Biden's unrivaled ability to work with Senate Republicans like Mitch McConnell will define his presidency

  • Democrats now have control of the White House and Congress after Joe Biden's inauguration and the Georgia Senate elections.
  • This makes things easier for Biden's administration, but don't be fooled, as he'll still need to exhibit an ability to be bipartisan.
  • Biden's relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will bring a new era of bipartisanship.
  • David Topel is the author of The Heart of a Leader: The '72 Biden Senate Campaign — Lessons from a Youth-Driven Upset.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The adage that once defined American politics, "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line," is no more. Today, rank‐and‐file Republicans aren't even sure where to stand, let alone line up. Trumpism and the politics of chaos have fractured the GOP.

But despite the mess that has overtaken the Republicans, President Joe Biden must still work across the aisle in the Senate to try and pass his ambitious agenda. He must work with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, despite the Republican leader's long record of obstructionism. Biden must bridge the divide that derailed the Obama White House agenda. 

Despite all these roadblocks, one thing is clear: Biden is made for this moment.

Mitch McConnell, Obstructer-in-chief

With his acknowledgment of Biden's Electoral College victory, acquiescence to Trump's historic second impeachment, and clear proclamation of Trump's incitement of the Capitol riot, Mitch McConnell — the longest-serving leader of Senate Republicans in history and self proclaimed "grim reaper" of liberal legislation — has officially moved out from the shadow of the now departed Donald Trump.

Despite the loss of his majority, McConnell, is still the single greatest roadblock to progress by Democrats and gatekeeper to the next evolution of the Republican Party. Whether as Majority Leader or Minority Leader, McConnell's ability to obstruct legislative progress on key issue has been a constant. 

But McConnell may be motivated to soften this streak by necessity as his party charts its post-Trump future.

The widely held perception that our nation is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Trump supporters is the ultimate fake news story. President Trump won 47% of the popular vote. Only 67% of our eligible citizenry voted, reducing the overall Trump following to approximately 32% of the electorate. But how many of that 32% will continue to champion Trump as MAGA enthusiasm wanes?

Trump is out of power and Twitter-less, Americans have seen the ugliness of Trumpism during the Capitol riot, and followers such as Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas and others scavenge for their share of Trump's following. No, Mitch McConnell will not be beholden to a post-election Trump nor will he be influenced by the fervor of Trump's most ardent supporters.

Biden's moment

Also setting up the possibility of McConnell coming to the table with new-found receptivity is the man who will be on the other side.

Joe Biden's core beliefs and unique abilities are tailor-made for this moment in history. He has an instinct for fair-handed compromise, an insistence on civility, and an intangible strength forged from always lifting himself up after being repeatedly knocked down. I've seen it firsthand. 

During the 1972 Biden Senate campaign, I was charged with the logistics of implementing youth education and volunteerism. My father, Delaware State Party Chairman Henry Topel, had helped usher a young Joe Biden onto the national stage.

I had a front row seat to observe and engage with the traits and beliefs that continue to define Joe Biden's character. From his earliest days in office, bipartisanship, compromise, and inclusivity have guided his path. Biden's Bipartisan Ranking Index (BRI), the nonpartisan measure of one's ability to work across party lines in the House and Senate as tracked by The Lugar Center and Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy since 1993, kept his lifetime average in an impressive top 20% of elected officials.

That brings us to the relationship between Biden and McConnell. Whether it was the 2010 extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, their successful negotiations to raise the country's debt limit in 2011, or their infamous 2012 "fiscal cliff deal" to avert a budget crisis, there's no denying Biden and McConnell's ability to create solutions from situations threatening an impasse.

McConnell's 2016 Senate tribute to Biden best describes their working dynamic. "Obviously, I don't always agree with him but I do trust him implicitly. There is a reason 'Get Joe on the phone' is shorthand for 'time to get serious' in my office. The Vice President is a likable guy. He has a well-developed sense of humor. He doesn't take himself too seriously either." McConnell said, adding Biden was "a real friend" and "a trusted partner."

Within McConnell's remarks are inferences to his aversion for President Barack Obama, his contrasting respect for Biden signals a welcomed change of dynamics. However, some of that good will may have dissipated with some of McConnell's more aggressive Senate maneuvering.

As the two approach the third and most impactful phase of their relationship, a change in their dynamic will emerge. From their relatively even footing in the Senate, Biden now has the ability to effectuate change with executive order — a new point of strength that will counter McConnell's obstinacy.

A lifetime in the Senate has instilled in him the ability and the desire to find the common ground that will translate to meaningful legislation. Despite that, in a post-Trump Washington, the Biden-McConnell relationship will be far from a simple, two party negotiation. Intraparty struggle stemming from the Democratic far left will hinder Biden's reach to compromise, just as the influence of moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins and grandstanding by 2024 hopefuls like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley will be a burden on McConnell.

Biden's focus on the need for immediate progress with regard to COVID-19, greater stimulus at home, rebuilding trust with America's allies, and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal will provide swift and ample opportunity to observe the early indicators of what is likely the final chapter of the historic Biden-McConnell story.

The 2020 presidential election has created the potential for a new age of bipartisanship allowing for the rekindling of life-long relationships between Biden and a multitude of seasoned GOP Senators, beginning with Mitch McConnell. As such, the groundwork has long since begun.

David Topel is the author of The Heart of a Leader: The '72 Biden Senate Campaign: Lessons from a Youth-Driven Upset.

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