When the gods want to punish you, Oscar Wilde wrote, they answer your prayers.
The gods must really have it in for Joe Biden.
At 77, he finally stands on the cusp of the presidency, a prize he’d be winning later in life than any of his forebears, one that surely came into his sights not in 1987, when he began the first of three presidential campaigns, but all the way back in 1973, when he entered the Senate at the age of 30. He has been praying for this, I’d wager, for nearly half a century.
But he never prayed for this: a pandemic that may be approaching its peak, an economic catastrophe that’s nowhere near its end, a nation more nastily divided than at any point in his career, a Democratic Party whose lidded tensions could boil over at any moment, and an opponent who, if defeated, would not go gently and would command his conspiracy-minded followers to rage in concert with him.
My Election Day question for Biden isn’t whether he’s confident he’ll win. It’s whether he’s really, really sure he wants to.
“Biden may see the most complicated set of problems in several generations,” said Mike Leavitt, a Republican who served as the governor of Utah for 10 years and as the U.S. secretary of health and human services for four, and was in charge of planning Mitt Romney’s possible transition to the presidency in 2012.
I asked Leavitt which if any American presidents over the past 100 years took office in circumstances as daunting as those that Biden, if elected, would face. “I’m not a student of Roosevelt,” he said, referring to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “but you have to go back at least that far.”
“It is staggering,” Claire McCaskill, the Democratic former senator from Missouri, told me. “It is staggering.” One “staggering” wasn’t enough to describe Biden’s potential burden, the heaviness of which left political veterans grasping for adjectives and analogies.
“His to-do list is just … gross,” she said.
Of course there’s no telling if he’ll get to tackle it. Trump is a proven magician with all sorts of tricks up his sleeve. But enough battleground-state polls have put Biden in the lead long enough to justify contemplation of his victory.
His timing is terrible — again. When he and Barack Obama beat John McCain and Sarah Palin, they won the responsibility of navigating a global financial crisis, arresting the worst economic downturn in America since the Great Depression and extracting the country from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But that’s a veritable rom-com next to the horror show of 2020, whose full terrors took shape after Biden committed to his presidential bid. He knew going in that Trump would fight dirty, exit messy and bequeath an even more toxic political environment than he inherited. He couldn’t foresee the breadth and depth of America’s hurt right now.
There is a singularly inverse relationship between the stubbornness of his ambitions and the gleam of his long-sought trophy. His calm acceptance of that is one of his most poignant, compelling virtues. Perhaps he’s the man for this moment after all.
But what a moment. Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor who was Obama’s first chief of staff, said that if the economy then was crippled, the economy now “is not only broken but splattered all over the place,” courtesy of a once-in-a-century pandemic whose containment, bungled by Trump, would be Biden’s problem.
That, however, wasn’t the difference between 2008 and 2020 that Emanuel dwelled on. He volunteered several detailed anecdotes about the crucial cooperation that Obama got from President George W. Bush on his way out, saying that during the transition, Bush put America’s perilous juncture above party and partisanship.
I asked Emanuel if he could possibly be suggesting that Biden would get no such assistance from Trump.
When you’re the president, he said, “You’re walking every morning from the White House residence to the Oval Office. You’re passing oil paintings of Washington, Kennedy, Reagan, Eisenhower, Lincoln. The history and the responsibility of this project called America is just present and seeps into every pore of your body.”
Because of that, Emanuel said, he’d always believed the presidency imbued anybody who inhabited it with a sense of stewardship. But, he added, “we have found the one person who is immune to all of that moral, ethical, professional responsibility for the American project.”
And it would be Biden’s awful luck to take the baton — or, rather, wrest it — from the talons of that tyrant. Lame-duck Trump would be foul. In word and deed, he’d booby-trap the presidency for Biden and then, after Biden’s inauguration, reject former presidents’ tradition of reticence to bellow at Biden and try to undermine him.
Look at just the past few days. Knowing that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, Trump falsely claimed (again) that ballots received after Election Day, even if they’re in perfect accordance with a state’s requirement of a postmark by Election Day, are illegitimate. He applauded supporters of his who swarmed around and trapped a Biden-Harris campaign bus.
Those ruffians wouldn’t accept his defeat or Biden’s authority serenely. “It’s different this time, because of their willingness to excuse the shattering of norms that are so central to democracy in America and the willingness of many of them to seek to intimidate, or prevent political expression from, their fellow Americans,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Biden would also confront a restive crew in his own party. If Democrats controlled the Senate, their fury during Trump’s presidency would transform into an insistence on any or all of the following: sweeping action to address climate change; sweeping action to expand health insurance; the sweeping aside of the filibuster; the expansion of the Supreme Court; an immigration overhaul; the placement of high-profile progressives in high-profile cabinet slots; the destruction of what stretches of the border wall Trump managed to construct; and the investigation and even prosecution of his henchmen.
Right now the disparate parts of the Democratic coalition are deceptively united in their revulsion for Trump, a Super Glue that binds even anticapitalist college students and rich Republicans in the Never Trump brigade. But if Trump is ousted, the glue dissolves, laying bare the distance between Biden and many younger Democrats.
He’s given to compromise and consensus, but Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s currently on the cover of Vanity Fair, and other stars in the Democratic Party take a less measured approach. “It’s going to be like a bunch of punk rockers showing up at a Neil Diamond concert,” Antonia Ferrier, a former aide to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told me.
And what if McConnell continues to run the show? Or if a new Democratic majority is a slim one made possible by purple-state lawmakers wary of aggressive legislation? Under either scenario, there’d be strong resistance to the enormously expensive agenda that Biden campaigned on and that the punk rockers will press.
But it’s not just American politics that’s in disarray. It’s our whole information ecosystem. Trump’s presidency fortified the alternate realities that Americans live in, the contradictory sets of facts that they accept and the competing truths that they tell.
“You could show a chart of coronavirus statistics on the front page of The New York Times and a significant percentage of the population won’t even view it, because it’s The New York Times,” Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist who worked as an aide to Eric Cantor when he was the House majority leader, told me. “You heard that in The New York Times? Screw that. Or you heard that on Fox News? Screw that.”
It’s untenable to the point of ungovernable. Welcome, Joe Biden, to your dream come true.
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