What should conservatives expect from a Biden presidency?

The election isn’t over yet, but polls are trending towards Joe Biden. That leaves many Americans wondering what to expect from a Biden Administration. This is particularly true because this has not been a campaign based on many policies other than responses to the pandemic. This election, from its very beginning, has been a referendum on Donald Trump.

This morning I was a guest on my friend and co-writer, Steve Berman’s podcast (you can find the podcast here) where we discussed the possibility of a Biden presidency. As I prepared for the discussion, I considered what a Biden Administration might mean for the country.

Two of the biggest concerns relate to Democratic threats of retaliation for the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. Many Democrats want to expand the Supreme Court to give President Biden enough appointments to reestablish partisan parity. A second threat involved granting statehood to Puerto Rico. Both courses of action would require further chipping away at the filibuster, if not killing it outright.

Ultimately, whether these threats are possible depends on the outcome of the 12 battleground Senate races that I like to call the “Dirty Dozen.” The most recent polling shows that control of the Senate for the next Congress is a tossup. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, or even if the balance of the Senate is tie requiring the vice president to cast deciding votes, much of the Democratic agenda will be dead on arrival.

Even a small Democratic majority presents problems for controversial moves. If Democrats push forward on unpopular policies, they will risk losing seats in swing districts in 2022. Democrats in red states and districts would be very hesitant to vote for overwhelmingly unpopular bills. Some Democrats won’t remember the 2010 Tea Party wave election which led to a Republican Congress that stymied the next six years of the Obama Administration, but I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi has not forgotten that Obama’s overreach cost her the speakership.  

The quickest way to turn a majority into a minority is to push forward with programs that a majority of voters oppose. Barack Obama learned this hard lesson in 2010 and 2014. Donald Trump and the Republicans are learning it right now.

Packing the court would likely be just such an unpopular move. Several polls taken over the past few months show that at least a plurality of voters opposes the move. A New York Times poll from earlier in October found that public opinion ran almost two-to-one against expanding the Supreme Court.

Statehood for Puerto Rico might be more popular but polling on the issue is hard to come by. NBC News reported in September that a recent poll found Puerto Ricans in the domestic US were indecisively split between statehood, independence, and maintaining the island’s current status as a US possession. Although a plurality of 30 percent preferred statehood, 86 percent said they would support candidates who supported statehood. In 2017, 97 percent of voters in Puerto Rico said “yes” to statehood in a referendum, but only 23 percent of voters turned out. Several other referendums have had mixed results as well.

Next week, the island of Puerto Rico will hold a referendum on statehood on Election Day (Nov. 3 there as well as here). With the possibility of statehood looming, the outcome of that referendum will play a large role in determining the future of the island if Democrats win a decisive Senate majority. If Puerto Rico says no, the statehood movement will probably quickly end.

Both court-packing and admitting Puerto Rico to the Union would almost certainly require eliminating the filibuster. Even in the unlikely event that Democrats ran the table on vulnerable Republican Senate seats, they would fall short of a filibuster-proof majority. If the filibuster is removed, seats could be added to the Supreme Court with a simple majority of 51 Senate votes. Beyond that, a state could theoretically be admitted with a simple majority as well. The Constitution gives the Congress the power to add states to the Union with few limitations. All that is required is a federal law passed in the usual manner.

The rub will be removing the filibuster. The filibuster has long been endangered. President Trump and many Republicans wanted it eliminated just a few short years ago. So far, however, more prudent congressional leaders have realized that removing the filibuster is a double-edged sword. It would make it easier to pass legislation, but it would also make it easier for the next majority to repeal the same laws.

As far as public opinion, a Harris poll from September found that 47 percent of voters supported restrictions on use of the filibuster. The dislike of the filibuster cut across party lines with 51 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans in agreement that the delaying tactic needed reform. Those numbers will undoubtedly change if Democrats move to strike the rule and the filibuster becomes a partisan issue. The big question is where swing voters would come down on the issue.

If Democrats are smart, they would avoid divisive partisan maneuvering and instead concentrate on issues where there is broad agreement. COVID relief and safety measures would be an obvious first choice, if no such bills have passed by then. Other measures that could be taken up by a Biden Administration would be a tax increase on the wealthy, which is supported by 64 percent of voters (including 53 percent of Republicans), and an equality bill for gays and lesbians, which is supported by 72 percent. There is also broad support for reforms to combat police brutality, although not for defunding the police.

On the economy, fears of Biden recession are probably unfounded. The first years of the Trump economy were an extension of the growth that followed the end of the Great Recession. In other words, despite Obama’s faults, the Obama economy and the early Trump economy were one and the same. Biden has won the endorsement of The Economist magazine and many fiscal conservatives despite a platform that is not particularly business-friendly.  

But, as I’ve pointed out before, many of President Trump’s policies were not particularly business-friendly either. Trump simultaneous trade wars were slowing the US economy even before the pandemic, which provided him with a handy excuse for the recession that began in February. Even Trump’s victory on the USMCA created a new trade deal that was arguably worse than NAFTA in many respects and, despite the new treaty, the president has already threatened a new round of tariffs on Canada. Trump’s erratic policies made business planning difficult and his tariffs killed American export markets. If nothing else, Biden will bring stability and an end to the trade wars. Both would be a boon to the economy as would an end to the pandemic.

Biden may also repair some of the international damage done by Donald Trump. We may rejoin the World Health Organization, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the Paris Accords. A Biden Administration would be less likely to desert allies such as the Kurds, which has undermined American credibility around the globe. NATO would breathe a sigh of relief if Trump leaves office with the alliance still intact. I’m not sure that NATO would survive another four years of Trump and other international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, would likely be weakened as well.

There also will be no giant increase in the abortion rate under Biden. Abortions have been declining for decades regardless of whether the president is Republican or Democrat. Under Barack Obama, the US abortion rate fell below 1973 levels, even without the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade. The war against abortion is being won in the states and in the hearts of Americans, who are coming to believe that abortion is wrong even if they don’t want an outright ban. The battle against abortion is a grass roots fight for hearts rather than one that will be won by top-down edicts.    

One of my biggest concerns about a Biden Administration is gun control. A Politico/Morning Consult poll last year found that 70 percent favored a ban on “assault weapons.” That number includes 55 percent of Republicans. Republicans have staved off tighter gun control for years (not counting President Trump’s bureaucratic bump-stock ban), but a Democratic trifecta in Washington would definitely present a threat. This is especially true since the NRA has been weakened by corruption and scandal under the administration of Wayne LaPierre.

But the flip side is that Democrats will need to kill the filibuster to enact any of these proposals, much less more controversial policies such as the Green New Deal, a fracking ban, or any number of items on the progressive wish list. The catch is that, without the filibuster, it will be easier for Republicans to reverse these acts when they inevitably become the majority at some point in the future.

And what of Republican claims that Joe Biden would be a figurehead that he would be quickly replaced by Kamala Harris? First, these same Republicans were claiming that Biden was incapable of coherent thought and that he would never debate Donald Trump. We know how that turned out, so these claims are automatically suspect as well.

It is possible that the 77-year-old Biden won’t be able to complete his term, but keep in mind that Kamala Harris was one of the most overrated Democratic primary candidates and one of the first to drop out. If Harris did become president and enact radical progressive policies, that overreach would likely benefit Republicans in 2024. It goes back to the maxim that general election voters like moderates. They don’t like candidates who scare them and they don’t like candidates who betray their moderate credentials by pushing a radically partisan agenda  

The Democrats have two options. The first is that they can ram through as much of their wish list as possible as quickly as possible, public opinion be damned. In this scenario, they will likely take a “shellacking” in the 2022 elections. Republicans may win control of at least one house of Congress and then Biden will essentially be a lame duck, reduced to trying to sneak executive actions around an unfriendly Congress. This was the strategy that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump used.

The second option is to rule by consensus. The Democrats can attempt to build bipartisan coalitions to break filibusters and listen to the will of the people. This is what the Founders intended but it has been a long time since we have seen a president and Congress who have followed this model. Nevertheless, I think this is what most voters want from their government. In this scenario, they might stay in power for a long time.

I don’t know how Joe Biden will lead the country. As a conservative, I will disagree with the vast majority of proposals that he puts forward, even though I voted for him because I believe that Donald Trump has taken the country in the wrong direction. I like to use the analogy of making a wrong turn. If you keep going in the wrong direction, you will never get to where you want to go. It is painful to turn around and backtrack instead of pushing forward, but it is also necessary if you ever want to get to your destination.

 A Biden presidency may not unify the county and reduce the tensions that are simmering in America, but I do know without a doubt that a second Trump term will deepen divisions. After years of divisiveness, I want to believe Biden’s claims that he will be a president for all Americans, not just one faction. If Biden can lead Democrats in this direction, the country can benefit from his leadership even though he is a liberal. If he does not, or if congressional Democrats won’t follow his lead, Republicans will be waiting in the wings.

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