Great American writer John Updike used to refer to his home state of Pennsylvania as being the doughy middle of America. Updike was perhaps more acute in his observation than he may have realised, for Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral college votes, assumed a critical role in the 2020 US presidential election and, as always, the result was determined by the middle ground.
It is instructive to witness the evolution of Democratic Party campaigning in recent times, beginning with a special election in the 18th district of Pennsylvania in March 2018. Elected to congress was Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran and federal prosecutor for the Western District of the state. Lamb carried traditional Republican suburbs in northern Pittsburgh and he did so by occupying the political centre firmly and demonstrably.
There is no better evidence than the salient fact candidate Lamb wanted only one senior Democrat to campaign for him: Joseph R Biden Jr. Biden brought his upbringing in Scranton, PA, to the special election contest. It is the kitchen table that dominates the Biden approach and it is this kind of focus on real concerns of American families that continues to make him welcome at the games of the Philadelphia Eagles.
This kind of hard-headed realism by which Conor Lamb was elected and subsequently re-elected to congress was readily apparent in the Biden presidential campaign in the state last year.
Biden listened to local Democrats who told him the key to the state was not only to be found in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but in small-town communities across Pennsylvania. Biden campaigned well beyond the major cities, lifting the Democratic vote and suppressing the vote that otherwise would have gone to Donald Trump. Trump may argue, falsely and maliciously, that the election was stolen in Pennsylvania, but the Republican Party may be better served by actually understanding what happened.
Congressman Lamb has become a prominent moderate among Democrats in Washington DC. He is not afraid to challenge questionable views within his own party, rejecting criticism from congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, especially on issues such as Medicare-for-all and defunding the police. He understands that in politics, language can be decisive, telling The New York Times: “That’s what we’re trying to say: that the rhetoric and the policies and all that stuff — it has gone way too far. It needs to be dialled back. It needs to be rooted in common sense, in reality and, yes, politics. Because we need districts like mine to stay in the majority and get something done for the people we care about the most.”
Nor has Lamb been reticent in challenging Republican claims of electoral fraud. He showed a prosecutor’s respect for evidence when he told the House of Representatives of his personal knowledge of the vote count in Allegheny County (Pennsylvania): “ … There were 31 video cameras — 31! — in the same place, just showing people counting votes, every single one of them on paper, with representatives from both campaigns watching.”
This emphasis on evidence may not penetrate the conspiracy-saturated claims being perpetuated on the other side of the aisle by people such as Rudolph Giuliani, personal lawyer to President Trump and, more recently, Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley. Better to rely upon the seasoned judgment of Karl Rove, campaign strategist for President George W Bush, who observed that to steal a presidential election required a conspiracy of James Bond proportions.
The question that emerges is will the incoming Biden administration be centrist or tilt to the left? Lamb argues that the new president will govern as he campaigned and his cabinet choices to date underline this.
Janet Yellen, as secretary to the Treasury, is reassuring to the markets not only on Wall Street but globally. Antony Blinken, as the new secretary of state, is to be located in the mainstream of Democratic thinking on international relations. General Lloyd Austin, as defence secretary, has deep and respected experience in the US military and is trusted by the new president. Jake Sullivan has impressive credentials as national security adviser. A good friend of Australia, Kurt Campbell, is to be the White House co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific region. Campbell may be a very witty after-dinner speaker but there is no room for anything other than cold and detailed analysis in his policymaking.
Finally, Merrick Garland, as attorney-general, sends a signal of crystal clarity to Americans about the return of predictable and consistent law enforcement.
Garland was nominated by president Barack Obama to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. Infamously, Majority Leader senator Mitch McConnell refused even to convene a Judiciary Committee hearing to examine his qualifications. Any doubts about Garland’s personal qualities were laid to rest by Chief Justice John Roberts, who praised the Chief Judge of the District Court of Columbia for his inspiration in civic outreach for over two decades.
The new Biden cabinet reflects the American people in a thoroughly inclusive and contemporary sense. For Australia, the signs are positive, as reasonable men and women come to office to pursue reasoned policies, a promising change after the chaos of Trump’s revolving White House door.
President Ronald Reagan once observed that the Democratic Party had moved so far left that it had left America. This may not have been true but it was an effective line. The Democratic Leadership Council, formed in response to such fears, aimed to centre the party and this led directly to the Clinton administration. A senior Clinton adviser and former chief executive of the DLC, the able Bruce Reed, is now deputy chief of staff to the 46th president of the United States.