Donald Trump may wind up leaving the White House next January. But the 45th president and the political movement he launched are not going away politically.
And even if Joe Biden emerges as the nation’s 46th president, once all of the counts, recounts and court challenges are done, he’ll preside over a weakened Democratic Party that failed to capture the Senate and unexpectedly lost seats in the House.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that, if the scenario of a Biden White House plays out, the most powerful person in Washington will be Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who won easy reelection and will almost certainly remain as the Senate’s majority leader.
If Biden becomes president on Jan. 20, the ability to forge compromises with McConnell — which Biden touted throughout his presidential campaign — will become a crucial ingredient if the federal government is to cope with the still virulent COVID-19 pandemic and its extensive economic fallout.
A lot will depend on whether McConnell, untethered from having to protect a president of his own party, takes the wholly partisan approach he employed 12 years ago in vowing to make Barack Obama a one-term president or decides that the country’s dire situation requires a more conciliatory approach.
But the shape of the election results has probably put to rest the theory that, if the election produced a massive rejection of Trump that many forecast, those Republicans still standing would seek to veer away from the president’s confrontational approach and pull their party back toward the center.
Without the increased turnout of Trump’s hardcore supporters, the GOP might well not have been able to retain its majority in the Senate or gain seats in the House. Certainly, there is no election evidence that Republicans seeking reelection like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa were damaged by their decision to lash themselves politically to Trump.
The success of Texas Republicans in reelecting Sen. John Cornyn, holding key U.S. House seats and maintaining their grip on the state House of Representatives speaks to the absence of any down-ballot drag stemming from Trump’s alleged weakness in the suburbs.
The president’s showing almost guarantees something that was likely to have happened anyway, that he will seek to maintain a major role in the nation’s politics. Former presidents often find it hard to maintain their political influence — many like former President George W. Bush don’t even try — but Trump will likely not only try, but find it easy to do so.
Though many Republicans feared he squandered much of the hundreds of millions of dollars he raised during the last four years, Trump’s organization performed when it had to. The president remains a fundraising machine on which the GOP is likely to be increasingly reliant. It’s safe to expect he will keep his grip on the party machinery when the Republican National Committee picks its next chairman in January.
He also showed, to the surprise of the pollsters and the Democrats, an ability to appeal to minorities to a greater extent than was the case four years ago, especially among Cuban Americans in Florida, Hispanics in Texas and younger Black men. Trump’s showing among suburban women surpassed dire preelection forecasts.
Though Trump at age 78 will be older in 2024 than Biden is today, physical or legal impediments might be the only things standing in the way of him seeking to regain the White House in four years. He has already shown the ability to keep himself and his views before the public.
Meanwhile, assuming Biden’s lead holds up, the new president would have an early opportunity to show that he meant what he said when he promised to govern as “an American president,” not a Democratic one, by reaching out to Republicans in putting together his administration.
In that scenario, McConnell would give an early demonstration of how he plans to approach the new administration when Biden submits his cabinet choices to the Senate for confirmation proceedings.
Meanwhile, Trump’s middle-of-the night unproven allegations of fraud and his vow to pursue legal challenges are early signs of what Biden — and the nation — may face in the 11 weeks leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration. Should Trump lose, this could be the nation’s most troubled transition since Franklin D. Roosevelt captured the presidency from Herbert Hoover in 1932, at the depths of the Great Depression.
Even under the most optimal circumstances, the president will take office in the worst economic climate since Barack Obama inherited the fallout from the financial collapse a dozen years ago, compounded by Trump’s persistent inability to cope with the global COVID-19 pandemic that caused the current economic woes.
All signs are that Trump, who insists he is the victim of the “China plague” and voter fraud, would not cooperate with his successor, but likely continue to set land mines by changing such long-standing rules as the civil service protections for nonpolitical career government workers.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.