Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Opinion | Biden has a theory of MAGA that just might be working

Opinion | Biden has a theory of MAGA that just might be working

Now that Congress has passed the debt limit deal, explanations for President Biden’s success in negotiating the outcome are abounding. Among them: Biden drew on his long experience in Washington to achieve bipartisan compromise; he avoided claiming a win so Republicans could support it; he didn’t get distracted by the media’s second-guessing.

Here’s another way to understand this unexpected outcome: Biden is operating from a largely unappreciated theory of MAGA, and in some ways, it’s working.

Passage of the deal, which averts default and economic calamity, was decisively bipartisan. The Senate approved it Thursday night with 17 Republicans backing it, after it passed the House with support from more than two-thirds of House Republicans.

This happened even though the deal’s spending cuts are not close to what Republicans sought. Yes, the outcome legitimizes the debt limit as a tool of extortion and imposes cruel new work requirements on many food stamp recipients. But Republicans didn’t use this showdown to crash or cripple the economy, as some observers (including me) worried they might.

Biden’s theory of MAGA helps explain this outcome. Biden ran in 2020 on the idea that the country faced an existential threat from the far right, highlighting white supremacy, political violence and President Donald Trump’s unprecedented attacks on democracy. This year’s reelection launch highlighted the assault on the Capitol and cast “MAGA extremists” as a threat to American “freedom.”

However, in promising to restore “the soul of the nation” in the face of this threat, Biden has continually distinguished between MAGA Republicans and more conventional ones. This approach has been criticized by those of us who see much of the GOP as extreme and dangerous — after all, many elected Republicans helped whitewash Trump’s insurrection — and think Biden’s characterization of non-MAGA Republicans plays down that broader threat.

But Biden’s reading served him well in the debt limit standoff. Contrary to much criticism, Bidenworld believes that refusing to negotiate at the outset was key: It forced Republicans to offer their own budget, which created an opening to attack the savage spending cuts in it.

Notably, Biden and other Democrats relentlessly characterized those cuts as destructive and dangerous in the MAGA vein. Bidenworld did believe that some MAGA Republicans were willing to default and force global economic cataclysm to harm the president’s reelection, a senior Biden adviser tells me, but also that many non-MAGA Republicans ultimately could be induced not to go that far.

That seems to be what happened. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein points out, the outcome falsified the prediction that the GOP as a party would use that leverage to inflict maximum chaos. Meanwhile, the cuts themselves won’t be nearly as damaging to the economy as the ones in the 2011 standoff, as the New York Times’s Paul Krugman explains.

This illuminates Bidenworld’s broader theory of the MAGA GOP: The way to defeat the MAGA threat to the country is to marginalize it within the GOP coalition — that is, to contain it.

“He has never hesitated to call out the extreme MAGA wing of the Republican Party,” Kate Bedingfield, a senior adviser to the 2020 Biden campaign and to the White House through February, told me. “But he gives Republican voters and legislators who reject that wing of the party a place to go.”

Something similar happened in the 2022 elections. Biden and Democrats in tough races tried to strike a balance between reaching out to Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents while casting MAGA extremism as a clear and present danger to the country. It worked: Many prominent MAGA senatorial and gubernatorial candidates lost, partly because many Republican voters decided to vote Democratic.

The debt limit outcome was far from a uniform victory: Most of the GOP did engage in hostage-taking and debt limit extortion throughout much of the process, legitimizing extreme tactics before balking at going all the way.

Despite all this, the fact that so many non-MAGA Republicans voted for the deal — and that Democrats and Republicans alike are celebrating this as a bipartisan success — could mean the party as a whole isn’t broadly perceived as extreme and hostage to MAGA heading into 2024.

“The downside of the deal is that it gives vulnerable House Republicans separation from their MAGA counterparts,” Dan Sena, a senior Democratic operative during the 2018 Democratic House takeover, told me. “That could be a challenge.”

There is a tension in Biden’s approach to the GOP. His initial rationale for running was that the GOP is largely hostage to an extremism that foundationally threatens the American experiment. His reelection case is that he has begun to defuse that threat and another term will complete that task.

Yet Biden also plainly believes that conducting the nation’s business on a bipartisan basis is inherently stabilizing. That sometimes requires treating the opposition — or a large swath of it — as a mostly conventional political party, which risks mitigating perceptions of the threat it poses.

In the debt limit outcome, that tension proved far more navigable than many, including me, expected. How this tension will play out in 2024 is hard to predict, but for now, the Biden theory of MAGA has mostly been vindicated.

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