More than a week after Donald Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, and not before time, attention is turning more squarely to President Joe Biden and his agenda. Unfortunately, it’s already clear that moving past the political turmoil that Trump inflicted on the U.S. will be difficult.
Biden hopes to unite the country around efforts to support the economic recovery. He restated his case again during his recent town hall event in Wisconsin, for the most part to good effect. And on Friday, at the virtual Munich Security Conference, he ventured to speak for the whole nation in calling for restored alliances and a return to international cooperation. His message was directed as much to Americans as to the rest of the world: The U.S. is getting back to normal.
A lot of Democrats, though, question Biden’s desire for unity. They think advancing a strong progressive program matters more. Republicans aren’t giving much thought to unity — right now their party is at war with itself. And the country as a whole is divided, too. Far from bringing people together, a deadly pandemic and its enormous collateral damage have driven them farther apart.
Many Americans still hope that Trump’s departure can restore some semblance of orderly, semi-functional government. Despite everything, so it might — but only if the country’s leaders exert themselves. Effective government in a closely divided country means trying harder to bridge the divides. And this demands, against all odds, two parties capable of finding common ground.
The president has taken steps in the right direction. At his town hall event he called for decency and respect. Invited to denounce Senate Republicans for failing to convict Trump, he declined, saying it was time to move on. It helps that, during the trial, the president stayed above the fray. He didn’t offer running commentary and didn’t call for a guilty verdict. In response to disturbing new footage of the Capitol riot, he said only that “Some minds may have been changed.” It’s to be hoped many were, but Biden was wise to let the evidence speak for itself.
A leader who doesn’t crave perpetual attention or thrive on disorder is more than welcome. Biden’s restraint could also make space for the Republican Party to get past Trump — which, for the country’s sake, it needs to do.
Rest assured, the former president will make that as hard as he can. Last week he attacked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, blaming him (absurdly) for the party’s defeats in Georgia and calling him a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack.” This came as no surprise: Although McConnell voted to acquit Trump, he later told the Senate, “There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” of Jan. 6. McConnell’s forthright evisceration could almost have served as the impeachment managers’ closing argument. Seven Republicans dared to join 50 Democrats in finding Trump guilty of incitement to insurrection — and it’s certain many more, like McConnell, while reluctant to convict, regard him as poison.
McConnell’s denunciation tests the hitherto impenetrable wall of Trump’s support in the GOP’s base. That support, to be sure, remains strong. Even so, an overdue internal debate on the risks of remaining attached to Trump has begun. The former president, even now, is capable of destroying the party he was allowed to co-opt, and its leaders finally need to wake up to the fact.
Many Democrats would like nothing better than to see Republicans self-destruct, and would wish to help the process along. Yet amid an unprecedented public health emergency, repairing the country ought to come first. With razor-thin House and Senate majorities, a willingness to compromise with post-Trump Republicans would help to speed the necessary action.
More fundamentally, good government in a closely divided country needs two functioning parties. The Republican Party’s nervous breakdown is a threat to the whole system. The GOP needs to repair itself, suppress its instinct to oppose for the sake of opposing, and accept those elements of the Democratic recovery agenda that are most urgently needed. Democrats, for their part, should stay open to deals that could accelerate the country’s response to the COVID-19 emergency, and help Biden keep his promise to heal the nation. In the short term, moderates on both sides can make common cause on how best to recover from the pandemic — by accepting, for instance, the need for additional aid for state and local governments (which most Republicans have objected to) and the need to reopen schools as quickly as possible (which most Democrats, in the face of union opposition, have hesitated to demand).
Looking beyond the COVID emergency, the desire to leave Trump and his chaos behind can indeed help unite the country — but making it happen will demand a lot of the country’s leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike. America can’t afford for them to fail.©2021 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC