The high stakes of Biden’s presidency for the Republicans
The conventional wisdom of American politics today is that the Republican Party is in trouble while the Democrats are on the rise. After all, the GOP is blessed with the despised Donald Trump, the ugliness of January 6, and a deep internal division, which is reflected in the nasty expulsion of MP Liz Cheney from the Chamber’s party leadership by the Republicans.
The Democrats, meanwhile, control the White House and both Houses of Congress, and have adopted rare political audacity to accomplish an extensive political agenda and balance the political power through institutional overhaul initiatives like ending the Senate filibuster, expanding the Supreme Court, and admitting new liberals States into the union.
This conventional perspective sees the Democrats as dynamic; Republicans are stuck in the dense jungle of Trumpland. There is some truth in that as far as it goes. The conventional perspective, however, ignores a number of political realities that will shape and guide events over the next few years. Taken together, these realities suggest that the balance of power in America is very much at stake.
The first question is: how secure are the Democrats as the country’s ruling party? The answer: not very. American politics today is at the cutting edge of parity between the two major parties, which is reflected in the narrow and precarious margin of democratic control of Congress. In addition, Joe Biden won the presidency with a vote lead of only 4 percentage points. And a sweep of just 45,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin could have given Trump the votes of those three states’ electoral college – and with it the presidency. Given that little margin of government scrutiny for Democrats, it won’t take much to reverse their dominance in Congress next year or Biden’s presidency in 2024. There is not much room for government missteps here.
And that reality is more important to GOP prospects right now than the Liz Cheney-Imbroglio or the party’s agony over what to do with Trump. Presidential elections are generally referendums based on the performance of the incumbent president (or the incumbent party if the president does not seek re-election). This is a difficult concept to grasp for many, leaving us fixated on campaign factors that are essentially trivial – verbal gaffs, discussion points, early polls, endorsements, etc. But American voters focus in their collective judgment on what is really What is important is whether the incumbent has acted in such a way that he remains in office.
What factors play a role in these voter judgments? Solid economic growth, job creation, a great foreign policy success, a triumphant war, a serious domestic policy achievement would be beneficial. Adverse factors would be a major scandal, economic recession or lack of solid growth, ongoing bloody and destructive street violence, self-inflicted crisis, major foreign policy failure, a nomination struggle, and the emergence of an independent parliamentary candidacy.
This tells us that whatever Republicans will do to pull themselves together in the coming months won’t make much of a difference compared to Biden’s performance in office. It also tells us that if Biden does a great job, no matter what Republicans do or say, he will cement his power.
Is the president positioned for such a success? Obviously, he and the Democrats are holding the whip for the simple reason that they control the government. In addition, the current V-shaped economic recovery from the COVID recession, if it persists, holds good prospects for the kind of growth that is stimulating popular support. And Biden seems intent on getting a big domestic agenda off the ground that could generate further support, especially if he receives a large infrastructure program through Congress.
But in our presidential system, with the referendum realities of the electoral cycle, the future of both parties is determined by the ultimate performance of the president. Can he keep democratic control of Congress after next year’s midterm elections? History would suggest otherwise. And its grand domestic agenda is based on assumptions that could turn out to be wrong.
Biden believes that its massive spending program, in and of itself, will generate significant economic growth by boosting consumer demand. At the same time, however, he is pushing for a restrictive tax and regulatory policy that could thwart production and thus supply. That could boost inflation. In fact, even if Biden’s strict business crackdowns are absent, the size of projected spending could itself fuel inflation by flooding the market with too many dollars chasing too few goods. All of this, in turn, could cause the Federal Reserve to squeeze the money supply and raise interest rates, slowing economic growth or even triggering a recession in the interests of currency stability. Then all bets are up.
In addition, there are some big questions buzzing about the administration. Will the American people view the border situation created by Biden as a full-fledged domestic crisis? Can we expect a repeat of last summer’s street riots and looting that sparked so much public anxiety? Will the Hunter-Biden scandal eventually hit Hunter and maybe even his father? Will world events hinder the government’s foreign policy goals?
In our system of divided government, the leadership of the president is needed to solve crises, overcome blockades, define new national directions and forge government coalitions. Without this kind of leadership, crises smolder, blockages remain, standstill sets in and the nation seethes. Then the nation inevitably turns to the opposition party to pick up the broken pieces and put things right. This means that a party can recover relatively quickly from devastating political defeats if the party in power messes it up.
By way of illustration, consider the Republican Party from 1964 to 1980. The Goldwater debacle early in this period gave rise to a conventional wisdom similar to that of today – that the GOP was in trouble that would hold it down for a considerable period of time. The party was split between its branches in the East and Midwest and the burgeoning Goldwater South and West; it was tainted by the unpopularity of Goldwater himself; and the Democrats were on the rise, which was reflected in Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964.
But conventional wisdom was wrong, and Republicans won the presidency just four years later with the election of Richard Nixon. Why? Because Johnson’s second term (his only full term) was a disaster, with the country stuck in a persistent war with no foreign policy consequences, relentless campus and racial unrest, a tough nomination challenge, and a serious independent candidacy for parliamentary elections.
That gave new Republican President Richard Nixon the chance to forge a post-New Deal coalition by ending the Vietnam War, calming the road turmoil, uniting the party base while attracting voters from the South and combining market economy principles with elements of the New Deal. He almost made it, but in Nixon’s second term (which was shared with Gerald Ford after Nixon’s resignation), with the Watergate scandal, economic turmoil, the ultimate humiliation of Vietnam, an internal party nomination battle, and domestic political languor.
For example, the Democrat Jimmy Carter rose to president after rejecting an unfortunate Republican leadership in the referendum. The Republicans’ outlook once again seemed hopeless. But again the party emerged from the incumbent’s poor performance, including a foreign policy failure in the Iran hostage crisis, a lack of successful domestic policy initiatives, a recession with near-unprecedented inflation, a debilitating nomination battle, and a third party challenge. The result was the appearance of Ronald Reagan, elected at a time when many analysts and commentators were wondering whether a president could overcome the nation’s many intertwined crises.
But Reagan forged a new governing coalition by uniting his party, taming rapid inflation, generating robust economic growth, reshaping the tax debate in a way favorable to Republicans, halting expansion of the federal government, keeping calm, saving Social Security and scandals avoided. In doing so, he peeled off a large number of traditional democratic voters and lured them into the GOP forge. In his second term, he secured the presidency of his elected successor, George H.W. Bush by maintaining strong economic growth, reshaping US-Soviet relations, promoting an epic tax reform measure, and presiding over good times in general (though the Iran-Contra scandal and Central American military adventures hurt his popularity).
So we see that the fate of the GOP at this early stage of the Biden presidency depends not so much on Republican action as on the performance of the Democrats. As always, the opposition party is in the starting blocks and ready to intervene if called upon, as will happen if Biden falters.
But the Republicans have a great responsibility of their own, which Donald Trump calls himself. The unpredictable billionaire won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 because, almost alone among great politicians, he saw the rise in populist frustrations among millions of ordinary Americans who felt pressured and marginalized. That year he captured the White House because Barack Obama’s second term – again in referendum politics – was considered a slight failure by the American people. Then Trump forfeited the presidency in 2020 because his own presidential performance did not deserve to be retained in office. He then attacked America and undermined his own party by contaminating the nation’s discourse with his allegations of a stolen election.
Republicans’ ability to set the national agenda will affect the party’s ability to go beyond Trump while preserving and building on much of what he brought into the nation’s political bloodstream. In the meantime, if Biden succeeds as president, the country will move aggressively towards the democratic ethos – statism, redistributive initiatives, globalism, the awakened culture. If it fails, the Republicans, unhappy as they may appear now, have one last chance to reverse the current direction and form a coalition government.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington Correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author of five books on American history, including Where they stand: The American presidency in the eyes of voters and historians (Simon & Schuster).