Filling the Swamp: If Trump Loses Congress Must Make Sure the Transition Does Not Deepen the Present Crisis.

The period between November 3, 2020 and January 20, 2021 is 78 days — essentially eleven weeks comprising our modern era “lame duck” period.

From the time of George Washington through that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the presidential lame duck period lasted four months — more than adequate time for crises to brew and fester and foment as the Nation awaited a new Administration to be sworn in.

History shows two major crises of lame duck presidencies: the first, the gathering storm of the national secession crisis in 1860 as an America divided by slavery awaited Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office.

In case we harbor illusions that our transfers of power in the United States have always been smooth, then focus a moment on Lincoln and the unfolding crisis of secession.

By the time Mr. Lincoln traveled by train from Illinois to Baltimore and arrived in Washington, DC, 7 of the 11 states that would finally join in confederacy had left the Union.

Lincoln came into the presidency with a crisis in full bloom.

So it was with Franklin Roosevelt. The Crash of 1929 was followed by a Depression that Hoover addressed with his stated philosophy of rugged individualism.

Some history suggests that FDR intentionally took a hands-off approach even after his election in 1932–and waited until March of 1933 before actions like the bank holiday. Some suggest that Hoover did act — but ineffectively primarily because of his notoriously failed trade and tariffs policy.

By the 2008 financial crisis, we had learned at least one lesson, that economic crises will not wait patiently during lame duck transitions. Incoming presidents — even candidates — needed to and did cooperate with the outgoing administration.

But 2008 differed from 1860 and 1932 because constitutionally we knew George W. Bush was finishing his presidency. It was easier for both the Republican and Democratic candidates to stand ready to cooperate in the looming crisis.

When first-term incumbents (like Hoover) lose during national crises, it is left to the existing residuum of good will and good sense for constructive transfers of power to take place. 1980 and 1992 may have been such examples.

If Donald Trump loses it will be the first loss for a single-term president since George H. W. Bush, who despite a stagnant economy was not mired in a trifecta of national crises.

Even Jimmy Carter, who wrestled with the Iranian embassy crisis for 444 days, was able to make a smooth transfer of power to the incoming Reagan team.

If Trump loses, despite a number of electoral and constitutional scenarios we can imagine as the likely result of the incumbent’s own making, there will still exist objective domestic and international policy challenges awaiting a new administration — challenges that will only be exacerbated by candidate-induced uncertainty about the peaceful transfer of political power we believe characterizes stable democracies like ours.

Despite some encouraging reports of potential vaccines and antivirals, Covid-19 will not have abated. Indeed, if it follows the pattern of the 1919 pandemic, the second wave may be more ferocious than the first wave. The Influenza pandemic of 1918–19 hit during Wilson’s final term — no political transition occurred to complicate an already enormous public health crisis.

We can at least know that even if there is an effective vaccine available for widespread use by November of 2020, the challenge will be to distribute and deliver it in a Nation riven with division and uncertainty during a time of transition.

The national consensus regarding the American state-of-crisis during 1932–33 at least allowed the incoming Roosevelt Administration to command a consensus of public sentiment about the need for publicly coordinated action to end the Depression.

By contrast, ongoing efforts to create fundamental uncertainties about the scope and intensity of the Coronavirus pandemic and a political lack of consensus about publicly-agreed measures to thwart it will make implementation of vaccine delivery itself problematic — particularly during the heat of political battle.

An absence of consensus about the public threat itself is itself a public health threat: one that Congress will need to preempt by supporting a non-political institution for distribution of a vaccine (or other anti-pandemic measures) during or immediately after the election/transition era. Indeed, it should be mandated as a part of the presidential transition itself.

Unlike in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln traveled slowly by train to the East after nearly four months of helplessly watching the deepening crisis of secession, the new president in 2020 can already see the crises which will likely await him in January of 2021.

The domestic crisis of race and policing; the ongoing tensions from the efforts by Russia to interfere in U.S. electoral politics; and the inadequacy of our response to a worldwide pandemic. These crises are immanent. The response to each of them will be integral to the campaign.

The challenge will be to make sure the crises are not deepened by the politics of transition and their inherent and accompanying uncertainty.

We must and can at least anticipate change even if we do not know its entire scope and character. We must make plans for change now before these crises deepen in the midst of a transition.

-atg

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