Damaged liberal hearts may briefly be lifted by the fact that Joe Biden received more votes than anyone in US presidential history — until they find out Donald Trump came in a historic second. He even exceeded Barack Obama’s peak 2008 tally. The real lesson from Tuesday’s record turnout and the continuing vote counts is that America is bitterly, energetically and almost evenly divided.
A President Biden would at best have an equivocal mandate. The question is what he could do with it. The answer is much less than even he — the most moderate of Democratic contenders — would have hoped. Barring a serious upset, Republicans will retain control of the US Senate. Mr Biden would be lucky to push through even the incremental parts of his agenda, such as a public option for US healthcare insurance, big investments in green technology and free tuition for middle-class college students.
Tuesday night left the epoch-changing hopes of American progressives in tatters, and of course the votes are still being counted in key swing states.
There is no chance Mr Biden would be able to abolish the Senate filibuster, add new states to the US, such as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, or expand the size of the Supreme Court. Should a vacancy come due in the 6-3 conservative-majority court, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, can simply block Mr Biden’s nominee. The best for which Mr Biden can hope is a modest stimulus package.
In the meantime he would have to contend with the current White House occupant. If Mr Biden confronts the spectre of being a lame duck, Mr Trump threatens to invent a different version of the species — a wounded duck prone to lashing out. The chances that Mr Trump would concede defeat are slim. He could tie up narrowly lost states in recounts and litigation for weeks. And he would be unlikely to extend the hand of co-operation during the 11 weeks of transition.
Mr Biden would have to prepare for office sight unseen. This could have material consequences. It is doubtful, for example, that Mr Trump would want to share records of his “operation warp speed” on the coronavirus vaccine. The best for which Mr Biden could hope is that Mr Trump goes quietly having shredded forests of White House documents.
A Biden presidency risks being caught between two irreconcilable forces — a stubbornly entrenched Trumpian right and an embittered Democratic left. The sobering counterpoint to Mr Trump’s likely narrow defeat is that almost none of his co-conspirators met the same fate.
Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, was comfortably re-elected, as was Mr McConnell. Democrats may well have lost seats in the House of Representatives. The Republican newcomers are more Trumpian than Mr Trump. One of its intake is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is an avowed supporter of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group. Any chance this election would break the Republican fever, as Mr Obama once put it, has been dashed.
So what could a President Biden do? The short answer is that he would strive to find an American middle that no longer seems to exist. Deals struck with Mr McConnell would alienate the Democratic left. Yet in the absence of an attempt at bipartisan co-operation, little can be accomplished.
That gives Mr McConnell the upper hand. Some things, such as a federal coronavirus plan, can be done by executive order. Others, such as big appointments, will have to meet with Senate approval. It would be wise for a President Biden to appoint at least one or two Republicans to his cabinet. The left would hate that.
Only in foreign policy will the next president have freedom of manoeuvre. Therein lies a paradox. US democracy has taken a reputational battering on the world stage. The 2020 election is unlikely to reverse that. Foreigners know that US politics is trench warfare in which each side grinds out tiny gains at great expense. Big realignments are a thing of the past.
Yet the world would feel America’s change more than most Americans. Mr Biden has pledged to undo half of what Mr Trump has wrought. He would rejoin the Paris accord on climate change, the World Health Organization and possibly the Iran nuclear deal. But his chances of raising the US minimum wage would be close to zero. Higher taxes on America’s wealthy are off the menu. The ghost of Mr Trump would stalk a Biden America.
US presidential election 2020
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