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Biden predicted a GOP 'epiphany' after the election. Trump's standing in the way.

Some Democrats worry the president-elect's talk of bipartisanship sets him up for failure.
IMage: Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump walks off into a setting (or rising?) sun.
With Trump's political presence still looming large, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown no sign of accepting Biden as the next commander in chief, much less working with him in Congress. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden predicted that Republicans would have an "epiphany" after President Donald Trump lost. Three weeks after the election, there's no sign of it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., still hasn't acknowledged Biden as president-elect. And, like most Republicans, he hasn't condemned Trump's unprecedented attempts to overturn the will of the voters.

While McConnell has been silent on Biden's early Cabinet nominees, some ambitious senators are already criticizing the group, which includes Antony Blinken for Secretary of State and Alejandro Mayorkas to run Homeland Security.

The GOP response to the election is an ominous sign for Biden's pitch to usher in a new era of unity and bipartisanship. Even in defeat, Trump's presence looms large and Republicans remain wary of offending his followers. Trump may have to leave office but he gets to take with him one of his most powerful weapons to shape party behavior: His Twitter account.

On the cusp of a Thanksgiving weekend during a raging pandemic and economic crisis that Biden is poised to inherit, progressives want him to reset expectations.

"The epiphany is not happening and for his own sake it's time for Biden to shift gears," said Adam Jentleson, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide. "It was fine as empty political rhetoric but continuing to lean into it just sets Biden up to fail. If he keeps pressing the idea that he can usher in a new era of bipartisanship, all Republicans have to do is deny him cooperation and he will have failed to deliver on one of his central promises."

Presidents typically get some Cabinet nominees confirmed by the Senate on their first day in office. McConnell's office did not comment when asked if that tradition will extend to Biden. Unless Democrats win both Georgia seats in the Jan. 5 runoff, he'll be the first president since 1989 to take office without his party controlling both chambers of Congress.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted that Biden's nominees were "a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts — and #BigTech sellouts." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called them Ivy League graduates who have "strong resumes" and "will be polite & orderly caretakers of America's decline."

Other conservative senators were pleased Biden didn't choose more liberal nominees.

McConnell is known to hold his cards close to the vest, read the political winds and pick his moments to exercise power. He demonstrated a penchant for aggressive obstruction under President Barack Obama, but proved somewhat more amenable on administration personnel.

Some Republicans say his indulgence of Trump is about Georgia.

"I don't read much into McConnell's silence. I think he's trying to show some deference to Trump in hopes of promoting party unity ahead of the Georgia runoff," said Alex Conant, a Republican campaign veteran who has also worked in the Senate.

'A great, great epiphany'

On the campaign trail last year, Biden repeatedly promised a GOP "epiphany" after Trump was out of the way. He paused on using that word during the heat of Democratic primary contests, but returned to it in July, saying at a fundraiser that "if we can't unite the country, we're dead."

"With Donald Trump gone, the fear of retribution has been taken away," Biden told donors, according to Bloomberg News. "If we win as big as we possibly can, there's going to be a great, great epiphany that's going to take place, as we Catholics say. And they're going to begin to wonder about whether or not if they take me on and lose by just being obstructionist."

If Republicans win one Georgia race, they'll keep the Senate. If they lose both, the chamber will split 50-50 and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris can cast the tie-breaking vote to give Democrats control.

Conant said he expects qualified nominees to be confirmed in a GOP-led Senate, though he noted that the hearings could be contentious. He said the Republican Party has some soul-searching to do.

"Losing the White House is difficult for any party and there is always a leadership vacuum afterwards," Conant said. "While I think many Republicans will be open to working with Biden on bipartisan initiatives, opposition to Democrats' more left-wing policies may be the one thing that really keeps Republicans united."

Some of the president's critics don't expect the party to shed its Trumpian colors. One of them is Tim Miller, a veteran GOP operative who worked to defeat Trump and officially left the party this week.

"Sitting here today watching these Republican a--holes sit silently while the president trashes our democracy with preposterous conspiracies and becomes the first modern president to refuse to concede an election, it’s clear that any hopes for reconciliation were folly," Miller wrote.

Trump's groundless claims of widespread fraud and a "rigged election" appear to have taken root inside his party. In a recent Monmouth poll, 76 percent of Republicans said they're not confident the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately.

Despite Trump's defeat, Republicans over-performed the polls, gaining House seats and winning many competitive Senate contests. That has prevented the sort of blowout election that Biden and the Democrats were counting on to crush the remnants of Trumpism in his party.

In a Morning Consult/Politico poll out this week, 68 percent of GOP voters said Trump is more in touch with them than are Republicans in Congress. In a hypothetical 2024 primary, 54 percent favor Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence next at 12 percent.

"He's a political phenom," said former GOP Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia. "He knows — in that simplistic World Wrestling Entertainment background and reality TV — he knows how to simplify difficult issues and appeal to people and convince them that he's the man on their side."