Trump the paper tiger
Why Biden has little to fear from Trump’s permanent campaign
With the official certifications of the results in Arizona and Wisconsin, the 2020 presidential election is finally effectively over. President Trump may continue to contest the results in court, but with no case to press there's no real chance that anything will change. We can finally move on and start thinking about the post-Trump era.
Or, you know, maybe not.
Whether or not Trump ultimately runs for president again in 2024, he's not going anywhere. He has a nine-figure and still-growing "stop the steal" slush fund, an enormous base of support among rank-and file Republicans, and a bottomless appetite for attention. For the next four years, Trump is going to drag the spotlight his way, proclaiming that his presidency was stolen from him, denouncing everything the Biden administration does as corrupt, socialistic, and treasonous.
What can Biden and the Democrats do about it? I think the answer is "nothing." But, increasingly, I think that's not the end of the world.
Why do I say that? First, because the post-election evidence actually suggests the country can be governed — just not necessarily the way Democrats would prefer. Republican judges and Republican officeholders — including strong Trump supporters and appointees — have given essentially no support to Trump's extraordinary efforts to undermine and overturn the election. It's been nerve-wracking, but the people with actual power have exercised it responsibly when it counted. And the more Trump has raged against them, the more their spines have stiffened to rebuke him formally.
There's a reason for that, and it's not just that these officials have integrity. It's also that they understand certain basic political facts, the most important of which is that Trump lost — and that he lost while Republicans outperformed him in key races for Congress and the Senate.
But will that responsibility extend beyond the election to governance? Will Republican senators be willing to compromise and pass vital legislation if Trump threatens to rally behind a primary challenger? Will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put the good of the country over the good of the Republican Party? Maybe not — but that just means Biden has to demonstrate there are ways in which the GOP's interests dovetail with the country's, so that a coldly rational response to political incentives can lead to deals.
And those deals are clearly available. The GOP's business supporters badly want some kind of shield for business from liability for coronavirus. If Biden offers to agree in exchange for more money for states and municipalities, is it actually risk free for the GOP to turn the deal down? If Biden offers to save rural hospitals, support farmers, invest in domestic manufacturing, and build crucial infrastructure, can the GOP actually refuse to negotiate at all and then face their voters? Are they sure Trump's is the only voice those voters will hear?
Assuming Republicans win at least one of the Georgia Senate elections, McConnell will remain majority leader. But his political position will not be the same as it was in 2009, when he said his top priority was to make Obama a one-term president. Then, the Democrats had unified control of government and a super-majority in the Senate. Democrats didn't need Republican votes — and Republicans had no incentive to give them any, because they would benefit politically from making the Democrats take any risky votes on their own. Today, McConnell controls a bare majority, and therefore is a partner in governance. If he turns down deals that would deliver on his own caucus' priorities just to make Biden look bad, that puts his own members at risk in 2022.
And make no mistake: 2022 is a real risk. Republican senators are retiring in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, both states that Democrats are capable of winning. The Democrats will fight hard for Wisconsin's Senate seat as well. If Chuck Grassley declines to run for an eighth term, Iowa might be in play. Democrats, meanwhile, will be playing defense on territory that has gone increasingly their way in recent years — Nevada, Colorado and Arizona (and possibly Georgia, if they win the special election there). The Senate has become a decidedly uphill climb for Democrats, but 2022 is their best shot to take control for quite a while until they figure out how to make red states competitive again. If McConnell could keep the Senate in GOP hands through one more cycle, Republicans could remain in power for many more years.
The other difference between now and 2009 is that McConnell had solid control of his caucus back then. That's not so clearly the case right now — and it's specifically not the case if he appears to be making moves more out of fear of Trump than from a calculation of his party's best interests. McConnell recently shot down the latest attempt to find bi-partisan ground on coronavirus relief, but this is not the last round of that particular fight, and the mere fact that four Republican senators joined the effort shows the natives are getting restless. Most important, these senators have little reason to fear Trump's wrath: Mitt Romney of Utah already voted to convict Trump of charges for which he was impeached, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska already won re-election once after losing a Republican primary to a Tea-Party-backed challenger, and Susan Collins just won re-election in Maine by 9 points while Trump lost the state by the same margin. McConnell has very little leverage to keep them in line just out of fear of Trump's Twitter tirades.
None of this means governing will be easy. It wouldn't be easy without Trump, with the country so bitterly divided and power so evenly split between the parties, each jostling for advantage. It will be much harder with Trump screaming from the sidelines, actively trying to exacerbate those divisions. And the fact that Biden's political incentives don't align perfectly with Schumer's or Pelosi's, to say nothing of Warren's or AOC's, will no doubt create further headaches.
But right-wing irrationalism and anger didn't begin with Trump, and won't end with him; he's just an especially potent vehicle. So the desire to exorcize this particular demon from the body politic is almost bound to fail — and will certainly fail by the means used so far of "calling out" the outrages and declaring them "not normal." It's not healthy, but at this point it is normal, and we still have to govern the country.
The best way for Biden to handle Trump is the way he's been handling him since the election: ignore him and focus on what people with power actually want and do. Republicans have a lot of power and therefore a lot of leverage. That means they're in a position to get a lot of things they want. If they squander that leverage for fear that their defeated leader will say mean things about them, they're bigger fools than I take them for.