He meets with opponents in the White House, in Congress, over video, even on an airport runway. But however many Republican hands Joe Biden shakes he can’t get to grips with one extraordinary problem: most Republicans still won’t accept he’s the legitimately elected president.
The disconnect with reality among Republicans is bizarre even by Washington standards.
“In modern history, we’re really not looking at anything remotely commensurate to this,” said Capri Cafaro, who teaches at American University’s School of Public Affairs and is a former Democratic Ohio state senator.
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“This is pretty unprecedented.”
All this week, Biden will be promoting his unity pitch.
On Tuesday, he meets virtually with a bipartisan group of governors. Wednesday, he’ll meet at the White House with the four top Democratic and Republican leaders from Congress.
On Thursday, Biden will be back sitting down with the proverbial enemy, this time five Republican senators.
The Wednesday talks, with Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Republican chiefs Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, will put the most powerful, and fiercely opposed, people in the country around the same table.
“They will have a dialogue about policy areas of mutual agreement and identifying common ground on which they can work together and deliver results on the challenges facing American families,” a White House official said.
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Sounds pretty positive.
But Biden will be talking to leaders of a party in which 55% of their supporters, according to an April Reuters/Ipsos poll, still think the Democrat’s defeat of Donald Trump last November was rigged.
A majority of Republican lawmakers also voted to object to the result.
And that not a shred of evidence exists for their complaints makes no difference.
Like the fake Moon landing, the JFK assassination plots or any other lurid American conspiracy theory, what Biden calls the “Big Lie” has taken on a life of its own.
Many, Biden included, expected things to be different with Trump gone.
“You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” the future president predicted.
When Trump whipped up supporters to march on Congress while legislators were certifying the election on January 6, the country was shocked.
Still, Trump left office two weeks later and a return to normalcy seemed possible.
After all, the rioters, including a self-declared “QAnon shaman” in a horned fur headdress, did not seem exactly representative.
Yet just like QAnon, the seemingly too-ridiculous-to-take-seriously conspiracy theory that sees Trump as a savior of humanity, the rigged election fantasy has steadily leaked from the fringes into the real world — with real consequences.
Egged on by Trump from his luxury Florida resort, the entire Republican party is undergoing a metamorphosis where to oppose the election lie is to invite disgrace.
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Liz Cheney, the number three Republican in the House of Representatives and a longtime right-wing stalwart, is likely to be stripped of her position this Wednesday because she denounced the “dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”
McCarthy, one of the big four leaders meeting Biden Wednesday will be overseeing her public punishment.
For sure, conspiracy nuts and a vengeful ex-president are not Biden’s only problems in uniting the United States. He has his own party to handle.
In the first three months of his administration, Biden and his chief of staff Ron Klain managed to keep Democrats together. But as negotiations intensify on hugely ambitious, multi-trillion-dollar spending proposals, splits risk intensifying.
To get anything at all through the evenly divided Senate, the White House needs every last Democrat, including senators as diverse as centrist Joe Manchin and fiery leftwinger Bernie Sanders.
To get much else of the agenda passed Biden would also need at least 10 Republicans.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Biden, a senator himself for four decades, is sincere in seeking bipartisanship.
“He truly believes that government works best when both major parties work cooperatively,” Tobias said. “I believe that he will be successful in realizing his goal to improve democracy.”
And at minimum, Biden is talking the talk.
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Last month, before his address to a joint session of Congress, he shared a nationally televised fist bump with Cheney.
When he flew last week to ultra-Republican Louisiana, Biden chatted on the airport tarmac in Lake Charles with state Governor John Bel Edwards. Both Catholics, they at least found one thing in common to talk about: their pocket prayer rosaries.
These symbolic gestures were startling in a Washington where political trench warfare has become the norm.
They may not be enough.
The 2022 midterm legislative elections are already looking ominous for Biden and if Democrats cede the House of Representatives to Republicans, bipartisanship can likely be written off.
But Cafaro says if there’s even a little hope for unity, then the 78-year-old president himself will be the reason.
“There’s very few people in Washington at this point that have as much experience as Joe Biden,” Cafaro said.
“So in that regard, I think if there’s anyone that would potentially be able to successfully find a roadmap, it’s him.”