WASHINGTON—On Tuesday, Punxsutawney Phil’s Groundhog Day prediction of a long winter ahead matched the unusual accumulation of snow in D.C. Local residents greeted the weather by digging out cross-country skis, postponing events, and hitting sledding hills. The general mood was summarized in a viral video of the pandas at the National Zoo joyfully sliding around. For many here, the response is like the 2000 movie “Snow Day.”
There’s a different obligatory movie reference every Feb. 2 — the sense of frustratingly repetitive déjà vu that characterized Bill Murray’s 2003 film “Groundhog Day.” And even in highly unusual times, there is a sense of repeating patterns early in Joe Biden’s presidency. Another day, another set of executive orders reversing those of Donald Trump, another frustrating report on vaccine distribution, another absolutely bananas insider report of the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn the election. Even House managers filing an impeachment case against Trump brought the sense of recent history repeating.
Worse, for many Democrats, was the prospect of negotiating with Senate Republicans over Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package. Biden has talked up “unity.” He’s on the record as being opposed to getting rid of the Senate filibuster. Both point to a perceived need to get 10 Republican votes for his package. On Monday night, he met with 10 Republican senators to talk about that.
Some fear a Groundhog Day situation: there’s recent history of Democratic presidents bending over backwards to meet Republicans halfway. At the end of that movie, the progressives always get rolled. Picture Bill Clinton getting impeached while winding up the bipartisan face of legislation slashing welfare rolls. Much of Barack Obama’s memoir details how he searched in vain for reasonable compromises with reasonable Republicans, and lost control of Congress for his trouble.
Today, attempts at compromise seem even more quixotic. How do you meet opponents halfway when their starting position is that California wildfires were started by space lasers controlled by a Jewish cabal? You don’t.
Even many Republicans are recognizing that. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called out his party’s space-laser theorist, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, as “cancer for the Republican party.” Still, McConnell’s brand of Republicanism offers no great hope for Democrats: he was the obstructionist-in-chief of the Obama years.
Biden met with the most moderate edge of the Republican caucus, which includes Mitt Romney and Susan Collins. Even they brought the kind of compromise proposal progressives fear: less than one third the size of Biden’s plan, offering less money to fewer people to accomplish less across the board.
Those who worry bipartisanship will be the rallying cry of surrender might take heart from Biden’s response. In a statement after the meeting, the president’s press secretary said, “While he is hopeful that the rescue plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package” — a filibuster-proof way to pass the package with or without any Republican support — “is a path to achieve that end.” Biden, the statement said, “will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment.”
Many Democrats will be heartened if that approach holds, and many other Americans likely will be, too. Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus plan is popular — A Yahoo News/YouGov poll this week showed that two-thirds of Americans support it. Biden argues that the emergency of the moment demands he not water this package down. But even in pure political terms, compromising would be alienating to many voters of both parties.
There’s research that shows that voters, in the abstract, value bipartisanship. But there’s also a strong argument that they judge politicians on whether they deliver what they promise. Recent experience is that Republicans greet Democratic attempts at bipartisanship by making it impossible for Democrats to fulfil their promises. When that situation created gridlock in the Obama years, voters didn’t punish Republican obstructionists — they elected a Republican outsider to shake things up.
Biden’s alternative may be to keep the door to bipartisan co-operation open while relentlessly pursuing a popular agenda, with or without help from across the aisle. That may mean using reconciliation here. It may mean ending the filibuster later. The New York Times writer Ezra Klein has advocated for that, noting that even if the tactic fails politically, and the Democrats lose control of the Senate in the midterm election, at least they will have delivered some of their promises and, according to their own policy goals, made the country a better place.
It may even turn out that acting on popular policy goals rather than compromising them away would achieve a kind of unity — or at least broader cross-partisan popularity outside the walls of Congress. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain suggested as much Tuesday, tweeting, “This IS a bipartisan agenda,” with a link to a poll showing Biden’s policy priorities have strong public support.
In a way, something similar was the solution for Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” — he kept reliving the same enraging day until he realized he might as well spend it trying to do as much good as he could, using knowledge gained through frustrating experience to develop skills and put them to use helping those around him.
Which seems like a more productive plot twist to emulate than the one in “Snow Day,” in which the guy responsible for returning things to normal is captured, and his hard work undone to prolong a societal shutdown. The latter is more like the ending Washington is used to. But on a snowy Groundhog Day, it seemed possible the familiar scenario might for once lead to a different conclusion.