OP-ED: Why the Ball is in McConnell’s Court


Jansen Hammock, Contributor

President-elect Joe Biden ran a campaign centered on what he called the “Soul of America,” stating that he is “a proud Democrat, but will be an American President.” While the message seems to have won over the American people, it is now up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to come around and embrace the electoral mandate. If McConnell wants to keep a Republican Senate, then it is imperative that he come to the table. Otherwise, McConnell is going to find himself not only opposed to Biden, but in the minority of public opinion on critical issues: COVID-19 stimulus checks, student loan debt relief, and the minimum wage, among other leading issues of the 2022 midterms on the horizon.

 In the last decade, McConnell has proven himself to be a formidable opponent to Democratic administrations in both minority and majority terms. Under President Obama, McConnell blocked the distribution of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds that he had voted to authorize three months prior to Obama’s election under President Bush. The most high-profile obstruction to the Democrats’ agenda is his now infamous blocking of the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. Now, McConnell has refused to recognize Biden as the President-elect and seems to be sticking by President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. As a battle between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party rages on, several House Democrats have recently sounded the alarm for the 2022 midterm elections. But, Democrats should stop fighting about the 2022 midterms and use the mandate Biden has given them to put Republicans in the hot seat. Biden’s message of unification has placed the burden on McConnell and forced him to choose between compromising or reverting to his usual obstruction. Either choice could place Senate Republicans in jeopardy.

In 2022, 20 incumbent Republicans will be up for re-election, compared to only 12 Democrats. Of these races, the most competitive are six Republicans seats and three Democratic seats. This should be a cause for concern for Senate Republicans regardless of the outcome of the upcoming runoff elections in Georgia: McConnell has noted the 2020 races gave him concern about Republican performance amongst college-educated voters and suburban women in particular. Democrats could capitalize on this trend by balancing between Biden’s message of unification and emphasizing McConnell’s penchant for obstruction.

 Biden may not start off in the position both Obama and Trump did with a trifecta in government. This means Biden and Democrats have less to lose in 2022 and should shift focus to the offense in the Senate and defense in the House. Biden could take note from the “Roosevelt Revolution” in the 1934 midterm, in which Senate Democrats gained a super-majority and the New York Times claimed an “overwhelming victory” for Roosevelt and his New Deal. FDR’s New Deal legislation created a strong Democratic environment in both the House and Senate by energizing unions and immigrants. If Biden is able to effectively steward over the COVID-19 pandemic and achieve some key legislative wins on healthcare or the economy he could replicate this strategy. The first step for Biden would be cancelling student loan debt through an executive order, which would be an instrumental and popular change. Additionally, Biden should broker a deal on COVID-19 stimulus and infrastructure with McConnell. Democrats have been too reactionary in recent elections by fighting with one another about Republican framings of their positions. With this playbook, Biden has given Democrats a chance to control the narrative and define any Republicans that vote against bills intended to create jobs during an economic downturn.

Despite their differences, Biden and McConnell have a history of negotiation. In 2011, Biden and McConnell were able to compromise during tax and budget talks when the economy was in peril: in spite of appearances, a McConnell staffer has even noted that the two “got along reasonably well.” This relationship will be tested for the next four years as McConnell decides between giving Biden legislative wins or holding his agenda hostage. Washington Post contributor Steven Perlstein has posed a slew of areas where Biden and Senate Republicans could coalesce to deliver on policies like a carbon tax or minimum wage increase. In certain policy areas, Biden has the upper hand. For instance, two-thirds of Americans are in favor of raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars, and while Liberals fear McConnell’s obstruction, McConnell can’t operate with the same playbook he used under Obama. If McConnell refuses to compromise on stimulus, Republicans will be at odds with public concerns about the economic impacts of the pandemic. Additionally, McConnell would be at a severe disadvantage if the Supreme Court strikes down the popular Affordable Care Act. With four years and no replacement, McConnell would have to either compromise with Biden or refuse to put a bill on the floor which would imperil Republicans in swing states. McConnell would have to come to the table on at least some of these issues or he risks Senate seats in 2022.

Outside of the Senate, there are key areas Biden could create popularity through executive action. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has claimed Biden’s first 100 days should “look like FDR’s.” If Biden’s first 100 days delivers on the needs of the American people without McConnell, it would illustrate to voters that much more could be done by giving Biden a Senate he can work with in 2022. Pundits should be wary of claiming Biden’s presidency is doomed before it has started. Biden’s campaign strategy seemed to both energize the Democratic base and convert states that voted for Trump in 2016. Biden’s dedication to ushering in an era of unification was enough to win him the presidency. If McConnell and Senate Republicans reject these opportunities they place Biden and Senate Democrats at an advantage to capitalize on Republican obstruction in 2022. Regardless of the results in Georgia’s Senate run-offs January 5th, if McConnell wants a Republican Senate for the remainder of his term, he must come to the table with Biden.

Image Credit: “Mitch McConnell” by Gage Skidmore is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0