Biden Beats Trump. Now, the Challenges

Robin V. Sears

November 7, 2020

Few elections live up to their billing as “the most important of our lifetime.” This one did, erupting in several directions, in ways never before seen. More than one hundred million Americans voted before election day, by far the greatest number ever. The most expensive election by far. Some estimates putting the total at $14 billion dollars, or roughly $55 per voter – more than ten times what is spent In Canada. And the narrowest margin of victory since John F. Kennedy’s 60 years ago, but the election of a new president by a razor thin margin in the Electoral College, nonetheless.

That there was not more chaos and dysfunction in conducting the vote was a miracle. The American electoral system is badly broken, with competing rules, vote counting processes, and a rise in voter suppression techniques in too many states. That’s before you contemplate how to limit the damage to any democracy worthy of the name, given the distortions of the Electoral College.

But there was another notable feature of this election. Young Americans were pivotal to the result – they came out in unprecedented numbers. Data in every single state analyzed by Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), a youth-focused research centre at Tufts University, young voters between 18 and 29 years old took up a double-digit share of the total ballots cast.

Their lives were overwhelmed by the pandemic due to widespread bungling by President Donald Trump, Republican governors, and down to cowardly local county officials. Add to that the summer of rage following the killing of George Floyd. Their turnout and support of Joe Biden was as if this generation was shouting, “OK, boomers, this time we decide, not you!” Even though, irony of ironies, their choice was between one aged boomer in his mid-70s and an even older one — and they choose the oldest elected president in American history, even older than Ronald Reagan, 69 when he first won the White House in 1980.

The saddest revelation of this election is the proof the outcome provided that Trump is merely a symptom of the disease afflicting the American polity, not the cause. One could describe his victory as a moment of folly and anger four years ago. Today, it’s clear that the culture of grievance, angry fantasy and selfishness that Trump promotes has the support of nearly half of the voters. It bespeaks deep divisions in the nation: urban vs. rural, booming coastal states vs. the sagging states of the Midwest, between white Americans and those who are not, a widening gender gap in political values, and stark generational differences.

It seems as if Biden’s stunningly narrow victory speaks less to voters’ judgements of him or the party, and more to the continuing appeal of a “Burn the whole government down, with all the elitists inside.” Biden and Kamala Harris will need to pull off a hugely daunting turnaround if they are to bring some share of that bitter electorate back to the traditional American values of ‘one nation, one people, united by a common cause, that never stops struggling to build a more perfect union.’ Even if that narrative was always merely aspirational, it was an important part of a unifying vision of America since the days of Lincoln.

Trump, narrowly defeated in the Electoral College, will no doubt try to keep his hold on the party in the short term, and his placemen are in key seats at every level across the country now. He has enormous legal and financial problems hanging over him at midnight on January 20. Will he try to pardon himself in desperation?

What will the GOP do? Will some opportunistic converts like Florida Senator Marco Rubio attempt to re-defect, to push the party back to a realistic political agenda, to a wider base, or will the former party establishment remain cowed? A marvellous piece of analysis, by revered American political journalist, Nicholas Lemann, wrestles with the unpleasant options now facing the Republicans. In a lengthy New Yorker essay, he describes their choices as the “Remnant, Restoration and Reversal scenarios.”

The Remnant caucus would hang on only to the narrow Trump base, keep it stoked with anger and motivated to vote, through relentless attack. Then they’d take a page from the work the Heritage Foundation and its conservative think tank cousins did for Reagan, and draft a real socially conservative and economically nationalist program through the creation of new Trumpian think tanks.

Trump, narrowly defeated in the Electoral College, will no doubt try to keep his hold on the party in the short term, and his placemen are in key seats at every level across the country now. He has enormous legal and financial problems hanging over him at midnight on January 20. Will he try to pardon himself in desperation?

The Restorationists would attempt to inject new life into the old Reagan-Bush policy agenda – internationalist, sensible on immigration reform, on economic growth, and with a focus on the importance of character in leadership. He cites figures such as Karl Rove and former UN ambassador Nicky Haley as members of this troop.

The Reversal gang, in Lemann’s lens, would essentially build out a stronger version of the demographic base that has emerged under Trump, while abandoning more affluent white shoe Republicans to the Democrats. As the party of the poor, the rural, the poorly educated and the angry white working class urban voters, they would cut the party’s ties to corporate America deliberately and be more genuinely populist, even economically interventionist, in their demands.

If I were a Republican, I would find each thesis badly wanting in either realism or achievability, but Lemann’s point is that there really are no others; a return to the pre-Trump era is no longer possible.

For Biden now, the challenge will be holding his fragile coalition together. There will be angry whispers about who is responsible for coming so close to losing it all. There is already some finger pointing about his weakness among male Latino and Afro-American voters. Come spring the progressive wing of the party will be grumbling increasingly loudly if there is not real progress on healthcare, on climate and on racial justice. All very hard to do without control of the Senate. Sure, he can play the game of executive orders replacing real legislation, but an uniquely conservative Supreme Court might cut the legs off that strategy.

And then there is the pandemic. It seems possible that come the spring the ramped-up testing, the arrival of the first vaccines, will have begun to pull the case numbers back into manageable territory. But not if as a reflection of their anger at defeat, a greater number of Trumpies revolt against masks, hygiene and the continued restrictions on social contact. One might hope that the vast majority of American citizens will resist such dangerous nonsense, but as we have seen a very small group of miscreants can infect a very large slice of any community. It will be the first severe test of Biden’s leadership.

Biden’s transitions teams, already several hundred strong, broken into dozens of task forces, have a huge advantage over Trump’s in 2016. They have a very strong bench of seasoned officials and bureaucrats; and corporate, union and NGO leaders, all eager to play a role, with a high level of shared mission among them. They maintain they will resist the temptation to assemble a Clinton-Obama slate of veterans, and place trust and authority in the hands of a diverse and under-40 generation that did so much to get them across the finish line.

Internationally, the Biden/Harris team will be greeted with an enormous goodwill, greater perhaps than even that which greeted Obama. The sense of grievance many Europeans and Asians felt about the George W. Bush foreign policy blunders were helpful early on to the Obama team. But the sense of relief and the recognition of the urgency post-Trump, of rebuilding trust, battered alliances, and achieving early success on a variety of global ills, will be many times greater.

Relations with China will improve but slowly and mostly off-stage. China continues to be increasingly politically toxic in many nations, nowhere more than in the United States. President Xi continues to commit one idiocy after another on the global stage. His mounting threats against Taiwan are the most dangerous. Managing the China file well will be the second early test of the Biden administration.

For Canada,  it will be a return to the more conventional Ottawa-Washington relationship, with the usual tensions over trade and public procurement barriers being addressed mostly behind closed doors, and typically kicked down the road if not actually resolved. The Trudeau government will finally need to make up its mind about a new China strategy. There will be serious risks to the Canada-US alliance on other fronts if we do not show some greater spine on China’s transgressive behaviour. For most Canadians that starts with getting our two political hostages safely home.

Overselling the narrow mandate they won will be the greatest risk to the Biden team, especially given the anger among Trumpies and potentially among progressive Democrats. Rebuilding a sense of common cause, a belief in one America, and making real progress on the deepest grievances of those who still believe in Trump will be the work of at least two terms. To win the midterms, and a second mandate will require maintaining the trust and confidence of a new generation of Americans by honouring their agenda. It needs to start on January 21, 2021.

Policy Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears, a former national director of the NDP during the Broadbent years, is a Principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa.