Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
There is an iconic scene in Gladiator when Maximus (Russell Crowe) lifts his arms out and exclaims: “Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained! Is this not why you were here?”
Donald Trump’s departure from Washington aboard Marine One was markedly less dramatic to say the least, but asking those three rhetorical questions to the press might have been a fitting way to draw a line under his presidency. Like or loathe his politics, Trump kept us entertained.
Throughout the Trump era, the gap between fact and fiction blurred: inaugural crowd sizes, vote counts and election outcomes spring to mind. Not only that, but Washington politics also increasingly resembled a Hollywood production. A cast of characters defined by their ability to remain close to the centre of power at all costs. The West Wing, The Thick of It, House of Cards, Veep and The Apprentice all combined for a presidential term like no other.
The early days of the Biden presidency look different. Less politics and more policy, starting with attempted outreach to Republicans across the aisle on a Covid-19 relief package.
Whilst bipartisanship is a worthy ambition, the risk of failure is high. With midterm elections in two years, sitting Republicans are more likely to fear a primary challenge from the right than losing their seat to a Democrat, unless they are in a genuinely competitive race.
Ramming through a Covid relief package and an over-application of Executive Orders would make a mockery of this president who campaigned on a message of unity. Biden might well be pursuing bipartisanship but if that fails, he is expected to push through his agenda without Republican support.
So the White House is set to be a more functional seat of government over the next four years than the last four. But Biden cannot control party politics. Democrats and Republicans are undertaking their own bouts of infighting.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, is having to work overtime to keep his conference together. For the GOP, nothing captures the battle for the future of the party better than last week’s votes on the futures of Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Rep Cheney, daughter of former the Vice President, Dick Cheney, and something akin to Republican royalty, voted in support of impeaching Trump and has unapologetically doubled down on her position since then. She has irked Trump loyalists such as Matt Gaetz, who even travelled to her home district in Wyoming to campaign against her. House Republicans voted emphatically (145 to 61) in a secret ballot to allow Cheney to keep her position in the Republican leadership.
Intriguingly, in the same week, they also voted against stripping Greene of her two committee assignments. The vote was prompted after it was revealed that in social media post that Greene has expressed support for QAnon and 9/11 conspiracy theories, and suggested that school shootings in Parkland and Newtown were “false flag” operations to crack down on the Second Amendment.
So on the one hand, last week was a clear expression that there is still room in the Republican Party for centrists and those willing to challenge the legacy and ongoing influence of Donald Trump.
On the other, it showed that the Republican leadership harbours real fears of a potential party division if it excludes those most closely aligned with Trump. As McCarthy and the Republican leadership try to keep a lid on the simmering tensions within the party, an Axios poll indicated where the GOP base is gravitating towards. Among Republicans and those leaning GOP, Greene had a net approval rating of +10. Liz Cheney, meanwhile, was at -28.
These characters form a helpful sub-plot in the future of the Republican Party, but the star of the show is still Trump. Serious attention will be paid to his impeachment trial this week, where he faces a single charge of inciting an insurrection relating to the January 6th riots at the Capitol. His lawyers argue that the trial violates his free speech and due process rights as well as being “constitutionally flawed.”
But do not let those internal divisions and infighting distract you from the serious issues at play.
Just as the Trump soap opera continues into the latest season – Impeachment: The Sequel – it is a vital week for Biden’s Covid relief package. In many ways, this split screen between American politics as reality TV and American politics as detailed policy is the perfect encapsulation of the past four years compared to the next.
The White House’s $1.9 trillion package is the centrepiece of the new administration’s legislative and political agenda. Crucially, it only has one shot at getting it right from the outset. Get it wrong, and a failed policy will plague the administration for its duration.
Committees in the House of Representatives will begin detailed work on the policy proposal this week. Disagreement in the Senate becomes intriguing later down the legislative line. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, where Kamala Harris breaks the tie, Democrats need every single one of their Senators to support a proposal to secure a simple majority.
This means that each Senator is now emboldened to stand alone and make demands on legislation, with the ability to stop its progress entirely. This explains why a handful of Democratic Senators in low cost-of-living states have expressed their opposition to a $15 minimum wage – which has been tacked onto the Covid relief bill.
A dozen House Democrats are on the record to prefer regional differences based on the cost of living. Putting the politics aside, process here is paramount. Senate Democrats will need to convince Biden to allow them to include an increase in the minimum wage in the Coronavirus Relief Bill. It was a major campaign promise that helped keep the left of his party on side, but in recent days the President has sounded increasingly sanguine about it surviving into the relief package.
If the White House’s attempt at bipartisanship fails, Democrats in Congress will move to pass the stimulus package without Republican support in the Senate, using a procedure known as reconciliation. Under the rules of reconciliation, only measures that have an impact on the budget can be passed.
We have spent little time during the last four years obsessing over such Congressional detail because the politics of the Trump era was so dominating. The White House’s dysfunction made for compelling viewing but left little room for serious policymaking. Internal party divides will always be interesting in the latest context of who’s up and who’s down in terms of power and influence. Democrats will inevitably descend into tribal disagreements once the honeymoon gloss on the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency begins to fade. Republicans are working hard to keep their warring factions together, with GOP leadership hoping the midterms in two years is enough to keep their members focussed.
This White House looks to be significantly more interested in policy than politics. Are you not entertained? Don’t expect to be.