It’s a tale as old as time: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell versus Barack Obama—or Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or Hillary Clinton or Merrick Garland, or whoever the Democrat du jour is.
Now, with two tight races in Georgia set to control the fate of the Senate next year, President-elect Joe Biden may suffer the same fate.
McConnell doesn’t deny that one of the pillars of his reign in the Senate is to block any potential Democratic policy and thwart bipartisan bills in favor of partisan political maneuvering. He made it clear that his day one goal during the Obama presidency was to make him a one-termer at all costs. He gleefully refers to himself as the grim reaper; “gridlock” may as well be his middle name. Once, after hearing McConnell deliver a heartfelt speech about Senate spouses, then-Sen. Al Franken joked that he preferred his speeches when they weren’t evil. “I like the evil ones better,” McConnell retorted, smiling.
And while Wall Street argues that a Republican-held Senate and Democratic-held White House is an ideal situation for markets, Biden is likely looking at two years of a legislative stalemate unless Democrats pick up two runoff seats in Georgia this January. Early polling shows tight races, with each candidate within the margin of error of the other. It’s possible that both Democrats win their races, and the Senate ends up 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker, but it’s a toss-up right now. And even so, the very slim margins Democrats will have in Congress over Republicans won’t translate into heaps of leverage.
Albert Einstein is famously misattributed as saying that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We don’t actually know where the quote comes from, but it holds true: If you want to change the results, you probably need to shake up the process. Yet centrists appear to believe that Biden will be able to work hand in hand with McConnell, that because of his history as a beloved peacemaker in the Senate, he’ll be able to get a number of relatively progressive policy initiatives passed even if Republicans maintain control.
Washington Post columnist George F. Will has argued that Biden could actually benefit from a Republican majority Senate because he won’t have to bend to the progressive side of his own party. Politico has called the pair a “power couple” and argued that they could get along. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn said that dealing with McConnell will “not be as hard as some people think. I don’t think Mitch will be as mean to Joe as he was to Obama.”
“An institutionalist like Joe Biden knows that’s all he can get,” said Scott Segal, an influential Washington lobbyist. “And I would stress here that Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell may have been gladiators against one another, both in the Senate and in this election season, but they know each other very well.”
It’s true that Biden and McConnell worked together during Biden’s 36 years in the U.S. Senate and eight years in the White House. In 2010, McConnell collaborated closely with the former vice president to broker a large tax deal. McConnell invited Biden to speak at an event at the University of Louisville afterward, as a sign of respect.
“You want to see whether a Republican and Democrat really like each other,’’ Biden said at the event as McConnell looked on. “Well, I’m here to tell you we do.’’
The pair also skirted their parties’ leadership by coming together to negotiate around the potential fiscal cliff in 2013, opting to leave then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid out of their talks.
Years later, as the Obama administration came to an end, and Biden said goodbye to the Senate, McConnell said that Biden was “a good friend” as well as a “trusted partner.”
It appears that Biden doesn’t want those warm feelings to end. The President-elect has indicated that one of his first actions in the Oval Office will be calling Republicans because “we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to move forward here. Because there are so many things we really do agree on.” He has floated the idea of including Republicans in his own cabinet.
“Refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another—it’s not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make,” Biden told supporters in Wilmington, Del., during his victory speech. “And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate given to us from the American people. They want us to cooperate in their interest.”
Words are one thing, but actions are another. In a preview of Barack Obama’s memoir, obtained by CNN, the 44th President described Biden’s relationship with McConnell as one based mainly on Republican prejudices and not a particularly special friendship.
Obama writes: “One of the reasons I’d chosen Joe to act as an intermediary—in addition to his Senate experience and legislative acumen—was my awareness that in McConnell’s mind, negotiations with the vice president didn’t inflame the Republican base in quite the same way that any appearance of cooperation with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama was bound to do.”
The Republican Party has also changed since the Obama era, as demonstrated by McConnell’s unwillingness to publicly accept that Biden will replace President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, instead opting to side with Trump and his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
“President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” McConnell said following the election results. He has refused to say that Trump should concede the race.
Rumors that Trump is considering a 2024 presidential run means that his control over the party may remain strong over the next four years of the Biden administration, tying McConnell’s hands. McConnell was certainly an obstructionist well before Trump came into office, but during the Obama administration, he did sometimes negotiate with Democrats over dire matters like the fiscal cliff. With Trump’s eyes still on him and a Supreme Court shifted in Republican favor, McConnell may not be as amenable this time around.
Under Trump, American political behavior grew increasingly partisan. The Republican Party is far more conservative than it was 20 years ago—and less representative of the nation’s demographics. Even views on McConnell have shifted recently, emboldening the leader to stay the course. In 2017, the majority of Republicans and Democrats viewed the Senate leader unfavorably. But according to surveys conducted by research firm YouGov, between 2017 and 2020, his average rating among Republicans grew from 4.0 to 5.4 on a 10-point scale, while his rating among Democrats dropped from 2.6 to 1.8.
“McConnell may try to isolate Biden to cut deals, but I don’t believe the caucus will agree with it,” said Jim Manley, a top aide to Reid. “The Republican Party has changed.”