The 2020 presidential election is a cliffhanger, and we may not know the final results for days. But Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pulled ahead in the critical states of Michigan and Wisconsin with plenty of blue-leaning mail ballots to count. Because he won Arizona as well as Nebraska's second congressional district and leads narrowly in Nevada, President Trump has probably been defeated. The real question is whether Biden adds Pennsylvania and Georgia to the tally or whether we are looking at the closest outcome in the Electoral College since 2000. Even if Trump were to wave a magic wand to stop ballot counting everywhere, at the moment he would still lose. Biden will win more votes than any presidential candidate in history and could still end up winning nationally by 6 points or more.
In a functioning country with responsive institutions, it would be time for Democrats to pop the champagne. But the United States' anachronistic institutions grant a minority of the population outsized power, and even though Democrats held onto the House of Representatives, Republicans have a very good chance of hanging on to a bare majority in the Senate. This means any Biden agenda other than ruling through executive orders is basically out the window.
Trump's fervent attempts to spread misinformation about the election results are being described as a nightmare scenario come true. But I don't know how to describe a Biden presidency facing a hostile Senate and a 6-3 Supreme Court majority as anything but a nightmare as well.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will feel rightly emboldened that his endless hardball maneuvering has delivered the courts to the GOP for a generation, with the threat of court expansion now at least temporarily in the rearview. If the Roberts court invalidates the Affordable Care Act, Biden and the Democrats will have no legislative route to a fix. Congress will be unable to pass laws protecting reproductive rights if Amy Coney Barrett and her pals overturn or gut Roe v. Wade. The Court is also likely to dramatically constrain Biden's ability to direct the executive branch, setting the stage for multiple constitutional crises. You should go ahead and Google the GOP's long and now very plausible plot to dismantle what they call "the administrative state."
And that's just the beginning. McConnell could hold up all Biden appointees to the federal judiciary just as he did during the last two years of the Obama presidency. We will return to the painful, nonstop budget showdowns of the later Obama years, only this time Democrats will be squaring off against an even more radicalized Republican Senate, full of Trump acolytes and a GOP that will unapologetically return to rigid austerity politics after four years of letting trillion-dollar deficits pile up under Trump. There will be no coronavirus relief package that remotely meets the needs of the moment, and Americans will just have to pray that the economy's underlying resilience can overcome the unforgivable refusal of the U.S. government to help people.
In other words, while there may be short-lived catharsis when Biden is sworn in and Trump has to pack his bags and slink back to Mar-a-Lago, the next two years are not going to be much more pleasant for Democrats than the last four.
A note of caution here — even though incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones got blown out in Alabama, it is possible that by tonight Democrats will have netted two Senate seats. Mark Kelly defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, and Democrat John Hickenlooper unseated Cory Gardner in Colorado. The outcome of the race between Republican Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon in Maine is up in the air, but if Gideon pulls it out with an assist from the state's Ranked Choice Voting laws, Democrats will be just one agonizing seat short of a majority. There will be one, and possibly two runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5 that could conceivably hand Biden a working 50-50 Senate majority. If Collins hangs on to her seat, however, a GOP Senate is a done deal.
One thing we can say with some certainty: What Democrats hoped for most of all, a Biden landslide, did not materialize last night. While they will celebrate removing the president from office if and when the results are certified, Democrats wanted a more resounding repudiation of Trumpism and a chance to govern with congressional majorities for the first time in a decade. President Trump is already sending ominous signals that he will refuse to go quietly, declaring victory in the middle of the night and proclaiming on Twitter this morning that he had won the election before states started counting "surprise ballots," and he is likely to spend the next two months sowing doubt about the outcome, stoking further divisions in an already traumatized, volatile country, and doing as much damage as possible to Biden and the country on his way out.
Perhaps the hardest thing to accept might be this: Trump's disgraceful, years-long strategy of turning Americans against one another very nearly worked. Just four years ago, a fluke confluence of circumstances — the historic unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, the media's bizarre obsession with an email server she hadn't used in four years, the last-minute intervention of former FBI Director James Comey in the election, and two relatively well-known third party candidates — handed an unpopular and unprepared candidate and his party total control of Washington, D.C., despite lacking anything approaching majority support even on Election Day.
Rather than taking office with humility, President Trump interpreted his unlikely and unrepeatable victory as an invitation to speak to, govern for, and care about only his hardest-core supporters and to regard every other American and their hopes, dreams, and fears as not only irrelevant but illegitimate. He didn't spend a single moment of a single day in office reaching out to people who didn't vote for him, or pretending to care about states that he would likely lose in 2020. Each day of his presidency he discovered new and previously unimagined ways to undermine American democracy and to debase himself and his party.
Worse, he approached the Black Swan of the COVID-19 pandemic entirely through the lens of his re-election. More than 230,000 Americans are dead, with cases spiking all around the country as we head into winter, and the president's closing message was to hold rallies where disease and disinformation spread easily. He babbled nonsensically about "rounding the turn" on the virus and accused doctors of taking money to falsify causes of death and mused preposterously that no one would care about the coronavirus on Nov. 4 because the whole thing was a media-driven plot to tank his popularity and hand the election to Joe Biden. His shambolic indifference to this tragedy was a strategy. And more than 70 million people lapped it up. They looked upon this ruined landscape of hate and fear and said, "More."
There is a Democratic majority in this country, but it will be wearing the straitjacket of minority rule for at least two more years. Confronting that reality and finding a path forward will soon be the most important challenge facing Biden and the Democrats.