Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 3 December 2020


Be wary of a return to ‘normal’ America

The routine established by the Republicans during the Obama administration will be their same strategy during Joe Biden’s presidency © Stefani Reynolds/Getty

“Rejoice,” say Donald Trump’s opponents, “America is returning to normal.” Alas, normal is what saddled America with the outgoing US president in the first place.

The routine was established with Barack Obama. A Democrat runs the White House and Republicans control Capitol Hill. Whatever the president proposes, Congress disposes. Regardless of the particulars, Americans tend to blame whoever is president for Washington’s gridlock. At the next election they vented their rage by electing Mr Trump. That playbook has worked for Republicans at least once. Why not again?

There is little doubt the party will revert to this strategy with Joe Biden. Hardline conservative senators, such as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, might be expected to echo Mr Trump’s claims of a stolen election — a stance that even Bill Barr, the ultraloyal attorney-general, this week dismissed as baseless. They are authentic Trumpians. But it is another thing entirely when Florida’s Marco Rubio, starts raining on a new president’s nominees before they have received a hearing.

Mr Rubio, who dismissed Mr Biden’s foreign policy picks as “orderly caretakers of America’s decline” is a reliable weathervane of where his party is heading. By that yardstick, the US is returning to a kind of normal that it detests. In the divided Washington that Americans used to know, nominees were treated as innocent until proven guilty. Mr Biden looks set to be the first president since Abraham Lincoln where a large part of the country views him as illegitimate before he is sworn in.

Republicans insist that Democrats also treated Mr Trump as an imposter. On a cultural level, there is truth to that charge. The Democratic grassroots instantly launched a “resistance” to his presidency. But the political comparison does not stand up. Mr Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, conceded defeat the day after the general election in 2016 despite having won almost 3m more votes. A month after the 2020 poll, Mr Trump has still not uttered the words, “I concede”. Advisers say he is thinking of declaring his candidacy for the 2024 election on the same day that Mr Biden is inaugurated next month. Even if he is bluffing, this is not a good climate for the country to begin the “healing” Mr Biden desires.

US presidential election 2020: You tell us

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So how can the president-elect break the mould? His immediate priority is to throw everything at the two Georgia Senate run-offs in January. If Democrats win both, they will regain the Senate. The odds are against them but Mr Trump is proving to be a helpful, if unwitting, ally. By declaring Georgia’s voting system fraudulent (a recount last week upheld Mr Biden’s victory there), Mr Trump may stifle Republican motivation to vote, even though he has urged supporters to turn out. Moreover, neither Republican candidate is able to make their strongest case — that they would act as a check on Mr Biden. They are having to play along with the fiction that Mr Trump was re-elected and cannot admit Mr Biden will be president.

Failing a Democratic upset in Georgia, Mr Biden’s main weapon will be charm. Unlike Mr Obama, Mr Biden enjoys befriending opponents, especially when they are implacable. He makes it a point of pride to find the sweet spot where compromise can be struck. That may have worked in the 20th century, when Mr Biden could strike deals with Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican senator who personified bipartisanship. But it is a different world when Texas’s Ted Cruz is across the table. A few Republicans, such as Maine’s Susan Collins, still have muscle memory of their party’s more collegial past. The party as a whole is Mr Trump’s.

If charm does not work, Mr Biden will have to resort to executive action. But that is a perilous road. Mr Trump used executive orders to divert Pentagon funds to the Mexico border wall, ban citizens from several Muslim countries from entering the US and gut environmental regulations. Democrats rightly decried his abuse of presidential powers. If Mr Biden follows that path — albeit to different ends — he will create precedents for the next Trump.

The chances are high that the heavily conservative Supreme Court will strike down much of what Mr Biden wants to do, such as cutting carbon emissions, curbing gun rights and helping labour unions. That would further radicalise the Democratic left. The US was drifting into constitutional impasse before Mr Trump was elected. That is the normal to which the country is reverting. 

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