether he was fairly elected.
There’s a difference between post-Tuesday and pre-Tuesday. Pre-Tuesday, Republicans were in the minority. It was costless for them to say, “We’re not going to cooperate.” Post-Tuesday, assuming they win, they’re going to be in the majority. They’re responsible for governing, and that requires a different approach.
That’s a great point. So do you think they’re going to work together ahead of 2024?
The safe prediction is always that they don’t work together. But if you look at Bill Clinton after his 1994 election defeat, he worked with the Republicans on welfare reform. He worked with the Republicans on the balanced budget amendment. George Bush worked with the Republicans and the Democrats on the emergency measures after the economic collapse in 2008. And even Trump — the coronavirus packages were done in a bipartisan manner.
So I think there is a possibility for it. It’s not a safe bet. But Biden has to take the first step after the election and say that he’s willing to work with them. And not do the same kind of name calling that he’s been engaged in over the last two years.
In general, why has the American public been so disappointed after two years that we always see the president’s party lose?
For 20 years it has been one way. But the 40 years before that were another way. So I don’t think we are seeing a permanent development in American politics. We’re in a particular cycle now where this is happening, and there are reasons for all of them.
To sum up, you said that Biden and the Republicans might work together. What can we expect from him? What kind of agenda can Biden promote, and where are his options limited now?
First of all, we’ve heard indications that [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy — who, if Republicans win the House, is the likely candidate to be speaker — has been saying that “we’ve learned the lessons from 2010.” [Then, the Republican House agenda] was all just investigations [of Obama], and they didn’t really have a legislative agenda. So they’re going to have a more affirmative agenda.
Second, while there’s not always an appetite for bipartisan cooperation, there are things that are must-pass legislation, including annual appropriations bills, and also the debt ceiling increase. So those are opportunities to get things through. And there are areas for bipartisan cooperation, I would say, including how to deal with China going forward, what to do about Ukraine, and some other foreign policy issues.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 935)
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