American politics have not produced many reasons to feel thankful in a long time. But that might be changing.
On a cold late-autumn day at the White House, President Joe Biden hosted one of the American presidency’s weirdest traditions Monday, pardoning two turkeys just days before Thanksgiving.
The chilly temperatures on the South Lawn during the event were fitting. That’s because voters showed the political temperature in the country might — finally — be on the decline. Some voters even brought back the practice of splitting their ticket, checking one box for Republican gubernatorial candidates but another for Democratic Senate hopefuls.
Voters largely rejected former President Donald Trump’s flock of 2020 election-denying candidates, and in some states GOP voters say they would prefer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over Trump as their party’s 2024 presidential nominee.
In short, the Trump fever could finally be breaking.
Behind his signature aviator sunglasses Monday, Biden had a little fun with the surprising midterms outcome, which will give Republicans a slim House majority while the Senate will remain Democratic.
“First of all, the votes are in. They’ve been counted and verified. There’s no ballot stuffing. There’s no ‘fowl play,’” he said to chuckles from the audience before mentioning his dog. “The only red wave this season is going to be [if] a German Shepherd, Commander, knocks over the cranberry sauce on our table.”
Biden could make that joke because defeated GOP candidates mostly opted against taking Trump’s collective advice to challenge the outcomes in court. That collective reluctance to follow the example he set two years ago is another indication the Trump fever that has has a hold over the GOP could be waning. Could be. Trump remains a force, but the MAGA Machine needs a tune-up.
The turkeys Biden set free are headed for Raleigh, where they will join North Carolina State University’s poultry science program. Chocolate and Chip gobbled their appreciation at not becoming someone’s Thanksgiving dinner throughout Biden’s remarks, a rare light moment in modern U.S. politics.
Just over 200 miles away from the birds’ new home, a rock’s toss over the South Carolina line stands a small mountain. In October 1780, the Battle of Kings Mountain became a turning point in the Revolutionary War as a force of rebellious colonists from the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia used guerilla tactics to defeat fighters loyal to the British crown.
Placards placed along a trail your correspondent followed late last week through the upstate forest explain how the rebels defeated their better-armed foes. They also provide a snapshot of the political environment in the colonies back then.
“In the war-torn Carolina backcountry in 1780, allegiances were bitter, confused and sometimes fluid. Some men did switch sides, even in the heat of battle. After all, the foes firing uphill at them were their own neighbors — and brothers,” reads one placard, positioned atop Kings Mountain a few feet from a monument honoring the colonial forces.
For the last decade, U.S. politics has had a certain 1780 feel. Well, more like a “1776!” feel. That’s what some Trump-supporting rioters were yelling as they ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in search of congressional Democratic leaders and then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Political violence has been carried out by some, and outright condoned or lightly condemned by GOP lawmakers and officials. Siblings have duked it out over Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement. Rather than the forests, mountains and swamps of South Carolina and other states, Americans have duked it out on social media sites, trading bayonets for tweets.
Trump has politicized any and every aspect of American life since he stepped foot on that Trump Tower escalator in 2015 to announce his presidential bid. He won over just enough independent voters in just enough states to win in 2016, but too many in too many places switched sides four years later.
“The 2016 predictions, including by yours truly, that Donald Trump wouldn’t win the GOP nomination were obviously way off the mark. But this time does look at least a little bit different,” FiveThirtyEight analyst Nate Silver told ABC News on Sunday.
“Trump led nearly wire-to-wire in polls of Republican voters from July of 2015 until he essentially clinched the nomination. But this year, Trump’s position is already in doubt,” Silver added, noting DeSantis leads Trump in head-to-head polls in several states.
‘Trump Show’: Season 4
Like others, this correspondent views The Donald’s political career as a reality television program called “The Trump Show.” It debuted its fourth season in prime time on Nov. 15. Episode One, however, was a departure from the first three action-packed seasons.
There was no ensemble cast of “America First” true believers, only Donald Trump performing a one-act play that amounted to a monologue of grievances, perceived slights, false statements and just plain strange claims.
There was no large jet parked behind him and no raucous crowd of Joe and Jane Americans decked out in red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and other Trump-themed merchandise. There were no loud chants of “Lock her up!” or even “Four more years!” The latter has become standard fare when, usually, a sitting president is seeking a second term.
Trump rode his signature rallies at regional airports, civic centers and fairgrounds to become — oddly for a Manhattan penthouse-dweller — a populist everyman. Yet, he opted to launch his third White House bid from an ornate ballroom at his members-only South Florida resort in front of a business attire-clad audience.
The much-ballyhooed event lacked much pizzazz, and instantly raised doubts about Trump’s ability to pull a Grover Cleveland, the one and only U.S. president to ever leave the White House after one term and return years later for a second. The Democrat from New Jersey was America’s 22nd chief executive from 1885 to 1889 and its 24th from 1893 to 1897.
The Donald would like to make Biden the country’s second Benjamin Harrison, the Republican who was the 23rd commander in chief while Cleveland planned his comeback. But even Biden, at a G-20 summit in Indonesia, shrugged off Trump’s “big announcement,” giving reporters a nonchalant “not really” when asked if he had a reaction to Trump being the first to jump into the 2024 fray.
Biden was far from the only politician, including some Republicans, who threw shade toward 45. Outgoing Arkansas GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted: “Trump is correct on Biden’s failures, but his self-indulging message promoting anger has not changed. It didn’t work in 2022 and won’t work in 2024. There are better choices.”
Preliminary exit polling from this month’s midterms suggests independents broke more for Democratic congressional candidates than just about any professional elections prognosticator predicted.
For a half decade, political analysts have pronounced the death of the independent voter. But the midterm elections showed talk of the deceased has been greatly exaggerated.
Independents are back
Some GOP lawmakers and strategists are casting the most blame on Trump for Republicans’ poor midterms showing. And even those who remain unwilling to criticize the former president don’t sound excited about his expected 2024 announcement.
Your correspondent last week asked Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy, long a Trump backer, about whether he thinks it was a good idea for Trump to announce just days into the 2024 cycle — and before a Georgia runoff that will decide the final margin in the Senate. Spoiler alert: He did not endorse Trump. That’s telling.
“I think I’ve got one election on my mind, and that is Georgia,” he replied. “I’m trying to arrange things to get down there to help Herschel Walker. The 2024 election is in two thousand and twenty-four.” Kennedy did not respond when asked if he is ready to endorse the 45th president. Other GOP lawmakers were equally lukewarm about Trump’s return last week.
Independents are back, a necessary force of a voting bloc in such a still-polarized country. The Trump fever might be breaking.
Those are things to be thankful for.
“We can’t forget the reason for Thanksgiving in the first place. The pilgrims thought it was pretty important in tough times to come together and thank God, to be grateful for what we have. That’s what the Thanksgiving tradition is all about: Being grateful for what we have and grateful for fellow Americans who we may never meet but who we,” Biden said, interrupted by gobbling turkeys and laughing guests. “There you go. They’re grateful.”
Never doubt the wisdom of white-feathered fowls who were just given get-out-of-jail free cards by the president of the United States. And frustrated voters.
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.