Polls, for what they’re still worth, didn’t really move much. Support for Trump and Biden stayed remarkably stable throughout this spring’s widespread protests and riots, the Summer COVID wave, and well, everything else terrible that happened this fall. Decided voters remained decided. In terms of the tight margins and the lack of a blue or red wave, articles describe a political state of play akin to WWII entrenchment or Antietam-like attrition. What the polls also show us though is that, just like these traumatizing and terrible events of the past six months could not move the needle, they unfortunately also communicate a likely ceiling on our reconcilability.
Those positive cultural moments that we used to share, their ability to unite us even temporarily, are now more limited in effect. So, Joe’s soft words, and the “aw shucks” demeanor, will have limited reach and even more limited practical utility. The divided government Americans continue to appoint does not necessarily reflect a preference for moderation amongst the people, and anyways the choices ahead are too hard for us to avoid bitter fights. The big bumps are later this decade, as America stares finally at the depth of its ideological gulf and confronts whether the consensus for our existing federal union remains.
Nearer, there’s important work to be done. There’s something curious about when your party loses the presidency, it engenders a deep interest in the limits of the office: concern about imperial presidencies and combinations of phones with pens, and apparently – the past few years – being only one step removed from imminent fascism. When not holding the presidency, both parties build up their standard bearers as best they can, usually with cringeworthy results like RBG bobbleheads. We imbue our legislators – Cocaine Mitch, Warren the Persister – with labels and memes and a limited degree of pop culture salience.
But Mitch McConnell, already one of the more impactful legislators in American history, has the opportunity to do something even greater: to live up to a historical moment that won’t solve the bitterness of our division, but can channel that fervor back to where it belongs: the legislative branch. For too long the executive branch kicked around the legislature. It’s time for the legislature to start kicking back. This branch, the closest to the people, where compromise must be born, the only place it has a chance.
All of the choices we have to make are hard. All of the tradeoffs steep, costs painful. An era in which presidencies cheat the humbling reality of federal compromise constitutionally channeled through our legislative process makes progress less likely, further away. That was the poison of deferred actions and emergency declarations when it came to illegal immigration. No action was better than illegitimate action. Staring at the intractability of our disagreement over that one domestic issue, causing decades of angst, maybe just maybe we would’ve eventually broken through out of sheer frustration and after exhausting all other options. Or not. But, the fact remains that the focus should remain the legislature. That’s the normal we need to get back to.
Mitch McConnell’s legacy is already secure, tall and built in stone. But looking back we don’t remember individual legislators for federal judicial appointments or whether the relief packages in a pandemic were one size or another. Mitch needs to marshal his considerable authority and stature and create an Imperial Legislature. Executive orders are hard to prevent, but challenge each immediately and in every conceivable way those less finite, more expansive rulings and actions Biden plans for immigration, the green agenda, and more. His appointees know how to work the executive branch, and curiously the judiciary will likely lose its appetite for national injunctions. A contest will ensue between veteran bureaucrats and a tactile and savvy Majority Leader.
Joe will have all of the news media, pop culture, and the elite class on his side, but he lacks the charisma of an Obama or Trump, and that allows a historic opportunity to box him and the presidency back in for a generation. Righting the unnatural growth of the executive is not a simple by-product of Mitch’s other claim to history – the appointment of a generation of conservative justices – this is a task for the legislature.
We are told that McConnell is an institutionalist. That he not only leads the majority party in our highest deliberative body but remains committed to ensuring the institution’s health. The best way to do that is to continue to elevate the institution, to have the American people see Washington as dually-ruled, and each morning as the Senate page carries that small mahogany box to the floor of the chamber, to let them know the buck stops at the Senate’s gavel.