By John Hart
When the final votes are tallied over the coming days, and the dust settles, the first half of the 2020 story will come into focus: Democrats came far closer to losing control of the House than to riding a blue wave.
To many Democrats, this result was as unthinkable as Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016.
Heading into the election, the Cook Political Report estimated Democrats would gain at least ten seats in the House. Meanwhile, Democrats boasted they would take the Senate. FiveThirtyEight, which was spot on in 2018, put the Democrats’ chances of taking the Senate at 75 percent.
Neither happened. In the House, Republicans – not Democrats – could gain 10 seats or more, leaving Democrats with a razor thin majority. In the Senate, Republicans will likely retain their majority pending the outcome of two run-off elections in Georgia in which the Republican candidates are heavily favored.
Some progressives are arguing their poor showing was merely the result of enthusiasm among Trump supporters. That’s true, in part, but this enthusiasm didn’t form in a vacuum. Voters from across the spectrum, including many Latino voters, objected to the left’s enthusiastic embrace of socialism. Leading centrist Democrats expressed alarm at their party’s leftward lurch.
Case in point: The Green New Deal was packaged not as a climate plan but as a socialist manifesto that brazenly hijacked climate concern in order to advance socialized medicine and guaranteed income. Climate wasn’t necessarily a front burner issue in 2020, but the left’s use of climate to advance socialism didn’t sit well with the electorate.
Like President Trump’s pledge to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and make Mexico pay for it, the GND was a fanciful and self-indulgent exercise in base pandering. With its singular and punitive focus on the U.S., the GND was an attempt to build a carbon wall between the U.S. and the rest of world and make future generations pay for it. The problem, of course, is carbon doesn’t respect borders or ask for a visa before entering our airspace.
Had a Republican introduced an ideological manifesto as half-baked as the GND it would have been ridiculed as overly enthusiastic policy juvenilia and dismissed out of hand. Instead, the GND was heralded as a groundbreaking Overton-window moving moment voters needed to take seriously. So, they did.
President Trump seized this momentum and framed the election as a choice between freedom and socialism. Progressives then proceeded to paint the picture.
For instance, on October 26, minutes after the Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, AOC tweeted, “Expand the court.”
AOC elaborated, “Republicans … don’t believe Dems have the stones to play hardball like they do. And for a long time they’ve been correct. But do not let them bully the public into thinking their bulldozing is normal but a response isn’t. There is a legal process for expansion.”
Republican candidates, who were arguing that Democrats would use unified government to pack the court, pass the Green New Deal, impose socialized Medicine, grant statehood to Puerto Rico and D.C. and enshrine a permanent liberal government, could not have scripted a better closing argument. Republicans didn’t have to work hard to connect the dots between AOC, Nancy Pelosi and their particular opponent. AOC did it for them.
That is the first half of the story.
For President Trump, his problem with excess was personal and individual.
On policy, Trump had achievements for which he received little credit, including overseeing the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Trump’s economic record was exemplary. In an alternative reality without COVID or another unknowable controversy, a booming and deregulated economy probably would have ensured his re-election.
Trump’s greatest accomplishment was disguising his subservience to conservative orthodoxy as outsider populism. Trump’s “original” ideas on trade, immigration and foreign policy were marginal, and sometimes vulgar, adjustments to Reagan realism. Conservatism didn’t fail under Trump. Trump failed to fully allow conservatism to save him from himself.
Put simply, Trump lost because at a time when the country needed steady, calm and regal resoluteness, (expressed beautifully by Queen Elizabeth), we were subjected to the relentless narcissistic exhibitionism of a 74-year-old Twitter troll.
Trump’s combative COVID press conferences told the country it was about him, not us. His lack of empathy following the death of George Floyd and the use of excessive force against protestors at St. John’s Episcopal Church undid his serious accomplishments on behalf of minority communities. He won some hearts and minds but needlessly lost many others.
Then, at the chaotic first presidential debate, the country overdosed on Trump’s Pulp Nonfiction presidency. His gratuitous, incessant bullying and interruptions deprived the country of a serious debate that would have benefited Trump (i.e. the last debate). Yes, many shy Trump voters would come out and humiliate the pollsters, but they were overtaken by sickened anti-Trump voters. On balance, Americans were ready for a healer, a unifier, a sedative.
Enter Joe Biden whose excellent acceptance speech showed a man – and capable staff – fully aware of the moment and their limited mandate to not be Trump. Biden demonstrated an increasingly rare but important virtue in politics: modesty.
Progressives should note that this mandate does not include a green light to double down on the GND or create an enemies list that would make the East German Stasi proud.
Meanwhile, conservatives can feel liberated that they can get on with offering ideas without first explaining what Trump meant by his latest, asinine tweet.
Excess had its way the past few years. Perhaps decency and excellence can take a turn.