White House Watch: Something Worse Than Either Side Winning?

All eyes are now on the 2020 presidential election – the words every day from every cable network and, from time to time, maybe the question should be raised, why?

First, back to headquarters for late breaking virus news, like the CBS’ 60 Minutes interview with Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell Sunday night. He said everything he’s said before about maybe some growth back in the third quarter but a slower and more gradual recovery than could be hoped for. Maybe time for Congress to do more, and the Fed too. The narrator put some additional words in his mouth, saying he was on TV to urge Congress not to hesitate.

The BARDA whistleblower Rick Bright brought all his experience and credibility to bear again on 60 Minutes, and yes, he said everything he’s said before. That is, he basically depicted Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as the one who dragged his feet early on, presumably following the lead of the president in downplaying the virus threat. And he fingered Azar as the one ordering hydroxychloroquine down every pharmacy’s throat without hospital oversight.

Another consistently credible voice, ex-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, was on Face the Nation, telling CBS the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is not doing its usual crucial job of informing doctors and hospitals around the country of all the ancillary conditions popping up linked to the virus. He said early 2021 is the earliest that massive distribution of any effective vaccine might happen even with luck, contrary to the president’s hope for year-end salvation.

Last and no longer least, White House trade adviser turned medical supply quartermaster Peter Navarro who again dumped on the CDC, the only current administration official to do so, saying it had failed America by delaying an effective virus test by weeks. Otherwise, he’s “not looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Most interesting is what may have been Navarro’s main message, that, “Look, I report directly to the president, I’m one of the top five advisors on policy.” Too bad he didn’t list the four ahead of him. Mnuchin? Lighthizer? Kushner? VP Pence? Wait, that would leave out Pompeo, Azar, Esper, Hope Hicks and the national security adviser. Look for first-name references in the footnotes.

One more Navarro item, the front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times about what he does to keep the president, Saudi Arabia and US defence firms in polyamorous wedded bliss.

Now back to our regular programming, raising the question why virtually everything in the last five months before the election has to be seen through the soda-straw peek-hole of how it affects the chances of Trump or Biden? Does the future of America depend that much on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is in the Oval Office beginning in January? We can see all the heads nodding, yes, yes, of course. What else is there?

To begin with, will the resolution of all the things the White House, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and CNBC’s Jim Cramer blame China for, happen more quickly or at all regardless who wins? That is, maybe one or the other will find an American company capable of building 5G wireless equipment? Without Huawei it’s either Ericsson or Nokia, neither of which pay US taxes.

How about the national debt, now multi-trillion-dollar-a-year deficits, now more unsustainable than ever. Maybe Navarro, who shares China-bashing duties with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, can explain how the US was forced to borrow $25 trillion and counting while China amassed trillions in sovereign reserves?

Which of the two, Trump or Biden, will wrestle the world’s most inefficient health-care system into something with costs commensurate with its health-care outcomes that rank poorly compared with several other developed nations?

How about something simple, like which will reform the nation’s “pension system” into something akin to a pension system, without air quotes, instead of a 401K regime never intended to replace what used to be private-sector retirement security?

OK, then, to the main subject at hand. Will either Trump or Biden be able to beat the corona virus more effectively? Trump is willing to throw billions at what the administration considers “Warp Speed” at virus vaccine candidates while, his critics say, demoralising the government’s health-care bureaucracy by imposing on them his understanding of virology.

Biden would likely be equally as ready to throw the same amount of money at the problem but perhaps without beating up the government’s medical establishment until morale improves.

The dream that somehow the election will give one side or the other a telling advantage, a veto-proof majority in both Houses of Congress plus the White House somehow doesn’t seem the most likely choice for a severely divided electorate.

Whether Republicans can hold on to the Senate despite defending 23 seats, or the Democrats can hold on to the House, the degree of congressional deference/despisal will probably moderate even if Trump wins. He will no longer be as slavishly followed or as threatening in a second term. No president is when running out the clock.

As each side is afflicted with a growing sense of foreboding that grows with every passing week, as either candidate commits more gaffes or commits to more fabulist visions, perhaps it’s not just a fear of defeat that ignites those pre-dawn tremors.

Even those who don’t expect much of either candidate may admit to fears of a more fundamental nightmare outcome than the victory of the opponent. What could be worse than he wins, whichever “he” it is? Something that cannot be ruled out, unfortunately, given the polling which is not that far apart. Or because of the strange combinations possible of the popular vote and electoral college outcomes. Or because of voting systems in the states that are sometimes technical puzzles even to those who operate them. Or because we’re in an election year in which pandemic considerations may alter voting patterns and turnout in ways so far unimagined?

Let’s take a leap and imagine it anyway: An election that is fundamentally flawed, its outcome arguable, its conclusion debated, its credibility questioned making hanging chads look like a preliminary fight before the voters somehow render knockout blows to both sides.

Think of it. Constitutional questions that can’t be easily answered, results that arguably make no sense, with both sides raging with accusations. The electorate might already be in a bad mood, with an economy likely still shaky in November along with a still escalating virus death toll. It could be enough to further shake the faith that the system works for anyone, certainly not those most victimised by both virus and layoffs.

That’s the real nightmare outcome that could severely shake a country already hyperpolarised, suspicious, only too willing to jump to fanciful conclusions and easily mobilised by social media.

A stubborn pandemic, an almost lifeless economy and political paralysis. Is there any worse a November? Sure, if there’s nuclear winter, climate catastrophe, big asteroids. Let’s keep it all in perspective.

Meanwhile, all eyes are now on the 2020 presidential election.



Colin Lambert

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