Given that the election results have now come into fairly clear focus, here a few thoughts on what might lie ahead.
President Biden will be heading up an administration that’ll (probably) be working with Mitch McConnell at the head of a knife’s-edge Republican Senate majority and Speaker Nancy Pelosi leading the smallest House majority in two decades. There’s a reason that Wall Street responded to all this with glee—it’s a combination that rids the market of the uncertainty created by an impulsive, irresponsible president while ensuring that the radical ambitions of the Sanders-AOC Democrats are dead on arrival.
But it’s not a combination that necessarily spells gridlock—especially when it comes to education. While it’s easy to overlook amidst the polarized politics of 2020, there’s more than a little potential common ground on education policy. In the shadow of Trump, a more populist GOP and the challenges of COVID mean that, at least for now, there are deals to be struck.
It’s possible, for instance, to imagine Republicans voting to boost funding for special education, career and technical education, or early childhood; to tackle the “digital divide” funding; or to increase the size of the Pell Grant, if Democrats are willing to couple new outlays with measures to expand access to apprenticeships and workforce training, minimize federal micro-management, and steer dollars to individuals rather than institutions. If Republican support seems far-fetched, take another look at the fiscally-populist, socially-conservative vision that influential GOP senators like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have been sketching. Meanwhile, if lots of public schools appear inclined to stay shuttered into fall 2021 or beyond, centrist Democrats may be increasingly open to proposals which directly fund families.
All of this will turn on the relationship established between a Biden White House and a McConnell-led Senate. By the way, this is where the caricature of McConnell constructed by the NPR set is especially misleading. Far from the cartoon villain of progressive imagination, McConnell is an old-school, strategic operator (the kind of professional politician that plenty of pundits say they’re yearning for after the Trump Show). Meanwhile, if Biden wants to govern from the center-left, he may quietly regard a Republican Senate majority as a blessing, as it would give him a ready excuse to dismiss as irrelevant the kinds of radical progressive proposals he ran against in the primaries. Given the decades of cordial history binding Biden and McConnell, Trumpian shoutfests could give way to a spate of dealmaking.
Of course, saying all this could happen doesn’t mean it will. There will be intense pressure on Biden from the base, urging him to move aggressively on executive action, make “bold” appointments, and get payback for the frustrations of the Trump years. And the heat from the base may be so great that neither the White House nor Democrats on the Hill feel comfortable cutting deals. Meanwhile, McConnell’s base has been emboldened by the GOP’s unexpectedly strong showing and is eager for its own payback for the rough ride that Democrats gave the Trump administration. How this plays out remains to be seen.
There’s also an intriguing wrinkle regarding the Senate. Currently, the Senate stands at 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats, with the two Georgia seats going to run-offs in early January. The oddsmakers expect Republicans to win at least one of those races, thus claiming a majority. But the Democrats could win both seats and wind up controlling a 50-50 Senate (with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote). This creates a conundrum for Biden’s transition. Some appointees that might be confirmed in a 50-50 Senate would be nonstarters in a Republican Senate. Since the results of Georgia’s run-offs won’t be known until early January, this introduces an unusual degree of uncertainty regarding key personnel and could make it tougher for the Biden administration to get off to a fast start in its first 100 days.
More certain is that Speaker Pelosi will have some tough days ahead. It’s looking like Democrats will ultimately lose about 10 seats, meaning they’ll be just five or six members over the 218 required for a majority. Because Pelosi won’t be able to afford more than a handful of defections on a given bill, the extremes of her caucus will wield huge influence. And the tension between the party’s centrists and more radical members is already on full display. Last week, on a conference call of House Democrats that was subsequently leaked, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a moderate from Virginia tore into the party’s progressives: “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that. If we are classifying Tuesday as a success . . . we will get f---ing torn apart in 2022.” Moderate Democrats are likely to balk at proposals they deem too extreme while, in a scene all-too-familiar to Republicans, progressives disappointed by a lack of ambition may rail against party leaders for being “DINOs” (Democrats in Name Only).
And we should all prepare for a new trip through the Hypocrisy Zone. Many of the same conservatives who complained bitterly about judicial overreach when the courts checked various Trump policies will now do their best to use the courts to check Biden’s executive actions. The same progressives who were urging “Resistance!” even before Trump was inaugurated will now denounce Republican “obstructionism.” And Republicans who blithely excused Trumpian depravity and malfeasance will eagerly seek out every hint of Biden administration impropriety, while Democrats who daily raced to delegitimize Trump and his appointees will be outraged by “unjustified” attacks on Biden and his team.
One other thing: Republicans did well at the state level. Unless I’ve missed something, it looks like the Democrats didn’t flip a single statehouse chamber; meanwhile, Republicans wound up flipping a few, including the House and Senate in New Hampshire. This has obvious implications for state education policy but also for the impending once-a-decade redistricting. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee projects that Republicans will have total control over the maps for 181 U.S. House districts, while Democrats will control just 76. Given that the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections, the Biden team will have an incentive to get what they can rather than dream of a deus ex machina in ‘22.
Much remains to be seen. But if you’d told me before the election that there’d be little evidence of irregularity, no evidence of foreign interference, and that an extended count would play out with calm and a satisfactory degree of responsible behavior, I’d have thought it a pretty promising start. So, there’s that.
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.