Writing by Rhun Bleddyn. Illustration by David Richards.
Amy Coney Barrett’s ascension to the Supreme Court not only cements its conservative majority for generations to come, but crucially offers a ray of light for Trump’s re-election chances, which polls indicate are increasingly unlikely. Minutes before her confirmation, the court ruled that mail-in ballots in Wisconsin could only be counted if they are received by Election Day; a ruling which serves as a grim taster for the methods that might be deployed to throw the contest in Trump’s favour. A stolen election has become ever likelier - whether it be through the acquiescence of a sympathetic court, or a Justice Department serving the role as Trump’s personal fiefdom.
Let us for a moment imagine that the President’s penchant for lawlessness and cheating is not enough to keep him in power. Let us imagine that the polls are correct and that a record-breaking turnout returns a comfortable Democratic victory, one so great that neither Trump nor his acolytes may seriously challenge the results. Such an outcome remains, in my view, the likeliest for November 3rd. While the memory of 2016 looms large in the minds of many, there are reasons aplenty to be cautiously optimistic this time.
At around the same point during the contest in 2016, the Democratic lead was shrinking before collapsing entirely; on the contrary, Biden’s polling lead has not only grown, but currently holds steady. In 2016, an email scandal and signs of corruption pummelled the hopes of a Clinton victory, leaving her mortally wounded as Election Day approached. The 2020 campaign has seen a yearlong campaign to undermine Biden’s chances with rumours about his son’s business dealings, a much less effective target than 2016. The party’s own blunders handling the matter even provided the pretext for Trump’s impeachment.
Hillary Clinton was a divisive figure whose two decades atop the party saw her reputation irrevocably damaged. Conversely, Joe Biden’s four decades in Washington have rarely attracted the same level of controversy: over the past few months, he has wasted few opportunities to remind voters of his reputation for working across the aisle and his role as Vice President of a popular administration. Nonetheless, these pronouncements have left voters with the sense of a man out of time rather than a man of the moment; neither a return to the twee bipartisanship of Biden’s Senate career nor the haughty managerialism of the Obama years will help him rebuild the republic from the rubble.
This opportunity to rebuild a shattered society has invited comparisons to Franklin D Roosevelt's transformative administration in the aftermath of the Great Depression, as well as the passage of major civil rights laws during the presidency of Lyndon B Johnson. The problem for Biden is that the scale of the challenges he faces dwarf those faced by his predecessors. He too faces a debilitating recession and a historic reckoning over race, yet he also faces the scorched earth left by Trump through criminal inaction on both the climate and the COVID-19 pandemic. Bold and swift action will be required in the first two years of his presidency to stop the bleeding. Failure to do so will deny him a place among Roosevelt and Johnson in historical rankings and hand him a spot far closer to Trump. The price of Biden’s moderation will only be marginally less severe than the cost of Trump’s criminality.
There is some room for optimism that Biden may well be ready to eschew his instincts for moderation; positive soundings from his campaign about court packing suggest he may finally be prepared to embrace the radicalism that the moment requires. The Obama-Biden ticket promptly ditched its populist rhetoric once it reached office; the electorate are unlikely to be so forgiving this time round. 'I am the Democratic party' was Biden’s indignant response to Trump’s taunts about his sympathies to the 'radical left.' Yet he presides over an ideologically diverse coalition which increasingly tilts towards the progressive wing of the party.
The Democratic Party looks less and less like Joe Biden and ever more like the progressive upstarts Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who decisively defeated careerist Democrat incumbents in recent primaries. The party’s loyal activists – enthused by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders – successfully defended progressive senator Ed Markey’s seat from centrist primary opponent, Joe Kennedy, in Massachusetts no less. It is these members and activists who will be holding Biden’s feet to the fire should he waver on the bold action required for the years ahead. He will have to learn to govern with them or against them.
For now, Biden remains the figurehead of this unwieldy coalition. Despite running a weak primary campaign, a stunning comeback saw him snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the eleventh hour, denying Bernie Sanders what long seemed an inevitable victory. That victory owes less to Biden’s zeal as a campaigner and a great deal more to the handful of centrist rivals who cleared the field before Super Tuesday for a clear fight between Biden and Sanders. While Biden prevailed, it was arguably a victory by default. In this week’s contest, doubtless many will vote from exasperation at the incumbent rather than out of any great enthusiasm for Joe Biden. Fatigue at Trump’s erratic performance may prove the old adage that oppositions don’t win elections – governments lose them. In which case, another victory by default may well be imminent.
Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation represents the culmination of four years of ruthless conservative governance; should the Presidency and the Senate return to Democratic hands this November, they would do well to take a leaf from the Republican playbook. The success of a Biden administration will require decisive steps to curtail the power of an antagonistic Supreme Court if a bold legislative agenda on jobs, healthcare and the environment is to stand any chance of success. Trump may well pull another upset on election night, be it through the ballot box or extralegally. As things stand, the election remains Biden’s to lose. Should he triumph, it is imperative that he aggressively deploys the power of his office and dump his preference for fruitless conciliation; the current crisis demands nothing less from him.