How “Corn Pop” Explains Biden’s Negotiation Strategy

Almost 60 years ago, a young white lifeguard tangled with a local gang leader. It taught him how to get what he wants.

Last year, Joe Biden ran for president repeatedly promising to restore bipartisanship. Yet, he has begun his presidency with budget reconciliation—a procedural route that sidelines the filibuster, allowing for passage of legislation on a party-line vote. Does that mean Biden’s campaign rhetoric was just for political purposes? Or that Biden has accepted the arguments from Democrats that chasing Republican votes is a fool’s game?

That’s certainly possible. But as Biden has been a loud and proud champion of bipartisanship for the entirety of his political career, drawing such conclusions may be premature.

A possible insight into Biden’s thinking can be found in an unlikely place: a version of his famous “Corn Pop” story.

Biden’s tale of a young lifeguard, tangling with a Black teenage gang leader who was violating the rules at a Wilmington pool, is usually told to show how he sought to transcend racial barriers. In Biden’s 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, Biden wrote that when Corn Pop wouldn’t stop jumping on the diving board, he snidely referred to him as Esther Williams, the actress and water dancer. That led to a confrontation with a razor-wielding Corn Pop, but Biden ultimately diffused the situation and they “ended up being friends.”

When a 2017 video of Biden’s recounting the story surfaced in 2019, critics on the left accused him of perpetuating racial stereotypes and even making the story up (the story checks out). Fox News’ Tucker Carlson mocked Biden by promising footage of the encounter and then airing a clip of “West Side Story.”

But when Biden told the Corn Pop story to journalist Robert Draper, for a 2006 GQ profile, it wasn’t in response to a question about racial understanding. It was in response to a question about foreign policy strategy: Was Biden, who had supported the 2002 Iraq war authorization, a “hawk” in the mold of Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson?

Biden said no: “I would say I have more of a John Kennedy foreign policy outlook. Kennedy was a guy who thought we needed a really strong military,” Biden told Draper. “He also placed an overwhelmingly high premium on cooperation with other nations. He believed that people, other nations and leaders, seldom acted against their own interests. They might be evil but not irrational. Whereas Scoop Jackson believed we could only change the world by force.”

Then to sharpen the point, he launched into the Corn Pop story:

So I jumped in, took him out, and kicked him out of the pool. Well, so I’m closing the pool at dusk, and I always parked my Chevy convertible outside of this gate.

The year before, there’d been a white lifeguard who’d gotten sixty, eighty stitches around the middle of his back, because straight razors were the thing in those days. God, give me back straight razors instead of Glocks.

Anyway, so Corn Pop and some of his guys are waiting in my car for me with their straight razors. I say to the maintenance man, “Look, let’s call the park police.” He says, “You do that, you might as well quit.”

I said, “Man, I’m not gonna go out there.” So he took me out to the boiler room, got a great big roll of chain, and cut off six feet and said, “Wrap it around your arm, put a towel over it, and you go out and tell ’em you’re gonna wrap that goddamn chain around their head.”

So he’s watching, everyone’s watching, what am I gonna do? I go out. Six foot one, 155 pounds, right, I walk out. They creak their straight razors open.

So I take off the towel and say, “Corn Pop, you may cut me, but I’m gonna wrap this chain around your head and hurt you.”

Or that’s what I was supposed to say. That’s Scoop Jackson.

But here’s what I said: “I was wrong in calling you out, Corn Pop. You were wrong jumping on the board, and I should’ve thrown you out, but I shouldn’t have called you Esther.”

He looked at me. “You apologize for calling me Esther. Okay.” Puts up his razor, goes home.

The point is, you gotta be prepared to use the chain—but there’s other ways to do it.

What makes sense on the world stage also makes sense on Capitol Hill. Now budget reconciliation is Biden’s chain.

Not only is Biden prepared to pass a relief package without Republican votes, he is prepared to punish Republicans who vote against it on the campaign trail. And his team wants Republicans to know it.

This is how one White House aide explained it to Politico, “It’s going to be very difficult for Republican lawmakers to look their constituents in the eyes and try to explain why they voted against giving them $1,400 checks, why they voted against reopening schools, and why they voted against speeding up vaccinations.” A “close White House ally” added, “Members who stand for killing jobs in the worst downturn since the Great Depression will be at great risk of losing their own.”

So far, the strategy appears to be working. Public opinion has been squarely for Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion package. By putting sufficient relief ahead of appeasing the 10 Republicans who made a $600 billion counteroffer, Biden has kept the focus on the public need. Democrats in Congress wrapped the chain around Biden’s arm last week when they took the first procedural step in the reconciliation process and passed a budget resolution, while Republicans were floundering.

But we don’t know if Biden is determined to pass a relief bill through the reconciliation process or is merely prepared to do so. He has a chain but he may not have to use it.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this week that “the most likely path at this point is through a reconciliation process,” and that a reconciliation bill can still attract Republican votes. However, “most likely” is not absolute certitude. While it is not said loudly from the White House podium, Biden still retains some interest in avoiding reconciliation if possible.

Since reconciliation can only be used after the passage of a fiscal year budget resolution, getting the “Group of 10” Republicans behind a relief bill saves a reconciliation shot for something else down the road. Furthermore, reconciliation provisions need to be “budgetary,” with an impact on revenue or spending that is not “merely incidental.” The president acknowledged last week that upping the minimum wage to $15 an hour probably can’t be done through reconciliation. Likewise, major progress on priorities such as immigration reform and voting rights can only happen through traditional legislative means, and that means with 60 Senate votes. Biden still has an incentive to build a working relationship with Republicans, so his legislative record isn’t limited to what can be squeezed into a couple of reconciliation bills.

We also don’t know yet how Sen. Joe Manchin or other moderates will insert themselves in the legislative process. They could threaten to hold up passage until Biden engages in more robust talks with the Republican 10. They could force reductions to the initial proposals in a party-line reconciliation bill.

And we don’t know if ten or more Republicans will, in the end, be convinced that voting for a $1 trillion-plus sized relief bill makes more political sense. What we do know is Biden is wielding a chain.

Biden may have the heart of a bipartisan, but he has the head of a negotiator. By making a big opening bid, rallying public support, showing limited interest in concessions, and not rushing to engage in extended formal negotiations with Republicans, he has significant leverage. If Republicans don’t come his way, Biden can move forward regardless. If ten Republicans do conclude they are better off supporting a bill than not, Biden will be able to insist they accept something reasonably close to his opening bid.

Surely, what Biden would most like is a bill of sufficient size, backed by 60 or more senators, outside of reconciliation. He wants them to think like Corn Pop and fold up their razors. Republicans will have to decide if that’s preferable to the chain.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"