More drainage for a more polluted Washington swamp

President-elect Joe Biden has a golden opportunity over the next 10 weeks to reduce the handicap of a bad campaign that cost him a senate majority, and a mandate against Trumpism.

Biden hardly has an agenda, other than a return to traditional government. While Democrats are relieved at his victory they are pissed off 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 he has come to see the potency of Donald Trump’s promise to drain the swamp. Americans generally fear that federal government has become corrupted by big money, big interests, powerful lobbies with almost unlimited resources, and 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 non-rancorous way,  that Trump’s pretence of being an outsider actually aggravated the problem. Trump personally, and his abominable family, had enriched themselves by diving into the public trough, ignoring rules of conflict of interest, often using public servants, public resources and executive power in their personal and narrow political interest.

But Biden should stress that his “drain the swamp” initiative would deal with the perception that government was a big mess, that it had become corrupted by money, and its remoteness from the ordinary lives of most 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. Open to new ideas. Open to science. Willing to re-engage with America’s allies and friends so that America again a commanded respect and cooperation 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 its heart a project to restore trust, transparency and accountability to government, and an increase in the freedom, independence, dignity and well-being of all Americans.

His main pitch would be to 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 was to disarm the population and to introduce socialism — understood as a branch of authoritarian control over every aspect of a citizen’s life.

These are people increasingly alienated from the Democrats — two generations ago their party of choice. Trump won their allegiance by expressing their resentment at insiders, despite his open contempt for their values, their patriotism and their poverty.

Biden himself might exemplify one of the creatures of the Washington swamp. 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, with tough-sounding legislation weakened by loopholes and an increased public cynicism about the way the whole system works.

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. And as a traditionalist, whose style of governing would stop the tumult, the constant protests, and public resentment of the status quo.

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, it embraces 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.

 

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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