How America Can Escape Its Political Mess

Patience – and a moderate Republican candidate – are the keys

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The end of Joe Biden’s difficult first year in office evoked all kinds of comparisons. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recalled successful presidential partnerships with strong chiefs of staff – Ronald Reagan and Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush and James Baker.  Stephens asked, “What’s Tom Daschle up to these days?”  Nate Cohn, also in the Times, compared Biden’s legislative strategy to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, to Biden’s disadvantage.  I asked a friend who has known Biden for forty years.

I don’t think you can pin the things that Bret Stephens doesn’t like about the Biden presidency on the staff…. Is Biden missing someone who could talk him out of bad calls? Could a Tom Daschle serve as a keel for Biden the way Leon Panetta did for Bill Clinton? … Doubtful.  Think back on how Biden ran his campaign in 1987 and in 2020: lots of cooks in the kitchen. The only one he really trusted was his sister. He delegated authority to nobody. His campaigns were organizational [smash-ups]. Some people never change. At least his heart is in the right place.

Myself, I thought of the two-year presidency of Gerald Ford. The common denominator is that both Ford and Biden had to deal with long national nightmares.

As president, Ford had it easy.  After 25 years as a Michigan congressman from Grand Rapids, Republican minority leader for the last nine of them, he was the first political figure to be appointed vice president, under the terms of the 25th Amendment. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973, having plead guilty to a felony charge of tax evasion. Ford succeeded him in December. When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August, 1974, after an especially damaging White House tape recording was released, Ford was sworn in.

In his inaugural address, Ford stated “[O]ur long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.”  A month later he pardoned Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as president.  Nixon’s acceptance was widely viewed as tantamount to an admission of guilt. , and the former president withdrew from public life pretty much altogether. Ford’s two years in office were a stream of politics as usual. Disapproval of the pardon weighed against him; so did the fall of Saigon, in April 1975. He ran for the presidency in 1976, but was defeated by Jimmy Carter, governor of Georgia.

As president, Biden faces almost the opposite situation.  First, Trump lost the 2020 election, which he then falsely claimed he had won, Next, he apparently sought to interfere with the vote of the Electoral College, for which he is now under investigation.  He continues to interfere in Republican primaries, and has threatened to mount a second presidential campaign. Meanwhile, Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda has bogged down and his popularity has dwindled in public opinion polls.

What chain of events will allow some future president to pronounce a benediction on the Trump nightmare? My hunch is that a relatively moderate Republican with no previous ties to Trump can be elected, possibly in 2024; if not, in 2028.  That is easier said than done. The problem is getting by the Republican convention.  It all depends in large measure on the results of the mid-term elections; on the Republican primaries in 2024; and on Biden’s standing at the end of his term, when he will be 82 years old. .

Republican contenders are already edging away from Trump, Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Virginia; Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.  It is not necessary to disavow Trump’s political platform, if anyone besides Joe  Biden remembers what it was – less supply-chain globalization; more domestic infrastructure investment; immigration reform (whatever that is!); recalibration of foreign relations, China and Russia in particular.  All these positions are capable of commanding support among independent voters

It is Trump himself whose character must be thoroughly rejected. That will happen by degrees.   There will be no pardon this time. The next president, whoever it is, will continue to leave matters up to the courts. And, sooner or later, the lingering nightmare will end.