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Why has Biden managed to put together so many bipartisan wins?

Joe Biden has racked up more bipartisan victories than any president of either party in a generation. The tricky part is understanding why.

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When President Joe Biden held a signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act at the White House this week, he took care to emphasize its bipartisan support:

“Let us think about today: December 13, 2022, a day when, thanks to Democrats and Republicans, we finally protect marriage rights in federal law.”

He had a point: Most Republicans in the House and the Senate opposed the Respect for Marriage Act, but it nevertheless passed with a fair amount GOP support in both chambers. As we discussed soon after, the measure is part of a larger series of bipartisan wins, which includes an infrastructure package, the CHIPS and Science Act, an expansion of veterans benefits in the PACT Act, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the first major legislation to address gun violence in nearly three decades — and even the Postal Service Reform Act.

It’s only natural to wonder why.

I’ll confess that I didn’t expect this dynamic to emerge as the current Congress got to work early last year. Indeed, during Barack Obama’s presidency, the Democratic White House was practically desperate to strike bipartisan deals, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slapped away Obama’s outstretched hand.

As the Kentucky Republican saw it, the public believes bipartisan bills are popular, so he rejected every element of the Democratic White House’s agenda so voters would not see Obama succeeding. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell told The Atlantic in 2011, referring to legislation backed by the White House.

As regular readers know, he never felt the need to be coy about any of this. “Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do,” the GOP leader told National Journal in March 2010. “Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion.”

In other words, McConnell felt like he’d cracked a code: Republicans would make popular measures less popular by killing them. His plan was predicated on the idea that if he could just turn every debate into a partisan food fight, voters would be repulsed; Obama’s outreach to Republicans would be perceived as a failure; progressive ideas would fail; and GOP candidates would be rewarded for their obstinance.

And yet, in the Biden era, some Senate Republicans have been willing to cut deals with Democrats, rather than simply offer a reflexive “no” in response to every appeal.

There are a variety of possible explanations, and plenty of room for debate as to which is correct.

Maybe Republicans feared filibuster reform: In the recent past, Senate Democrats were generally opposed to dramatic overhauls of the chamber’s filibuster rules. GOP abuses changed those attitudes considerably, leaving Republican leaders with an uncomfortable realization: The more they simply refused to negotiate on measures designed to garner bipartisan backing, the more likely it became that Democrats would push for majority-rule reforms.

Maybe Biden is good at this: Obama was a senator before reaching the White House, but his tenure on the Hill was relatively brief, and he did not establish close connections with his Senate colleagues. Biden, in contrast, has deep ties to many longtime members, including McConnell, and decades of experience as an effective negotiator, which might very well have made a practical difference at the policymaking table.

Maybe the GOP feared a backlash: In general, voters tend to blame the majority party when partisan gridlock leads to congressional inaction. It’s possible, especially in the wake of the Trump era, that Republicans worried that the pattern would not hold, and the party couldn’t afford to reject popular ideas.

Maybe Republicans didn’t expect dealmaking to matter: GOP leaders saw the historical patterns and inflation rates, leading to widely held assumptions that Republicans would ride a “red wave” back into the majority. It’s possible that they accepted some bipartisan agreements with the assumption that they wouldn’t help Democrats too much — many voters don’t pay attention to individual legislative accomplishments — and some GOP incumbents might even benefit from having something to brag about to their constituents.

Observers can debate which of these explanations works best, and whether some combination of them helps tell the story. The bottom line, however, remains the same: Biden has racked up more bipartisan victories than any president of either party in a generation.