by Michael Liss
Put a small child in a room with a single marshmallow. Tell him that, if he can wait for five minutes, he gets a second one. Leave the room, and see what he does. Can he sit there, staring at that scrumptious-if-a-tad-rubbery mound of goo and powdered sugar and just fight off the urge to grab it, tear it to bits, and, like the Cheshire Cat, leave nothing but a smile?
We, the voters, did it. We passed. Joe Biden will be our next President. America voted for stability and cohesiveness, for deferral of the pleasure of an adrenaline rush in return for a better outcome. We will, on January 20, 2021, be a better country for it.
We need to be better. Love him or loathe him, few could argue that President Trump was not a perpetual disrupter. Time may bring the perspective for more dispassionate analysis of his policies, but, right now, perhaps for just the next year or two, we need a different path.
There is an enemy at the gates we must confront and subdue. To do that, it’s increasingly clear we need an intense effort on the medical side, acceptance of public health measures, and system-wide cooperation. If we don’t get COVID-19 under control, we will not only let death walk amongst us unchallenged, but wreck our economy and our children’s future.
This is simply a truth. What is also a truth is that this is something Trump could not master. No virus ever succumbed to bluster, just as blunt force trauma is not universally effective as a negotiating strategy or in encouraging civic virtue.
As is appropriate in our system, eventually the voters get to choose. It is clear that Trump wanted to make the 2020 election about him, and he did. But in doing so, he assumed he could, once more, defy the laws of political gravity. Presidents are not just judged on demeanor and policy, but also how they handle crises. We did choose, and enough of us rejected his self-promotion as a sort of swashbuckling Albert Schweitzer to show him the general direction of the door.
This all seems a little unreal, both in the moment, and in hindsight. Against all odds, Joe Biden proved to be a serendipitous choice to face off against Trump’s unique skill set. I wasn’t thrilled with Biden’s entering into the nominating process. I thought him too old and too dated on policy, and I was desperate for Democrats to find new blood and resolve the disputes between the moderate and progressive wings of the Party. What’s more, while I wrote last September that Biden’s service had earned him the right to compete and that, like Lincoln, he was, in David Brooks’ phrase, “a very poor hater,” I questioned whether he could win the General Election with a candidacy that was based mostly on affect.
This was a fair concern. Biden was weak in the early primaries and, on the debate stage, he took attention from the other, more articulate and vigorous moderate candidates like Klobuchar, Harris, and Buttigieg. I feared his continued presence would splinter their support, while leaving Bernie and Warren clear shots at the nomination. This wasn’t what I wanted—the Left had passionate spokespeople; the Center needed a strong front-runner.
Then, a miracle and a nightmare. Representative Jim Clyburn stepped in with a critical endorsement, right before the South Carolina Primary, and Biden stomped the field. Centrist candidates dropped. A few days later, on Super Tuesday, Biden did it again. Then, hospitals (and mortuaries) in the Northeast began to fill up with victims of a disease that no one really seemed to understand.
Hindsight, as the virus now rips through states that were initially spared, is easy. Trump first saw COVID as a distraction from his central messaging, which was a steroidal mix of traditional Republican orthodoxy on economic and social issues, and a Pat-Buchannan-inspired, closed-fist approach to enforcing them. What is truly fascinating about Trump’s appeal (and what is indecipherable to Democrats) is how many of his supporters approach him as they would an all-you-can-eat barbeque. Take as much of the stuff as you like, skip the things you don’t, and go away happy. Trump, the long-time entertainer and casino-owner, instinctively understood it. Give the customer a thrill, and leave the moralizing to others.
Like it or not, it’s fair to say that, without COVID, Trump would have swaggered to reelection, while Democrats dithered and second-guessed one another about their search for the perfect mate. In light of Trump’s eternal quest for grievances, if I were he, I think I’d shake my fist at the sky. Jim Clyburn may have given him a weak-at-the-time opponent, but fate, and his own hubris, made that opponent formidable. Joe Biden won, convincingly, and Donald Trump lost, convincingly. As Larry Sabato tweeted,
This was NOT an especially close election. #PresidentElectBiden won 306 EVs plus a 4-5 million-votes plurality. You want close? Look at 1960,1968,1976,2000, among others. NETWORKS—Stop feeding this false storyline.
What’s next? Well, first we have to get through the thicket of Republican challenges and the toxicity of their language. Trump owns the GOP and few of its elected officials can chance not echoing the claims he makes. Both Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson have promised investigations. There will be avid forum shopping to find Trump-favorable judges to issue Trump-favoring rulings, perhaps all the way up to the Supreme Court. But many Republicans privately acknowledge that this is being done largely to soothe Trump’s ego, and in their desire to delegitimize Biden and rough him up. The voters may have spoken, but nothing beyond common decency requires Republicans to acknowledge it, and there’s a shortage of that right now.
The noise may continue, but our Presidential-succession magic act will as well. A President at the end of his term goes into a box, a wand is waved, and another one comes out. Joe Biden will be inaugurated and the nuclear football will be passed to him. There are whispers that Trump will simply refuse to leave the White House. It won’t matter. Presidential power comes from the office, not from the place. Joe Biden will be President, and Donald Trump will not.
So, if you are Joe, what do you do when you actually get to sit in the big chair? You start by remembering that the Presidency is a unique blend of pastoral and policy initiatives. You do what he’s already signaled he is going to do: Aim right at COVID-19 with a laser focus, and give assistance without looking first as to whether or not the state voted for you. That’s an immediate break from the past, and a healing one. While you are doing that, rejoin the WHO as a sign that we will be reentering the world. Push out those Executive Orders to reverse Trump’s vandalism. Don’t waste time arguing about them, just do them.
Find a way for Kamala Harris to be relevant, and pick a quality Cabinet—people of ability with the intellectual capacity to be adaptive. Joe faces multiple crises at the same time, and he needs every type of help he can get. That kind of Cabinet starts with a superior Secretary of State, yet another signal to the world that America is ready to re-engage with them, applying a combination of open-mindedness and strength.
While Biden appointees are doing the spadework on the policy side, Joe truly is Commander-in Chief of the pastoral. Preach bipartisanship and comity on every issue. Make a legitimate effort to negotiate with Republicans over legislation—give them a chance, and some goodies.
Will Republicans accept this? Doubtful, at least at first. McConnell expects to resume his role as master obstructor, and Donald Trump is not going away, and will put their feet to the fire if there’s even a hint of “fraternizing with the enemy.”
This is where Joe’s backslapping may have to be with a slightly firmer touch. The limits of Executive Power have just been redefined by Trump, and those goalposts won’t be moved back all that easily. McConnell has created a minefield of conservative judges for any Democratic President, but many of them came out of the Federalist Society’s farm system, and have professed a belief in an Imperial Presidency. Of course, we expect some of them to be selective in their application of that belief, but most go-it-alone Biden moves will stand. A strong Chief of Staff and legislative aides can make that point to McConnell and McCarthy, while letting Biden float above the fray.
Then, after Joe has conquered the virus, and brought about world peace, there’s the Democratic Party. In an election where their candidate won the Presidency, their performance everywhere down-ballot ranged from poor to appalling. This, only two years after they had a terrific Midterm Election. There are reasons for this: Democrats have a blurred message, say a lot of scary stuff, and don’t seem to stand for very much beyond fighting with one another. Abby Spanberger (7th CD, Virginia) had it right when, on a conference call, she called leadership out for undercutting moderate incumbent Democrats, many of whom were Freshman in just won-for-the-first-time seats. This is something that needs to be fixed. If Democrats don’t get their act together, 2022 will be a bloodbath.
Biden should never get involved in intramural struggles between ideological wings, but he can help deliver a better farm system with well-chosen appointments that will elevate future candidates. And he can frame a message through his own policy choices. For far too long, Democrats have mouthed “we care,” without concrete proposals to show that care. Biden actually does care, and he should make it a priority.
And the GOP? There is a fantasy held by some liberals, and even some Never-Trumpers, that some type of evil spell has been cast upon the Party, and, when the King is dead, the curse will be lifted and they (and political life) will return to regular order. This is a fairy tale. I do believe many elected Republicans would prefer not to join in the excesses of the Trump Era, but they have, and they continue to do so. Trump has managed to create an entirely new army of voters (with whom he communicates constantly) to meld with the business and Evangelical wings of the Party. Voters mean winning elections, and those who put their integrity and principles in a blind trust for the duration are now faced with an uncomfortable truth: They have lost the Presidency, but not Trump. They still work for him. The Republican Party you see now is the Republican Party.
What’s the next chapter? First, the obvious. Trump will never genuinely concede, will never participate in any transition, and will do as much damage (and feather as many nests with public assets) as he can. Then, Joe, Kamala, and Company will get down to work. What people should realize right now is that a President’s success is every American’s success, and his/her failures are everyone’s failures. So, if you are a Democrat, and Joe is too moderate for your tastes, root for him to win anyway and support someone else in the 2024 primaries. And, if you are a Republican, indulge yourself in criticism, oppose him where you need to, but hope he can make some headway against our problems.
In closing, I’m going to quote from an email I got from a Millennial reader.
All those with political power have demonstrated over the course of my entire life is their ability to get more and more vicious towards the other side—a dynamic, which, by 2020, has developed to the point of abject refusal to entertain the humanity and legitimacy of those you don’t agree with. And there are already too many people my age who have learned that lesson—to quote a former colleague of mine from a conversation a year ago, ‘some people are too evil to humanize.’ When the election was called yesterday afternoon, I was relieved Trump would no longer be President. After Biden’s acceptance speech, though, I began to be just a little bit hopeful that those in power might begin the process of disarming the conflict and governing together for the whole country.
May it be so.