Who would want to run this country?


While it has been obvious for a few days now, networks waited until this morning to call the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden. I was greeted by whoops and clanging pots and honking horns outside my apartment window. The energy New York had lavished on its first responders in March and April was now being used to rejoice over Biden’s election, or, perhaps more accurately, Trump’s deposal. I strolled over to a local park, the site of several Black Lives Matter rallies during the tumultuous summer. Everyone seemed to be in a festive mood: popping champagne bottles, dancing to The Village People’s YMCA (in an apparent troll of Trump), hooting and hollering, and flying American, BLM, Gay Pride, and Biden/Harris flags. I met a friend there; she couldn’t relate to the festive mood either. I think we both felt emotions more akin to relief than to joy. We were glad that this episode in our ongoing national nightmare was over, but we weren’t sure whether the next episode was worth celebrating.

It’s worth marveling over how narrow of a victory this was. Not in terms of the popular vote, of course, which currently shows a 3% gap and will likely climb to 4 or 5% as more votes, particularly from California, trickle in. Nor will it be obvious in terms of the electoral vote, where Biden is projected to eclipse 300 (in an odd coincidence, he will likely end up with as many electors as Trump won in 2016). But if Wisconsin had been a mere 0.7%, or 20000 votes, closer, the election likely would have been thrown into chaos. The premature call of Arizona, where the margin continues to shrink as the last tranches of votes are counted, would have inspired recriminations between Republicans and media organizations, particularly Fox News, and the automatic recount of Georgia would have been awaited by the entire nation with bated breath. Even if Biden had ultimately won, it might have taken weeks to finalize the result. (If you thought your addiction to Twitter and FiveThirtyEight was bad now, …) During which time, of course, gun nuts, conspiracy theorists, right-wing media, and others would have attempted to intimidate, troll, and litigate their way to their desired outcome, with a right-wing Supreme Court waiting eagerly in the wings. In one plausible scenario, Biden might have lost Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia (which he is currently leading by a combined 50000 votes), leaving the electoral count at 269-269, and virtually guaranteeing a Trump second term. Perhaps the only silver lining would have been amusedly watching foreign media organizations try to explain the arcane rules that apply in this case.

But let’s set that aside. Biden won, which is, if not good, at least much better than the alternative. So what comes next?

First, the current occupant of the White House refuses to go politely and decently. He released a statement today, which read in part:

We all know why Joe Biden is rushing to falsely pose as the winner, and why his media allies are trying so hard to help him: they don’t want the truth to be exposed. The simple fact is this election is far from over.

Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated. The American People are entitled to an honest election: that means counting all legal ballots, and not counting any illegal ballots. This is the only way to ensure the public has full confidence in our election. It remains shocking that the Biden campaign refuses to agree with this basic principle and wants ballots counted even if they are fraudulent, manufactured, or cast by ineligible or deceased voters. Only a party engaged in wrongdoing would unlawfully keep observers out of the count room – and then fight in court to block their access. “So what is Biden hiding? I will not rest until the American People have the honest vote count they deserve and that Democracy demands.

Fears of a right-wing coup are overblown, I think — much of the Republican establishment is slowly easing itself away from Trump — but Trump’s casting of doubt on the results of a patently legitimate vote count and election can only mean trouble. Republican Senator Ron Johnson, explained, “It’s very unfortunate that no matter who wins, the other half of America is not going to view this as a particularly legitimate election. That’s a real problem. I’m not saying it’s legitimate or not. I’m saying this process has been set up where people are not going to view it as legitimate.” Did you catch that? Per Ron Johnson, it’s a shame that people view the election as illegitimate, but, on the other hand, who really knows that it wasn’t? And, even though he’s going to continue to give succor to their grievances, he’s not saying outright that they’re true, so can you really blame him for the situation? He’s just asking questions about “voter fraud” that “mainstream media, and, unfortunately, many officials just simply ignore.” What a piece of shit. But, we should be clear-eyed: this is the tone that the Trumpy-er wing of the Republican Party will take in the next weeks and months. There will be no real concession speech, no humility, no decency, no desire to preserve the norm of the gracious loser. Why would there be?

Johnson is correct in saying that Republicans would view Biden as an illegitimate president. But it has always been thus. Bill Clinton was under investigation for almost his entire presidency. Barack Obama was viewed as a non-citizen, a Muslim, a foreigner, a “Kenyan anti-colonial[ist]”, an other. Biden will suffer from these same problems, but probably to a worse extent, because the Republican Party is only more loathsome than it was 30 years ago (witness the election of 2 QAnon supporters to Congress, for example).

It is possible to govern without the perception of legitimacy, to lead as if you were ignoring the half of the country who didn’t vote for you. After all, that’s what we’ve had for the last 4 years. The problem is that we now have a national health crisis that is largely attributable to the people we’d like to ignore, and fixing it requires changing their behavior. What is truly bleak is not just the numbers — of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths — but also how inadequate our future president’s tools are for mitigating them.

Let’s start with the former. This third wave of the pandemic is much more serious than the second. That one was confined to the Sunbelt, and largely spared regions of the country previously hit hard. This one started in the Midwest but threatens to overwhelm the entire country. That one flourished in warm weather, which is less conducive to transmission. This one has spread in the cold. This one coincides with flu season. And this one has broken records for new infections, and, soon, it will also break records for total hospitalizations. The only saving grace is that better medical care and earlier testing have dramatically reduced the chance of someone dying from this disease. But, even still, the states at the center of the pandemic, North and South Dakota, are seeing levels of carnage that are truly scary. In the last week, North Dakota had 9000 new cases. Its population is only 750,000. That means that the disease is infecting more than 1% of the population per week. And, unsurprisingly, deaths are rising in tandem. If North Dakota were a country, its recent death toll would rank, on a per capita basis, as tied for worst in the world, at 1.9 daily deaths per 100000 people. Several more weeks at this pace would cause the overall death toll, per capita, to rival the worst states in the nation. At least New York and New Jersey might be excused for not knowing better in late February and early March. What is our excuse now?

Governors in North and South Dakota, both Republicans, refuse to impose mask mandates. They view the issue as a matter of “personal responsibility” and “freedom of choice”, rather than one of public health. Even Dr. Deborah Birx, who works for the Trump administration, admonished North Dakota, saying “Over the last 24 hours, as we were here and we were in your grocery stores and in your restaurants and frankly even in your hotels, this is the least use of masks that we have seen in retail establishments of any place we have been.” Fast-forward to late January. Joe Biden is finally in office. What does he do about these people? Public health regulations are administered, in large part, at a state level. Even if such regulations were in place, compliance is likely to be low and enforcement is likely to be shoddy. It is difficult to coerce people who fundamentally do not believe in public health, who do not subscribe to the idea of a common good, into doing the right thing. In fact, these people are probably less likely to do the right thing knowing that a Democratic president wants them to. There was a New York Times article about the Sturgis motorcycle rally, which is thought to have been a main locus for the third wave. Public health officials warned of an outbreak; local residents wanted to postpone the rally; and even the bikers themselves knew attendance was risky. But they did it anyway. What would Biden have done about that? What could he have done?

The weakness of the Biden administration’s position is illustrated by this article, entitled “Biden’s ready to start his pandemic response immediately”. Here’s the plan, apparently: “In interviews with STAT, several Biden health advisers described a forthcoming effort to court skeptical mayors and governors, select and vet leaders for key public health agencies, and set a new tone for the nation’s pandemic response, even in the 10 weeks before he takes office.” Am I the only one who thinks this is pathetic? What, precisely, will talking to Republican mayors and governors and “set[ting] a new tone” accomplish? For once, I don’t even blame Biden; I honestly believe he doesn’t have any better tools at his disposal than trying to convince these people to be empathetic, to look beyond themselves. Good luck.

(One remarkable statistic is that a doubling of coronavirus deaths in the last 60 days in a particular area reduced support for Republican House and Senate candidates in that area by only a few tenths of percent. In other words, there are no electoral consequences for letting Americans die, particularly in safely red districts. Given that cold calculus, the decisions of the Dakota governors make plenty of sense.)

This essay is long enough already, and we haven’t even begun to delve into the ways that the Biden administration will fail, through no fault of its own. Like the maverick John McCain threatened to do to a President Hillary Clinton, Biden will not be allowed to appoint a Supreme Court justice (Also recall that Justice Breyer is 82 years old). Any efforts to reverse Republican capture of lower courts will also be blocked by Mitch McConnell as long as he retains the Senate. It is even in doubt whether Biden will be allowed to stock his cabinet without making severe concessions to Republicans in doing so. If you liked James Comey, Timothy Geithner, and Robert Gates, you’ll be sure to enjoy the next generation of Republican daddies and Wall Street financiers.

I expect the deficit zombies to rise again. One recent report explained, “A GOP strategist who has been consulting with Senate campaigns said Republicans have been carefully laying the groundwork to restrain a Biden administration on federal spending and the budget deficit by talking up concerns about the price tag for another round of virus relief.” I had thought Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles had died already, but I imagine they’ll make a reappearance to complain about how the liberals are being fiscally irresponsible. I would not at all be surprised to see a new iteration of their “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” during the Biden administration. I would also not be surprised to see a reprise of the same tired battles over raising the debt ceiling and agreeing on a federal budget. Biden should probably just mint the platinum coin, but, even if he does, he will likely face at least one government shutdown during his tenure.

Redistricting in this new decade will be a shitshow. (The Democrats failed to flip a single state legislature this past election.) The newly drawn lines will likely be bad for Democrats, and, even in Democratic states, might be bad for progressives. The situation in the house of Congress where the lines don’t change, the Senate, will be even worse. Although 22 Republicans and only 12 Democrats are up for reelection in 2022, the only ones that appear truly gettable are Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. And that will have to be done in a midterm election, when, historically at least, the incumbent’s party usually loses. The forces of capital, of dark money, the same ones arrayed against Obama after his 2008 victory, will be resurgent. There will undoubtedly be a new, rebranded Tea Party that the media glorifies as the voice of the silent majority while actually being the same astroturf assholes we’ve been fighting against for years. These people will yell vigorously against any attempt to bring the current criminal occupants of the White House to justice, even though, without that effort, future criminals and self-dealers will only be emboldened.

The list goes on. And that brings me to the question that is the title of this essay: who would want this job? Republicans break the government over the course of four or eight years, making nonpartisan jobs into partisan ones, stocking the courts, spending profligately, ignoring the needs of working class people, and enriching themselves and their wealthy benefactors. And then they spend the other chunks of four or eight years gumming up the government, eroding public trust, and positioning themselves to win the next election. It is entirely cynical, but also entirely effective. We have to break this cycle, or we will never accomplish anything worthwhile. And this is all on the shoulders of Joe Biden. Joe Biden! The man who thinks that this election was a “battle for the soul of the nation”, as if the nation has a soul to save, and that “it’s time to put the anger and harsh rhetoric behind us”, as if we were even capable. But the point is that, even if we didn’t have a president-elect who believed in the Obama-era bullshit of “bringing the country together”, he or she would face an almost insurmountable challenge. I am glad my fellow revelers could forget about all that, at least for one day, but on January 20 they will be rudely reminded.


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