Even if he wins? Indeed, writes Ryan Lizza, and the late count out of Michigan’s Wayne County seems to indicate that Joe Biden will barely eke out a victory in the national election over Donald Trump. There is a long way to go in the presidential race, including recanvasses and recounts. But even if Biden wins, he’s starting off in a deep hole, Lizza argues:
A win, of course, is a win. But if Biden is victorious, it will be under radically curtailed circumstances from what Democrats had assumed.
There are few hints in the 2020 results of a realignment akin to what Ronald Reagan achieved when he made Jimmy Carter a one-term president in 1980 and ushered in the era of modern conservatism. There is no sense that Biden has reformed and re-invented the Democratic Party to be more competitive the way Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he defeated George H.W. Bush. There aren’t yet hints that Biden has assembled a new coalition the way that Obama did in 2008.
Biden lost ground with Black voters and Latinos, though he gained some ground with white voters. Realignments are generally built around concrete ideas and specific policy platforms. But this campaign was always a referendum on Trump, rather than an affirmative endorsement of Biden and his agenda. That dynamic already cut against Biden claiming a strong positive mandate. He needed a crushing rejection of Trump to strengthen his case.
He also needed the Senate.
But Democrats may fail to realize widespread predictions of re-taking the chamber. That would mean whoever prevails in the presidential race, Mitch McConnell might remain in charge of the upper chamber, retaining his role as arguably the most consequential politician in Washington. In that case Biden would be the first president in 32 years to come into office without control of Congress, another dynamic that would weaken claims of a mandate.
In the first place, Biden may still not win the election. Team Trump has close enough results in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada — and maybe Arizona — to demand recounts and then challenges. Those are the precursors to any lawsuits Trump would file, as he suggested last night. The gaps in these states are a bit larger than one would see for successful recount opportunities, but that doesn’t mean those have a non-zero chance for success.
Team Trump will likely want to get past the recounts to outright challenges, where their observers can inspect and challenge each ballot with any irregularities. That strategy worked for Al Franken and Democrats in Minnesota’s 2008 Senate election, but it only produced a net vote change of a little over 500 votes, too.
Lizza’s correct about Biden coming in handcuffed after a dragged-out fight over the election and a partly hostile Congress. George W. Bush faced a similar situation in 2001, thanks to Jumpin’ Jim Jeffords. Harry Reid ended up with control of the Senate, which allowed Democrats to frustrate Bush’s agenda for the better part of two years. The lack of mandate didn’t help much either, thanks to the disputed result of the previous election, although Bush wound up with plenty of leverage after 9/11 on nat-sec issues.
Bush also had one other advantage — he represented the largest faction of his own party. Bush was somewhat more conservative than his father, especially on taxes and regulation, and was the image of mainstream Republicans at the time. Biden, on the other hand, looks much more like the vestige of a previous version of Democrats, who have mainly raced to the Left. That will leave Biden with less ability to cut deals with Republicans on policy matters, even when Republicans might want to help Biden out.
If Trump manages to pull this one out, he might not fare much better. Republicans will look at his (slightly) retreating footprint in this election and be less inclined to rally behind Trump than before. He’d start off as a kind of lame duck, and that would get worse after the midterms no matter what Trump did in the first two years. No matter which man comes out of this process to the presidency, he will do so in a diminished position. The question now is which of them is the more “screwed.”