3 December 2020

Is there any room for compromise in post-Trump Washington?

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There was a lot to like about the results of last month’s US elections. From a suboptimal menu, the US electorate opted for the best available option: a clear rejection of Donald Trump and an equally unambiguous refutation of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. 

Other CapX contributors and readers will surely disagree, but I think the voters’ dual rebuke of illiberalism on the left and demagoguery on the right was the least worst option for anyone serious about the values to which this website is committed. Free markets and free people, the prosperity-boosting mix of liberal democracy and capitalism: the versions of themselves America’s major parties put forward in 2020 threatened these things, and thankfully neither was given a blank cheque by the American people. Trump gone, Biden’s progressive policy platform dead in the water. No to MAGA 2.0, no to the Green New Deal. It’s a start. 

Notwithstanding the results of runoffs in two Georgia Senate races that could give Democrats precarious control of the Senate, Washington is set for divided government. At best, Biden can hope for a 50/50 Senate which technically gives his party control (the Vice-President has a tie-breaking vote). In the House, he will be in control of the slimmest majority since the Second World War. Those with a Hippocratic view that government should first do no harm will cheer the prospect of gridlock.

But will anything more constructive come out of America’s divided capital? What scope might there be for cooperation between Joe Biden and a Republican-controlled Senate? In a number of areas, there is cause for cautious optimism.

Appointments

The prospect of divided government is already bearing fruit. The need to get his appointees through a Senate either split 50/50 or controlled by the Republican Party has given Joe Biden license to ignore progressive cabinet wish lists. No big jobs for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Instead, Biden has selected former Fed chair Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary, a moderate with admirers across the political spectrum. 

Filling out Biden’s economic line up are Obama administration alumni with a range of centre-left policy preferences that, as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it this week, make up a “progressive team that views government as the leading engine of economic growth”. The people who oversaw the most sluggish recovery in US history do threaten to dampen growth again. But, for now, take some pleasure in the fact that these picks have annoyed all the right people. The Bernie Bros are in meltdown, frozen out and tweeting furiously. Meanwhile, economic populists on the right, who spent most of the year claiming that Biden would staff the executive branch with Marxists determined to bring down capitalism have been forced into an unconvincing pivot, complaining that the President-elect is hiring corporate shills. If that is Biden’s worst crime, then it is a sign that divided government is already having a constraining effect. 

Climate change

Biden has said that climate change will be one of his top priorities. Here there are some easy, if largely symbolic, wins that do not depend on Republican cooperation. Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate accords on day one, for example. More concrete action is possible through existing legislation: the Clean Air Act gives the president the power to act alone to regulate emissions. 

But if Biden is to achieve anything that matches his ambitious rhetoric on the environment, he will need broad-based buy-in, including from Republicans on Capitol Hill. And while there is too much truth to the caricature of the GOP as a party of climate change deniers, that oversimplification obscures an important group of moderate Republicans who take the issue seriously and with whom the President might be able to do business.

To appeal to this group, Biden would need to pivot away from the logic of the Green New Deal and towards more market-friendly steps to reduce emissions. Look at bipartisan legislative measures in Congress in recent years and it is clear that there is a constituency of Republican legislators who support a range of measures, from investments in energy innovation and funding for carbon capture to subsidies for renewable energies. The Senate’s bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus contains seven Republican senators and supports a carbon tax. As in other areas, there is more scope for fruitful compromise on climate change measures than you might think.

Trade

Biden can undo much of Trump’s protectionism without the support of Congress. “National security” tariffs on steel imports from allies like the EU and Japan, for example, can be undone by the executive branch and are low hanging fruit if the president elect is serious about restoring old alliances. Similarly, Biden does not need any legislative help to patch things up at the WTO, where the Trump administration has blocked appointments and poured concrete into the mechanics of the body that is supposed to settle trade disputes. 

When it comes to striking new trade deals, the primary problem won’t necessarily be Senate Republicans. The president elect is by no means an out-and-out free trader himself. His policy platform included a “buy American” plan, for example. But if he chooses to pursue membership of CPTPP, the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump pulled out of in 2017, progressive Democratic legislators will be as likely to object as their Republican counterparts. And so if such a move is to succeed, it will be because of a coalition of pro-trade legislators from both sides of the aisle. 

Policing and criminal justice reform 

This year, two slogans have defined debates around policing and criminal justice: “Defund the police” — the shorthand for various unpopular progressive plans to reduce police budgets and even dismantle whole police departments — and “Law and Order!” — the Trump campaign’s blunt contribution to the conversation about policing and racial injustice in America. Thankfully, they are far from representative of what the American people appear to want: modest reforms that address the problem of police violence against African-Americans whilst acknowledging the importance of well-funded police departments in keeping the country’s cities and towns safe. 

Somewhere between the proposals put forward by House Democrats earlier this year and the less extensive reforms proposed by Republican Senator Tim Scott, the first black Senator to represent a Southern state since the 19th century, is an agenda for police reform that can command the support of a majority of the Senate — and a majority of the American people. Such a compromise would be in keeping with the way Biden distanced himself from some of Democratic colleagues’ more radical proposals during the campaign. 

On criminal justice reform there is even more scope for cooperation. The First Step Act, signed into law by Trump in 2018, was a bipartisan overhaul of prison and sentencing laws. It expanded early-release programmes, eased harsh three-strike rules, reduced mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offences and expanded job training and other programmes designed to reduce recidivism. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to end the death penalty, cash bail and mandatory minimums. Although Republican legislators would not want to go that far, several senior GOP Senators, including Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham, have signalled a desire to go further than the 2018 legislation. Meanwhile, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say the criminal justice system is “not tough enough” (41%) has never been lower.

Immigration

Biden’s obvious first move on immigration is a solution for the ‘Dreamers’ — adults whose parents brought them into the country illegally as children. Protected by a temporary measure passed by Obama — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA — they have since faced uncertainty after Trump’s effort to rescind the programme and Congress’s failure to pass any permanent legislation. The president-elect wants to pass legislation to make DACA permanent. Some 66% of Americans, including 48% of Republican voters, agree

Here, too, plenty of Republican legislators see the need for action. Shortly after the election, Lindsey Graham identified immigration as an area for compromise. “You know, you got the Dreamers hanging out there,” he said. John Cornyn, a Republican Senator from Texas, recently described the failure to pass immigration reform as “one of my biggest disappointments of my time in the Senate” and said that he would “try to become part of the effort” when it came to future immigration legislation.

As with police reform, the challenge on immigration is to find legislation that meets the American people where most of them are: between the hard line positions that dominate the debate. If the political will is there, there is a deal to be struck that eschews both Trumpian restrictionism and progressive calls for open borders. 

In fact, across all these policy areas, there is more middle ground than you might think. This election delivered divided government because neither party was willing to offer both the moderation and competence that most Americans clearly want. Republicans will be tempted to frustrate Biden’s plans no matter what he offers. But if the president elect comes up with popular, reasonable compromises, the politics of obstruction become a lot more complicated. In other words, both Democrats and Republicans have reason to compromise.

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.