ELECTION REFLECTIONS (November 30, 2020)
November has been action-packed, with the tumultuous election and the resurging pandemic trading headlines. At month’s end, election turbulence thankfully appears to be subsiding into transition. I’d like to devote this post to my coalescing impressions of this historic political drama. Please respond by sharing your own interpretations. email@example.com. What have we learned? Where are we going?
JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM
To focus this retrospective examination of the 2020 election, I’ve selected four topics: the biggest surprises; continuity vs. change; the lame-duck transition; and some start-up suggestions for the incoming administration. Let’s anchor this analysis to solid ground with a quantitative recap of the election results. [All figures are current, three weeks after the event. Very few additional changes are expected. Some numbers have been rounded.]
- Joseph Biden defeated Donald Trump for the U.S. Presidency, winning 306 Electoral College votes. That total placed him above the 270 threshold required for election, and well beyond President Trump’s 232. For comparison, President Trump won 304 Electoral College votes in 2016, President Obama 332 in 2012 and 365 in 2008.
- President-elect Biden has now won over 80 million popular votes, 51% of the total cast. President Trump is approaching 74 million (47%). Each candidate carried 25 states. The current spread of 6+ million votes more than doubles Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote margin in 2016.
- In the U.S. Senate, 35 seats were contested. Thus far, Republicans have won 20 and Democrats 13, a gain of 1 seat (in Colorado) for the Democrats. Run-offs will decide two Georgia seats on January 5. Awaiting that pivotal decider, the current count in the Senate as a whole is 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats. Given the Biden/Harris victory, if both Georgia seats flip to the Democrats, Vice President Harris will have the deciding Senate vote as Presiding Officer, tilting the majority.
- In the House of Representatives, all 435 seats were contested. At this writing, the Republicans have gained 9 seats and the Democrats have lost 8. The Democrats retain a current, partial majority of 222/206, with 7 closest races still to be called.
- Eleven Governorships were up for election. Republicans won 8, Democrats, 3. There was only one flip: Montana went from Democrat to Republican.
- Forty-four State Legislatures with 86 chambers were on the ballot. With two exceptions, there were no changes. Both chambers flipped from Democrat to Republican in New Hampshire, reversing the contrary change that had occurred in 2016. Both Arizona chambers look likely to flip from Republican to Democrat, for the first time in 54 years.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES
Surprise #1: Historic Voter Turnout
As the 2020 election approached, even patriotic, motivated citizens had a dozen valid reasons not to vote. The coronavirus pandemic was resurging, a direct incentive to avoid standing in lines. To make matters worse, across the country, election facilities were under-funded, under-equipped and under-staffed, almost guaranteeing that voting lines would be long and slow-moving.
Voting-by-mail seemed a prudent alternative. Yet as soon as preliminary polling suggested this channel might be disproportionately utilized by Democratic voters, President Trump began harshly criticizing it as an invitation to massive fraud. In tandem, his newly appointed Postmaster General was cutting back USPS services and then warning that mailed ballots might not be delivered in time to be counted.
When these dual alarms renewed interest in in-person voting, the President threatened to mobilize 50,000 partisan poll watchers to detect and implicitly block “suspicious voting activity.” And if voting in Official Drop Boxes seemed a safe, secure middle ground, several State authorities next announced severe cutbacks in boxes’ quantity and distribution, especially in urban counties.
Add up all these hurdles, and folks could be fairly excused for staying at home and sitting out this election.
The citizens refused to be intimidated. Two-thirds of all votes were cast early. National voter turnout (155 million at current, incomplete estimates) was the highest ever in absolute numbers. As a percentage of the “voting-eligible population,” turnout is projected to reach 66.5%, the highest in over 100 years. For comparison with memorable historical precedents, corresponding percentages were 60.1 in 2016 (Trump’s first election), 61.6 in 2008 (Obama’s first election), and 63.8 in 1960 (Kennedy). As further evidence of across-the-board voter dedication in 2020, the turnout percentage was highest-ever in 44 states; topped by Minnesota at nearly 80%.
I’ve two chief explanations for this first surprise. Supporters of both parties were irrepressibly motivated, judging the stakes to be historically high. And huge sums were invested in TV ads, on-line messaging and mailers, all pushing get-out-the-vote.
Surprise #2: The Blue Wave That Didn’t
Pre-election polls forecast a definitive Biden victory, with coattails likely to flip the Senate. The basis for anticipating a resounding Trump defeat was straightforward. In 2016, he had been an appealing change agent, telegenic, pulling no punches, anti-establishment, a big-business deal-maker with the toughness and energy to “drain the Washington swamp.” An experienced showman, he never presided over a boring rally. Candidate Trump had detected and amplified hinterland grievances, passionately felt but often ignored – anti-globalism, anti-free-trade, anti-immigration. Hillary Clinton, his controversial opponent, had embodied that establishment, was under unrelenting attack from Congressional Republicans, and was widely disliked.
2020 was a different ballgame. No longer a breath of fresh air, Trump was now a proven commodity, with a glaring record of leadership failures and character defects. He was the only president whose public-approval ratings never reached 50% or higher in the nearly 90 years since these tallies were first collected in 1932. Instead of effectively managing the raging pandemic, he had distanced his administration from responsibility and mocked public-health recommendations. His brutal bullying had been on self-incriminating display in the first debate. His policies and tweets had disparaged, damaged and alienated key voting blocs: women, Blacks, Latinos and students. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden could recapture the rust-belt working class and rebuild the Electoral College blue wall. Pollsters and pundits from a broad ideological spectrum expected an emphatic eviction.
By most measures, it didn’t happen. President Trump carried 25 states and earned 74 million votes (the most ever for a losing candidate.) The Electoral College was a near miss. A half-dozen battleground states were so close that Trump could have denied Biden a victory by flipping only 22,000 aggregate votes (in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.) And that’s without reversing Michigan, Nevada or Pennsylvania. As for the Congress, there were no apparent Biden coattails, in either the Senate or the House.
How to explain this second major surprise? Leading pollsters had embarrassingly failed for two elections in a row and are making their own excruciating analyses. With marginal exceptions discussed in the next section, Trump’s supporters held remarkably firm. Exit interviews confirmed that his core base of MAGA believers retained their faith in an aggrieved, straight-talking champion. Even on the life-and-death issue of the pandemic, they believed his messages that the crisis was not serious, that a solution was right around the corner and that masks were an emblem of weakness. His broader coalition of opportunistic interest groups, most notably oligarchs, evangelicals and federal and state Republican officeholders, was less smitten. But they appeared to excuse his dissembling and cruelties in exchange for getting what they wanted – tax breaks and regulatory relief, for this first group; conservative judicial appointments to overturn Roe v. Wade, for the second; and their own continued incumbency, for the third.
Other commentators have pointed to Trump’s frenetic program of pre-election rallies, and his party’s unstinting door-to-door canvassing. Conscientiously but perhaps to his electoral detriment, Biden kept mostly to his basement and his campaign scaled back precinct-walking, both in compliance with public-health guidelines.
In Congressional races, some close Senate contests like Susan Collins’s in Maine, swung late to incumbents when voters tired of TV fusillades and “outside money.” In House elections, it’s important to remember that nearly all districts have been gerrymandered into safe seats. In close suburban races that had barely flipped Democratic in 2018, two additional dynamics have been detected. Many moderate Republican and independent voters apparently jettisoned Trump but reasserted their conservative leanings down-ballot. And many were chased away from moderate Democratic candidates by Republican ads hypocritically tarring them with locally unpopular proposals championed by distant metropolitan progressives – most notably, defund-the-police and quick phase-out of oil and gas.
My final take on the Blue Wave that failed is that we all may be paying too little attention to Electoral College realities. That deck is solidly stacked to favor rural candidates. In our era, that means Republicans. Until that outmoded institutional artefact is abolished or reformed, Republican presidential candidates will always win or come close. In 2020, if we focus instead on the popular vote, Trump’s 6+ million-vote defeat was an unspinnable personal thumping.
CONTINUITY VS. CHANGE
Apart from the two big surprises, the 2020 election was characterized by major continuity and minor — but significant — changes.
A Yawning Gulf
2020 reconfirmed that the electorate is deeply and widely split – demographically and geographically. Two-thirds of all voters, in both camps, considered this election to be primarily a referendum on President Trump.
In terms of key support groups, President Trump and Republicans held the loyalty of most white males without college degrees (62%), white evangelicals (81%) and voters from families with annual income above $100,000. The broader, more diverse coalition supporting Vice President Biden and the Democrats included most women (56%), college graduates (57%), youth under 30 (two to one), ethnic minorities (Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans,) and voters from low-income families.
I found the ethnic array interesting on several counts. Here’s my composite table.
Note that Whites turned out to the highest degree, punching above their weight. And despite college graduates’ and suburbanites’ enthusiasm for Biden, Whites counted together significantly preferred Trump. That said, Biden’s recapture of working-class White males in the Rust Belt had a powerful impact. Also jumping out is minorities’ overwhelming preference for Biden, but consistent modest drift towards Trump.
These aggregate ethnic totals mask marked divergences within each demographic group. Some of these splits played a major role in this election, as detailed below in the discussion of Battleground states. Latino and Asian-American advocates have raised their voices warning Democrats in particular not to treat their groups as homogeneous.
Geographically, the left/right divide was glaring: rural and small-town voters were predominantly Republican (60%); metropolitan voters even more Democratic (65%). This separation was most crucial for the state-based Electoral College because it meant that the overwhelming majority of states were not in play, instead, securely Red or Blue. This narrowed attention to a handful of contestable Battleground or Swing States. Their modest shifts made all the difference.
Honing in on the Battlegrounds
The “Rustbelt 3,” (Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,) had flipped to Republicans in 2016, handing Trump his victory. In 2020, they all flipped back, by 155,000, 21,000 and 81,000 votes, respectively. The “Sunbelt 3,” (Arizona, Nevada and Georgia,) all flipped Democratic, for the first time in decades: by 10,000, 33,000 and 12,000 votes. Not flipping, despite mammoth Democratic expenditures, were Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
For me, what was most interesting about these determinative Battleground contests between continuity and change was that the drivers were mostly local and regional, not national. Let’s run through the list:
- In the Rustbelt 3, Vice President Biden successfully sold himself to blue-collar white males as a local boy, born in Scranton, who could relate to their hardships and anger with his heart as well as his head.
- In Arizona and Nevada, the scales were apparently tipped by Latinos furious with the Trump Administration cruel immigration excesses and by a flood of inward-bound college-educated whites fleeing high prices in California. Also instrumental in Arizona was Trump’s repeated disrespect for the state’s revered icon, Senator John McCain.
- In Georgia, swelling ranks of college-educated Atlantans tilted the scales. But most crucial was probably the dedicated on-the-ground organizing, especially of Blacks, sustained by Stacey Abrams.
- As for the Battleground states that didn’t flip, again the key determinants were local. In Florida, the saving grace for Republicans was Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans in Miami-Dade County, for whom the symbol of “socialism” hypocritically pinned on Democrats evoked memories of hated Castro and Chavez. In North Carolina, Democrats’ vigorous presidential challenge may have been kyboshed by the extramarital entanglement of their Senate candidate, who opted for flight over fight. In the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas, there is evidence that earlier immigrants from Mexico may have identified with entrepreneurial assimilation, fearful of further waves of low-wage competitors.
A Case Study: California’s Ballot Propositions
The results of Citizen Initiatives in my native state of California nicely illustrate the 2020 election’s perceived national trends, counterbalancing continuity with change and liberal agendas with conservative.
For context, it’s helpful to bear in mind two California characteristics:
- The Bluest of Blue states, California voted 64% to 32% for Biden, with a 5.1 million vote spread. (As a historical footnote, I was reminded that, while today California is considered inalterably liberal, it actually voted Republican in the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.)
- My state has a proud legacy of Citizen Initiatives stretching back more than a hundred years. Over the intervening decades, ballot measures have been sponsored by libertarian conservatives as much as by activist liberals, both mounting grassroots challenges to the state government and vested interests. Typical Propositions push forward blocked reforms or repeal enacted statutes.
In 2020, 12 Propositions collected sufficient threshold signatures to make it onto the ballot. Here’s a tabulated summary of their objectives and election results.
How should we interpret these results? Three measures (#s 17, 20 and 25) promoted criminal-justice changes, a hot topic in California and nationwide. Liberals sponsored Propositions 17 and 25; conservatives, 20. Only #17 passed. Propositions 15 and 21 constrained real-property rights; #19 expanded them. Only conservative #19 passed. Proposition 22 expanded gig-economy firms’ rights; #24 constrained them. Both measures passed. Propositions 14 and 16 advanced long-time liberal goals: stem-cell research and Affirmative Action. The former passed, the latter failed.
The bottom line? In the 2020 election, even in this Bluest state, when voters took law-making into their own hands their choices were mixed and moderate. Seven results favored continuity and the status quo; five, legislative change. Eight winning Propositions represented victories for conservatives and libertarians, only four for liberals and progressives.
Since this blog post is a personal take on the 2020 election, I want to register my distress at two aspects of these ballot-measure campaigns. California Citizen Initiatives originated as spontaneous, bottom-up mobilizations. In 2020, too many Propositions were top-down lobbying projects of special interests. Especially where giant corporations were involved, spending budgets were monumental: $150 million in the case of Proposition 15; $200 million contributed by Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to fund Proposition 22. Adding insult to injury, TV ads and printed handouts were often deliberately misleading: camouflaging or downplaying principal sponsorship; distorting or concealing a measure’s core objective and impact. In the most notorious example, the ride-sharing companies organized Proposition 22 to overturn a state statute requiring them to treat their drivers as employees, protected by uniform labor laws. The companies falsely advertised their measure as respectful restoration of drivers’ freedom to set their own schedules and work part-time. In fact, California already authorizes part-time work and protects part-time workers. What the ballot measure accomplished was exempting these companies from offering standard protections to its drivers. The corporate savings at stake will be massive; they come at the drivers’ expense. As soon as success was assured, the gig firms announced their intention to replicate the California template nationwide.
With a state 1000 miles long and a pandemic dissuading door-to-door advocacy, TV was the necessary conduit for Proposition campaigns. But it’s always sobering to be reminded how much money controls political results. And that huckstering isn’t limited to selling used cars.
Next Time Around?
Looking ahead to the possible implications of 2020’s perceived splits and shifts for future elections, I was intrigued by the analysis of William Frey. (Brookings Report, 11/12/2020: “Exit polls show both familiar and new voting blocs sealed Biden’s win.”) Frey’s assessment is that both political parties have engaged in magical thinking. The Democrats retroactively interpreted Obama’s second victory (in 2012) as the first wave of a long-predicted, invincible and irreversible demographic shift, assembling a new coalition of youth, minorities and college-educated Whites.
Trump’s 2016 win rebuffed that conclusion, convincing Republicans there was no need for humbling “autopsies” or broadening their appeal. Instead, they could double down and hold the Electoral College with their own core White coalition: rural, senior, Evangelical and non-college working class.
In Frey’s opinion, 2020 suggests that both these interpretations were premature and overly optimistic. Both parties should take nothing and no one for granted. They need to reach out to, and compete for, both coalitions.
THE LAME-DUCK TRANSITION
Normal transitions between presidential administrations of different political parties combine ritual with logistics. An early, well-wishing concession speech by the losing candidate begins weeks of nuts-and-bolts consultations between the two teams of advisors. The loser, if an incumbent, typically invites his successor to the White House for a courtesy briefing, followed by a televised joint press conference. The winner, in turn, invites the loser and spouse to places of honor on the Inaugural dais. This choreographed collaboration serves at least two purposes: to protect natural security until the new administration can get up to speed and to demonstrate our democracy’s successful commitment to seamless governance.
With Donald Trump, nothing is ever normal. To the contrary, his preferred M.O. has been to discredit, disrupt and, if possible, demolish governmental standards and institutions — norms, laws, operations, relationships and reputations. In the current transition, his disruptive assault commenced even before the election occurred, preemptively discrediting the election procedures and results by predicting massive voting fraud, exacerbated by the misconduct of election administrators.
Commentators’ speculation is rife over what is motivating Trump’s protests, since he must have known all along that voting fraud in American elections is very difficult to pull off and has never been statistically significant. I’ve two hypotheses, which probably overlap. As a pathological narcissist, he can’t imagine or accept losing and so must invent and pursue an excuse which blames someone else for his election defeat. And looking ahead to launching a Fox-competing media platform followed by a possible 2024 presidential rerun, he must keep his base fired up with fresh grounds for anti-establishment, conspiracy-sensing grievances.
Whatever his motivations, Trump’s transition blockade has rapidly progressed through three stages: prematurely claiming victory, starting Election Night, and demanding that subsequent vote-counting be stopped; when Battleground tallies and trends projected defeat, mounting court challenges to claim election fraud; and when those challenges were summarily rebuffed for lack of supporting evidence, imploring GOP-led state legislatures to delay certification or appoint alternative slates of Electoral Electors.
At this writing in late November, the first two tactics have definitively failed and the third is on its last legs. Trump’s jump-the-gun Election-Night declaration of victory was dismissed as a transparent ploy to trumpet a Red mirage and foreclose a Blue wave. Of 40 court challenges, 38 were summarily, sometimes scathingly, dismissed by judges. (Along the way, blue-chip law firms representing the Republican Campaign Committee soon responded to in-house rebellions and withdrew from the suits. Rudy Giuliani’s pinch-hitting counsel has been an embarrassment.) Convincingly, 50 of 50 state Secretaries-of-State in charge of election operations, including dozens of Republicans, unanimously agreed there had been no substantial fraud. Ditto, two top Trump appointees with direct responsibility for election security: the FBI Director and the Homeland Security official in charge of election safety. Now Republican leaders of state legislatures are publicly rejecting Trump’s third reversal ploy.
The main factor that has sustained Trump’s search-and-destroy campaign for most of the month has been the silence and support of Republican enablers, especially Congressional leaders. In addition to fear of the President’s wrath and retaliation, these legislators reputedly judged that a united party front was essential to win the crucial Georgia Senate runoffs on January 5. Increasingly, however, as the sore-loser saga drags on, that strategy is being questioned. The ranks of publically dissident Senators are swelling. After the GSA Administrator belatedly released blocked resources to Biden’s team, transition is becoming a de facto reality.
Four legal milestones are fast approaching to jointly certify the election results. December 8 is the deadline for resolving all state-certification challenges. On December 14, the States’ Electors will meet nationwide to vote. On January 6, Congress will convene to count those votes and declare the new President and Vice President. At the January 20 Inauguration, both new leaders will be formally sworn into office.
In the meantime, Trump seems to be shifting his transition strategy to scorched-earth retreat and retaliation. As tracked by Breaking News headlines, he is “terminating” disloyal officials, installing new acolytes, and rushing to plant poison pills making it difficult for the incoming Administration to roll back his domestic and international policy initiatives. In one brazen stroke, the President has reportedly had his “legal defense fund” solicitations drafted to give him free rein to divert these donations to help pay off his personal debts. Simultaneously, he’s organizing a 2024 Re-election PAC and has entrenched key loyalists at the top of the Republican National Committee.
The risks and costs of Trump’s unrelenting transition resistance are critical. He is deliberately delaying and hamstringing Biden’s pandemic-management preparations during the health crisis’s gravest winter months. He is impeding negotiation and passage of an overdue stimulus bill. He’s compromising national security by blocking a smooth handover.
On another front, presidential pardons have already begun, with Michael Flynn’s. Three core clusters are anticipated to be the chief beneficiaries: Trump associates, like Flynn, implicated in Russian election interference; family members and appointees accused of self-dealing and conflicts of interest while on the public payroll; and businessmen convicted of commercial fraud, especially as government contractors. The common thread is Trump’s attempt to absolve himself, implicitly and preemptively, of guilt by association. The linked remaining mysteries are whether the President will attempt to convince Vice President Pence or President-elect Biden to pardon Trump for any alleged federal crimes committed while he was in office; if so, whether he’ll get it; and if so, whether it will withstand legal challenge.
Commentators have begun speculating that this protracted transition turmoil may enhance Democratic prospects in the January 5 Georgia runoff for two Senate seats. This analysis identifies two disparate groups of Republican voters who might stay away from these polls: moderates finally out of patience with the disruptive President and his silent Congressional enablers; and MAGA enthusiasts disheartened that the disruption failed to overturn their hero’s defeat. Some of the latter cohort have apparently interpreted (or misinterpreted) Trump’s criticisms of Georgia’s Republican Governor and Secretary of State as the President’s tacit signal to boycott the runoff. (It’s important to remember that, due to the Senate’s surviving filibuster and 60-vote supermajority requirements, even a two-seat Georgia victory would give Democrats little deterrence against Republicans’ ability to block Biden’s legislative priorities. But it would definitely ease approval of his nominations, for which only a 50-vote simple majority is required.)
There’s a double irony emerging from Trump’s attempt to ambush transition and overturn the election result. The crux of his assault has been that Democrats conspired to steal the election with fraudulent ballots and miscounting. Yet in fact he was the fraudster and attempted thief, knowingly fabricating bogus complaints to block certification of his defeat. And when his courtiers declined to publicly rein him in, it was the bipartisan public servants — election managers, poll workers and vote counters – vilified by Trump as the theft’s chief perpetrators, who turned the tables by refuting his allegations and expose his con. The role reversals were Shakespearean.
Yet this transition hijacking is too consequential to be tolerated as melodrama. In addition to the strategic costs of hand-over delay enumerated above, Trump’s corrosive subversion has left 77% of all Republicans still believing that the election was “rigged” and victory rightfully his. Unconscionable damage has been inflicted on his partisans’ confidence in the integrity of our electoral process and the legitimacy of the incoming administration.
BIDEN HIS TIME: What the Election Invites for Our New President
Conventional wisdom seems highly pessimistic regarding prospects for legislative progress going forward. Biden’s boxed in before he starts: by an unhinged predecessor sowing pre-eviction landmines; by an exploding pandemic and stalling economic recovery; by Congressional gridlock, cemented by McConnell again relishing obstruction; by deeply entrenched polarization — geographical, political and cultural; even by a split Democratic Party, with divergent policy priorities.
Perhaps it’s the holiday season, but I find myself cautiously nurturing a contrarian optimism. Re-visualizing the glass as half-full, let’s start with the new President himself. If ever there was a right guy for the right time, here’s a mellow, moderate, empathetic, saddened healer, experienced at the top levels of federal government service and field-tested in Senatorial consensus-building. For Americans wearied and disheartened — by self-promotion and self-dealing, vicious belittling, bullying and bluster, denial and divisiveness — here’s a pivot and a salve.
Kamala Harris adds a basket of complementary qualities to the ticket: in terms of gender, ethnicity, generation, professional experience and geographical affiliation.
Now blend in a balanced Administration: highly qualified and demonstrably competent, with international as well as domestic experience and expertise; diverse and bipartisan; respectful of science and law; transparently vetted and financially uncompromised.
How should they start? Here are some unsolicited suggestions from the rocking chair of this retired government-policy advisor:
- Don’t get snookered into announcing an agenda of target achievements for your “First Hundred Days.” That’s an unrealistic, arbitrary deadline; and an irresistible invitation for Mitch McConnell to ambush and pundits to pounce. National resuscitation is going to be a marathon; there are no quick fixes.
- Do hit the ground running by declaring a national health emergency to address COVID management and control. Seize the opportunity presented by this concrete challenge with an early solution to demonstrate America’s repurposed leadership. Staff your initiative with public-health experts; promote and redeem Dr. Fauci. Use the bully pulpit to persuade fatigued Americans that we’re in the home stretch; and that shared commitment to sensible self-protection, including masks, is our best (patriotic and practical) preparation for spring vaccine relief. Ramp up testing, imposing a federal standard for ensuring uniform reporting of test results. Utilize the Defense Production Act to mobilize domestic production of PPE equipment and supplies. Work with Congress for urgent passage of the best-achievable bipartisan stimulus bill, preferably including direct support for the jobless and hungry, small businesses, and state and local governments. Facilitate fair distribution of safe vaccines. Start messaging to anticipate and counter anti-vax disinformation. Reconnect CDC with international partners.
- Appoint respected Republicans to your Cabinet. Give them prominent responsibilities in your outreach to Congress. Sponsor out-of-the-gate, job-creating legislative initiatives likely to win sufficient bipartisan support; e.g., infrastructure repair and broadband penetration.
- Use Executive Orders to undo the worst Trump offenses, but don’t act like another Go-it-alone Emperor. Roll back his most notorious pollution-promoting regulations in the Interior Department, Energy Department and EPA. Sponsor and publicize foreign-affairs pivots to begin undoing Trump’s destabilizing damage to America’s international interests, credibility and prestige. Immediate restorations, already previewed by Ambassador Kerry’s appointment, should include the Paris Accord, W.H.O. membership and NATO support.
- Forget prosecuting the ex-president, his family and cronies for crimes committed while he was in office. I understand and respect the argument for accountability, so as to avoid extending carte blanche to future grifters. But I also recall with a shudder the futile, polarizing impeachment proceeding. The more vigorously you tried to pursue the ex-president for punishment, the more you’d make him a martyr for his impassioned followers. Better to focus on restoring respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law. Here’s my compromise proposal. Defer decision on any new federal investigations until after COVID has been controlled. Let the ongoing state investigations by the Manhattan District Attorney and New York Attorney General of alleged pre-presidency tax and bank fraud proceed. Don’t contest Trump’s constitutionally empowered pardons of his family or entourage. But flatly reject any attempt by the deposed president to pardon himself.
- As an overarching approach to your administration’s startup, don’t pretend we’re one big happy family, ready for reconciliation. The election reconfirmed that’s a myth. Avoid hypocritical harmonizing. Instead, soberly acknowledge our deep and wide divisions. Likewise, don’t deny your administration’s left-of-center values and orientation. Elections have consequences. But do promise to respect your opponents, not demonize them. Listen, without prejudice, to their perspectives and concerns. Act boldly, where there’s common ground, to advance their objectives. Unilateral governing is tempting but dangerous; it fosters complacency, partisan rigidity, and corruption. Win/win negotiating for bipartisan governance is much tougher and slower. After decades of adversarial tribalism, reconciliation will be resented and resisted, by friends as well as foes. But it’s the best catalyst for sustainable progress. Behavior changes attitudes; not the other way around.
- Apply comparable humility, patience and persistence when working to restore America’s damaged international relations. Accept that the existential threats of pandemics and climate-change are unavoidably global; and their solutions, unavoidably multilateral.
A closing question for agile agers. Our society has been battered by triple crises: a relentless pandemic, economic contraction and partisan antagonism. When this election is finally over, how can each of us contribute most effectively to national healing?