Honey Is Better Than Vinegar
Joe Biden keeps winning fights with Republicans and he's succeeding by killing them with kindness.
I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, ’ absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality. If you were sent this email or are a free subscriber and would like to become a paid subscriber, you can sign up here.
Sometimes Nice Guys Do Finish First
I wrote something for MSNBC about one of the true paradoxes of the Biden presidency: that at a time of intense polarization and extreme partisanship, President Biden has been unusually successful at reaching bipartisan deals with Republicans.
Biden’s defining personality trait — and arguably his greatest political appeal — is his empathy. A man who has famously offered a shoulder to cry on for those who have, like him, seen “how mean, cruel and unfair life can be sometimes” is better equipped than most to put himself in the shoes of his political opponents — and even extend them a political lifeline.
… The debt limit fight has magnified a point that perhaps gets lost in the litany of genuine (and manufactured) outrages that define our political moment: Most Americans would prefer less conflict, not more. Voters will reward the politicians who turn down the heat, rather than the ones who keep throwing gasoline on the fire. That was certainly the case when Biden won election in 2020, and it arguably helped Democrats overperform in the 2022 midterms.
Political analysts, because we’re terminally online, tend to underestimate the extent to which in politics you can win more battles with honey than vinegar — and that voters respond positively to generosity and empathy. Granted, that’s not true of a healthy percentage of Republican voters, but as for the rest of the electorate, political conflict is generally a turn-off.
Look, for example, at this Marist poll from last December. “Three-quarters of Americans say they want members of Congress to compromise with the other side.” Boom. While that view is only held by 66% of Republicans, 82% of Democrats and 78% of Independents prefer conciliation to conflict. Even Democrats would prefer their leaders work with Republicans rather than run roughshod over them. According to a January Pew poll, “A majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (58%) say that Biden should try as best he can to work with GOP leaders to accomplish things, even at the cost of disappointing some of Biden’s voters.” Only 34 percent of Republican voters wanted GOP leaders to do the same — and yet the pull of compromise and bipartisanship was still powerful enough for Kevin McCarthy that he struck a deal with Biden.
As I noted in the piece …
Leading up to the weekend’s agreement, some House Democrats grumbled that the president was maintaining radio silence and refusing to publicly criticize Republicans, who were, in effect, holding the economy hostage. But holding back most likely built trust between the two sides — as did Biden’s concession in agreeing to negotiate after months of having said he wouldn’t. Rather than demonize his political opponents, he sought to meet them halfway.
And in the wake of a debt limit agreement that looks like a clear win for the White House, Biden has resisted the urge to spike the football. As he told reporters Monday: “One of the things that I heard some of you saying is ‘Why doesn’t Biden say what a good deal it is?’ ... You think that’s going to help get it passed? No.” Avoiding a victory lap allows House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to tout the deal as a GOP win and build support in his caucus for passage.
This desire for cooperation and less drama in Washington is a big part of why Biden won the 2020 Democratic nomination and was elected president that year. And the fact that he could reach across the aisle and make a deal with Kevin McCarthy will likely pay larger political dividends than if he had acted unilaterally and invoked the 14th Amendment to avoid default. It’s a payoff on his 2020 campaign promise that he would turn down the heat in Washington, work with Republicans and get things done. He did it in 2021 and 2022 on infrastructure, gun control, expanding veterans’ benefits, and same-sex marriage. The debt limit deal is more of the same.
One of the reasons that I think people underestimate Biden is that he’s an unusual politician for our current moment of such intense polarization. It’s not that he can’t be aggressive or partisan. But that type of politics does not define him. He’s not mean, nasty, or angry. Instead, he’s hopeful, optimistic, and empathetic. Biden is an oddly comforting figure at a time of intense political discomfort. That might be his most potent political advantage.
On The Other Hand …
Then there is Ron DeSantis, who hit the presidential campaign trail this week with a dose of Trumpian-style politics.
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