Every four years, we hear the same time-worn slogan: this is the most important election of our lifetime. And it is usually followed up by the coda: this time we really mean it. There has been ample enunciation of that theme in a 2020 campaign depicted as a twilight struggle for the ages between two opposite visions of our future. Each side believes the other is not just wrong, but tragically misguided to the point of evil. But is this election truly transformational, as so many have maintained?
A Joe Biden presidency would certainly represent a radical departure from the last four years. But mostly it would resuscitate the oh-so-familiar political establishment placed rudely on life support by the electorate in 2016. Thus, if Biden had remained the lifelong conventional liberal of all but the last few months of his 47 years in Washington, this might be a relatively conventional election. But the forces backing the former vice president strictly as the face of the party until November 3, as opposed to its true leader, are rightly viewed as the would-be power behind a Biden throne.
Those aligned with the party base, from prospective vice president Kamala Harris to firebrand Bernie Sanders, represent the animating force behind a full-on progressive agenda the new president might not fully support but, due to his inarguably declining condition, would likely be unable to contain.
All of this, we are told, renders the 2020 election one of unparalleled consequence. We are led to believe that, no matter the outcome, the American people will make a truly transformational decision between polar opposite futures.
The 2016 Revolution
But hold on one second. After decades of conventional and increasingly reviled left-right party politics, was it not an unabashed, anti-establishment, pro-America populism that has already transformed American politics? Didn’t the real transformation occur in 2016? Over the last century, only the elections of 1980 ushering in the Ronald Reagan era, and 1932, the depression-driven start of a 13-year hold on the presidency by Franklin D. Roosevelt, can equal the magnitude of the political earthquake unleashed by the voters four years ago.
A victory by either candidate in 2020 will hardly reshape the entire political landscape as it did in 2016. If Trump wins again, the rebellious path set by the victor four years ago will continue virtually unabated, because a twice-elected president never facing the voters again wields maximal power to enact even bolder change than in a first term. He has already fulfilled arguably his most important promise, which by itself attracted many voters otherwise ill-disposed to his personality: transforming the federal judiciary with the selection of three justices to the Supreme Court, and filling over 200 lower court vacancies with alarming efficiency.
One could argue that Trump’s construction of a 6-3 constitutionalist majority on the high court is of even greater significance than four more years of the 45th president.
We can be sure that in a second term, the dizzying agenda of Trump’s first four years – everything from the border wall to deregulation to tax reform – will likely face fewer obstacles. And heaven forbid, a second Trump triumph might even force the Democrats to eventually work with him on common interests such as infrastructure and criminal justice reform, as they did with President Reagan – after his re-election – in passing generational tax reform.
But none of this is new. The Trump administration has already changed the way politics is done. And judging by the size of his campaign rallies – especially the independent, virtually spontaneous ones dotting the landscape from Pennsylvania to California – the movement ignited by this president is clearly not going away.
The Power Behind Joe Biden
If Biden wins, the election would be even less transformational, as we would usher in a return of the same basic cast of characters from the eight years of the Obama era. Familiar faces – from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry to John Brennan – would re-enter stage left. And a return to the days of establishment rule would be assured. That hardly qualifies as transformational. And if what we have learned from hard evidence about the “big guy” behind the Biden family’s worldwide, influence-peddling enterprises is true, rest assured it would continue to haunt the 46th president through all his days in the west wing. Impeachment would be in the air from day one of a Biden administration.
But be that as it may, you say, Biden and the Democrats are different than in 2016, sold out to a party base openly calling for radical reforms which, unlike Trump’s radical return to traditional conservative values, would introduce a new and previously unthinkable level of socialism to a free market economy. True enough, but remember the ultimate goal of all political parties: to win elections. Would Democrats really be able to pull off the to-do list of Bernie/AOC+3 and expect not to be crushed in 2022, and again in 2024? Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac for professional politicians, and they always, always have their eyes on the next race.
OK, but what if Joe Biden becomes president and then, as many fear, he is no longer able to serve out his term? Kamala Harris, recently ranked the most liberal member of the entire U.S. Senate, would take over as president. Surely that would be transformational, yes?
Perhaps it would by virtue of her being the first woman of color – and most left-wing chief executive – to occupy the Oval Office. But remember how spectacularly unconvincing she was as a candidate for president, dropping out before capturing a single delegate. As an “accidental” president (who many believe would ascend to the presidency by design), would she be able to command the respect of the nation, unite her party, ram through a hard-left agenda, and hold power through the following midterm and/or presidential election? She may have a radical bent, but that hardly speaks to her ability to lead a nation.
The forces backing the two presidential candidates are hardened in their beliefs. The balkanization of red and blue America is already well in place, and certain to continue no matter who wins this election. It will only be a matter of degree. Worry if you will about whether your candidate and party prevail on Election Day or beyond. But whatever the outcome, the verdict of the American people will be revealing. It will hopefully be decisive. And it will be of abiding significance. But one thing it’s not likely to be is transformational.
Read more from Tim Donner.