Elections

The Task Ahead

President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at Pitt-Greenville Airport in Greenville, N.C., October 15, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Joe Biden’s lead in national and key-state polls is larger than Hillary Clinton’s was at this time in 2016. The Democratic Party appears highly likely to retain the House and is currently favored to take the Senate as well. Americans could find themselves living under all-Democratic rule in Washington, D.C., for the first time in a decade.

In the interim, the Democratic Party has moved ever farther left, on issue after issue. Obamacare now represents an inadequate amount of control over health care for the party’s leaders, who split between those who want fully socialized medicine and those who want to move halfway there. Pro-life Democrats have nearly gone extinct, and the party backs taxpayer funding for abortion to an unprecedented extent. Democrats want to weaken statutory protections for religious liberty that passed Congress nearly by acclamation in the 1990s. They are heedless of the need to enforce the immigration laws where they are not hostile to it. They are eager to end features of the constitutional order they find inconvenient.

It is unfair to say that Biden is too hobbled by age to resist his party’s leftward lurch. Even when he was young and vigorous, he always went wherever the party wanted. And when it comes to foreign policy, where the president has great leeway, Biden’s judgment has been erratic — at best. He opposed the first war against Iraq, supported the second one, reversed himself on that, floated a plan to divide Iraq that all its factions rejected, and opposed the surge that brought a measure of stability to the country. The one great foreign-policy triumph of the Obama administration, in which he served — the bringing of Osama bin Laden to justice — was something he opposed. Meanwhile, he hopes to revive one of Obama’s signature mistakes, the wretched Iran deal, which shook our allies without improving Tehran’s behavior.

A Democratic sweep of the election would be perilous for the country and is well worth resisting. That it has such a high probability of occurring is to a large degree the responsibility of President Donald Trump. The president has, to be sure, often shown canny political instincts, as in his extraordinary primary victory in 2016. He has also advanced a great many conservative policy objectives and thwarted liberal ones, compiling a record better than even some of his supporters on the right expected when they voted for him. His conservative judicial appointments, regulatory restraint, pro-life policies, defense of conscience rights, and reorientation of Mideast alliances have been particularly commendable. And he has had to work against a frequently irresponsible opposition, a hypercritical media, and the sheer bad luck of a vicious pathogen.

But the personality traits that made us doubt his suitability for high office in 2016 have undermined his effectiveness, have led him to bad decisions, and now threaten to drag conservatism down to a consequential and avoidable defeat. After running as a successful businessman, he has turned out to be an extraordinarily poor manager of the federal government, repeatedly warring against not only the permanent bureaucracy but his own appointees. He has been too indecisive, too poorly advised, and too uninterested in follow-through to set a clear policy on troop numbers abroad or explain what he wants to do on health care. He has counted on his personal rapport with dictators to produce results for the country that have not been forthcoming. He has sometimes abused, and exceeded, his legitimate powers. And he has been a glutton for pointless controversies involving media figures that not one in 50 Americans would be able to identify on the street.

His characteristics and habits have sometimes served him and the country well, as when he moved our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem over the hysterical objections of alleged experts, none of whose dire predictions came to pass. But they also made him a consistently unpopular figure even when he was presiding over a strong economy. They led to the humanitarian and political debacle of large-scale family separations at the Mexican border, and they prevented any deal to put immigration enforcement on a more solid footing. They kept him from pursuing any coherent strategy for dealing with China: His administration’s main accomplishment has been getting Beijing to promise it will buy American products, promises that are already proving empty. And they have hampered both the administration’s policy against COVID and his ability to be a credible and consistent spokesman for it.

When unemployment was falling, wages were rising, and nobody had heard of the coronavirus, Trump could count on the support of a significant number of voters who disliked much of what they see in him but thought the results were pretty good. Now he has to overcome the majority’s steady disapproval of him while also explaining away poor conditions.

Most conservatives, for all of that, will still and understandably be in his corner. He sides with us on many things, from taxes to conscience rights to judgeships, while the Biden Democrats are our committed opponents on everything. A much smaller number of conservatives will find that his defects preclude a vote for him. Whatever their views of the incumbent, conservatives should strive to prevent the consolidation of a left-wing monopoly on power in the elected branches of the federal government. No doubts about the president should undermine the urgency of retaining Republican control of the Senate, which every conservative should now desire as a bulwark against runaway leftism and the destruction of American institutions. Should that fail as well, it will be all the more urgent for conservatives to rally popular opposition to initiatives that would weaken the nation.

And, obviously, to defend constitutional government, core American rights, and the free market. But conservatism also needs a practical, solution-oriented program. We must devise an agenda that meets the country’s needs — that extends opportunities to people whether or not they have college degrees, that encourages family formation, that allows the purchase of affordable catastrophic health coverage, that reforms immigration to better serve the interests of our citizens — and that can command the political support to be implemented. One way or the other, conservatives will have our work cut out for us.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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