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Politics may not be doomed to dysfunction

Early Returns

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My very smart Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson has an excellent column predicting that whatever President-elect Joe Biden might want, we're in for a rough ride for the next four years. "U.S. domestic politics is an ugly mess," he writes, thanks to a Republican Party that's "post-policy, post-truth, post-democratic."

It's an important argument, and one that should be taken seriously. It's not hard to imagine a nightmare scenario ahead for Democrats and the nation. Republicans retain their Senate majority and never supply a pandemic-relief bill, economic stimulus, or even basic public-health funding to control the spread of the virus and distribute a vaccine. More people suffer, the economy worsens and Biden is a lame duck months into his presidency. Meanwhile, Donald Trump successfully backs antidemocratic candidates and a midterm landslide leaves most of the battleground states in the hands of people explicitly dedicated to naming Republican electors regardless of what voters want. Partisan Republican judges toss out Obamacare and more. A Republican Senate refuses to even consider Biden's judicial nominations, or, aside from his cabinet, any of his executive-branch nominations — and after the midterms a Republican House impeaches him for relying on acting officials. Four years of chaos, with the economy and democracy battered beyond repair.

And yet … it's also possible to imagine much more benign paths.

After all, while many Republicans stayed quiet over the past month as Trump tried to overturn the election, very few actively collaborated with him — and quite a few stood up for the rule of law. Perhaps that would've been different had the election been closer, but what we know now is that serious Republican election lawyers deserted the president, Republican-nominated judges rejected his lawsuits, a series of Republican election administrators ignored his pleas to violate the law, and not a single Republican state legislature came anywhere close (at least publicly) to attempting to throw out the vote. Even Fox News largely defended the democratic process, at least outside of a few on-air personalities. Perhaps once Trump is out of the White House the very noisy antidemocratic faction of the party will turn out to be an unimportant fringe.

As for governing? Yes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will seek to obstruct Biden's agenda, following on the examples his party set in 1993 and 2009. But even in those years, Democrats had some real bipartisan legislative victories, and managed to pick up enough Republican votes to get bills over the top against overwhelming opposition. Repeating those successes will be a lot easier if Democrats win the two Senate runoffs in Georgia and gain at least a temporary majority, but it could well happen anyway. Republicans may find, for example, that opposing full funding for vaccines is a risk they don't want to take. Meanwhile, the Democrats' slim majority in the House might actually help them in the midterm elections because they'll have fewer very liberal bills on their records. That's bad news for their agenda, but it isn't necessarily a formula for chaos.

In other words, it's entirely possible we could be in for at least marginally competent governing over the next few years. Add in a little luck with the pandemic and the economy, and perhaps we'll get a fair amount of boredom after all. The main point is that it's very difficult to predict how these things will unfold. We know the Republican Party will remain dysfunctional, and Fox News and talk-radio hosts will continue hollering. Polarization and negative partisanship will persist. But how that plays out? I'm still on Team We Just Don't Know. 

1. The latest from the Bright Line Watch crew about the state of U.S. democracy.

2. Nadia E. Brown on Carol Moseley Braun, ambitious Black women and the Democrats.

3. Charles S. Bullock III on the Georgia runoffs and appointed senators

4. Julia Azari on Trump and other one-term presidents.

5. Christopher Baylor on the basic conditions of the Biden presidency.

6. Emily Badger on what Republican voters mean when they tell pollsters that the election was marred by fraud.

7. Quinta Jurecic on the consequences for those aiding Trump's efforts to undermine democracy.

8. Matt Yglesias on marijuana legalization.

9. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michael R. Strain on Biden's Council of Economic Advisers.

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