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Opinion | Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell Hold a Frenemy Summit

Wednesday promises to be a big day in Washington. For the first time since taking office, President Biden is scheduled for a face-to-face meeting at the White House with Congress’s “big four” — that is, the top Democratic and Republican leaders from each chamber. The stated topic du jour: infrastructure, and whether there is a snowball’s chance of achieving a bipartisan deal.

White House meetings between Democratic leaders and Donald Trump tended to be nasty affairs. You never knew who’d start hurling grade-school taunts or storm out in a huff. Mr. Trump’s dealings with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, could also be touchy. They still are: Just last week, the former president called Mr. McConnell “gutless and clueless” for not working to “expose” the supposed 2020 election fraud.

Mr. Biden has promised to restore civility and comity to bipartisan relations. Members of both parties are itching to see what sort of personal dynamic emerges between the new president and his congressional tormentors, especially Mr. McConnell, a ruthless partisan assassin whom Mr. Biden nonetheless counts as an old friend.

But political friendships aren’t necessarily like normal friendships. Mr. Biden and Mr. McConnell have known each other a long time, having served nearly a quarter-century together in one of the nation’s clubbiest institutions. They have grown to respect each other’s political savvy, horse-trading skills and knowledge of the Senate’s arcane rules and folkways.

Each has a sense of what makes the other tick, and they claim to have mutual trust. There is even a shared personal affection.

Mr. McConnell was the only Republican senator to attend the funeral of Mr. Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. He later arranged for a cancer research bill to be named after Beau. In 2011, Mr. Biden spoke at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center. In Mr. Biden’s final weeks as vice president, Mr. McConnell delivered an uncharacteristically funny, touching, human farewell tribute to Mr. Biden, whom he called “a real friend.”

Make no mistake: These men’s established ties and mutual esteem do not alter their political imperatives. Mr. McConnell will not be abandoning his long-running policy of obstructionism. Neither will he feel compelled to protect Mr. Biden from even the most unhinged attacks by his Republican colleagues — certainly not if his laissez-faire stance during last year’s presidential race is any indication.

Political friends may respect and even admire one another. But they will still slit one another’s throats — metaphorically, of course — when the occasion calls. Just something to keep in mind as the two septuagenarian lions sit down for what is really more of a photo op than a serious strategy session.

But not all political theater is empty. And while Wednesday’s meeting seems unlikely to produce an infrastructure breakthrough, it will send a message about Mr. Biden’s oft-stated commitment to bipartisanship — its value, its limits and his approach to managing the rough spots.

This president’s inclinations toward cross-aisle cooperation have long made many Democrats and progressives nervous. They suspect he is too naïve, too out of touch with today’s nasty, hyperpolarized Congress. They fear he will be rolled by the wily Mr. McConnell, especially if Mr. Biden remains too invested in his vow to win over Republicans.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “break the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
  • The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

Mr. Biden is not a hapless rube. He spent his first days in office issuing a barrage of executive actions, prompting caterwauling from Republicans, including Mr. McConnell, who accused him of betraying his promise to play nice.

When it came time to negotiate his $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, Mr. Biden acknowledged the absurdly inadequate counteroffer from the Republicans, then blew on past them. This led to even more complaints and charges of hypocrisy — none of which seem to have bothered the president all that much.

It seems Mr. Biden learned at least a little something during all those years watching McConnell & Company do everything in their power to undermine Barack Obama.

In such a political climate, it seems optimistic (read: delusional) to expect much concrete policy cooperation between Mr. Biden and Senate Republicans. In fact, at a news conference in Kentucky last week, Mr. McConnell proclaimed that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration.”

That doesn’t sound very friendly now, does it?

Mr. Biden, however, did not rise to the provocation. He mildly observed that he heard this same line from Mr. McConnell during the Obama administration but nonetheless “was able to get a lot done with him.”

Rhetorical de-escalation is itself valuable. By declining to counter Republicans’ jerkiness with his own, Mr. Biden is advancing his campaign pledge to lower the partisan heat. Politicians disagree. Vehemently. The key to a functional system is doing so without shredding the foundations of democracy.

Mr. Biden cannot allow Republicans to roll him in the pursuit of some utopian vision of bipartisanship. But he also needs to push the behavioral reset button, making clear that disagreements should not prompt members of the opposing teams to get personal or threatening — or to become so unhinged when things don’t go their way that they incite their followers to sack the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

In this way at least, Mr. Biden’s shared history with and respect for Mr. McConnell may come in handy, making it at least a smidgen easier to keep their interactions from becoming personally toxic. And on those occasions when he does stiff-arm Republicans, he can present the move as a sad necessity rather than a gleeful thumb in the eye.

Call it friendship, Washington-style.

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