Joe Biden appears positioned to win enough battleground states to put himself in the White House—possibly pending four weeks of courtroom brawling that Americans anticipated but desperately hoped to avoid. Democrats, who have been focusing intensely on the opportunity to take down Trump for four years, could treat this as the brink of an enormous victory. Instead, a feeling of disappointment and defeat prevails even with an outcome—Trump’s impending defeat—that would have inspired unbridled joy six months ago.
The underwhelming Democratic performance in House and Senate races combine with, at best, a Biden nail-biter to produce an unsatisfying result. But the reality is that this election was never going to feel like a real victory; the problems the Trump presidency has exposed run far deeper than a “blue wave” could resolve. As things have turned out, the next two to four years promise to be a grind of crushing austerity, Hunter Biden investigations, and Mitch McConnell–led gridlock supervised by a president whose campaign emphasized that we should all just get along again.
That’s simply tough to get excited about.
Biden is ill-equipped to handle entrenched problems like police violence and economic inequality because of his long track record of, and preference for, moderate New Democrat–style politics. Throughout the campaign the left was notably unenthusiastic about Biden’s eagerness—website platform promises notwithstanding—to pursue these problems with the vigor it would take to make meaningful progress. Even with the benefit of a Democratic House and Senate, there has been ample telegraphing of Biden’s intention to take what could favorably be called an incremental approach.
Now, with the promised gains in the House and Senate disappearing, Biden’s ceiling has been lowered even further. He can replace the half-clown, half-convict crew of people that surrounds Trump in the White House, and he offers a baseline level of sanity and competence that many Americans have missed over the past four years. But this election outcome forces us to be brutally honest: This is a country with serious problems. And they’re not getting fixed anytime soon.
That is why the potential defeat of Donald Trump hasn’t inspired the kind of celebrating that we might have expected. What is more, Democrats expecting a big-blowout repudiation of Trump were curiously out of step with the conservative, careful choice of nominating Biden and having his campaign aim to run as safe a race as possible. Simply showing up with a warm body on the ballot doesn’t produce 40-state landslides; in reality, Biden’s campaign did what it set out to do: play it safe and win back three states Clinton lost narrowly in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. That it added Arizona to the Democratic column is more than such a tepid, low-risk campaign could have been expected to do.
One issue the Democratic Party must address going forward is how better to navigate between successful fundraising and deluding its followers about the odds of taking the Senate. Disappointment is being felt most keenly now among people who not only looked forward to a Biden win but a Democratic Senate majority. Making that seem plausible required pushing a narrative that a few Senate races that were not close at all were in fact very close. Breathless (and endless) exhortations to shovel money into the campaigns of Amy McGrath and Jaime Harrison—both of whom were routed—were framed as ways to contribute to winnable races.
It turned out that not only were those long shots unrealistic, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could not even allocate resources (and attention) well enough to deliver seats that looked far more winnable; the widely loathed Thom Tillis somehow managed to win reelection in North Carolina, for example, as did Susan Collins in Maine, which Biden carried handily. As with the House, where top Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn are 80, 81, and 80, the aging leadership in the Senate (Chuck “Spring Chicken” Schumer is a mere 69) simply does not seem to be very good at its most basic job. The DSCC raises huge amounts of money but struggles to allocate those resources productively. Plans for leadership succession in both chambers are long overdue.
Gerrymandering presents a challenge for House Democrats, a problem that will only worsen with the botched Census 2020 and relative Republican success in state capitals this year. But despite predictions of winning an additional 10-plus seats on Tuesday, House Democrats managed to underperform 2018, and new district boundaries will only make things harder.
In short, Democrats managed the curious feat of dislodging Trump while making no progress in retaking the Senate, losing ground in the House, and failing to meaningfully alter the balance of state political power across the country. Watching Trump leave the White House for a final time will be cathartic and will bring smiles to more than a few faces, but there is no getting around the miserable politics that await us in the near future. For a country that has appeared at times to teeter toward social, economic, and political collapse over the past year, the promise of four years in which nothing gets fixed just isn’t a reason to celebrate.