Opinion | Biden’s Withering Olive Branch

The year will turn, Joe Biden will take the oath of office, and we’ll heal.

That was the fundamental promise of his campaign, no? That was the hope.

But I’m struggling mightily to hold on to even a sliver of it.

Like President-elect Biden, I believe in common ground, in comity, in identifying where we intersect rather than where we diverge. I was drawn to him, as were a critical mass of other Americans, because he represented the calm after the storm, the sense after the sensation.

But is calm a mirage? Is normalcy obsolete? In the many weeks since it became clear that he lost the election, Donald Trump has successfully marketed an outrageous alternate reality, so that 70 percent of registered Republican voters, according to a Quinnipiac poll this month, believe that Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Trump has taken his refusal to concede to historic, previously unthinkable lengths. And an overwhelming majority of Republican members of Congress have played along, actively or passively, many of them knowing better, all of them traitors to democracy and profiles in cowardice.

To this crew Biden is supposed to extend an olive branch?

From this bunch he’s expected to wring droplets of decency?

Wishing for that may be like looking for leprechauns. The new year will let us know.

The current one, at long last ending, just about finished us. America was a frayed tapestry in the grip of some cosmic hands that kept pulling it apart, harder and harder. The most wickedly divisive, wantonly self-serving president in the country’s modern history went full-bore nihilist. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that should have given us shared purpose turned us against one another.

But that president is packing. The advent of effective vaccines promises a far side to all the death and fear. We have an opportunity to discover what measure of cooperation, integrity and plain old practicality we have left in us.

That’s going to be the political story of 2021, the one that overarches any specific confirmation hearing, any particular scandal, the fading thunder of Trump’s henchmen and the cruel aftershocks of social lockdowns and economic slowdown.

We’ll either seize this fresh chance — maybe our best chance — to get along, just a little, and get something done. Or we’ll blow it.

We’ll either take baby steps back toward a chapter of American government less savagely partisan than the past few years — and decades — have been, or we’ll accept polarization and paralysis as the country’s default setting for the foreseeable future. The stakes feel exactly that big to me.

“I think it’s very hard to get back to the way things were,” said Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Senate Republican who voted to convict President Trump at the end of his impeachment trial. We spoke the day after the electors in the Electoral College formalized Biden’s victory.

One of the obstacles, Romney said, is a media environment in which different Americans now consume entirely different facts. “If you have 70 percent of Republicans thinking that Biden stole the election, that’s a hard hole to dig out of,” he said.

But if any president can make headway in this era of gall and grievance, it’s Biden. He was elected to soothe rather than stir, plod rather than strut, and by all appearances so far, he understands that.

Just look at his preternatural reticence in the face of Trump’s and other Republicans’ postelection provocations. Across much of November and December, reporters sought from Biden some howl of anguish, some fiery denunciation, and got oratorical oatmeal instead. He murmured metronomically that Republicans would eventually come around. It was unsatisfying but right. What would be accomplished by screaming the opposite?

Even when he finally took Trump and his Republican enablers to task in a speech on Dec. 14, he did so with an appeal for unity and a renewed pledge to work as hard for the Americans who hadn’t voted for him as for the Americans who had. His recriminations were measured and sandwiched between feel-good reflections on democracy.

Three days later, when he and Jill Biden were interviewed by Stephen Colbert, he remained impossibly placid and insistently positive as Colbert wondered about the ferocity with which Republicans were going after Biden’s son, Hunter. “It is what it is,” Biden said, assuring Colbert that no matter how unfair or overzealous Republicans’ effort, he would always try to work with them when Americans’ welfare was in the balance.

That’s not just public posturing. The Washington Post reported that in a recent meeting with supporters of his, he was upbeat about opportunities for bipartisanship, telling them: “I may eat these words, but I predict to you: As Donald Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot change.”

Jack Markell, the Democratic former governor of Delaware, told me that Biden “has demonstrated an incredible amount of maturity by taking this long game and not getting in any spats in the meantime. His tone has been perfect, and that will serve him well.”

So will his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president. He has dealt extensively with many powerful Republicans in Congress, and they have dealt with him, enough to appreciate, at least privately, that he’s neither an ideologue nor a grandstander.

“Republican senators from Mitch McConnell on down know his intentions,” Pete Buttigieg, whose campaign for the presidency emphasized the need to end the ceaseless warfare in Washington, told me in an interview more than a week before he emerged as Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary. “They know that he’s a good person. They know that he has good will.” Buttigieg added that he wasn’t speaking “as a kind of partisan defender of Joe Biden” but as someone familiar with what Republican lawmakers say about the president-elect when they’re away from microphones and television cameras.

Obviously, Biden’s interactions with McConnell will be shaped by the outcome of the two Senate runoffs in Georgia and whether Democrats or Republicans control the chamber. Either way, though, McConnell will play a major role in the fate of Biden’s agenda, and the faint, flickering possibility that the two might not end up as mortal enemies locked in perpetual combat was captured in the media’s fascination, following Election Day, with whether they had begun talking.

It was as if all the political journalists in Washington were packed onto some widow’s walk craning their necks for the first sign of bipartisanship’s mast. There! On the horizon! An across-the-aisle phone call!

“I feel like I’m on a roller-coaster ride, running between hopeful and hopeless,” said Representative Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat. We spoke just hours before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit from her state’s Republican attorney general that asked the justices to throw out the results in four states, Texas not among them, that voted for Biden. Seventeen other Republican state attorneys general supported the suit. So did 126 of her Republican colleagues in the House, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader.

“Initially,” Escobar said, “I was so furious and disgusted. There are lawyers on that list. There are veterans on that list. I was on the airplane, reading those names, shaking my head, saying, ‘My God, what is going on here?’ But then there was the hopeful me that looked for the names of certain colleagues and was relieved that they were not on that list.” Indeed, 70 House Republicans took a pass.

“That’s where I found my hope,” Escobar said. “Maybe they’re the path forward.”

There are additional places to find hope. The vaccination campaign that just began casts government as a constructive, even lifesaving force. And once enough of us have been vaccinated, we can — and may yearn to — come together, both literally and figuratively. Buttigieg envisioned “this return, I hope, to a different kind of social and physical life by summertime.”

“That just changes what it feels like to be an American,” he said. “That’s not a policy thing, but it’s a dynamic that’ll be happening all around us.”

Although House Republicans continued, even after the Electoral College had spoken, to cower before and coddle President Trump, Senate Republicans began to sing a more melodious tune, with McConnell as their unlikely choirmaster.

He not only declared on the Senate floor that “the Electoral College has spoken” and publicly congratulated Biden; he also privately instructed Republican senators not to indulge Trump’s attack on those results.

Biden, ever affable, called and thanked McConnell. Can this marriage indeed be saved?

Romney’s answer was especially interesting, as he’s among the small but consequential contingent of Republican lawmakers from whom the Biden administration would seek cooperation. And he said that the fate of comity hinged on key variables, some of which are outside Biden’s control:

“What is Trump going to do?” he wondered aloud. “Will he get tired of the prospect of being on TV every day and battling? I don’t think so. Will people move on or will they continue to want to be entertained by a particularly skilled showman?”

If they remain rapt and his show is the usual pageant of paranoia and self-pity, it’s hard to see how Washington changes.

Also, Romney said, “Where does my party go? That will affect the nature of the dialogue. There are two roads we can take. One road is: We need to get the youth, we need to do better with minorities, we need to regain the suburbs that we lost. I don’t see a lot of people arguing for that.”

He meant in terms of future party leaders and Republicans who might be looking at the 2024 presidential race. “Ben Sasse, Chris Christie,” he said, referring to the Nebraska senator and the former New Jersey governor. “That’s about all that I can come up with.”

But, he added, “the other lane” of politicians trying to appropriate Trump’s populism is crowded. He mentioned Senators Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, along with Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations. If they drive the Republican conversation, he said, “that would represent a challenging environment for a Biden administration.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “there are a number of us who feel a responsibility to work on a bipartisan basis.” Romney was in a small group of Republicans and Democrats who proposed a stimulus deal that seemed to move the pandemic-relief legislation forward, and the House’s and Senate’s later passage of a sweeping $900 billion relief package, no matter how seriously flawed, “showed the ascendance of moderates as a new force in a divided Senate” and validated Biden’s “belief that it is still possible to make deals on Capitol Hill,” Carl Hulse wrote in The Times on Monday.

Biden could be helped by the care he has taken not to seem too partisan himself. “I haven’t evaluated the cabinet terribly closely, but they have not yet been alarming,” Romney said. “They’re adults. They’re Democrats and they’re more liberal than I am, but that’s what the nation has chosen.”

It’s crucial, he said, for Biden “to recognize that while he won by seven million votes, President Trump got a record number of votes as well. And part of that is because people were very fearful of things that they thought he might do.” He gave the Green New Deal as an example. “Don’t prove the fearmongers right. Don’t go out with a bevy of cultural actions that will terrify and energize the most extreme voices in my party.”

And don’t pin all of the pain caused by the pandemic on Trump. That was the plea of Representative Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican who is retiring from Congress after four terms in the House. “This is not one person’s, one administration’s, one party’s fault, and yet I can already see that beginning: to place all of this death and destruction at the feet of President Trump,” she told me. “And that’s not fair.”

More to the point, it’s not a remedy, it’s not forward-looking, and it plays into Republicans’ fervent and comity-thwarting belief that Democrats and the media never, from the very beginning, gave Trump the benefit of the doubt.

You know who gets that? Biden.

Even as Trump’s irrationally furious supporters threatened election officials, even as they took violently to the streets, even as Trump and many Republican lawmakers encouraged them with unsubstantiated claims about fraudulent votes and even as Biden correctly called this out as “unconscionable” in that Dec. 14 speech, he emphasized Americans’ goodness and America’s greatness. It wasn’t just an oratorical feat. It was a spiritual and emotional one.

“We need to work together to give each other a chance to lower the temperature,” he said. “We may come from different places, hold different beliefs, but we share in common a love for this country.”

That’s another conviction that I struggle with. But it’s essential — it’s everything — that Joe Biden embraces it.

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