NORMALLY, ELECTIONS CLEAR THE AIR, bring new faces to power, offer the dawn of a new day, a fresh beginning, and an opportunity for political healing. Not this year.
Whatever the final vote-counts, the electorate has rendered a split and potentially crippling decision. The scarring schism of polarized America, of two warring camps with passions inflamed on both sides by Donald Trump, has produced a sharply divided government — a Democrat headed for the White House, a re-entrenched Republican Senate — that may prove incapable of governing together and resolving the nation’s most urgent issues.
The scarring schism of polarized America has produced a sharply divided government.
We are today a wounded nation. We have suffered through four years of a train-wreck presidency that has left our body politic broken, bruised, and bleeding, and our political institutions sorely riven, damaged, and in desperate need of emergency care.
Yet even as we try to hobble forward, President Trump has tried to throw us into reverse, salting our wounds with his corrosive smearing of the integrity of the vote count. With animal fear of the humiliation of his impending defeat, Trump callously put his personal interest above the nation’s need to heal and move on.
Contrast that with the last time an incumbent U.S. president lost his race for re-election. That was 28 years ago, in 1992, when the 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush of Texas, was beaten by Bill Clinton of Arkansas. In defeat, Papa Bush, as he became known, was a model of political decency, putting the nation before himself.
Several years later, in a private group, I heard Papa Bush admit the crushing pain he felt at his political loss. But he showed none of that at the time. Nor did he let it influence his public conduct. On election night, Bush conceded victory to Clinton and then committed himself to help the new president, in words worth recalling today:
“I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign,” Bush told a rally of his most fervent followers. “I wish him well in the White House and I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done and America must always come first. So we will get behind this new president and wish him well.”
It was the kind of peaceful, graceful transfer of presidential power that has lent greatness to the American Republic — an act of mature leadership to which Donald Trump seems incapable of rising.
McConnell’s Job #1: Defeat the President
For all Trump’s embarrassing histrionics, Joe Biden seems destined to emerge the ultimate winner. But it may soon feel like a pyrrhic victory, for Biden will immediately be confronted by a prickly and potentially hostile Republican Senate majority, just re-affirmed by the voters and led by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, a wily partisan who famously proclaimed in October 2010 that as the Republican leader in the Senate, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In short, politics over policy.
When that strategy failed and Obama won re-election, McConnell turned his Senate majority into what became known as “The Party of No.” McConnell stonewalled Obama on scores of federal court nominations and other posts. He sidetracked and buried Democratic legislation. In a reprise this fall, McConnell blocked bipartisan action on the coronavirus, refusing even to allow a Senate vote on the economic bailout package being negotiated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Amidst an uncertain present, securely re-elected to a seventh Senate term, McConnell has changed his tune. He is talking now of Senate action on “another rescue package by the 2020 lame-duck Congress. Whether McConnell will be so accommodating for Joe Biden next year is an open question. But Biden is ready to work the territory of bipartisan cooperation.He has legitimately touted his ability to work with Republicans during his long Senate tenure and in the Obama White House. Since Election Day, he has begun laying the groundwork, urging both sides to bury the hatchet. fashion some legislative compromise was not damned as tribal treason.
Biden’s Olive Branch and Republican Moderates
Amidst an uncertain vote-count, Biden held out the olive branch, ignoring Trump’s taunts, vowing to be the president of all Americans, urging national unity. It is now time, he says, “to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us, to lower the temperature, to listen to one another,to hear each other again, and respect and care for one another, to unite, to heal, to come together as a nation.”
Not surprisingly, given Biden’s 47 years in politics, his rhetoric bore echoes of an earlier era of American politics when a party’s stance on some issue was not enshrined as holy writ for true believers — and when working with the other side to fashion some legislative compromise was not damned as tribal treason.
In decades past, small bands of moderate Republican senators like John McCain of Arizona, Mac Mathias of Maryland, Bill Cohen of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Larry Pressler of South Dakota, and others, quietly wrote legislation with Democrats. Some conservative Democrats did the same with Republicans. That’s how the political work of government often got done.
In our current tormented, hyper-partisan era, the question is: Will anybody still be willing to play that game and engage in serious bipartisan bargaining? It will depend not only on Biden but also on moderate Senate Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, and possibly Rob Portman of Ohio. But it will take stronger stuff than Senate Republicans have dared show in recent years. Mitch McConnell is a jealous boss who brooks no rebels.
So bridging the partisan divide will be a severe challenge for the new president and his administration, thanks to the rancorous partisan passions that divide the nation — not created by Donald Trump but fiercely stoked by him as his final legacy.
Top photo credit: Architect of the Capitol
Almost exactly four years ago, Hedrick Smith delivered an eloquent, standing-room-only Orcas Currents lecture titled “The Great Populist Earthquake of 2016” about the election of Donald Trump. See: The Great Populist Earthquake of 2016
Hedrick Smith served as the New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief and then as its Washington Bureau Chief and Chief Correspondent. He is the author of five books, including bestsellers The Russians, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, The Power Game: How Washington Works, and Who Stole the American Dream? He has also produced many television documentaries for the Public Broadcasting System, creating 26 prime-time specials and mini-series for PBS and FRONTLINE, including two Emmy-Award winners.