It wouldn’t be 2020 if things were straightforward or simple. As I write, nearly 24 hours after the polls closed on Tuesday, there’s still a lot we still don’t know. I will say that the results were far closer than I’d anticipated. When Tuesday dawned, the odds were that Democrats would hit the trifecta, taking the White House, the Senate, and the House. Now, with the counts grinding on, the odds are now that Joe Biden will win, that the Republicans will hold the Senate, and that the Democratic House majority is going to shrink. So, let’s run with that for a moment.
If the Dems had won big, a raft of ambitious legislation could’ve been in play. The only real constraint would’ve been the size of the Senate majority, whether the Democrats had the votes to abolish the filibuster, and Biden’s own inclinations. Now, even assuming Biden pulls it out, he’s likely to wind up with a slender Republican Senate majority or a 50-50 split (with deep-red West Virginia’s Joe Manchin as the 50th vote). Democrats need to win two of the remaining three seats in North Carolina and Georgia (there are two races in Georgia) to get to 50-50. The odds are against them doing so. And Republican gains in the House will leave Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a frail majority; she won’t be able to afford more than a handful of defections on a given bill.
Especially since the legislative filibuster is now certain to remain intact, the result will likely be a Biden administration with limited room to promote ambitious progressive legislation—including proposals like “free” college, expansive student loan forgiveness, and massive increases in federal K-12 outlays—even if he wants to. Ominous talk about adding states or packing the Supreme Court is likely to recede. This leaves the Biden team with two paths forward. One is to focus on executive action via regulation, rule making, and all the other “pen-and-phone” stuff. The other would be to work across the aisle in Congress to get some bigger things done. This is actually a pretty intriguing prospect. After all, Biden and Senate GOP honcho Mitch McConnell are skilled dealmakers. After what we’ve all been through, a spate of bipartisan deal making could be hugely reassuring, good for the country, and appealing to Biden, McConnell, and Pelosi.
Of course, that kind of collaboration requires both parties to find a way to step back from the furious rhetorical and procedural battles they’ve been engaging in. Successful bipartisan action would probably entail Biden moving at a more measured pace on executive action than many of his progressive supporters might wish. And it would involve McConnell resisting the temptation to pay Democrats back for contentious Trump-era confirmation battles.
I do want to flag one state-level result from Tuesday that I found remarkable and that deserves plenty of discussion. In deep-blue California, voters vetoed Proposition 16 by double digits, rejecting a high-profile effort to bring back affirmative action, including for college admission and other educational programs. Californians rejected affirmative action while handing Biden a massive 32-point statewide victory, meaning that roughly 1 in 3 Biden voters turned against affirmative action—even as pro-affirmative action forces outspent their opponents by 13-to-1. Look, if this had been Kansas or Kentucky, it would be easy to shrug it off. But when California votes this way, in an election framed by fervent attention to issues of race and racial equity, it deserves notice.
That’s especially true when we consider that President Trump, who has never reached 50 percent public approval during his four years in office and who has been relentlessly described as a bigot and a racist, wound up increasing his share of the Latino and Black vote from 2016. He was supported by 1in 8 Black voters and 1 in 3 Latino voters, a showing that equaled or exceeded those of Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008. While both groups of voters heavily favored Biden, this degree of support for a president who has strongly challenged conventional racial narratives while stumbling from one race-related mishap to another ought to raise some cautions and prompt some hard questions.
There will be much more to say, after the vote counters finish their work. For now, though, it’s a good time to take a deep breath and wait to see how the story shakes out.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.