Politics

Will Biden’s Presidency Be a Wasted One?

Joe Biden gestures while speaking in front of U.S. flags and Kamala Harris.
President-elect Joe Biden speaks to the media on Monday in Wilmington, Delaware. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts for the full episode.

Slate staff writer Jordan Weissmann was at brunch Saturday when the presidential election was finally called for Joe Biden. I was sitting at home when I got the news and could tell Biden had won because of the racket outside of my house, which pretty much went on all day—car horns honking, fireworks, gleeful shouting. For at least one day, Democrats celebrated, but for Weissmann, that giddy feeling won’t last. “The road ahead is going to be very difficult,” he says. “We are still the same country we were one week ago, one month ago, and the work isn’t done. It’s not even near done. This is a conflict that is just kind of starting.” On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Weissmann about what Biden’s election means and the tough road ahead for Democrats. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: I do want to yank you back for a minute to the good news. Before this election, there was this working group that got together to try to game out what could happen with this election? Like, what if it’s a contested election? And it was so grim. It was like every possibility ended with a constitutional crisis or us on the brink of civil war. And it’s heartening that here we are almost a week after the election. And that’s really not what we see.

We absolutely avoided a worst-case scenario during the election on Election Day. Like you said, there was no violence. Just as importantly, this election is probably not coming down to a Supreme Court decision. That was the great fear, that Donald Trump was angling to try and throw this election to the courts, which would have required a very, very narrow margin in order to make that happen.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It wasn’t a landslide, but it’s a wide enough margin that counting the votes again probably won’t make a difference.

Counting the votes again won’t make a difference. Nullifying late arriving ballots in Pennsylvania, which was sort of key to Donald Trump’s strategy, probably won’t make a difference. The gap in that state is just too large. And so, yeah, his plan to toss this to Amy Coney Barrett failed.

The legal strategy seems strange, too. We saw this press conference this weekend at the landscaping store with Rudy Giuliani. And it was very bizarre for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it was so unpresidential. It was funny. But the only reason you could laugh is because of those wider margins and the fact that the legal case was weak.

Advertisement

It’s absurd. There’s nothing really to worry about at this point, at least in terms of this election. But what  concerns me, and what I wrote in my piece, is that the Supreme Court’s conservatives were signaling, in the weeks leading up to Election Day, that they would be open to a challenge. They were kind of spelling out the legal theories that would be necessary for Trump to seize on in order to maybe prevail.

Advertisement
Advertisement

So maybe not this time, but there’s a road map. 

I’m not comfortable with the fact that the judiciary was kind of ready to play along if the opportunity really presented itself. The opportunity did not present itself this time. But that still feels like a close call to me, especially given that it seems unlikely at this point that Joe Biden is going to have a Democratic Senate to work with. It could still happen. We could win those Georgia specials, and there’s still votes being counted in Alaska, but it doesn’t seem like a strong probability. And even if he does have a majority, it’s going to be so thin that the chances of any kind of court reform, any kind of expansion of the Supreme Court, is almost certainly off the table. And so this is the judiciary that’s going to be around for a while. And they’ve kind of shown us what they are. We have to worry about what comes next time. The worst didn’t happen, but I just don’t take that much comfort in that fact.

We also have these public declarations of support for Joe Biden from Republicans, like former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Even some contemporary GOP leaders are staying away from Trump’s claims of voter fraud.

On the one hand, you do have Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz going on TV and defending Trump and suggesting this election really isn’t over yet. But you’ve got the entire Rupert Murdoch empire at this point calling the ballgame. Fox News and the New York Post and the tabloids that Murdoch controls are all sort of sending the signal that the game’s over, Trump’s done, he’s lost. I think it’s pretty hard for Donald Trump to try any funny business at this point when the Murdoch empire isn’t going to give him a boost. They’re ready for the next thing. And a part of that is just because they’re looking at a situation that’s not bad for the Republican Party. If you’re interested in long-term conservative policy goals, this outcome is actually pretty good for you.

Advertisement

It’s true you get the most unpredictable player in your roster off the team. (That’s the president.) And you probably keep control of the Senate. And so you can kind of block anything Joe Biden wants to do, and then you get to run again.

Advertisement
Advertisement

You get to run again in four years with someone who might be more sane and competent. And the Democrats did not do fantastically in the House. It looks like they’re going to lose at least seven seats, possibly as many as 11 or 12. Their majority is going to be down to a pretty thin margin, which is going to make even maintaining unity in the House a little trickier because almost every vote’s going to matter.

Advertisement

We see this already.

They’re already screaming at each other. You had this phone call among House Democrats  where Abigail Spanberger—

She won a swing district in Virginia.

A close race. She just apparently went off screaming about how she never wanted to hear the words defund the police or socialism ever again, and how these crazy left-wing ideas had cost them several seats and that it was time to kind of put all that stuff aside and get back to basics. Jim Clyburn, who had essentially been the kingmaker in this election for Joe Biden, echoed that. He said he didn’t really want to hear about socialism until the end of the Georgia special election because he’s worried that will cost the Democrats those seats.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Can I ask you something, though? Hearing these stories, my question was: For the Democrats, what are the basics? If we’re getting back to basics.

That’s tricky. I will say that while the moderates were blaming the left. The lefties are blaming the moderates for their own misfortune. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave an interview to New York Times

And launched a tweetstorm. She really went in.

She went off. She pointed out that there are plenty of swing district Democrats who supported “Medicare for All” who did manage to win there. Katie Porter, for instance, she’s pretty far to the left policy-wise, but she manages to do well in her purplish California district. Her diagnosis was that the moderates in the mainstream Democratic Party are just really bad at running a modern campaign, that they’re bad at digital, that they don’t really know how to do door knocking and outreach, and that this is what the left is good at and that, hey, we’re willing to teach them if they’re willing to work together and stop being so accusatory.

Advertisement

We don’t know the answer here. It’s not clear who’s really right. I think it’s a little of Column A and little of Column B. Millions of dollars of ads about defunding the police probably did hurt some Democrats. At the same time, I’d bet that some of these campaigns were not run super well. They were all working from kind of bad data and bad projections about what the electorate would look like even, because the polling was so off in so many places. I think there’s going to be plenty of time for recriminations and arguing and analysis about what exactly went wrong. But like you said, there is this kind of question about what does the Democratic Party really stand for right now, especially at a moment where it’s not even clear it’s going to be able to legislate or deliver on the promises that Joe Biden made during his campaign. It’s a toughie.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Well, there’s also this phenomenon where Democratic candidates didn’t do so hot but Democratic policies fared just fine.  

This election gave us several reminders of that. The clearest one was in Florida, where they voted for Donald Trump and then 60 percent of the state voted for a $15 minimum wage.

And it follows the last election cycle, where Florida voted to give the vote to formerly incarcerated people and elected a whole lot of Republicans.

There were like five different states that either legalized or liberalized marijuana through ballot initiatives. Arizona raised income taxes. They passed an income tax hike on wealthy residents to fund education. And there were some pretty big defeats too. California was just kind of a train wreck on every front: They brought back cash bail and decided to make Uber drivers 1099 employees again. But still, there were a lot of progressive victories at the ballot. There is something to be said for just figuring out which policies of yours the voters really, really like and sticking to that and repeating them over and over again, kind of the way Republicans just repeat lower taxes over and over again. Democrats need to find their core message, their core promises, and put them on bumper stickers everywhere they can. And I have my thoughts on what those might be. If you look at the ballot initiatives, what are the three things that basically went everywhere? It’s minimum wage hikes, Medicaid expansion, and marijuana legalization.

Advertisement
Advertisement

You call them the three M’s

The three M formula to winning elections. Those three just win everywhere. And so I sort of feel like just promising that you’ll do those three things, and making that the Democratic brand for a while, doesn’t strike me as crazy. That’s assuming we can win those two races in Georgia or somehow, by a miracle, pick up Alaska. And I just don’t know. I don’t know if I’m that much of an optimist. Obviously, I’m not that much of an optimist. You can tell that I am not that much of an optimist.

But there is something that’s hard here, which is there was clear evidence from this election that many voters responded negatively to the idea of socialism. And so many of these ideas get sort of stuffed into that box when you talk about them nationally. And Joe Biden did rely on a lot of people in states that aren’t particularly safe for Democrats. So how do you think about that, about making these arguments at the national level where it seems like there’s some kind of disconnect between Democratic ideas and the people who are running to implement those ideas?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One thing that’s important to point out here is that the advantage of putting an individual policy on the ballot, especially a popular one like a minimum wage hike, is that you can be pro-life or anti-immigrant and still vote for a minimum wage hike. Political parties and politicians, they are a big bundled package, right? It’s like the whole cable bundle, whereas maybe you just want Netflix. It may be in some ways that also disadvantages Democrats and that voters feel like they can get the things they really want à la carte and then vote for Republicans for the other stuff because they like conservative judges or whatnot.

The question to me is not whether socialism, good or bad, is really turning people off, it’s what’s actually the most effective way to frame this stuff for an American audience. And I don’t know if anyone’s quite figured that out yet. What are the magic words to make all this stuff hang together in the minds of, like,  swing voters in North Carolina?

Advertisement

We’re still at the point where Mitch McConnell is saying, I’m not going to approve Cabinet positions I don’t like.

Mitch McConnell is already signaling that he’s going to be a thorn in Joe Biden’s side. It’s not clear yet how much room there actually is for bipartisan agreement if Republicans maintain control of the Senate. If Joe Biden does not even get two years to legislate semi-freely with a bare majority, it could be a really long time before progressives or Democrats have a chance to do anything significant. Two years from now, we will be going into a midterm election, and the president’s party typically loses seats in a midterm. And then making matters worse, that will be the first election after redistricting. And once again, it looks like, because Republicans managed to hold on to so many state legislatures, they will largely control that process around the country and have an opportunity to gerrymander a lot of Democrats out of their swing districts. And so it is conceivable that even if Democrats have a shot at taking the Senate in 2022, they could lose the House. It is entirely plausible that Joe Biden will not be able to really legislate effectively for his entire first term in office—and if he doesn’t run again, his only term in office—which is just sobering and it’s frustrating

Well, you’ve been a real buzzkill.

Sorry, I told you, I had one happy day. I should say, he can try to do things through executive authority and there may be some serious progress he could make on climate change or labor regulations just through the power of the administrative state. We’ll see. Again, what’s frustrating there is that right now a very, very conservative court could just have veto power over any particularly dramatic moves he tries to make. So it’s not like it’ll necessarily be a wasted presidency, but there’s a danger of it being a wasted presidency. That is a non-zero possibility right now.

Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts

Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.

Advertisement