What Choice Does Biden Have?
Despite the lovely spring weather, this week offered more of the grim news to which Democrats in Biden-era Washington have become accustomed: The Supreme Court’s impending evisceration of Roe v. Wade. The official start of an election season that is generally expected to be a “looming political disaster,” “midterm doom,” and “the worst political environment” for the Party in decades. The Federal Reserve’s potentially recession-sparking decision to fight inflation with the biggest interest-rate hike in more than twenty years. And, depending on whose count you follow, the millionth American death in the coronavirus pandemic, even as both the Vice-President and Secretary of State had to quarantine at home, after testing positive for the disease.
Faced with such challenges, President Biden seemed finally ready to abandon the pretense that he could once again unite the fractured nation and heal our Trump-distorted politics with some old-fashioned bipartisan Senate dealmaking. That comforting fiction helped him defeat Donald Trump in 2020 but has been comprehensively debunked by Biden’s subsequent struggles in governing. In remarks to reporters on Wednesday, the President previewed his new, more partisan message for the campaign to come: “This is about a lot more than abortion,” he said. Republicans are radical and dangerous, not only anti-woman but anti-gay, anti-personal freedom, and anti-democracy. The Trumpist MAGA movement, he said, “is the most extreme political organization that’s existed in recent American history.”
Not all of the week’s developments were as catastrophic as they might seem for Democrats and the struggling occupant of the White House. The leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision on abortion offered new motivation for America’s otherwise uninspired pro-choice majority to get out the vote. At the least, the clarifying urgency of the Court’s imminent ruling seemed sure to galvanize the Party’s midterm campaign, as indicated by Biden’s strong words and by a stirring appeal from Vice-President Kamala Harris: “How dare they? How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body?” The Fed interest-rate hike, meanwhile, might do what it’s meant to do: curb some of the inflation now making politics so toxic for Biden and his party. And, with nationwide deaths from the pandemic finally down to a few hundred a day, Americans are returning to pre-pandemic life, undeterred by the prospect of superspreader events such as the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which predictably took down many of the capital’s boldface names.
Even Trump’s continued dominance of the Republican Party, and his prospective return to the top of its ticket in 2024, isn’t as uncontested as it was in 2020. Several prominent G.O.P. figures, including former Vice-President Mike Pence, who defied Trump on January 6, 2021, are signalling that they may run for the Republican Presidential nomination, regardless of what Trump does. And, in even a Trump-friendly state such as Ohio, a recent Fox News poll found a mere sixty per cent of Republicans who said they wanted Trump to be their candidate again. Many Republicans have also told pollsters that they’d prefer not to look back to the 2020 election, which Trump continues to falsely claim was stolen from him. The violent consequences of his rigged-election lies will remain front and center, too; the chairman of the House select committee investigating the January 6th attack announced, last week, that the committee will hold a series of prime-time hearings in June and culminate its work with a final report just before the midterms.
Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, who had been urged to run against Trump in the 2020 primaries but refused, now looks to be more seriously considering a run against the former President. This week, he offered a full-throated attack on Trump and Trumpism, on sacred turf for the G.O.P.: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in California. “We won’t win back the White House by nominating Donald Trump or a cheap impersonation of him,” he said. “We need to stand against the extremes and for the majority of Americans.” Hogan was direct, specific, and unsparing in his challenge to the former President—exactly what many critics of Trump across the ideological spectrum had hoped to see inside the Republican Party for so long. He was also, by all appearances, spectacularly ill-timed.
The night before Hogan’s speech, Politico revealed that the Supreme Court was poised to get rid of a decades-old right to abortion favored by some two-thirds of Americans—a long-sought victory for a fervent Republican minority which was made possible by Trump’s three appointments to the Court. And, as Hogan was speaking, on Tuesday evening, the Trump-backed Senate candidate J. D. Vance soundly beat out a large primary field to become the Republican nominee in Ohio, a victory powered by a late endorsement from the former President and made all the more relevant to the question of the former President’s ongoing hold over the Republican Party by Vance’s own dramatic journey from scathing Trump critic, à la Hogan, to Trump sycophant. Vance and others eager for his support are more than happy to endorse the lies about 2020 that fuel the former President’s narrative of grievance and minoritarian rage. Vance’s final appearance of his campaign was alongside two of the biggest pro-Trump extremists in Congress, the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent whose embrace by Trump clearly shows what direction the Party is headed.
Republicans need a “course correction,” Hogan said, at the Reagan Library. But the truer metaphor belongs to Vance, who, back in 2016, called Trump “cultural heroin” for the Republican masses. The G.O.P. has decided not to kick its Trump habit. Vance is now just another junkie in a party full of them.
This is how it looks to me, at least, after stepping away from the news cycle for a few months, to finish a book about Trump and his four years in the White House. Or perhaps I should say: what may turn out to be his first four years in the White House.
The interlocking crises that Biden faces are not separate, one-off problems. They are signs of an American political system in crisis, a system that is trapped in a doomsday spiral of discord and division that Trump’s dangerous Presidency alarmingly accelerated. When Trump was defeated in 2020, it was possible to imagine a different outcome, certainly—a reversion to the American political norm championed by Biden and seemingly supported by the significant popular and electoral majority he won.
But it didn’t happen. And, as events of recent months suggest, the nation’s problems are not abating but getting worse, as a radicalized G.O.P. has dug in on its support for Trump, refused to abandon his false claims about the illegitimacy of his successor, and done whatever it could to create a self-fulfilling narrative of Biden’s failure. Republicans have now lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight Presidential elections, but there is no indication that this appalling record has caused any serious consideration within the Party of the course correction which Hogan urges. Trump himself is a twice-impeached loser who has been repudiated by a majority of voters but not by his own party, which instead has recommitted itself to the path of minority rule from which Trump and his converts on Capitol Hill once again seek to profit. They may soon be rewarded with control of one or both houses of Congress, an outcome of the midterm elections that will all but guarantee that the final two years of Biden’s term will be mired in gridlock and partisan finger-pointing.
Biden, in raising expectations that he could restore a sense of normalcy to American politics, has contributed to this dynamic, because, like Barack Obama, he predictably failed to deliver on a vision grounded in a different political era. Even Republicans who are critical of Trump, not to mention many independents who voted for Biden in 2020, have come to accept the G.O.P. critique of Biden as a captive of “far-left” interests, as Hogan put it in his speech the other day—a leader who has proved “weak” and ineffective. In such circumstances, it was no doubt inevitable that Biden would shift into partisan-attack mode. In truth, there is no other mode that seems possible for a politician in America today.