I would describe myself as a conservative. I also think the Trump administration has been, on several levels, a very successful conservative administration. Its central achievements, as I see it, are as follows:
• On the economic front, the combination of income tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, and de-regulation had - prior to the present crisis - contributed to a booming economy (albeit at the cost of ballooning deficits).
• In foreign policy, ISIS are much diminished, terrorism is less frequent and less severe, an agreement has been brokered between Israel and the UAE promising a sea change in the Middle East in the direction of peace.
• Two sound originalists were successfully appointed to the Supreme Court; meaning 'conservative' justices now outnumber 'liberal' super-legislators on the bench. A third, Amy Coney Barrett, will likely be appointed before the election in November.
Regardless of your political persuasion, historically speaking that’s an above average record for a first term. That said, I don't want a second term.
Although I would like four more years of the Trump administration (as it has been), I don’t want four more years of Donald Trump (as he is). Alas, the two are inseparable. As the latter threatens to undermine the former, the best-case scenario in November – and, boy, are the Americans scraping the bottom of the barrel here - is a Biden victory.
On one condition: the Republicans must at all costs hold the Senate and, if possible, increase their majority.
In my opinion, the optimal outcome that all conservatives should hope for is this:
• Joe Biden as president;
• The Republicans, ably led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, as the majority party in the Senate;
• The Democrats, dis-ably led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, as the majority party in the House of Representatives.
Allow me to explain. First, why a second Trump term won’t work. Second, why the above would be a better alternative.
The simple fact of the Trump administration is this: where it has succeeded, it has done so despite Trump. The clearest illustration of this was the failed bid to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. If it was unlikely that Sen. John McCain and his dissenting colleagues would ever have voted in favour of the legislation on offer, the president made sure of it by sounding off when subtlety might have prevailed.
The only legislation that has passed Congress under Trump, even before the mid-terms, was legislation that would have passed under any Republican president. Where things were slightly tricky, as in healthcare, Trump was an obstacle. Where things were absolutely fraught, as in welfare and the deficit, reform is impossible under Trump. The American system requires consensus for significant and transformative legislation to pass, Trump is not and cannot ever be a consensus president. Trump is toxic.
Where this toxicity is perhaps even more problematic, is on the international stage. Trump is wildly unpopular in just about every liberal democratic country on the planet.[i] This is dangerous at a time when China and Russia are increasingly emboldened and belligerent. It might be argued that Trump has stood up to these countries more than his predecessors, but the fact remains that a united front is required to contain these ascendent powers. It is inconceiveable that Trump could lead such an effort.
The media (domestic and global) has undeniably exacerbated Trump’s toxicity, but Trump has done nothing himself to contradict this impression. America is awash with “fake news”, yes. But an intelligent and effective president doesn’t just say this, they show it. Hyper-partisanship has made Trump lazy in this regard. With discipline it would have been possible to exceed expectations and impress independents (see, for example, the high approval ratings Trump’s teleprompter-read State of the Union addresses have generally received[ii]). Instead, Trump has governed as a loose cannon and thereby only succeeded in meeting the expectations of partisans on all sides while bemusing those caught in the crossfire in the centre.
The bottom line is that Trump is incompetent as president, and the competence of his administration can only go so far to compensate for that. On account of his many inherent flaws, there is a ceiling to what he can achieve as president, and this he has occasionally reached. The issue is that there isn’t a floor beneath which he cannot sink.
Given the unlikelihood of Trump as president ever having a more favourable congressional composition than he had in his first two years as president, a second term would look much like the last two years in which legislative achievements have been scant. Moreover, as he would preside over a virus-ridden economy, the reputation of his conservative economic policies, already tarnished by association but not in practice, might be further damaged by a post-pandemic recession/depression.
Given his international image, the likelihood is that Trump would do more harm (by aggravation and alienation) than good in foreign affairs in a second term - his abandonment of the Kurds demonstrates his unreliability in this area.
There is a conservative case to be made for Trump with regard to Supreme Court appointments. Were Amy Coney Barrett to be confirmed to the court before the election, however, this would leave the court comfortably 6-3 ‘conservative’. It ought to be possible for other conservative justices to outlast a one-term Biden presidency; that justices Alito and Thomas did not retire under Trump surely indicates confidence in their own longevity. In the unlikely event that Barrett is not confirmed, Biden would likely not be able to appoint a radical justice without a senate majority. Even with majorities in both chambers of the legislatures and the presidency, it would be difficult for the Democrats to ‘pack’ the supreme court; if FDR couldn’t do it, I don’t expect Biden could either.
The conservative case for a Biden victory in 2020 may be summarised as this: if you have to lose at some point, lose when it is least costly to do so.
The choice, as I see it, is this:
• 4 years of stalemate under Trump in unfavourable conditions, with the high probability of 4/8 years of effective Democrat government in its aftermath;
• 4 years of stalemate under Biden in unfavourable conditions, with the high probability of 4/8 years of effective Republican government in its aftermath.
This is especially true if the Republicans hold the senate. A Republican senate means the following:
• In a bicameral legislature, no radical Democrat legislation – such as the ‘Green New Deal’ – can pass Congress;
• With nominations requiring confirmation, no radical Democrat Supreme Court appointments;
• With treaties requiring ratification, no harmful treaties could be completed (although this is unlikely in any case given the super-majority required).
Yes, Biden could do a great deal by executive order, but none of this would be permanent and all of it could be easily repealed by a subsequent Republican president. This is why Barack Obama doesn’t have much in the way of a substantive legacy. If you live by pen and phone, you die by pen and phone.[iii]
It may be too much to hope for, but with Biden as president there might be a four-year cease fire in the rhetorical civil war which has been raging in America with extreme intensity of late. America needs to take a breather, Biden offers (and is) the empty space which might give breathing room. Who knows, the combination of necessity and divided government might even induce bi-partisan co-operation?
While it is good politics for the Republican Party to cast Biden as a puppet of the radical left, I don’t accept the reality of the threat implied. What gives this characterisation of Biden force is the assumption that he and his handlers would succeed in moving the country far to the left. But the truth is that a puppet does not make for an effective president. Without a single point of leadership, his administration would likely be directionless; bogged down in internecine conflict concerning who the ventriloquist ought to be and what they ought to say. Unable to resolve this amongst themselves, I expect his administration to put on a poor show. If Democrats lack the requisite congressional majorities to convert farce into law, this performance would yield little in the way of irreparable damage.
Which is not to say that there would be no damage, but this may be what is necessary to validate conservative critiques. Joe Biden as puppet-president would talk transgender toilets while California burned, the post-industrial mid-west rusted, and the Middle East re-erupted. In some short-term defeats lie the seeds of long-term victories: you don’t get president Ronald Reagan without presidents LBJ and Jimmy Carter.
Rather than four more years of failing and flailing in power, conservatives should consider a strategic retreat followed, hopefully, by a strong counterpunch in 2024. When the bird in the hand is a lame duck, it’s better to go after the two in the bush.
(P.S. – if ‘The Lincoln Project’ were thought-through conservatives, this is the outcome they would be advocating. Ergo, they are not thought-through conservatives.)
 I don’t much care which way the House goes, so long as the Senate remains Republican. I figure a Democrat house could either a) optimistically – re-kindle the spirit of bipartisanship out of sheer necessity and prevent outright conflict between executive and legislative branches which could be deleterious to the constitution; or b) pessimistically – expose Democrat policy positions for national scrutiny (which I don’t believe they could withstand).
By Luke Pike