The bad news for Republicans was that the election was a referendum on Pres. Trump. But, the good news for Republicans is that the election wasn’t a referendum on the party. Even as the president lost the national popular vote by 3-4 points (and maybe higher), Republicans picked up at least eight seats in the House (and likely 10-11 at the end of the day), saw a net loss of just one U.S. Senate seat on election night, and picked up two state legislative chambers—the New Hampshire House and Senate. Trump’s brand may be toxic, but that toxicity didn’t seep its way into down-ballot races as the polling suggested it would.
Some look at these results and see a mandate for bipartisanship. Voters rejected the extremism of both sides (rejecting Trump’s divisiveness and racist dog whistles, while also giving a thumbs down to calls to ‘defund the police’). Moreover, Pres.-elect Biden seems to be tailor-made for this moment. A creature of the Senate, Biden often boasts (much to the chagrin of progressives) of his friendships and relationships with GOPers in Congress.
I’m not quite as optimistic.
For one, this election wasn’t about policy. Or even ideology. Despite all the churn and disruption of the last year, opinions of the president didn’t budge.
The election was less about specific actions the president did or did not take on COVID, the economy or climate change. It was more about what Trump represented. If you saw him as a chaos agent who was upending social and democratic norms, you voted against him and the GOP candidates down-ballot. If you saw the president as a fighter for the people left behind or ignored in modern America, you voted for him and the GOP candidates down-ballot. An Election Day survey (11/3) taken by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies, found that just 11 percent of voters split their tickets - the lowest percentage since at least 2000.
Now, to be sure, that small slice of voters who did split their tickets between the president and those running for other offices mattered in several down-ballot races (think Susan Collins in Maine, or Rep. Don Bacon in NE-02). Even so, most Senate candidates came within less than a point of the presidential candidates.
Our elections have become proxies for cultural identity, with voters attaching existential meaning to them. A recent Pew Research Center analysis concluded that “underlying the many policy disagreements between Biden and Trump voters is a more personal feeling of distrust and disillusionment that could make compromise all the more difficult.” In particular, “overwhelming majorities of both Biden and Trump supporters said in October that a victory by the other candidate would lead to lasting harm to the nation. Nine-in-ten Biden voters said this about the prospect of a Trump victory, and 89% of Trump voters said it about the prospect of a Biden win. And around eight-in-ten in both camps said Biden and Trump supporters not only disagree over politics and policies but that they also disagree over core American values and goals.”
These are not the kind of differences that can be bridged with an infrastructure bill or a COVID stimulus package.
Helping to fuel our estrangement is a media ecosystem that is driven by algorithms and business models designed to keep us outraged with what the ‘other side’ is doing. The diffused media structure has created multiple ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ that its adherents cling to because they have no reason to question them.
So, is it realistic to think that Biden bridge this divide?
Where Trump reveled in stoking animosity and division, Biden is committed to turning down the heat. And, by doing so, he’s hoping that others follow his lead. Sure, the ‘outrage industrial complex’ will find things to be upset about. But, the resentment won’t be as all-consuming as it was with Trump.
Biden also enters the White House with higher favorable ratings than Trump did. He’s not likely to get quite the honeymoon as his former boss Barack Obama did, but he will come into office with a deeper well of goodwill than his predecessor.
But, is that enough? Can we see real, working relationships between a GOP-held Senate and the Democratic White House?
Biden spent almost his entire career in the Senate. But, the Senate with which he and Obama were greeted with in 2009 is gone. More than half of the Republicans currently in the Senate were elected in 2010 or later. And the Democratic side is almost unrecognizable as well. Back in 2009-10, Democrats held both Senate seats in Arkansas, North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia. They also held seats in Louisiana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Today, Democrats have just three red-state Senators — Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV) and Sherrod Brown (OH). Collins in Maine is the only true blue-state Republican Senator. Republicans Pat Toomey (PA) and Ron Johnson (WI) represent blue tilting states. In other words, there aren’t many moderates for Biden to work with. Of course, we also know that Republicans are anxious to keep control of the Senate and flip the House in 2022 — which means they have even less incentive to help make a Biden presidency successful. Moreover, there’s no incentive to make bi-partisanship work. Political candidates and incumbents raise money and their profile by being a voice of opposition, not moderation.
In the past, when I was asked what it would take to break the partisanship and gridlock in Washington, I said I thought it was going to take something truly horrible happening. Like a war. Or a Great Depression type of economic collapse. But, here we are, almost a year into the worst pandemic this country has seen in 100 years, and this crisis, instead of bringing us together, has become yet another one which divides us. And, even as we flirt with a dangerous descent into a deadly third wave of the virus this winter, those divisions are likely to remain. This is one time when I hope that I will be proven wrong. But, I fear that I won’t be.