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Electoral Forecast: Clear with a Chance of Golden Showers

This essay is part of a periodic series on the 2020 presidential election. Some earlier pieces can be found here.

Count Early, Count Often

I don’t think even Joe Biden can screw this one up, although I am sure he can come close. Biden probably cannot win in Texas or Ohio—the Democrats’ dream—but some combination of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin ought to give Joe the required 270 electoral votes, provided Trump hasn’t tied up the swing state electors in the mother of all lawsuits, forcing the election results into uncharted waters.

Trump’s only hope of winning is this: he concocts a legal theory—no basis in law or fact—that the votes, including all those mailed-in ballots, have to be counted by the end of election day. And then he pushes eight or nine swing state cases, in parallel, to the Supreme Court.

Remember Trump’s only frame of reference is the 1960s and 70s, when Walter Cronkite called the election before bedtime. It explains why, when he thinks of “suburban women,” he imagines June Cleaver, the Beave’s mom.

According to the Constitution, it is up to each state to certify its electors and dispatch their votes to Congress by mid-December, by which time Trump may well be in front of the Supreme Court (“It’s ours, we paid for it, and we’re going to keep it…”), making the point that Democrats “harvested” their way to a Biden victory.

I don’t think Trump will have compelling evidence to claim the election was stolen, but maybe he will not need much. But he would certainly get a friendly reception if he could advance the various state cases to the Supreme Court, which more and more is feather-bedded with Trump loyalists, along the lines of “personal lawyer” Rudy Giuliani (who when last heard from was arguing for his Fourth Amendment rights—the right to personal search and seizure—in the case of Borat Sagdiyev v. E.G. Hand).

It’s On the House

If Trump cannot drain off some swing-state electors in the courts, his other shot at clinging to the office (and all the legal immunity that comes with it) is to push the election into the House of Representatives, where each state delegation gets one vote and where the Republicans have a majority of delegations.

It’s a shot worth taking, especially if Trump knows that come January 21, 2021, he and his family may well find a few arrest warrants in all the mail that will be waiting for them back at Trump Tower.

Generally for the House to decide an election, however, there have to be three or four candidates running, which makes it harder for any one candidate to get a 270 majority in the Electoral College.

The last time the House decided an election was in 1824, when Henry Clay decided to shaft Andrew Jackson, and give the presidency to John Quincy Adams. So Trump would be best advised not to hold his breath on this option, unless he has a few dexamethasone tablets still at hand.

The James Buchanan Model

I’m a little surprised no one has been talking up James Buchanan’s presidency as the model for Biden’s coming time in office.

In case you’re weak on presidents of the 1850s, James Buchanan from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a place-holding Democratic diplomat and northern senator (sound familiar?) who was acceptable to the slave-owners in the South and not too offensive to the prospectors in West (those gold frackers of lore).

The Supreme Court during Buchanan’s presidency came up with the Dred Scott decision that confirmed slaves as chattel and established the precedent for runaway slaves to be impounded and returned to their owners.

At a time of grave national crisis, Biden’s pro-Republican, reach-across-the-aisle, shout-out-to-John-Kasich-at-the-convention efforts resemble Buchanan’s accommodation with the South and Dred Scott, which in the 1850s fractured the Democratic party into a Northern and Southern wing and led the country closer to civil war.

In Biden’s case, his reaching across the aisle may well break apart the current Democratic party, perhaps with the progressive left wing being the first to bolt from Biden’s big tent corporate opportunism.

I am not saying this will lead to a civil war, but it could well doom Biden’s presidency to an unhappy middle ground between open-carry Republicans in opposition and angry AOC Democrats isolated from the Biden inner circle.

Cap Space Hell

If Biden were taking over a professional football team, not the United States, the sports commentariat would be speaking of “cap-space hell,” in reference to the fact that all of the government’s financial resources have already been committed or wasted needlessly on the political-equivalent of Trumaine Johnson (a New York Jets cornerback paid $17 million a year to whiff on most receivers).

Since the Clinton administration, the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have pissed away some $24 trillion on useless free agents (homeland security, bank bailouts, tax cuts for the 1%, splendid little wars in the Middle East, the Space Force, etc.).

Now, in a moment of crisis, when the country could use fiscal stimulus to keep the wolf from the home office, the country’s well is running closer to dry than anyone will admit.

Biden will be lucky if he doesn’t take office at the same time as stagflation sets in and preside over a Weimar economy.

Talk-Show-ism

For all the hype about how the American presidency is the “most powerful job in the world,” the reality is that the office has been diminished to the level of a talk show.

It probably started with Ronald Reagan, who was comfortable staging little sit-coms each day that could air on the nightly news. He wasn’t actually interested in governing any more than were Obama or Trump, both of whom brought their own pilots to the White House (one looked like The Cosby Show, the other Rush Limbaugh).

For the life of me, I cannot see how a combination of Hollywood producers and Washington influencers can turn Joe Biden into the star of a Netflix serial.

He seems a little old to be an avuncular cop in a Brooklyn precinct locking up super-predators, and he’s probably not up to the math for a guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory.

If they go for a U.S. version of The Crown, it wouldn’t be long before some director tried to feature First Son and his crack pipe on one of the episodes.

I am guessing that the script writers of the Biden administration will pitch for a remake of Modern Family, with Jill and Joe presiding over their inclusive, sometimes dysfunctional, but always loving American family—not a bad way to spin Hunter’s love child with that DC pole dancer.

Pardon Me

Between election day and the 2021 inauguration, I am sure that Donald Trump will pardon himself and his extended family. According to the Constitution, the President has the power “to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of impeachment.”

I know, it’s never been done; not even the Watergated Richard Nixon pardoned himself. (He got Gerald Ford to do it, and that cost Ford his own presidency.)

Trump has nothing to lose by pardoning himself, Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric, etc. (As the Sundance Kid said: “You just keep thinkin’ Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”)

Would the courts overturn such a self-abuse of power? I doubt it—at least not this Supreme Court. (Inscription over the front door: Quam multa iustitia praestare potes… How much justice can you afford?)

Maybe some holdover Obama judge in Washington will issue a ruling, calling into question the legality of such a presidential pardon. But the pardon power, as granted in the Constitution, is vast, although limited to federal crimes.

I’m sure Trump would rather argue the legality of his self-pardon in court than he would like to plead, in the Southern District of New York, that he did not violate federal election laws by paying off a porn star named “Stormy”.

A Trump self-pardon does not eliminate the cases that are brewing against him in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Nor does it keep his companies from imploding under their mountains of debt. It could make his IRS problems go away, at least some criminal aspects, and a pardon would play well with Trump’s base, which will see him as the martyr of a vast left-wing conspiracy after he loses the election. (“There are some nasty nasty people out there…”)

Playboy After Foreclosure

On balance Trump was made to be an ex-president. He can skip all those briefing papers about Nagorno-Karabakh, phone his dog-whistling directly to the talk shows, and keep holding superspreader rallies in airplane hangars.

Out of office Trump can launch his own cable network, charge viewers $4.95 a month, and hire away his favorite Fox hosts for The Trump Network (a mix of QVS home shopping with Ivanka and The Supremacy Hour with Trump himself)—a vast echo chamber that will play directly on your phone.

Trump could even simulcast his tweeting and in some segments, like his cultural hero Hugh Hefner (Playboy After Dark…), greet starlets in a silk bathrobe (for some candlelight Big Macs?).

I am assuming that by this point Melania will be back in Milan, reading books with titles such as: Can You Clean Up Despite a Prenup?

The part of being out of office that Trump won’t like is having to declare bankruptcy (for the seventh time? I’ve lost track), before his cable subscriptions get some traction.

I can’t see Deutsche Bank, the Saudis, Vladimir Putin, the Turks, or a few guys named Vincent waiting around patiently for their money while Trump begs for time to defend himself against criminal charges or while he promises to raise cash by selling off some bundles of frozen Trump steaks.

At the same time I cannot see anyone who is personally leveraged to their eyeballs escaping the recession that Covid-19 will impose on commercial real estate, golf courses, casinos, and hotels.

Let’s hope Jared’s deal with the Gulf States included a few standby lines of credit for the family business. (Motto: “You are what you can borrow.”)

The Elevator Only Stops in the Lobby

You do wonder why anyone considers the United States a democracy.

If it really was a democracy, would the choice for president this year be between two white men in their seventies—both of whom have groped women, demonstrated some mental incapacity, and used their government service to enrich their children?

The American president is no longer a government official serving at the pleasure of the people but a primetime monarch, chosen every four years by electors who, in turn, are elected in state-by-state elections. So much for one man one vote.

On election day, you’re not voting for Trump or Biden. You’re voting for an elector pledged to vote for one of them, and even then you only get to vote for electors who are pledged to candidates chosen by one of two political parties.

Did a majority of registered Democrats, in a nationally held primary, vote this year to nominate Joe Biden to run as their candidate for president? Not at all.

After Biden failed miserably in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democrats (led by the Obamas, Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer) cleared the deck of alternate candidates and then pressured Bernie Sanders to quit the race. Smoke-filled rooms at conventions used to be more democratic than that.

Imagine if the electors were to follow their constitutional mandate, gather in mid-December, and vote into office someone who isn’t Biden or Trump. I might find myself a convert to “original intent.”

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

Is the the Senate democratic? Two-thirds of the American people are represented by 30 senators, and to run for the Senate, even in rural states, requires tens of millions of dollars.

It’s the other 70 senators (representing only one-third of the electorate) who have brought the current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, into your life, not to mention all those federal judges trying to impose the sharia law according to the mullahs of the Federalist Society.

The House? It’s a little better than the Senate, I suppose, in terms of diversity, but gerrymandering and media buying make it almost impossible for incumbents to lose re-election (their success rate is 98%).

How many districts are competitive? How many new ideas get circulated in House elections? Not many.

In-House Lawyers

In terms of oligopoly, the winner is the Supreme Court, on paper the third branch of the federal government, but now little more than a Trump in-house law firm in which the partners all get a lifetime contract. (“Hey Brett Kavanaugh, this Bud’s for you.”)

Did it not strike anyone as a conflict of interest when Justice Amy Covid Barrett made several campaign appearances on Trump’s behalf, notably her Evita wave from the White House balcony after her confirmation?

Or that, at the request of Trump’s election handlers, she put her seven children at risk three times during the pandemic, by dragging them from Indiana to Washington so that they could be used as dancing bears in the Trump and Mitch McConnell campaigns?

Why, in a so-called democracy, is one branch of government beyond the reach of the electorate, appointed by an indirectly-elected president, and confirmed by a Senate whose majority represents 30 percent of the population?

Obama’s Promised Land

A big winner of the presidential election, undoubtedly, will be Barack Obama, who can feel that “his legacy” (think of a damsel in distress, although perhaps one dressed in golf clothes) has been rescued from the dungeon in which it was chained during the Trump years.

Not only did Obama steamroll the Biden nomination (see his phone calls to Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg before Super Tuesday), but he also had a hand, as did the Clintons, in the vice-presidential nomination of Kamala Harris, who otherwise never cracked 10% in the polling during the Democratic primaries.

Come the January presidential inauguration—I am assuming it will not take place on Zoom—you can be sure the Obamas will have a prominent place on the inaugural platform (Trump will blow it off) and join the parade back to the White House (assuming that Trump hasn’t changed the locks).

With Biden’s blessing, Obama will be able to get back to his devotional pulpits and attend White House gala dinners, and on November 17 he will take to the airways on his book tour, with the launching of his 786-page memoir (well, volume one anyway), modestly entitled A Promised Land. (Fact check: are we sure he’s not talking about the Vineyard?)

I am assuming that God and Abraham will have given the book a few blurbs and that maybe Moses will go on The View to report, “With the Lord as my savior, I want to assure you that Barack wrote it all himself.”

Probably the pub date was chosen with a Biden victory in mind. Close enough to Thanksgiving and Christmas to move out the stock of the 3 million-copy first printing, but far enough removed from the election so that Trump would not have another stage prop for him to campaign against Obama-Biden revanchism.

Checkbooks and Balances

Brace yourself for all the Washington placemen, office seekers, and influence peddlers, and al the Hollywood middlemen, New York hedge funders, remittance men, tech geniuses, and liberal-leaning CEOs who will descend on the Biden administration with policy plans, position papers, draft legislation, and executive decrees, all pitched to redeeming the nation from the original sins of the Trump presidency—not that they would be above, as Carl Spackler said, keeping, you know, “a little something…for the effort. ”

Keep in mind that on a policy basis—with some symbolic exceptions—a Biden presidency will be similar to Trump’s, in that it will be an oligarch’s ball; only the masks and costumes will change.

Biden, like Trump, believes in the sanctity of the governing class, the primacy of the corporation, and the art of the inside deal—even if they might disagree on which cronies are most deserving to get bailed out.

Okay, Biden will re-enroll the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement, reinstate auto-mileage standards, and have Tesla rewire the presidential limo, but he will no more challenge corporate primacy than he will ban fracking in Pennsylvania or tell the Wilmington credit card companies to stop changing a default rate of 25% on Covid-19 victims who have lost their jobs.

I imagine the cabinet of the Biden-Harris administration will be replete with hunter-gatherers hot off the presses of the Clinton and Obama administrations. In my mind I can see the likes of Larry Summers and John Kerry swarming over the ship of state, cutlasses in hand.

Don’t expect representatives Ilhan Omar or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to be spending their Sunday evenings at the White House, watching football or first run movies with the Bidens. And any paper or speech that mentions the green new deal or climate change legislation will automatically have the target date of 2050.

Maybe, given the restoration of faith that comes with Biden’s sacraments of service, somewhere in the cabinet room someone will hang the inspirational words of Pope Leo X (born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1475), who said: “God has given us the papacy; now let us enjoy it.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails and Appalachia Spring. His most recent book, published this summer, is The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century.  

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