Steven V Roberts: Winning is easier than governing

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 6, 2020

By Steven V Roberts

If, when all the votes are counted, Joe Biden wins the election, he will face a deeply divided country, a Senate in Republican hands, and fierce demands from a fractious party — one that united behind him to defeat Donald Trump, but would press competing priorities on the new president.

The only fraud committed this political season has been by the president himself, who falsely and frequently claimed the election was being stolen by his foes. Even if he finally leaves office in January, his unrelenting undermining of our democratic institutions will embitter his followers and embolden them to see Biden as an illegitimate president.

Resistance to Biden would be bolstered by the Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, a shrewd guerilla chieftain who has just won a new six-year term. Republicans are sure to harass Biden at every turn and thwart his key initiatives, including attempts to restock the federal judiciary with liberal-minded judges.

Moreover, Biden would take office with a very thin mandate for a substantive agenda. His core message always was, “I’m not Trump,” which is hardly the basis for a robust legislative program, and the narrowness of his victory would only compound his weakness.

Then there’s the Democratic Party itself. It’s a source of political strength that Democrats can reelect a careful moderate like Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina and a firebrand democratic socialist like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. But that diverse range of views becomes a real problem when it comes to governing the country.

John F. Harris and Holly Otterbein, writing in Politico during the Democratic convention this summer, put it this way: “One way to view contemporary Democrats is like a dysfunctional family that will all be together this week for a wedding. The family photograph might look quite festive, but there are darker currents running beneath the image — frequently irritable ideological and demographic splits that have been on public display over the past two election cycles.”

One glaring example of those splits showed up during the last presidential debate, when Biden — under pressure from the party’s left wing to embrace drastic environmental measures — foolishly answered “yes” when Trump asked, “Would you close down the oil industry?”

Embattled Democratic lawmakers from energy-producing states immediately rejected Biden’s view, and the candidate himself spent the rest of the campaign trying to clean up his own mess with voters in Pennsylvania.

If and when Democratic initiatives get buried in the Senate, the frustration level among party factions is likely to rise, the divisions are likely to grow sharper, and the recriminations can only get louder. There are different ways to describe those factions. Tom Edsall in the New York Times, quoting work by Kabir Khanna of CBS, outlines three roughly equal segments: very liberal, somewhat liberal and moderate to conservative.

Biden clearly fits in the “somewhat liberal” category, but the pressure from the party’s left wing will be relentless. Only 1 in 4 Americans described themselves as liberal in exit polls this year, but followers of senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren still believe — despite all evidence to the contrary — that this is a liberal country ready for a massive overhaul of basic institutions.

One battle will be over legislative priorities.

Biden could well find out that winning the election was a whole lot easier than governing the country.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at