The midterm elections of 2022 are only 20 months away and already show up to be equally pivotal as the 2020 elections purported and proved to be. The reason is that the presidential election of 2020 produced only one determinative outcome, in that it removed a dangerously incompetent pretender and seriously flawed person from the White House. But it created, at the Congressional level, a state of parity between two internally conflicted parties that have their eyes already set on the next election in the hope that they can prevail at that time. Notwithstanding the fact that Donald Trump is now a member of a rather exclusive club of one-term Presidents, his tenure and his words, tweets, actions, and omissions, have had an outsize effect on both domestic and foreign policy for our nation. Jonathan Kirshner, professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston University, in an article in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, has focused on the foreign relations aspect of this new reality and warns us that “By producing a Trump presidency and calling attention to the underlying domestic dysfunction that allowed a previously inconceivable development to occur, the United States is now looked at far differently than it once was.” And he concludes: “A second Trump administration would have done irretrievable damage to the United States as an actor in world politics. But even with Trump’s defeat, the rest of the world cannot ignore the country’s deep and disfiguring scars. They will not soon heal.” (The March/April edition of Foreign Policy is headlined: “Decline and Fall. Can America Ever Lead Again?”)
Domestically, the scene is not hugely different. Trump may have lost the election, but he has not lost the Republican Party. According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 75% of Republicans would like to see him play a prominent role in the party. This fealty to a person, rather than republican principles and policy, precludes any Congressional ‘reaching across the aisle’, particular for Republican members of Congress who are up for re-election in 2022. Biden now must make the fateful choice between playing by the established rules or pressing his tenuous advantage in Congressional seats to advance his agenda. Time is not in his favor. Given his age, he is almost certain to declare himself yet another one-term President, and−more importantly−he runs the risk of losing control of Congress in 20 months. As we all know, midterm elections are notoriously unfriendly to the ruling administration.
The fateful decision to make is, of course, pertaining to the ‘filibuster rule’ (Senate Rule XXII) that requires 60 of the 100 Senate votes to close debate and bring a law proposal to a vote. That rule stands in the way of any Biden legislative initiative that cannot be passed under the rules for ‘reconciliation’, where only 51 votes are required. With a Republican Party more interested in seeing the Biden administration fail than in addressing the urgent needs of the nation, staying with the filibuster rule means that passing any substantive legislation with respect to voting rights and other democracy reforms, immigration reform, expanding healthcare coverage, climate protection, or gun control will be out of the question.
It would force President Biden to rule, where he can, by executive order, which is politically undesirable, constitutionally questionable, and subject to reversal at the next regime change.
Yet, doing away with Senate Rule XXII is politically risky as well and, as it stands, not achievable, because of principled resistance inside the Democratic Party, particularly from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. However, there may be an ‘in between’ way out of this impasse. It was suggested by Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in an article published September 3, 2020 in The Atlantic. He proposes not to do away with the ‘filibuster rule’, but to amend it so that in stead of 60 votes required to end a filibuster, the rule would require 40 votes to continue it. It would mean that, if at any time the minority cannot muster 40 votes to sustain the filibuster, debate ends, cloture is invoked, and the bill can be passed by the votes of a simple majority. Ornstein leaves open for discussion if the threshold vote in his proposal should be 40 or 45. Will the Democrats give this creative bypass serious consideration? If they do, they should think of its effect in a certain to come situation where they would be in the minority in Congress.
Without significant Congressional action on the Biden legislative agenda and tangible positive effect of these measures on the lives of American voters, another regime change will be in the cards for 2024. Particularly, if Biden will have to deal with a Republican majority in Congress for his last two years in office. He would not be able to get anything done. That is why he cannot avoid making his fateful decision, now. But, as Ornstein has pointed out, it does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ deal.
Whatever you may think of the merits of the Biden agenda, the country is in desperate need of policy making and effective governance. There used to be a time when foreign policy was a bipartisan arena and a change in administration had little effect on the pursuit of primary strategies. This consistency in foreign policy was driven by the presence of a universally identified adversary to American interests, whether it was the Axis in WWII, or communism during the Cold War era, and by the universally shared belief in the need for international institutions and alliances to promote democracy, peace, and development. The fall of the Soviet Union has shattered one of these two pillars of consistency and predictability and Trump, by himself and in only four years, has destroyed the last pillar, that had been holding up the structure of the democratic alliance.
As looked upon from the outside by other nations, friend or foe, America can no longer be relied upon to be consistently strategic and predictable in its foreign policy. As Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it: “If you know that whatever you’re doing will at most last until the next election, you look at everything in a more contingent way.” How can America be a global leader for peace and prosperity if it cannot build internal consensus on its basic foreign policy strategies?
The same absence of consistency hampers good governance at the domestic level. Here too, the Trump interregnum has inflicted serious damage. Think of all the misguided executive orders, aimed at establishing his warped views on the environment, immigration, trade, justice, and the perceived existence of the ‘swamp’ and the ‘deep state’ that now must be reversed. And think of all the civil service professionals at the Justice Department, the State Department, the Intelligence Services, and all matter of other federal departments and agencies, who have either been replaced by political hacks or simply given up and resigned and now must be re-recruited or replaced again. What a waste of time, talent, and competency!
The nation simply cannot afford to see this whipsaw effect of changing administrations perpetuated. It needs the time and stability required to provide lasting solutions for the main challenges it faces. That is why the 2022 midterms are so crucial. The country needs stability. It needs to recover from a traumatic episode in its political history and it needs the tranquility provided by smart, effective, governance. For that reason alone, it is desirable that the Biden administration and the Senate work out an arrangement with respect to Senate Rule XXII that will allow Congress to pass legislation on the highest priority issues facing the nation.