If Joe Biden wins, cleaning up Trump's mess will be a Herculean task. Getting a jump on it is good policy and good politics.
It was reported late last week that Joe Biden is already assembling a transition team and may even name members of his cabinet early, echoing Thom Friedman’s proposal to select an ideologically diverse “Team of Rivals” well in advance of the election.
Should Democrats be worried about the Biden campaign getting ahead of itself in an echo of 2016? (Noted Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg fretted in The Washington Post about the campaign starting “to think like Clinton that this race is certain and I’m now going to focus on governing.”)
Not at all. Revving up the transition effort now is not only politically smart, but absolutely essential for the future.
Let’s deal with the political part first. There are big caveats here: projections about what will be on American voters’ minds in six months have all the reliability of a Miss Clio prediction, or as political scientist Amber Wichowsky told The New York Times’ Tom Edsall, “There is a long time between now and November…it’s also not altogether clear whom voters will blame for this crisis.”
So we can only deal with, as Donald Rumsfeld might call them, the known-knowns. And there are three knowns today which strongly indicate that rolling out the governing team and a solid recovery plan now represents almost all political upside.
First, we know that coalescing Bernie Sanders supporters is mission-critical. Putting prominent progressive leaders – including Sanders himself – into prospective governing roles and adopting selected policy positions from the left’s wish list can help…indeed, it already may be.
We also know that there is a segment of persuadable swing voters to capture – perhaps 6-9 percent of the electorate – and that naming moderate Democratic leaders to a broad governing coalition can help. Swing voters have made clear that a governing approach that emphasizes compromise, moderation, and acceptance of other views is their preference. For example, late 2019 battleground state polling found that swing voters favor finding common ground over a progressive policy agenda by 82 percent to 11 percent, as well as moderate over liberal candidates by 75 percent to 19 percent. We don’t know what the Covid-19 outbreak has done to those inclinations, but there is no indication of any fundamental shift (limited recent polling generally aligns with earlier surveys).
Finally, we don’t know whether the Trump administration’s total ineptitude in January and February, which may have caused up to 90% of the Covid projected deaths in the US, will still be the most salient issue in November, or will be superseded by other Trump failures (or even successes) or by economic concerns. But we do know that the ability to handle infectious disease outbreaks will be a major, if not the major, campaign issue. At the same time, we know that Joe Biden is struggling to make news and capture media attention on the COVID-19 outbreak at the same pace as Donald Trump. Naming cabinet members (and giving them staff early) can help on both fronts by driving media coverage and highlight the contrast between the candidates’ plans, temperament, and basic governing competence. And even if voters’ focus does shift in the Fall, no one should undervalue the impact of acting now to affix Trump’s role in the deadly government meltdown firmly in the minds of the electorate. Just ask Mitt Romney how hard it is to overcome getting defined in spring and summer leading up to the general election.
Setting aside the political benefits, the case for early action is even stronger when it comes to potentially having to govern our way out of this mess.
It is hard to adequately describe the unprecedented, Herculean labor awaiting a new administration – Herculean being the apt metaphor here, because Hercules’ fifth labor was to clean up King Augeas' stables containing the most animal waste in Greece. The federal government is in dire need of the same kind of scouring today, and from the same sort of pollution.
It has been widely documented that Donald Trump’s plan for government over the past 3.5 years has been to stuff people into the agencies with no qualifications other than fanatical loyalty to Trump and single-minded determination to implement a right-wing agenda – with a heavy dose of self-dealing and crony capitalism. The approach to policy-making has been modeled on Trump’s overall approach to politics: by flooding the zone with such a high volume of outrage-inducing activity, agency leaders have overwhelmed the media’s ability to keep up and rope-a-doped Democrats’ ability to focus attention and attempt prevention. The mere task of listing all of the disasters has spawned full-time careers.
Just the latest in a long series of gravely incompetent lowlights was the news that Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar put a staffer in charge of the day-to-day COVID-19 response whose main qualification was six years of running a Labradoodle breeding business, while demoting a high-ranking doctor in charge of vaccine development for resisting Trump’s relentless snake-oil promotion of hydroxychloroquine (which has since been found to have no benefit and higher death rates in COVID-19 patients)
So if Biden prevails, not only will the Trump administration have left a series of smoking craters of sheer incompetence and dangerous neglect across the government – going far beyond the coronavirus response to all elements of Americans’ health, safety, and prosperity – but there is also a real chance that departing personnel will be noncooperative or downright hostile to incoming replacements (it would be totally on-brand for Trump Inc. for some of them to deliberately sabotage the handoff in the mode of the Trump Administration’s spiritual guide – Roger Stone, the godfather of “ratfucking” – in order to make the burden heavier on the Biden team as well as to cover any tracks of ineptitude and criminality).
Not to mention that all of this will likely be occurring during ongoing waves of pandemic that would deeply challenge any transition. And also that in the wake of a norm- and law-busting administration, there will be widespread calls to hold accountable those who engaged in criminal, unconstitutional, or negligent behavior.
Presidential transitions often fall somewhere on a spectrum from awkward to difficult, but if there is one in 2020, it could easily be catastrophic. This predicament cries out for a totally unprecedented level of advanced planning. The Biden team not only needs to continue to rev up a transition and shadow cabinet, they need a full Trump mitigation, cleanup, and accountability plan, with four core parts.
First, by summer, they need sufficient transition staff in place to monitor every major action of every agency and keep tabs on all that the Trump team is doing, especially attempts to jam through last-minute Trump wish-list items or create disarray for the next administration. Much like the approach to the coronavirus pandemic, the first priority must be tracking and situational awareness.
Second, they must start writing recovery plans before Labor Day. The work of ferreting out and undoing all of the damage will probably take at least the first half of a Biden administration. Incoming agency leaders won't know everything that needs to be done, but they can probably account for the majority of it by inauguration day, and can start developing targets for actions in each quarter across the first 8 quarters so that within 2 years there is a chance to at least recover most of the lost ground.
Third, they need to begin discussions with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer on a legislative plan. The temptation when assuming power is to do everything at once. There's a wish list a mile long, allies to placate, interest groups to keep engaged, and campaign promises to fulfill. The problem is that the lead time for major legislation and the structure of the Senate makes it hard to pass things quickly. Indeed, there may only be room for one major landmark bill, even if a new administration hits the ground running. If so, the priority should be to save democracy first by focusing on voting and government reforms, so that Democrats’ repair program isn’t a two-year flash in the pan, and has a chance to be sustained for the multiple years that serious policy reforms need. This legislative package needs to be ready on Day 1.
Finally, the Biden team should get on the same page with congressional Democrats about a strategic approach to holding the Trump cabal accountable. While the temptation will be to shine light on all of the misdeeds – both known and unknown – of the Trump administration, the pitfall would be that if the Democrats get wrapped up in literally re-litigating the Trump years, it could easily consume all of their energy, deepen the partisan polarization cycle and ultimately increase the chances of a Republican pendulum swing in the 2022 midterms.
They should instead take the same focused approach that prosecutors use in going after the mafia. Don’t brush the last four years under the rug by any means, but aim their firepower selectively at a handful of the most egregious felons and norm-breakers at the top. Democrats could also consider creating a House Select Committee inspired by the model of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after Apartheid: creating a platform for Trump administration personnel to speak truthfully about what has happened inside Trump’s government, and for advocates to establish a firm record of the damage caused, and then move forward. Instead of deepening the divide, they can try to coax Republicans – and America – out of Trump’s shadow. And most importantly, they can conserve some of their focus and attention for the detailed repair work that will be so sorely needed across government.
Is it hard to do all of this simultaneously over the next six months…to walk and chew gum by trying to defeat Trump during a pandemic while building a plan to recover from the most corrupt, kleptocratic administration in history? Yes. It is more like walking, chewing dynamite, and juggling chainsaws.
But this is the hand Democrats have been dealt. They need to get it done. As the fictionalized Ben Bradlee said at the conclusion of All the President’s Men, “You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know… Nothing's riding on this except…maybe the future of the country.”