In the great game of politics, Democrats, as a party, lack a mean streak. Too often they seem fixated on agendas, searching for the soul of America, or fighting with each other instead of Republicans.
If they win across-the-board power in November, as many expect they will, the question is whether they’ll use it to get even for the abuse they’ve taken over four years.
“The only abuse of power,” President John F. Kennedy observed, “is having power and not using it.”
Mean in politics is making the tough calls, not nastiness. Getting even in politics is nothing personal. It comes with the job, it’s part of the drill, and it’s cyclical. Up a couple of years, down a couple, and then the sweet bounce-back arrives on a platinum platter with a clean-sweep election. It all falls into place. Opportunity meets preparation.
For anyone who follows this stuff, the Democrats are taking the campaign directly to President Trump, and tucking it to him pretty good. How can they resist? Trump’s handing it to them.
Just ask Nancy Pelosi. She knows how to get even. After her first speakership, Pelosi had to sit out a few years, but now she’s back. And with a vengeance. Nobody gets under Trump’s scaly skin the way Pelosi does.
When she is about to apply the stiletto, Pelosi administers a heavy dose of anesthesia so that the blade twists a few times before its recipient realizes the public wound. And the best of the avengers, like Pelosi, always make certain there are several degrees of separation to cloak the source. Except for Trump, of course, when Pelosi enjoys allowing the torment to show.
Barack Obama, now enjoying a hagiographic moment, was a failure at getting even. He frittered away the first two years of his eight when he had total control of the federal government — White House, House of Representatives, U.S. Senate — and all the go-withs of being in charge. Obama was all cogito, ergo sum, and not enough in your face.
Obama blew the two years solely on winning passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the first president to accomplish near-universal health care since Theodore Roosevelt began trying in the early 1900s. For that we can forgive and be grateful. But he owes its passage as much to Pelosi as any cunning that originated in the White House.
And Obama bequeathed Trump an economy that was percolating at just the right tempo until Trump did nothing to blunt the invasive coronavirus bug from shutting down the country and leaving more than 185,000 dead in its lethal path along with millions of lost jobs.
Obama has finally let loose. He’s getting even a little late, as ex-presidents rarely do, but it’s worth the delay. Now hear the Obama of last month at the Democrats’ virtual convention:
“For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work, no interest in finding common ground, no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends, no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe: 170,000 (now more than 185,000) Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever.”
Fighting words, marching orders, or mere convention bluster to get virtual delegates’ blood boiling? We’ll soon find out.
‘They aren’t sitting around drinking whiskey’
Lyndon Baines Johnson knew how to get even, whether it was while sitting on the commode in the West Wing family quarters or skinny-dipping in the White House pool. Johnson’s size, gruff, and his earthy behavior were intimidating, and often his winning characteristics.
Item: Statement, July 14, 1965: “I have the ablest staff that ever served any president in my memory. There’s not a playboy among them. They aren’t sitting around drinking whiskey at 11 o’clock at night. They aren’t walking around with their zippers unbuttoned.”
Item: At a meeting where Johnson was dressing down Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) over his opposition to the Vietnam War and suspected leaks to the press, Johnson told Church: “The next time you need a dam in Idaho, call [columnist] Walter Lippmann.”
But Johnson was able to cajole enough votes — and especially the support of Republican Congressional leaders Sen. Everett Dirksen, of Illinois, and Rep. Charles Halleck, of Indiana — to win passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
His escalation of the War in Vietnam has changed many memories. As Shakespeare put it, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Richard M. Nixon tried to get even but he always left fingerprints. The Watergate burglars, the White House taping system, John Dean, Attorney General John Mitchell wire-tapping and/or investigating more than two dozen Democratic governors, underlines the revisionist view that Nixon wasn’t really a bad president. He was a lousy politician.
Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush all had their high notes and low — Ford’s major gaffe on the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe; Carter the stupid and ill-advised “malaise” speech and the helicopters crashing in the Arab dessert along with the oil embargo and 18 percent interest rates; Reagan and the Iran-Contra arms deal; Bush 1, “read my lips, no new taxes”; Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, perjury and the paper trail from Little Rock, Ark.; Bush II, allowing his administration’s super-hawks talk him into invading Iraq.
And now No. 45, the current resident of the White House and living proof that power corrupts, absolutely, those who are amendable to it and nearly every one and everything around this saffron-tinted presidential misfit — Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, and now Steve Bannon. Did we miss anyone? Pass the disinfectant wipes, please.
And don’t forget Trump himself, only the third president ever impeached. Trump beat the rap not because of his innocence, but because Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) collared enough Republican wooden soldiers in the Senate to give Trump a pass.
There is little good to be said about Trump because he has done very little that is good. He is surrounded by wits — dimwits, half-wits, and nitwits — who feed the corruption of a failed president and a failed human being who floats along on his own gases.
So the first job of Joe Biden and his understudy, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is to begin the massive clean-up, an assignment that rivals Hercules’ job of mucking the Augean stables. The Trump administration’s policies had thoughtless, but terrifying triple consequences — kill us, bankrupt us, or poison us.
But Biden can’t ignore the expectancy of getting even, not in a public or gotcha way, but in small penalizing reminders of who’s in charge.
Kennedy had another favorite saying: “Don’t get mad, get even.”
With Biden comes an institutional challenge. He’s been around Washington for 50 years, and his home, before the vice presidency, was the U.S. Senate, where he has many friends and was known for — in that celebrated Capital cliché — “working across the aisle.” That’s fine, up to a point, when it’s silly to try as the other side doesn’t. The pregnant question now is whether after Trump the Republican Party will revert to its old self or remain true to what Trump has made it.
What, for example, McConnell has done to the country by enabling Trump is reprehensible though understandable as a survival skill. Together, though largely by McConnell’s manipulating the Senate dance card, they have rushed through 203 federal judicial appointments, including two Supreme Court justices. These are lifetime jobs, probably beyond the next couple of generations.
Then consider the shabby treatment McConnell showed Judge Garland Merrick when Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court. McConnell wouldn’t even give Merrick the courtesy of a Senate hearing. Get-even time will arrive soon. (Pray that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is around to attend Biden’s swearing-in.)
But Biden’s first assignment, on his first day or two, is to execute a double reverse. He must reverse Trump’s reversal of the Obama-era policies on the environment, the economy, and foreign policy. Rip up all of those empty executive orders that Trump signed.
But make no mistake. Even if Biden wins, and Trump challenges the election results, as it appears where he’s heading, Trump will still be president until high noon on January 20, 2021. Lots of mischief can take place in those two months — pardons, more executive orders, beneficial leases, and whatever else might profit Trump, his family, and friends.
Here’s the good news: Once Trump’s out of office, he can be sued or indicted just like any other errant citizen.
Frank DeFilippo writes a weekly column for Maryland Matters, a nonprofit affiliate of States Newsroom, a consortium of nonprofit state-based news websites. Florida Phoenix is also a part of the States Newsroom.