Probable president-elect Joe Biden has a golden opportunity to help his task, his party and himself over the next 10 weeks. Indeed it might assist, even before taking power on January 20, to reduce the handicap of a bad campaign which cost him a Senate majority and any specific sort of mandate against Trumpism. He hardly has an agenda, other than a return to traditional government. Even his authority among the Democrats is diminished. They are relieved at his victory, but disgruntled that he could not win the Senate, or state legislatures, and that he made such a meal of getting there.
He should muse aloud that after long thought he has come to see the potency of Donald Trump's promise to drain the swamp. Americans generally, not just Trump followers, fear their federal government has become corrupted by big money, big interests, powerful lobbies with almost unlimited resources, and all too cosy relationships with people in all arms of government. He could even admit that he, as a long-term Washington player, was a part of the problem.
He could add, in a completely non-rancorous way, of course, that Donald Trump's pretence of being an outsider had actually aggravated the problem, and brought into the swamp entirely new species of pondlife. Donald Trump personally, and his abominable family, had enriched themselves by diving into the public trough, ignoring rules of conflict of interest, and often using public servants, public resources and executive power not in the public interest but in their own personal and narrow political interest.
Biden should stress, in his calming and unifying voice, that his new "drain the swamp" initiative would not be so that Democrats could feel more virtuous than Republicans. Instead, he wants to announce a common project, to deal with the perception that government is a big mess, that it has become corrupted by money, abuse of access to power, and remoteness from the ordinary lives of most of its citizens. Not a project to centralise more power, but one designed to restore confidence and to inspire public service.
His pledge: to reform government, starting with the executive branch. To make it more honest and diligent in making American lives more safe and secure. Faster and more effective in returning the economy to prosperity and full employment. Open to new ideas. Open, too, to science. Willing to re-engage with America's allies and friends so that America is again a nation commanding respect and co-operation around the world. With new federal and social partnerships in charge of leading America, and the world, out of the scourge of the pandemic, and into social, physical and economic recovery.
At the heart of this plan would be a project to restore trust, transparency and accountability to government, and an increase in the freedom, independence, dignity and wellbeing of all Americans. With new confidence in the nation and what its citizens collectively could achieve.
His main pitch would be at the disaffected poor, particularly under-educated white men who have come to regard government and "Washington" with deep suspicion, and who have been told that the secret agenda of a Biden government is to disarm the population and to introduce socialism - understood as a branch of authoritarian control over every aspect of a citizen's life (including the right to die for want of a face mask or seat belt, or for want of access to any form of public healthcare).
These are people increasingly alienated from the Democrats - two generations ago their party of choice. People who feel despised by the urban educated folk who control the party - one of whom, famously, described them four years ago as "deplorables". Donald Trump won their allegiance by expressing their resentment at insiders, despite his open contempt for their values, their patriotism and their poverty. Many could be made to feel even more miserable by being reassured by the Republican Party that the Democrats were now in the hands of special interests and self-styled victims of discrimination or oppression.
Joe Biden himself might perfectly exemplify one of the creatures of the Washington swamp. If he has had some capacity to articulate some vision or aspiration - something Trump never could - he has long been a player. In the days before hyper-partisanship, he specialised in dealing with people on all sides, in search of consensus behind legislation, policy and programs. Consensus politics is transaction and concession politics. Politicians are bought by side-deals. Tough-sounding legislation is weakened by loopholes. A process producing noble-sounding legislation without unifying principle, noble sentiments diluted to homeopathic strength by compromises, and increased public cynicism about the way the whole system works.
Joe Biden did not get the Democratic nomination because he was a person of policy ideas. Nor by being an orator who could mobilise and inspire. He sold himself as the person who could beat Trump. Half the electorate believe in Trump and wanted to go his way in spite of their awareness of his imperfections. Biden's big selling point was that he was of the other half, and not Trump. A generally harmless patrician with an eye for the lowest common denominator, and a traditionalist, not a radical, whose very style of governing would stop the tumult, the constant protests, and public resentment of the status quo.
I suspect we would all like to see Donald Trump, and some of his officials, banged up for a long time for some of their most egregious abuses of power.
Some leftish Democrats thought that anyone could beat Trump as long as they were breathing. But if it was worth the effort of wanting to hold government, one ought to stand for something. Those who coalesced around Biden - like those who have coalesced around successive federal ALP leaders in recent times - were terrified that issue politics might make them political targets, attract enemies more than friends and make them seem a gamble rather than a safer alternative. Never frighten the horses, is the motto.
Before Biden got the Democratic nomination, and before other candidates of substance such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren loyally swung behind him, The Nation - a 155-year-old lefty (now) Democrat magazine - expressed its enthusiasm about Biden frankly:
"Biden offers the promise of picking up where the Obama administration left off: a restoration of business as usual for the K Street lobbyists and Wall Street speculators whose prosperity the 2008 financial crisis did little to disturb. Indeed, the man posing as 'Middle-class Joe' has built his career and his family's wealth on an eagerness to serve not the many Americans crushed by credit card debt but the very banks whose hands are around their throats.
"Biden's long record of poor judgment - on everything from the 1994 crime bill that fuelled mass incarceration to his botched handling of Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas to his defence of Bill Clinton's brutal welfare cuts, to his support for the Iraqi war, to his role as cheerleader for Wall Street deregulation - renders him an even weaker opponent for a President whose re-election poses a clear and present danger to America's survival as a constitutional republic."
Let's hope Biden grows into the new job.
American-style executive power is enormous, as Trump demonstrated, even when it is checked by a hostile chamber of congress and a deeply partisan Supreme Court. The president makes patronage appointment of thousands of political officials at the executive levels of government agencies. He has monarchical power of control over the policies and programs they carry out. As Trump proved, the presidency includes the power of non-appointment, by which important duties imposed by Congress can be allowed to wither and die for want of anyone to do it.
Restoring normal government, and a government of norms
As a good-old-boy and member of the club, Biden is less combative than Trump and may well succeed in making appropriation deals with the Republican side of the Senate, one which in recent years has operated on a policy of total resistance to the Democrats.
The permanent civil service - and the military - is deeply battered by Trump's abuse of power. His lies, his lack of respect for science and process, his inconsistency and disregard for the rule of law, and his regular and arbitrary sackings, nepotism, and the maladministration of the coronavirus pandemic have made government a shambles.
Yet, for nearly half of the electorate, Trump's faults mattered less than the perceived risk of a restoration of Democratic "traditional government", or its supposed determination to disarm the population. Indeed, Biden was unable to persuade Trump's core constituencies that they were acting against their economic interest, as well as embracing a serious risk to their health.
Biden will not woo them back with hyperactive government, especially on pet Democrat themes. But nor will he and his party hold power merely by acting as cows in a paddock, chewing a cud while watching the cars go by. Setting out to restore trust in government, and respect of its institutions, might be risky, but probably not dangerous, even (or especially) if a few of his own old cronies find themselves on the outer, perhaps in jail.
Bringing the Trumps, and Trumpism, to a fair accounting
Donald Trump has often spoken the language of retribution - and intention to use the processes of government to lock up his political enemies. He could hardly be surprised that his own administration's malfeasances will come under close scrutiny once his power to frustrate them lapses. His very impeachment (unlike those of his impeached predecessors, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson) was for abuse of power. The charges had some substance, even if his indictment (and acquittal) were partisan affairs. Trump has interfered in the justice system, including the military justice system, and sacked officials who stood up for the law against arbitrary government. His disrespect for institutions and norms of government, for processes laid down by law, and his disregard for conventions about nepotism, conflict of interest, transparency and stewardship in the public interest make him a rich target for his enemies.
Even some Republicans hope to shake loose Trump's hold over the party. They don't think "we wuz robbed". They do not want him to carry the party's standard again. Even less do they want a Trump dynasty. Trump did not invent, even if he perfected, all of the ingredients of Trumpism; many of the modern bastardries of hyper-partisan legislative leaders were rehearsed during the party's earlier flirts with racism, the Tea Party, isolationism, and economic and cultural nationalism - including the breach with neoliberal free-market ideas.
Not all Republicans become activists in the cause of social conservatism. Power for them is not about an anti-abortion agenda, fighting culture wars, repudiating immigration and foreigners, or inventing law and order campaigns. They want practical power to affect outcomes. The exercise of power is harder, not easier, when the focus is on insubstantial message-politics rather than management of the economy, defence, health, education and welfare.
But if there is to be any real accounting for the Trump aberration in politics, it will never have real credibility if nemesis is in the hands of pure partisans, obviously more out for revenge than justice. So tribal has become American politics - and so wide the chasm between people on either side - that there are few neutrals trusted by all.
While the US has, in many respects, a better parliamentary committee system than Australia does - and with the staff and the numbers of politicians able to serve on them - they are not ultimately fair instruments of detached review. They are invariably partisan, and their findings are accordingly much discounted.
Legislative committees can serve useful purposes of bringing issues and facts to public attention, sometimes through unwilling witnesses. But politicians are not trusted as fact-finders, or as judges and juries. Even when Americans create something analogous to a standing or special royal commission, the tendency is to staff it with people identified by their party connections. Increasingly even senior judicial figures cannot win regard for proper detachment from the political interests of those who appointed them. This is an own-goal for those who choose judges not for their learning and general dispositions, but for their known prejudices.
Tribalism has affected the appointment of special prosecutors. Think Kenneth Starr. In the US, the secretive processes, a bit like a grand jury, are not well adapted to fact-finding or the allocation of blame. Too big a focus on prosecution, moreover, is often at the expense of hiding, for too long, evidence of systemic wrongdoing, and the need to attack it not with a few convictions but by general action by the executive and the legislature.
Australia pioneered the statutory authority - an independent body charged with long-term plans such as railway building or energy generation. It is focused on the overall task, not short-term politics. The stimulus was railway-building, initially here (as in the US and Britain) inept, corrupt, wasteful and plagued by nepotism, crooked tendering and other improprieties. In due course, similar sorts of bodies electrified Australian cities and towns, developed water and sewer schemes, gas pipelines, and, if with less success, established a national broadband network. Standing anti-corruption bodies descend from this idea.
America has failed to go far with the idea, in part, I suspect, because it is a foreign one. There are some independent statutory officials, including an equivalent of an audit office, and bodies such as the FBI. Before Trump, it was unusual to have it suggested that an FBI director worked at the whim of the president; indeed, under J. Edgar Hoover, it sometimes seemed that the president served at the whim of a blackmailer with his own political constituency. Likewise, there are Americans with long histories of public service, at both the administrative and executive level, who are sufficiently detached from politics that their work can command general respect.
Yet America may be the worse off for lacking a ready equivalent of a body such as a royal commission or an ICAC. A real ICAC, that is, of the NSW model, rather than the Mickey Mouse version proposed by the Morrison government. The Washington gap is not intrinsic to the republican, rather than the Westminster, system. Nor does it come from different concepts of the separation of powers.
The starting point would be a chief executive willing to stand apart from bodies with inquisitorial powers and a duty to bring abuse of power to account. And with some focus on de-emphasising the tribal.
I suspect we would all like to see Donald Trump, and some of his officials, banged up for a long time for some of their most egregious abuses of power.
But it would probably pass the American pub test only if the exposure, the disgrace and the trial was enough to shock the average ex-Trump voter from North Carolina or Tennessee, perhaps by way of edited highlights on the Oprah Winfrey show. Best of all with Joe Biden not delivering a daily commentary - least of all by Twitter.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org