2020: The Possible, Probable, and Inevitable

Near view of the statue normally atop the US Capitol dome.

Some new years open on indeterminacy, the shape of the future vague enough to warrant a complacent optimism.  “Happy New Year!”  Not 2020.  The United States, though still the planet’s most powerful nation, is in the thick of a political metamorphosis, and what character of government will emerge from it is anyone’s guess.  Bickering parties, an out-of-control president, a resentful populace, oceans of Russian disinformation, even a tech-driven epistemological crisis: such are the forces pushing the American republic ever closer to a great collapse—or paralysis.  Even if it isn’t curtains for the US, this is surely one of its most inglorious periods, its government full of cowardly and mediocre people.

Between the president’s pending impeachment and the certainty of a presidential election come November, what is possible, probable, and inevitable in this new year?  Here are a few prognostications.

The possible: Democratic nominees

Although the field of Democratic presidential candidates remains broad and, as yet, no votes have been cast, only two of the candidates have a shot at becoming president: Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

If Sanders retains his current support, his chief progressive rival, Elizabeth Warren, will have to drop out.  Her voters will gravitate to him, giving him a strong lead over all the Democratic field.  In a general election, Sanders would repel moderates and capitalists, giving a victory to the incumbent, President Trump.

None of the more moderate candidates—whether Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, or Tom Steyer—can attract a majority of Democratic support: if they could, that majority would have gravitated to them from other candidates already, and the attraction would have registered in public opinion polls.

As moderate candidates drop out, the moderate “frontrunner” Joe Biden will not necessarily get stronger.  Pete Buttigieg will be limited in that he comes across as a product of entitlement.  Michael Bloomberg, a wealthy and capable latecomer, could, however, draw enough support from among moderate and independent voters to come to dominate this weak and wide field.  In a general election, Bloomberg would stand a fine chance of beating Trump.

The possible: a fair Senate impeachment trial

It is still possible, though not probable, that the US Senate will decide to conduct a thorough impeachment trial of the president, one that impartially explores the charges against Trump that the House has formally brought.  That Senate Republicans have stood firm as a group and only faintly objected to the fawning proclamations of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and vocal Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham makes me doubt that the Republicans will ever do anything but fall on their swords in defense of their man.

More evidence could come out against Trump, however, of a nature impossible to defend, tolerate, or ignore.  As long as Nancy Pelosi holds on to the impeachment charges, and as long as there is a chance of a major witness coming over from the administration to testify, there is a chance that a fair and full trial, with live-witness testimony, will be held.

The Senate is intent on stonewalling and preventing a fair trial, because, if a fair trial were held, the Senators would be compelled to find the president guilty and remove him from office.  In that case, we could see a President Pence in 2020.

[Hours after this post appeared, John Bolton, a key player in the White House during the Ukrainian controversy, announced that he would be willing to comply with a Senate subpoena and testify.]

The probable: a show trial in the Senate

More probable is that the Senate trial will be a superficial affair, with a vote to acquit the president.  That would leave him free to run for reelection.  Regardless of the lip service constantly paid to Trump’s base, his erratic conduct and the controversy it engenders is weakening the Republicans.  The unusually large number of Republican lawmakers leaving Congress instead of running for reelection is one sign of the party’s critical condition.  It is rare for humans give up power unless they must.

The probable: a very close presidential vote but a loss for Trump

Americans who don’t approve of Trump outnumber those who do by about 10 percentage points.  Trump’s victory in 2016 rested on electoral votes, while the loser Hillary Clinton dominated the popular vote, winning nearly 2.9 million votes more than he.  According to the Washington Post, “Of the more than 120 million votes cast . . . , 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election.”  The three states were Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  Trump also won Iowa and Ohio, which Obama had carried previously.  In all, margins of less than two percent decided the outcome in six states.

I don’t want to underestimate the Democrats’ ability to choose an unelectable candidate or run an undisciplined presidential campaign, but with the right candidate and a smart strategy, the Democrats could defeat Trump fair and square.  In truth, this would be better for the country than removing him from office, which would embitter many of his supporters.

The inevitable: dangerously fierce partisan rancor

Here’s the problem with extreme partisanship.  The parties end up competing for power, rather than tailoring their identities around ideas or the needs of the people.  The government grows unresponsive and ineffectual, increasing discontent and cynicism among citizens.  The bland, stale character of the parties largely accounts for the rise of Trump, a dangerous figure.

Unfortunately, unless a third party emerges to disrupt the existing balance of power between the two parties, or unless the parties reform themselves from within, American politics is likely to go on being nasty, vengeful, and mediocre.

The overall decline in the quality of American governance is not just wasteful and embarrassing; it is a real threat to our well-being, domestic tranquillity, and security.  Yet it appears inevitable that party warfare will continue and perhaps even intensify in 2020.  It won’t be unprecedented, but it will be both scary and a betrayal of the people’s trust.

Image: A 1993 Jack Boucher photograph of a close view of the Statue of Freedom
normally atop the United States Capitol,
 
from this source.


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The Second Democratic Debates

Last night, I evaluated the Democratic candidates participating in the presidential debate less on the basis of their positions than on their demeanor and how they behaved. Relative to the previous night, this was a more ill-assorted group of presidential hopefuls.  Many of them showed an unappealing side.  I was particularly struck with the unbecoming way some of the aspirants chose to behave toward the putative front-runner Joe Biden.

Biden, despite his lead in the polls, is unlikely to become the party nominee.  He has served his country and his party tirelessly.  He was a marvelous vice president for eight years, he has a good heart, he identifies with others, and in the past he has been a riveting and incisive stump speaker.  Sadly, though, the old Joe Biden is no longer much in evidence; he is no longer at the top of his form, no longer brimming with humor and confidence.

Though many Democrats admire and trust Biden more than they do the other candidates, I think that he will net many fewer votes than expected when primary voters actually go to the polls.  In my view, the decline of Biden’s presidential prospects is inevitable, though presently some 30 percent of likely Democratic voters are telling pollsters that Joe would have their vote if the election were held today.

If I am right, there is no predicting who will end up at the top of the field, for, as Joe’s lead is redistributed, one or more contenders now at the bottom of the heap could rise to challenge the second and third most popular candidates, who happen to be the progressive standard-bearers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden’s eventual inconsequence supplied a lens through which I assessed the behavior of the trailing wannabes.  Which of the other candidates looked presidential, remaining calm and far-sighted, and which yielded to the temptation to go after Joe Biden?  I was appalled to see several of the more junior figures on the stage tearing into a seasoned veteran instead of respecting his service and what the Democratic Party during his era managed to accomplish.  The behavior of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and (surprisingly) even squeaky-clean Kirsten Gillibrand toward Biden came off as desperate and mean.  I loved how Biden pointed out to Gillibrand that “you thought I was fine until you wanted to be president.”  The words “Et tu, Brute?” came to mind as I reflected on this ugly scene.  It’s sad that, in their eagerness to cast themselves as in the vanguard of change, these candidates have opted to trash their own party and denigrate one of their own most popular leaders.  It shows an inauspicious lack of prudence and restraint.

Though Gillibrand otherwise had some good moments, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang owned the night, standing out as bright, positive, and self-disciplined.  Yang stayed focused on his big-picture agenda and refrained from back-biting.  Gabbard proved herself an able contender who could gain traction.  She scored off of Kamala Harris, reeling off several accusations against Harris’s conduct as California’s state’s attorney without losing her cool or seeming to have an axe to grind.  Gabbard also came across as a sincere defender of the environment, peace, and national sovereignty.  Though I dismissed her chances back when she announced her candidacy, I now view her as a sleeper candidate, whose prospects could brighten as those of her more irascible and immoderate rivals dim.

Julian Castro‘s advocacy of open borders makes him unelectable, while Bill de Blasio came across as a snob whose inaction with respect to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City police dooms him to fail.  I appreciated Michael Bennet‘s conduct and ideas but his lack of charisma makes me doubt whether he can make much headway this time around.  Jay Inslee presented himself as a single-issue candidate with an opening statement focused solely on climate change.

Image: from this source.
In 1848, supporters of the popular Whig senator, Henry Clay, were outraged
when their party passed him over to make General Zachary Taylor their presidential nominee.
The cartoon shows a crowd of prominent Whigs conspiring to stab Clay in the back,
as he reads the Tribune in his drawing room.

A Legitimately Elected President

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama, and Jill Biden among dignitaries on inauguration dias.
The conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents leading Democrats with a fateful choice: whether to continue digging into the past in hopes of hobbling or delegitimizing Trump’s presidency, or to concentrate on the present and the future, when all their ingenuity will be needed to beat Trump and deny him a second term.

Though the latter would be better for the party and nation, turning away from the special investigation requires fortitude.  The Mueller report hasn’t been made public, and the pundits and pols who are against Trump aren’t satisfied with Attorney General William Barr’s disclosures and conclusions.  The Democrats want more information.  This desire, as reasonable as it is, distinguishes them from the mass of American citizens who are really tired of this subtle affair and who are dying for evidence that the government is still capable of . . . . GOVERNING.

If the Democrats want someone new in the White House in 2020, they need to persuade voters that their nominee and their vision will be better for the nation than what Trump offers.  Yet they are so far from presenting this impression that one can scarcely imagine their unifying around a tenable candidate and winning.

Democrats are procrastinating.  They are shirking the hard work that follows from acknowledging that Trump won office legitimately.  He enjoys an authority that is foolish to argue with: In 2016, he understood the rules of the electoral game and exploited them more effectively than did Hillary Clinton.  He won the electoral votes he needed by persuading enough citizens to go to the polls and vote for him in key states.  Two years later, most of the president’s opponents have yet to reckon with this reality, even though any political strategy leading to Trump’s defeat must be designed with this geography in mind.  To defeat Trump, Democrats must peel away moderate and independent voters in states fed up with stale Democratic memes.  The Dems face an uphill battle, even with teamwork, ideological innovation, and the right nominee.

And where is Democratic rage when it comes to the real bogeyman, Russia–the real villain who prejudiced American voters against Hillary by waging a campaign of misinformation, who smeared her and deployed assets to promote Trump, a candidate who, for various reasons, Russia wanted instead?  What is Congress doing to ensure that foreign nations don’t infiltrate and corrupt American political discourse in the future?

While real danger looms over American democracy, one wonders whether the Democrats will ever look up from their game of Clue and do something.

Image: Screen shot of leading Democrats attending Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
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