Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Third Transition: Trump to Biden and the Return to Politics

 By Michael Liss

Some may belittle politics, but we know, who are engaged in it, that it is where people stand tall. And although I know it has its many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is on occasions the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes, and I wish everyone, friend or foe, well, and that is that, the end. —Tony Blair, ending his last PMQ, June 27, 2007

Yes, that was Tony Blair, the man everyone loves to hate, but in those few short words, he managed to capture the highs and lows of a democratic system. Politics can be rough and tawdry, but debates can be substantive, goals high, and accomplishments, perhaps not as high, but still advancing the good of the many. In the end, you fight like cats and dogs, but you shake hands, accept the verdict, and prepare yourself for the next battle.

This belief, that there is always next time, is predicated on three key assumptions—that, in our system, there is, in fact, always a next time, that even winning coalitions will screw up enough to ensure that the next time may be viable, and that the loser (if the incumbent) will cooperate in the orderly transition of power.

That is the theory, and, for most of our history, that has also been the reality. Winning coalitions stay winning because they deliver policies that a majority support. They fray when internal discipline breaks down (usually because of unsatisfied desires or ambitions), and/or when they become so sclerotic, doctrinaire, or just wrong that enough of the public rejects them. Lincoln’s election in 1860 reflected a reality that the disparate needs of North and South could no longer be reconciled within the status quo. FDR’s trouncing of Hoover was the rational judgment of the voters that Hoover had simply failed, and would continue to fail. Trump’s victory in 2016 was a reminder of not only Hillary Clinton’s flaws as a candidate, but also Barack Obama’s shortcomings as a President. As much as I admired Obama, he didn’t do enough for enough people to earn transferable loyalty during a time when, as my friend Bill Benzon notes, the tectonic plates were moving. The voters really do choose.

2020, for all of its insanity, was more of the same. In a closely divided country, enough voters decided to do as voters have occasionally done, judge the incumbent, and find him wanting. The difference this time wasn’t that the incumbent was unhappy about the decision (losing is no fun), but that he acted on that unhappiness, in ways never before seen.

We can’t ignore the obvious. Donald Trump attempted a coup. He rejected and fought against the verdict of the voters in several states. He did so despite multiple recounts and more than 60 court rulings against him. The weakness of his legal claims wasn’t just demonstrated by his terrible batting average, but by the fact that he was unable to retain competent counsel. Rudy, Lin Wood, Jenna Ellis, and the Kraken-Lady seemed pulled out of a grainy 1930s Tod Browning horror movie.

“Legal” avenues weren’t Trump’s only tool in the toolbox. There were also both proffered spoils and punishments to those in positions to make decisions as to the validity of ballots. It’s a tribute to those folks, particularly Republicans, that they managed to hold the line under intense pressure, including credible threats to their lives and the lives of their families.

Finally, there was the lethal January 6th riot at the Capitol. There is little question that Trump encouraged it with his own words, and apparently watched it live on TV with some glee. A full investigation of how it took place will likely not only reveal errors of omission and commission, but also some near-catastrophic risk-taking, including on the part of some highly placed individuals. If the country ever learns it all (and I suspect it won’t), we will have to grapple with some very uncomfortable truths, some of which will be destabilizing.

The entire episode, from the challenged results to the violence, demands an impartial investigation and, where appropriate, legislation. We likely won’t get either. It’s clear that the GOP has no interest in finding out things they do not care to know, and certainly none in crafting legislation that might limit mischief at the state level in how votes are recognized.

Can we do without them? It’s a terrible mistake to take no lessons from this. Yet, we should also recognize that there are two equally important things going on in parallel that will have more impact on us in the short term: Joe Biden’s attempt to bring back competence and traditional politics into governing, and the GOP’s struggle with itself.

Let’s talk about Republicans for a moment, as part of Biden’s two-party-politics goal (beyond mere opposition) will be nearly impossible until the GOP finds a way to reconcile its internal differences. There are three semi-viable wings (true Never-Trumpers are not one of them) to the GOP. The first consists of the emotionally committed Trump Acolytes and the segment of “Leadership” Republicans aligned with them. The second are the situationally committed-to-Trump Republicans, who, out of either opportunism or fear (or both—think, Marco Rubio), stay inside the Trump Tent. And the third (and presently weakest group) are the Republicans who would love for this long national nightmare to come to an end and go back to the good old days, where the GOP was the sane, pro-business, socially conservative, interventionist-on-foreign-policy Party. As an inexact shorthand, we can call these folks McConnell Republicans (Reagan Republicans are largely extinct in most areas of the country.)

That there were 140 House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise, who simply refused to accept that Biden was validly elected tells you that the combined strength of the Acolytes and Situational Trumpists represents a decisive bloc. No one is moving the Acolytes. They are pledged to Trump and will remain with him as long as he wishes. It’s the Situational Trumpists who are more in play, or at least were.

McConnell’s public passivity is surprising. He obviously detests Trump (after years of enabling him) and blames him for loss of control of the Senate. But he (at least so far) hasn’t seized on any opportunities to take the now-out-of-office Trump down a peg. The Capitol riot seemed to be the ideal entry point—McConnell could have immediately gone out front in insisting on a bipartisan investigation, and he could have used that as leverage for concessions from President Biden. This might have not only unified his group, but provided cover/herd immunity for some of the cowed Situational Trumpists. Instead, he’s caught up in claiming Trump can’t be impeached, and he’s now committed to obstructing an investigation that might have liberated him. That McConnell has chosen this path tells us he’s not ready to strike—he’s not hearing enough willingness from his fellow Republican Senators to risk a fight with Trump. He also must have doubts about McCarthy, who just made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and shows no inclination to curb his uncritical obedience.

McConnell’s problems don’t end with Trump. He also has Ted Cruz and the new It-Boy of sedition, Josh Hawley, looking for any microphone to grab. And he has to worry about Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracy-spouting, violence-encouraging bigot who may be a rising star in the GOP. To deal with Greene, he needs McCarthy’s cooperation, but McCarthy may prefer mollifying one (or 25 or 50) kookie Members of Congress to further his own ambitions to be Speaker.

The irony is that Greene is probably a bigger problem for McConnell than she is for McCarthy. McConnell wants to recapture the Senate in 2022, and few of his at-risk Senators want to have to defend her. AOC and The Squad may be the Democratic boogie man with which Republicans look to scare swing voters, but Greene won’t help any, if they’re looking to expand the base. Nor does she add value. She’s certifiable, and the GOP already has the certifiable vote locked up.

What it comes down to is that Republicans haven’t quite figured out who is in charge, and so haven’t set upon a coherent strategy to engage with Biden. In the absence of this, they are incapable of being constructive in any way. Whether this will hurt them in 2022/24 is unclear, but, for now, they look both churlish and childish.

So, what about the Democrats, beyond the usual fuzziness? Here is where Joe Biden’s talents are in full display. He played the Trump coup thing well, staking out his ground, but not going hyperbolic. While Trump ranted, Biden was calm and Presidential, effectively counterpunching.

He is building a government right now, and doing it at an extraordinarily high speed. One of the unexpected benefits of Trump’s active obstruction of transition (including placing new political employees in key jobs after the election), is that Biden’s team is assembling what it wants, rather than even attempting to mollify holdovers.

Biden had nearly all Cabinet and sub-cabinet nominations ready, and was shrewd enough to make them highly qualified, as well as largely non-controversial and hard for the GOP to oppose. In addition, The New York Times’ David Sanger reported that, beyond the positions involving confirmations, staffing had already been decided for over 1,000 high-level appointees. This group, chosen for technical expertise, was promptly sworn in by Biden, en masse, by Zoom.

As to political Trump staffers, they were told to clean out their desks, or placed on administrative leave or transferred to a “Rubber Room” destination where they can’t do any harm. Trump’s politicization of virtually everything he could get his hands on (often spearheaded by John McEntee, the 30-year-old Director of Personnel, who made it clear that loyalty to Trump was an essential qualification) marks those people as being likely both obstructionist and corrosive. Some of the dismissals may result in legal action, but the Biden team thinks that it is essential to implement policies and have them gain traction, without Trump’s people getting in the way.

Moreover, Biden is doing what he can with a pen, signing Executive Orders to reverse Trump policies that were also enacted by Executive Orders. On the international front, Biden has signaled to our traditional allies that they won’t be bashed anymore, and to Trump’s foreign friends that the rules of engagement have changed. The one area where Biden is sustaining a portion of Trump’s policies is with China, which is clearly trying to muscle its way to Top Dog status.

All this is making Republicans completely nuts, when they can take a moment out from trashing their own folks for apostasy on the Trump front. They seem to be left with only two responses—grievance about how meanly they are being treated on social media, and procedural complaints about Trump’s looming Impeachment trial. “Where’s the bipartisanship,” they ask, defining bipartisanship as a continuation of all Trump policies and an ending of any investigations.

This isn’t going to cut it. Republicans have to decide who owns them. They can let themselves work only for Trump, objecting to all Biden initiatives because that’s what Trump wants. Or they can try to redeem a portion of what they placed in blind trusts when Trump was elected and participate in government in a constructive way.

Whichever path they take, they will still have victories. There are backstops in place: the filibuster, the occasional leverage moderate Democrats may give them, and the Trump-stuffed Supreme Court. What they won’t possess is the White House, and, after four years of tolerating every Trumpian overreach without complaint, they have empowered his successor to act unilaterally in ways that will deeply upset them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Joe Biden is a compromiser. He wants a deal. He will give them more than they have a right to expect, and certainly more than Trump ever offered Democrats. Together, Biden and the GOP could pull politics out of “the place of low skullduggery” and make it “more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.” But Republicans have to be willing to play.

After a half century in public service, Joe Biden surely knows who he is. It’s up to Republicans to decide who they are. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

Postscript: On Sunday January 31st, ten Republican Senators, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Bill Cassidy, Lisa Murkowski, Mike Rounds, Mitt Romney, Todd C. Young, Shelley Moore Capito, Jerry Moran, and Thom Tillis made a COVID Stimulus bid of $600 Billion, to counter Biden’s $1.9 Trillion proposal. The GOP bid strips out things Republicans don’t like, like aid to states and cities and raising the Federal Minimum Wage.  Tactically, it’s interesting, as ten GOP votes would enable passage of the bill without Reconciliation. Several of the ten had harsh criticism for Biden “going it alone” but they must know they have made him an offer he likely must refuse. They must also have had permission from McConnell to do it.  Of course, it’s politics. Now, does it cause further negotiations, or just talking points?

The Third Transition: Trump to Biden, first was published on February 1, 2021

You can find is at https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2021/02/the-third-transition-trump-to-biden-and-the-return-of-politics.html

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