Much digital ink has been spilled on the increasing political divide in the United States. Yet on this election day in 2020, it struck me that there is a difference I haven’t seen discussed, and that may be relevant for explaining different kinds of political enthusiasm and for thinking about the next few years. I, like so many others, would love to see the political temperature of the nation lowered. However, it is hard to see how this is likely to happen so long as the citizenry fails to obey the Psalmist’s injunction to “put not your trust in princes“.
It seems to me that the typical Democratic partisan has no personal memory of a “bad” Democratic president. The last two Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Democrats largely regard both as generally successful chief executives. (Obviously Republicans disagree.) You have to all the way back to the 1970s to find a “bad” Democrat—Jimmy Carter. Though Mr. Carter is still alive, few enthusiastic Democratic voters will remember his administration. I suspect they’d have to be at least in their 50s to have any meaningful political memory of that era.
In contrast, the typical Republican voter can think of at least one that they would regard as bad. Trumpists likely regard George W. Bush as a bad president (at least in some key respects), and every time John Roberts fails to give them what they want, their opinion of Bush diminishes a little more. Hurricane Katrina was the end of a number of seemingly significant policy failures, whose archetype was the Iraq War. Never-Trump Republicans think Trump himself is a bad president. Reasons for this belief are too many to enumerate here. Even those Republicans who don’t think either Bush or Trump are all that bad may be able to remember George H. W. Bush’s four years, with their mix of global upheaval and failed promises. (“Read my lips”—look it up.) Ross Perot, the O.G. Trumpist, got such traction because Bush Sr. was disliked by Republicans.
Now, when I say “bad” president, I don’t mean morally bad. I don’t want to register an opinion on that aspect. (That’s not to say that I lack an opinion on it…) I just mean that they were not particularly good at the job. Whether through administrative or political errors, often combined with bad luck, they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do.
(Note too that this is about how their administrations are perceived by their supporters. Republicans could give a long list of policy failures they would attribute to recent Democratic administrations, and vice versa. Nor do I intend to say that these administrations actually are inept about everything. Sometimes they can accomplish good things that never really make it to the general political consciousness. This applies to Trump too.)
Given this history, it seems comparatively easy to understand how Trump voters favor him as a kind of totem—a way to “own the libs” or “drain the swamp”—rather than as a skillful chief executive. Republicans are familiar with having bad chief executives, so it’s easier to ignore all of Trump’s failings on that score. They expect relatively little of him on the policy front, and instead relish how he makes the political class act insane.
Democrats think their presidents have been pretty good chief executives. Though there are some that wish Clinton and Obama could have pushed an even more left-wing agenda, Democrats seem to regard those administrations fondly. (After all, the latest two Democratic presidential nominees were very much part of both administrations.) The country was generally pretty prosperous and relatively peaceful. Major policy changes got put in place. And so on. These successes feed an existing technocratic impulse that shades to the left.
I fear that Mr. Biden has all the markings of someone who might not be a good executive. He has little experience in that kind of role, and in his few opportunities it seems that his achievements have been slight at best. Technocrats would seem to tend toward good government, though sometimes they are better at policy than at politics. Perhaps a Biden administration would find good subordinates to handle the essential executive tasks. (Merely filling key administrative posts would be welcome.)
I do not think ineptitude in the White House is a good thing, regardless of which party its occupant represents. Right now we need an administration that can get some things done. An effective White House would be a nice change, and in the moment, a critical necessity. (See Kevin Williamson on the crisis of political competence in the 21st century.) I strongly suspect that basic executive competence from our national government would do much to reduce the political rancor in our society.
But for the sake of lowering the political temperature, I wonder if it would be salutary to have a relatively inept Biden administration. (And, to be clear, as I write this, I have no idea whether a Biden administration is going to occur.) It might be useful for Democrats to be reminded that just having a D after one’s name on the TV screen doesn’t make you a good politician or a good administrator. It is good for us to be disappointed by our political leaders every so often. A great many Biden supporters seem to think that his election would bring profound change to the country. I doubt that this is actually so. I’d be very glad if a change in administration would restore some executive competence, and I can’t really hope for something else. But I do wonder.