The Split Ticket
Top Stories of the Year: #2
The items so far in my review of the top stories of the year, #5, #4, and #3, have been developments that are ideological and diffuse. The next item in the countdown is something more immediate and tangible. It's the thing we all expected to be the top story this year: the presidential election. No points for guessing what actually turned out to be the top story.
Unlike with that top story, the result of the election was surprisingly good.
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Early this year, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, when I was considering the potential results of a Biden vs. Trump or Sanders vs. Trump contest, it was obvious that none of the results was particularly pretty.
Fortunately, Democrats saved us from the Sanders options.
As many of us having been saying, all the Democrats had to do to have a good shot at winning back the White House this year was to not be crazy....
But the Democratic primary debates provided us plenty of fresh examples of bizarre and unappealing positions taken by major candidates: letting the Boston Marathon bombers vote from prison, defending forced school busing, calling for mass gun confiscation, and so on. To make matters worse, pandering to the fever dreams of the Twitter left was the usual last-ditch strategy adopted by failing candidates. Then there was the surge in the polls toward Bernie Sanders, who became the party's front-runner for about three weeks after the Iowa caucuses.
And yet, against all odds, the Democrats have somehow managed to not be crazy.
Instead, they nominated the party's leading "moderate"—the Man in the Middle—Joe Biden. He was not a great candidate and will not be a great president, but at this point, were you expecting greatness? I think a lot of us would happily settle for mediocrity, and that's what we're likely to get.
(A caveat, though. One of the three examples of far-left craziness I gave above was from Kamala Harris, who will be Joe Biden's vice-president. Harris herself is more of a pragmatist, but in the primaries, she was far more willing than Biden to pander to her party's crazy wing.)
At any rate, when I gamed out the likely election results, here's what I thought the ideological impact was likely to be from the two different outcomes of a Biden vs. Trump matchup.
The worst outcome for all of us is that Democrats nominate their moderate candidate, Biden, who then loses to Trump in the general election. This would embolden Trump and the nationalist wing of the right, while also emboldening the radical left, who would say "we told you so" and argue for the nomination of a radical candidate in 2024.
By contrast, what if Biden beats Trump?
This would be a massive validation for moderate Democrats, while it would also discredit the Trumpist right. It would make Donald Trump's decision to risk his entire presidency in order to smear Biden look like an act of colossal foolishness. The "But He Fights" argument—which excuses any kind of misconduct, so long as it results in victory—would ring awfully hollow if it resulted in defeat.
And what about a Biden presidency? He would be foolish, poorly informed, and prone to gaffes and harebrained ideas that his advisors would scramble to walk back. In other words, he would be pretty much like the current incumbent.
But President Biden wouldn't have a mandate for radical measures, and I don't think we can expect him ever to have a cult-like following that regards him as the indispensable answer to all of the world's problems. Which would make for a refreshing change from the past twelve years.
Meanwhile, in this scenario, Donald Trump would begin to look more like a temporary aberration and less like the vox populi, which would give the right an opportunity to mount some kind of intellectual recovery—if they could manage it. After the past four years, I have my doubts, but it would be nice if they at least gave it a shot.
The last part of that hasn't quite worked out as I expected. But the rest worked out better than expected. Not only does Biden not have a mandate for radical measures; all but the most anodyne parts of his agenda will be dead on arrival in Congress.
I hailed this as a victory for the mainstream of the #NeverTrump movement.
We regarded Donald Trump as unfit for office, and we wanted him out. But remember that NeverTrump was a phenomenon of the right. If you were on the left, you were just anti-Trump or pro-whoever was running against him. The NeverTrump label was specifically for people who were expected to line up behind Trump in 2016 just because he was the Republican nominee, but who refused to do so. Yet we were still conservatives—or in my case, a free-marketer—so we didn't want to sign on for the full Democratic Party agenda.
How can one possibly manage this combination? Well, the way you do it is to get exactly the result that is now emerging: a victory for Joe Biden, but one so narrow that it gives him no mandate and no Democratic Senate majority to work with.
That sounds just about perfect, if you ask me.
I called this a split ticket. It's a little unclear where there was actually a lot of classic ticket-splitting, in which people vote Republican in local and congressional races and Democrat for the president. But there was a clear differential between how people voted at the top of the ticket versus farther down the ballot. As Donald Trump complained, "So I led this great charge, and I'm the only one that lost?"
He said this in disbelief, but it's not that difficult to understand. Here is how it looks from the perspective of Democratic candidates and activists who lost races they were hoping to win.
"There's a significant difference between a referendum on a clown show, which is what we had at the top of the ticket, and embracing the values of the Democratic ticket," said Nichole Remmert, Ms. Skopov's campaign manager. "People bought into Joe Biden to stop the insanity in the White House. They did not suddenly become Democrats."...
This year, Democrats targeted a dozen state legislative chambers where Republicans held tenuous majorities, including in Pennsylvania, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Minnesota. Their goal was to check the power of Republicans to redraw congressional and legislative districts in 2021, and to curb the rightward drift of policies from abortion to gun safety to voting rights.
But in all cases, Democrats came up short. None of their targeted legislative chambers flipped, even though Mr. Biden carried many of the districts that down-ballot Democrats did not. It could make it harder for Democrats to retain a House majority in 2022....
In the aftermath, moderate Democrats are feuding with progressives over whether policies that excite the party's base, such as higher taxes to pay for social programs, policing overhauls and a rapid move away from fossil fuels, are a losing message with swing voters....
Ms. Skopov echoed a Virginia congresswoman, Abigail Spanberger, who heatedly told House Democrats on a private call after the election that the party must banish the words "socialism" and "defund the police," after Republicans defeated moderate Democrats tagged with those positions, often inaccurately, in swing House districts across the country.
On Twitter, Ms. Skopov wrote that she had been "a casualty/collateral damage of this offensively poor messaging."
"Poor messaging" is an evasive euphemism. "Defund the police" is not a bad way of expressing a good idea. It's a bad idea. The down-ballot result of the 2020 election is the price the Democrats paid for everything I described in #4 of this countdown: the riots, the indiscriminate destruction, the efforts to justify violence as a means of political change, the attempt to purge all dissenters. The American people saw this, they didn't want it, and they took it out on Democrats in local races.
But Joe Biden has been in politics since before many of us were born. He has a long record as a moderate and in the 1990s loudly boasted of helping Bill Clinton pass federal funding to put 100,000 extra police on the streets to get tough on crime. So while the summer's riots and their radical political agenda turned off voters from everyone else, none of this could be pinned on Biden. He seemed like the safe and reasonable alternative to Trump, and so he won.
I will never cease expressing my astonishment at the dumb luck of Joe Biden, a foolish and gaffe-prone blowhard who suddenly found himself in a world so insane that he seemed like the embodiment of sanity by comparison. But the fact that this was not an illusion is demonstrated by the cascading insanity we have seen from Donald Trump in the weeks after the election.
This was all foreshadowed much earlier, in the memorable description of Trump by one of his supporters during the impeachment trial—yes, that happened this year, and it didn't even make the countdown—as "Our O.J."
That's right: O.J. Simpson, not previously a conservative hero. In his 2016 promises to "Make America Great Again," Trump did not invoke the racially riven Los Angeles of the 1990s as his model. Swartz's admirably forthright comparison—with biased media and unscrupulous Democrats serving as proxies for racist cops—captured the spirit of many replies.
The metaphor also echoed for me, as I began covering national politics (after a stretch as local reporter) just as the sordid O.J. melodrama was underway—with no premonition on my part that the deeply embedded malice and competing perceptions of reality on display in that case would come to define our public culture broadly.
I noted that the most ominous part of this was its subjectivism, the idea of "competing perceptions of reality" that was used as a rationalization for O.J.'s acquittal and has now become the theme of Donald Trump's apologists. This came out farther into the open in May when Donald Trump began to lobby against Fox New Channel and promote rivals who are more reliably loyal to him, particularly One America News Network, a very small upstart that is infamous for promoting conspiracy theories.
At the time, I sketched out the implications: "If you didn't think our political and media culture could get any worse, this is your warning about how much farther we can go down this road—to the point where all of the media is nothing but conspiracy theories and propaganda."
That's exactly what we've seen since the election, with the president falling into a rabbit-hole of conspiracy theories about a "stolen election" and trying to bring his supporters along with him. I have very recently covered the debunking of those theories and their repeated rejection whenever they have to be argued according to objective rules of evidence in a courtroom, but my concern is that if this election can be rejected on such an arbitrary and insubstantial basis, then any election can be. I recently took this argument to The Bulwark, arguing that the issue is not about this presidential election but about the next one. It's about "the forces that are going to be reshaping the party for the next four years."
When it next comes time to appoint or elect a state election official, for example, do you think Republicans are going to back the kind of sane technocrat we've seen in this election? Or will the fanatical base view these figures as unacceptable and demand raving true believers?
And then what happens when Donald Trump or some successor to his movement runs again, but with a party that has been thoroughly prepared, propagandized, and purged in order to sustain the narrative of a "rigged election" that needs to be corrected by overturning its results?
This is going to continue into the next year, with Donald Trump already calling his supporters into the streets for January 6 to attempt to disrupt the acceptance of the Electoral College results by Congress. At this point, the purpose is not really to achieve success at overturning the election. The purpose is to secure Donald Trump's iron grip on the Republican Party.
This is what I noted as the part of my expectation for the election that has not panned out.
The only thing that's missing is the reckoning some of us were looking for. If Trump had lost in a landslide, with Republicans in Congress punished for his misdeeds, it would have been clear that Trump and Trumpism have been an unmitigated disaster for the right.... This election result was just narrow enough that it's clear a reckoning is not going to happen.
When I interviewed George Will earlier this year, I had the strange experience of being pessimistic where he is optimistic. (Our natural inclinations are usually the other way around.) He thinks, as I suspect many conservatives think, that once Donald Trump is out of office, his influence will fade, the think tanks and intellectuals who held sway on the right before he came along will re-assert their influence, and conservatism will revert to something close to its late 20th Century norm.
I doubt this. I suspect Trump's influence will cast a long shadow over the right and reshape both the Republican Party and the conservative movement for at least a decade. He will influence both the substance of conservatism, which will become more nationalist and collectivist and less focused on free markets and individual rights, and its style, which will become less intellectual and more subject to prejudices, hysterias, and conspiracy theories.
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