Strengthen the Guardrails of Democracy
Now that the election is over, everyone in the Biden coalition is jockeying for a position and trying to get their people in place and their issues on the agenda. The Congressional Black Caucus pushed for a black secretary of defense. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus got its wish for Hispanic heads of homeland security and health and human services. Bernie Sanders wants to be secretary of labor.
It’s now clear that every part of the Biden coalition was absolutely necessary to his victory, especially in swing states. And that includes Never Trumpers. In Wisconsin, to take just one example, Never Trump voters egged on by groups like Republican Voters Against Trump and the Lincoln Project split the ticket and 64,000 voted for Biden, a number three times larger than Biden’s margin of victory. Nor are Never Trumpers people who jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute. Many were supporting Joe Biden even before he decided to run and that support never wavered.
While Never Trumpers have as legitimate a claim on the spoils of victory as anyone else, what do they want? You might be surprised.
On June 11, 2019, Joe Biden gave a speech in Iowa where he said:
Everywhere you turn, Trump is tearing down the guardrails of democracy. . . . What he’s doing isn’t your typical battle between two co-equal branches of government. He is deliberately and completely ignoring the legitimate authority of the Congress . . . In 2020, we not only have to repudiate Donald Trump’s policies and values—we have to clearly and firmly reject his view of the presidency. . . . We’re at a moment when we need to re-set constitutional norms in this country. The presidency is not without limits. The Congress is a co-equal branch of government.
Never Trumpers don’t necessarily want “our” people in positions of power. We don’t want special favors from a grateful administration. Never Trumpers want Joe Biden to do something he has already promised to do: rebuild and strengthen the guardrails of democracy.
The Guardrails of Democracy project has identified dozens of these kinds of reforms that need to be implemented: fixing the Vacancies Act, updating the Electoral Count Act, revamping the system under which presidential emergencies are declared and managed, etc. None of these reforms is partisan. They are all fixes that will be broadly supported by anyone, Democrat or Republican, conservative or progressive, who is not a fan of authoritarianism. While there may be vigorous debates on how best to implement these reforms, there is broad consensus that these reforms should be implemented. We can argue about how, precisely, we ought to amend the Constitution to prevent self-pardons, but does anyone really think presidents should be allowed to pardon themselves?
Rebuilding the guardrails of democracy needs to be one of the defining themes of Joe Biden’s presidency. Just because these reforms will have broad support doesn’t mean that implementing them will be easy. The devil is in the details and working out those details and getting all the necessary legislation passed will require sustained attention and effort. Our system of checks and balances has been drifting for decades as Congress ceded more and more power to the executive. Now Donald Trump has spent four years actively damaging the fabric of American democracy. Correcting that drift, fixing what he broke, and strengthening our institutions to handle the next wannabe autocrat isn’t something you can do with a single piece of legislation.
Ideally, President Biden would create a small Office of Legislative and Constitutional Reform specifically tasked with developing these reforms and getting them passed through Congress. Perhaps it should be led by a Never Trump Republican, since we have been sounding the alarm about these issues for the last four years. But the important thing isn’t who does the work but that the work gets done.
Never Trumpers didn’t spend four-plus years trashing their careers and alienating their friends because we didn’t like Trump’s “style.” We opposed Trump because we recognized that what he stood for is an existential threat to the American experiment in constitutional democracy. While Trump will be leaving on January 20, the threat remains.
Donald Trump has opened a portal to another political dimension and we can now expect other Trump-like creatures to cross into our universe. If Donald Trump could figure out a way to do it, he would happily ignore the Constitution, ignore the laws, subvert our elections, and install himself as president for at least another four years. If we have avoided autocracy this time it’s only because the current president isn’t competent enough or intelligent enough to pull it off. But we can’t expect to be as lucky next time.
What do Never Trumpers want from President Biden? We want him to fulfill his promise, reinvigorate our system of checks and balances, and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” If President Biden is looking for a theme that will heal our divisions and unite the country, he isn’t going to do better than that.