Issue Briefs

America Still in Trouble

America Still in Trouble

Paolo von Schirach

November 15th, 2020

WASHINGTON – According to rosy pre-election predictions made by the Democrats and an army of pro-Democratic Party political commentators, November 3rd was supposed to mark not just the end of the Trump presidency but the strong national affirmation of a reinvigorated and now much more progressive Democratic party.

A Blue Wave

There was supposed to be a “Blue Wave” that would sweep America. The vote would have resulted not just in a rebuilt Mid West “Blue Wall”, (the three states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania surprisingly taken over by Donald Trump back in November 2016). November 3rd was supposed to be about Democrats taking over Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia –and may be even Texas.

Not the expected outcome

In the end, the outcome was quite different. Joe Biden won. But down ballot Democratic candidates performed well below expectations, almost everywhere. This means that President Biden will have to work with a very thin House Democratic majority, and possibly a Senate still controlled by the Republicans.

Biden won, convincingly; even though his advance to the critical 270 electoral votes threshold was painfully slow in the key swing states, on account of the need to count millions of mail in votes cast mostly by Democrats. As we know, during the night of November 3rd there was an initial strong Trump showing, simply because most Republicans voted in person, and in person votes were tallied first.

So, Biden wins. And he wins well; even though his margins in some of the key swing states are narrow. Beyond his significant 306 to 232 majority in the electoral college, (Note: these are projected results, subject to final confirmation, once the election results have been certified in all 50 States), he also beats Trump nationally with an advantage of more than 5 million votes. (Biden will get more than 78.5 million, Trump a little over 73 million).

Always difficult to defeat an incumbent President

This is no small accomplishment for Biden. Historically, it has been very difficult for any challenger to unseat an incumbent President running for a second term. And this achievement is even more significant because Biden was not a very strong Democratic candidate. We know about the strident ideological divisions within his own party, pitting a loud new progressive wing against more moderate centrists. Before the dramatic swing after the February 2020 South Carolina primary that Biden won thanks to the providential endorsement by African American Congressman Jim Clyburn, it was doubtful that Biden had a chance to be the Democratic party nominee, let alone win against Trump. Add to this widespread concerns among many voters about Biden’s mental acuity, on account of his advanced age. Indeed, at 78 year old when he will be inaugurated in January 2021, Biden will be the oldest president in US history.

The Republicans remain strong

Looking at the larger picture, while this is a solid Biden victory, let’s keep in mind that, even in defeat, Donald Trump remains an extremely popular national political leader. He is still fully in command of the Republican party. In truth, his defeat was not a rout. While Trump lost, he still received more than 73 millions votes. He clearly enjoys enthusiastic support nationwide –especially in the middle of the country.

The Democrats surely realize that notwithstanding Trump’s defeat after these elections the Republican Party remains a formidable force nationwide. The GOP gained seats in the House, while it remains firmly in control in many states. The Democrats gained only one seat in the Senate, (more on this in a moment), while failing to flip any state legislatures or Governorships across the nation. The truth is that down ballot Democratic candidates did poorly across America. The Democratic party was not lifted nationally by the winning Biden-Harris ticket. No Biden coat-tails. While most Americans clearly rejected Trump as a national leader, this does not mean that all of them also rejected conservatism. The overall elections outcome shows that the country’s political preferences are somewhere between centrist and center-right policies.

Democrats may gain control of the Senate

The Democrats have a decent chance of reaching a 50-50 draw in the Senate, on account of a second round of voting for both Georgia Senate seats that will take place on January 5, 2021. Should the Democrats win both Georgia seats, this way getting to a total of 50 seats from the current 48, (this is quite possible, but not a given), then in a 50-50 Senate Vice President Kamala Harris will be able to cast the tie-breaker vote, giving the Democrats a one vote majority. This is not great in terms of margins. However, a one vote Senate majority (combined with a majority in the House) would be an absolutely critical strategic advantage for the Democrats and for Biden. The Senate must approve all legislation proposed by the new Biden administration. The Senate has also the constitutional prerogative to vote up or down on all presidential nominees when it comes to literally thousands of executive branch positions, as well as on all federal judicial appointments.

Negotiations and compromise ahead?

Looking at this picture of a Biden’s victory coupled with a strong Republican showing in Congress that may lead to divided government, one could be tempted to conclude that may be this is not so bad after all. Yes, the country is politically split almost in the middle. However, an experienced President Biden, known from his days as a Senator for his willingness to reach across the aisle in order to advance legislation, may be able to implement a centrist agenda by reaching compromises with the GOP opposition.

Obstructionism seems more likely

Should we be so lucky. While this optimistic scenario cannot be ruled out, at the moment we are looking at something entirely different. Trying to hold on to his large national following, breaking with tradition and protocol, to date President Trump has refused to acknowledge the outcome of the elections, alleging widespread fraud that in his opinion rigged the vote, this way denying him his victory.

His campaign began a host of legal actions in various states, alleging massive fraud, with the obvious goal of preventing a final certification of the November 3rd vote. Beyond these legal actions, it should be noted that (with a handful of exceptions) the vast majority of senior Republican elected official have not disputed Trump’s narrative of the rigged elections, at least not publicly.

Therefore, we are now confronted with this unprecedented scenario. A beaten outgoing President refuses to admit defeat and concede, claiming that he is the victim of a gigantic fraud scheme. His party stands firmly behind him. Millions of Americans who voted for Trump believe this story, even though no evidence has been produced to support it. This means that for most Republicans elected officials and for tens of millions of Trump voters Joe Biden did not win the elections. As a consequence of this unprecedented national impasse, the normal transition process from the outgoing administration to the incoming –a process that would ordinarily begin after the losing candidate formally concedes– has not started.

There will be an end to the legal disputes about the elections

There is hope that all this will come to an end very soon. Thus far, no evidence of widespread fraud has emerged from various court actions. Still, even if all these legal efforts come to nothing, it is obvious that the well has been poisoned.

Mr. Trump most likely will never concede. Do not expect any message of congratulations to his duly elected successor. Not now or ever. And a majority of Trump voters, regardless of any eventual official certification of the elections outcome, are convinced today and will remain convinced that Trump is the real winner. They read his barrage of tweets and the endorsements of his allegations of electoral fraud by conservative media. Therefore, millions of Americans genuinely believe that Trump won. His victory may be denied only by a wicked establishment that once again ganged up against him. The GOP upper echelons either openly agree with this narrative, or, by keeping quiet, they implicitly convey to their voters that this story of the rigged vote is credible.

With Trump still in control, do not expect cooperation with the GOP

So, here is the thing. Win or lose, Donald Trump for the time being remains in full control of the GOP. Claiming to be the victim of fraud, there is zero chance that Trump will bless any compromise between the Republicans in Congress and the new Biden administration –an administration that he has publicly proclaimed to be illegitimate because it will be in power only on account of a rigged election. Zero chance.

Therefore, all this means a very difficult start for Joe Biden, come January 20, 2021. His instinct would probably be to govern from the center, by forging bipartisan coalitions with moderate Republicans. Still, if the other side, fearful of Trump’s wrath, will not come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to negotiate reasonable compromises, expect another rough political season for America.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.