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Op-Ed: Would a Republican Senate and a Biden presidency mean checks and balances? Or gridlock?

A voter takes an"I voted" sticker after casting her ballot.
Large numbers of people are voting, and that’s one thing Americans on both sides of the political divide can applaud.
(Chris Pietsch / Associated Press)

In this time of high political drama, Republican political strategist Scott Jennings and L.A. Times columnist Robin Abcarian are having a weekly discussion of how things are unfolding.

JENNINGS: You know what I’ve been marveling at this week, Robin? Voter turnout. Who knew that all we needed to fix American democracy was … Donald Trump! Now everyone wants to vote. God bless everyone who has proved the voter suppression narrative to be completely farcical. If you want to vote, you can, and people are doing so in droves. It looks like Trump is going to lose, but I don’t really know, and frankly I think it would better serve American democracy if people like us spent more time talking about the policy consequences of elections rather than wasting our brainpower on predictions. Here’s what I think: The best thing that could happen to Joe Biden, if he wins, is for Republicans to maintain control of the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell can save Biden from the left fringe of the Democratic Party, and perhaps the country can be governed in a reasonable way instead of with massive changes like abolishing the legislative filibuster, packing the court and adding states and senators. I think what the country needs is acceptance, no matter who wins the election. What do you think, Robin, can the Democrats bring themselves to accepting another Trump term should he pull a rabbit out of a hat? Republicans won’t like it if Biden wins, but you won’t see marches and riots out of the GOP.

ABCARIAN: Oh, dear, Scott. There is so much to unpack in what you’ve just said! I do think one of the ironies of a deeply disliked president like Trump is that he motivates the other side, which is a good thing. I am not sure, however, that I can make the leap from “people are voting in droves” to the idea that voter suppression is a farcical narrative. The long lines don’t prove that voter suppression is fictional. Moving on, though, the notion that a Republican Senate is “the best thing that could happen to Joe Biden” strikes me as absurd. A Democratic Senate working with a Democratic House could produce climate change legislation, a long overdue infrastructure bill, immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for Dreamers, a shoring up of the Affordable Care Act and a real check on our ideologically askew Supreme Court. Just the threat of court packing may be enough to keep the court’s worst arch-conservative impulses in check. As for the election results, Scott, Trump has said the only way he can lose is if Democrats commit fraud. He has refused to say whether he will engage in a peaceful transfer of power. He seems to be egging on his supporters to not accept the election results if he doesn’t like them. I don’t think it’s Democrats we have to worry about. And let’s say Biden does win, Scott, what do you foresee for the Republican Party?

JENNINGS: Let’s stay for just a minute on unrest in the wake of the election. We’ve already seen protesters engaging in widespread destruction this year, and they sure didn’t appear to be Trump supporters. Why wouldn’t you expect more of that kind of violence if Trump wins? As for what comes next, there has been some demographic political realignment due to Trump, and the challenge for the next set of Republican leaders will be to retain the blue-collar workers that came the party’s way while reminding suburban center-right voters and women that it is possible to be both conservative and civil. This is easily accomplished, but I don’t know who will take the reins. I suspect we are in for a robust primary in 2024 featuring numerous approaches. Mike Pence, Tucker Carlson, Nikki Haley, Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton and so many others are likely to raise their hands. Under Trump, the party has been less focused on its policy agenda and more on trying to counter the worst impulses of the left — things like political correctness, cancel culture and rioting. Republicans shouldn’t abandon their role as counterweight, but they also need to focus on policy. What comes next for the GOP will depend on whether Biden can prevent a massive lurch to the left by Democrats. If history is any judge, that’s not what voters want, as Obama found when Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010. My question for you is this: A lot of what seems to be motivating Democratic voters is pure hatred of Trump. Once he’s gone, what happens to that energy, and will the party give way to the younger generation of far more left-leaning leaders?

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ABCARIAN: I think the even bigger question is, can we get past the reflexive partisanship that is dividing the country? That’s hard for the two of us in these discussions, and it’s hard for the country, too. I know Republicans will employ the scare tactic of labeling the Democratic agenda as “radical left.” But seriously, what is radical about universal health insurance, stemming global climate change by reducing carbon emissions and fairly taxing the richest Americans? Is the right to abortion radical? Are commonsense gun restrictions radical? Both are supported by a majority of the citizens. It’s interesting that the potential Trump successors you name are all on the far right side of the political spectrum. I give credit to Democrats for selecting a moderate this year. Despite the tug of the left, Democrats have inched toward the center. Wouldn’t a Biden win signal to the GOP that it might do better to move toward the center, too?

JENNINGS: I am not naive enough to think Democrats would blindly accept fully conservative solutions to any of the issues you raise, but I feel often that liberals can’t fathom compromising with Republicans at all. Cases in point: Chuck Schumer filibustered both the police reform and COVID relief packages on the Senate floor. Why? Because Democrats don’t want to compromise on those issues. And frankly, yes, some of the things you raise are radical to me, simply because of how offensive they are to my personal values or to the people who would be affected by them. You might not care if a Pennsylvania energy worker is laid off, but I am sure that person’s spouse and kids do. I want everyone to have access to quality, affordable healthcare, but I suspect we have vastly different ideas about how to get there. I generally think higher taxes are wrong, and the old trope of raising taxes only on the rich depends greatly on what one considers “rich.” Donald Trump was one of the most moderate Republicans who ran for president in 2016. He has governed in many areas as a conservative, and I am thankful that he has. But I don’t think he’s a policy conservative; he calibrates his politics around enemies instead of solutions to problems.

ABCARIAN: Well, Scott, you raise a fascinating point about compromise. I agree with you that Schumer shut down debate on police reform and the Republican-backed COVID relief package because he was hoping for better deals. For the millions of Americans out of work because our president botched the response to the pandemic, it’s incredibly frustrating. On the other hand, it’s pretty rich to hear a Republican call for compromise when we have just watched the spectacle of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. While you may consider support for abortion rights and stricter gun laws radical, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. According to Pew, 61% of Americans think abortion should remain legal. According to Gallup, 64% of Americans support stricter laws for gun sales. As for Trump’s governing philosophy, I don’t think he has one, other than what he thinks will appeal to his base and get him reelected. I’m a big believer in the pendulum theory of the electorate. We swing one way, then the other, always seeking some kind of equilibrium. Trump has disturbed the force, polarizing the country and allowing a terrible pandemic to rage out of control. My greatest hope is that we wake up from this nightmare next week and get back to something resembling normal in America. If Biden wins, maybe we can start talking about how to bring the country back together, and how find a sense of common purpose again. Infrastructure bill, anyone?


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