After five years of political, economic and social upheaval in America, this month has seen some hints of a return to normalcy. The question is whether the two political parties (and their rabid ideological bases) are willing to settle for the benefits of “normal” politics instead of going for the “transformative” variety — which is tempting but almost always destructive.
Consider the events of November so far: Republicans won a gubernatorial race in Virginia by running an issues-based appeal to voters, particularly on education. Democrats passed legislation filled with hundreds of billions of dollars to build and repair physical infrastructure in all 50 states.
Are the parties reverting to form? It’s not quite that simple. But they’re getting there.
In Virginia, for example, Democrats say that Republicans won by appealing to racism, which is how they view the education issue, especially the attack on “critical race theory.” But education was a flashpoint in Virginia long before CRT was on the political radar. The “normal” that Virginia voters wanted to return to was one in which schools are open on a regular basis. That frustration boiled over into other subjects, such as curriculum (which was much more accessible to parents due to remote learning).
It’s not unusual for a governor’s race to turn on the issue of education, after all — or on property taxes, which was the issue in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy nearly lost reelection because of it. When he doubled down on a prior statement that New Jersey is “probably not your state” if all you care about is taxes, it nearly proved fatal. But, again, this was a perfectly normal partisan fight, even if the potency of the issue caught Democrats by surprise.
In Washington, meanwhile, House Democrats passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill already approved by the Senate. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it this week. Once upon a time, this process would barely warrant a mention. But in this partisan era, bipartisanship is a dirty word.
One of the challenges of any “return to normalcy,” of course, is a question: Which normal?
Part of former President Donald Trump’s appeal in 2016 was a rejection of the “normal” politics of the previous few decades, which largely failed working-class America. With his anti-establishment, “I alone can fix it” rhetoric, he promised to make Washington functional.
To say that he failed to deliver would be a huge understatement. To take just one example: His repeated declarations of “infrastructure week” became a running joke that Biden himself poked at. What fewer people remember is that, in April 2019, Trump struck a deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure. Weeks later, Trump reneged because congressional committees were investigating him.
Fast forward to this month, when Trump criticized Republicans for voting for an infrastructure bill costing less than half the one he supported just two years ago. Trump acolytes such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called the Republicans who supported the bill traitors.
This is the dilemma for Biden: Americans desperately want to return to pre-pandemic normal, but not necessarily Trump-era normal, or even pre-Trump-era normal. Biden was elected to return to the “good” parts of normal (schools staying open, for example) without the bad parts (petulant presidential meltdowns).
The test for Democrats is whether they can resist the temptation to transform American society and government through social welfare programs. For Republicans, it’s whether they can resist the siren song of Trumpism. The main challenge for both parties, and the key to any return to normal for the country, is simply to show competence at the basics of governing.
(Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.)
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