A Return to Normal?

AW
December 17, 2020

In this era of unprecedented tumult and change, it's easy to think that politicians who reflect those same forces would be successful. But in 2020, voters picked stability over volatility. If there were a clear mandate from voters this election, it was this: get our lives back to normal. 

Back in 2019, conventional wisdom (and Twitter activists) told us that Democratic voters were looking for a revolutionary as their nominee. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren promised a transformation of our social, economic and political institutions. But, Democratic primary voters prioritized pragmatism ("we MUST beat Trump") over purity. Instead of overthrowing the status quo, Democrats voted to make the status quo their nominee. 

Meanwhile, Pres. Donald Trump governed and ran his re-election campaign under the theory that there was a 'silent majority' of Americans who enjoyed the chaos and the norm-busting. They voted for change and disruption and Trump delivered on that every day. Instead, Americans, exhausted by constant drama, canceled our first reality star president after one season. 

There's no doubt that millions of Americans are unhappy — and understandability so — with our present state of affairs. There's a desperate need for a re-examination of the underlying causes of inequity and exclusion. There is a need to restructure American institutions that have failed so many of us.
 
But, a pandemic that has kept our kids home from school, shuttered our economy and made even a quick hug with a loved one a potential super-spreader event has put 'returning to normal' in a more appealing light. 

What so many Americans are desperate for is to get their lives — as flawed as they may have been — back to a regular place. That's it. They aren't as interested in significant, structural change as much as they are desperate for a change from their pandemic purgatory.

To be sure, there are plenty of members of Congress who want to see more dramatic change — both on the left and right. And, as I've written previously, there is currency — both political and monetary — in stoking the fires of outrage and drama. There will be intra-party battles in Washington between "The Squad" and Democratic leadership, Trump-ists and the GOP establishment, and Fox and OAN/Newsmax. But, while the struggle for power in DC will captivate the media, it won't capture the attention of swing voters who are more interested in visiting their elderly parents or attending their child's graduation in person. 

For all the challenges that await Pres.-elect Biden in 2021, the most important will be his ability to deliver on a return to normal. Biden will be judged more on whether he can deliver a vaccine efficiently and effectively than on whether he's gotten a major climate change bill through Congress. The boring, but crucial work of competency will be the most important issue for 2021.

The first weeks of a president's transition process can tell you a lot about how they will govern. In 2016, Trump treated the cabinet process much like his TV show; there were the Bedminster try-outs and that super awkward dinner with Mitt Romney. The norm-busting candidate played by his own set of rules — not the ones that his predecessors followed. And, of course, the rest of his presidency played out similarly. 

For his part, Biden's transition has been like his campaign; traditional, predictable and with little to no drama or surprises. His choices for his cabinet and White House personnel reflect a desire for restoration over revolution. There aren't a lot of new faces. Or younger faces. They have electoral and executive experience, but they lack an outsider's perspective. On the downside, this could lead to excess group-think and a shortage of imagination. On the upside, it means his team is ready to go on day one — no learning curve needs to be mastered. 

For Democrats, 2019 and early 2020 was all about whether a candidate could shift the "Overton Window" — make things that were once seen as politically risky, like Medicare for All, broadly acceptable. The year 2021 will be defined by Occam's Razor — the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Fix the pandemic before you try to tackle anything else. 

Image credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky