Their failure to do so — and especially their likely failure to win control of the Senate — means the trends that have been hobbling democracy lately won’t abate anytime soon.
A resounding victory would have had two immediate consequences. It would have given Democrats the legislative power to enact Biden’s agenda, and it would have forced a reckoning among elected Republican officials. A narrow victory removes Trump from office, but it hamstrings the Biden presidency before it can even begin. A narrow victory leaves Republican leaders believing that, if not for the pandemic, they would have won. It leaves them thinking that nothing from the past four years has, in fact, been a mistake.
If Biden does indeed emerge as the next president after all the votes have been counted, he’ll almost certainly face Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Senate majority leader, unless Democrats manage to force a runoff in one Senate race in Georgia and win that and the other Georgia runoff. Divided government will be dysfunctional government. Biden is going to inherit a once-in-a-generation economic crisis and public health crisis. McConnell, if history is any guide, will do everything in his power to weaken the recovery.
In 2009, Barack Obama began his presidency with a faltering economy and a goal of building bipartisan coalitions to solve big policy problems. As minority leader in the Senate, McConnell held the Republican caucus together, refusing to partner with Obama on anything while slowing down all legislative activity and weakening the recovery. This was a strategic bet on McConnell’s part — as he explained to National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He believed that he could be totally blatant in his obstruction, and Obama would still take the blame. The strategic bet paid off. Obama and the Democrats were blamed for the slow economic recovery and ongoing partisan divisions. The 2010 election was a rout in favor of Republicans in Congress, and they took the House and nearly the Senate. McConnell pursued a similar strategy in the 2014 midterms, with similar results that made him majority leader.
Next year, Biden will inherit a pandemic and an economy teetering on the brink of a recession, if not a depression. It’s not at all guaranteed that Congress will pass a new stimulus bill during the lame-duck session, although McConnell says he wants to. The economy might crater if there is no relief package amid the next surge of coronavirus cases. If so, McConnell will face a familiar choice: collaborate with Biden for the good of the country or stonewall all efforts at effective governance in the hopes that it will help Republicans in the 2022 midterms.
It doesn’t take a very extensive review of his career to guess which side might seem more appealing to him.
Biden will also inherit an executive branch that has been systematically emptied of competent administrators. Every agency — from the Justice Department to the State Department to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has pushed out career professionals in favor of die-hard Trump supporters. Repairing America’s administrative capacity will not happen overnight, and McConnell can make it much harder if he so chooses, by blocking or slowing nominations.
Biden could try to circumvent the Senate by relying heavily on executive orders. But governing by executive order is vulnerable to judicial nullification — as even Trump has learned. And McConnell has spent the past four years systematically filling the judicial branch with conservative partisan ideologues. If Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices Bret Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett suddenly decide that unitary executive theory does not apply when Democrats are president, then Biden will be left with no recourse.
Maybe Biden would try to reason with McConnell, relying on his decades of Senate experience and hoping that this time will be different. Obama tried that and failed. Senate Democrats have tried that over the past four years and failed. Asking McConnell to choose the good of the country over short-term partisan gain is like Charlie Brown asking Lucy to hold a football very still. It always turns out the same.
America’s two-party system only works when elected officials in both parties participate in responsible governance. There is a time for partisan campaigning, but there also has to be a time for collaboration and policymaking. For over a decade, Republican Party officials have bucked this trend. Republicans who work across the aisle face hard primary challenges. Republicans who promote conspiracy theories become Fox News celebrities and enjoy massive fundraising hauls. The U.S. government cannot operate unless the Republican Party changes course. In the absence of a resounding defeat, such a change seems unlikely.
The end of the Trump era is a welcome change. It stops the bleeding and concludes the darkest chapter in recent American history. But I fear the lesson we are soon to learn is that it is easier to burn institutions to the ground than it is to rebuild them. Repairing the damage of the Trump years was always going to be a long, arduous task. Repairing that damage while finally developing a competent government response to the pandemic was going to be so much harder. A resounding victory for Democrats would have been the first step in the right direction.
A narrow victory is better than nothing. But it is so much less than what we needed. It is a foreboding sign for what will come next.