New year, unresolved issues
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A former president facing unprecedented legal challenges. A Justice Department confronting peculiarly awkward and unappealing decisions. A new Republican-controlled House facing an unusually fractious future. A GOP leader in an atypically difficult struggle to capture the speakership. An incumbent president approaching a re-election battle that his party would prefer he not undertake. A political system in the throes of bitter partisanship. A mature democracy coming to grips with unfamiliar strains.
The new year opens with an unusual number of unresolved issues — and an unusual set of open questions that must be resolved in the coming months.
The two years before a presidential election customarily are shaped by blatantly political factors, so that element of 2023 is not particularly novel. But almost never are the politics of those types of periods shaped by what happened two years earlier. And though the shouting has faded, the broken glass has been swept up, the damaged barriers have been repaired, the American political culture remains deeply affected by what happened on Jan. 6, 2021.
Here’s how deeply those shouts penetrate the 118th Congress, which convenes Tuesday: The committee investigating the insurrection at the Capitol has but a few hours of life remaining. The newly empowered Republican House may be only a few hours from creating its own probe, this time into the conduct of the committee of seven Democrats and two renegade Republicans who sent criminal referrals against former President Donald Trump to the Justice Department only weeks ago.
But there are several other questions begging for a 2023 answer. Breeze through the following 789 words, and you’ll be able to skip scores of news analyses for the first weeks of the year:
— Who will lead the House? In a normal year the reigning leader of the party controlling the House would readily ascend to the speakership. But we can already categorize 2023 as an abnormal year. Nancy D. Pelosi had a few fences to mend and scattered negotiations with straggler members who were skeptical of her, but she locked down her position as speaker well in advance of the changing of the calendar year. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California has had no such opportunity, no such luck and, apparently, no such skill.
“It is highly unusual for the modern Congress not to have nailed down the identity of the new speaker,” said Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political scientist. “This is quite a bit different from past experience. No one seems to know whether the five holdout Republicans who oppose him are going to break. And nobody knows what happens if they don’t.” Which leads us to the next unresolved question:
— How does the Republican Party heal, or handle, its fractures? The Democrats had their tensions in the months after Joe Biden won the 2020 election, principally over the degree of progressivism the legislation advocated by the new president and passed by the Democratic Congress would be. The divisions within the Republican Party at the first breath of 2023 are far greater — a matter over the degree of conservatism, to be sure, but also over what it means to be a Republican in the third decade of the new century; whether the party’s profile is genial respectability or a vanguard of rebellion; and how closely the party identifies itself with Mr. Trump.
This question has both broad (what is the face that one of the two major parties puts forward to the public?) and narrow (how does the party act with power in the House?). Historical precedent offers no hints. “Every Congress is different,” said former Democratic Representative Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota and now a prominent lobbyist. “They all have their own DNA. They all have different characters, different legislative priorities, different legacies depending on the crises that occur and are not anticipated.” This Congress already is different from its predecessors, and not a single roll call has been called.
— How will the early Republican jockeying for the White House take form? Mr. Trump already is a candidate. More than a half-dozen other Republicans are contemplating candidacies, which means they implicitly will argue that the former president is unsuited to be the future president, or that he is unlikely to be the strongest GOP nominee. The subplots are manifold: Has Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida peaked too early, which is to say 13 months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary? Will Mr. Trump’s successful tactic of 2015-2016 of belittling his rivals have the same traction in 2023? Will a gaggle of GOP candidates split Republican support so much that Mr. Trump can sneak into the winner’s circle in early primaries with a plurality of a mere 30% of the vote? Is there an exit strategy for Mr. Trump if he falters, or if the notion that he is a spent force, and more a figure from yesterday than for tomorrow, grows?
— Whither Mr. Biden? Or, put another way, has Mr. Biden’s support withered so substantially that, even with a late 2022 recovery, he is too weak to be the Democratic nominee in 2024? Right now, no Democrat is contemplating a primary challenge to the president. His putative replacements know the futility of such an effort, from the historical experience of 1972 (Representative Pete McCloskey’s quixotic campaign against President Richard M. Nixon); 1976 (Governor Ronald Reagan’s abortive challenge to President Gerald Ford); 1980 (Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s doomed effort against President Jimmy Carter); and 1992 (political commentator Patrick Buchanan’s pitchfork rebellion opposing President George H.W. Bush). Democrats may wish for another nominee, but Mr. Biden may press on. We can’t foresee the general-election results if the president persists in running again.
— And the biggest issue of all: resolution of legal liability of Mr. Trump. This question now is in the shaking hands of state prosecutors, special counsel Jack Smith and, ultimately, Attorney General Merrick Garland. No set of lawyers ever has faced a more difficult chore: sorting out legal questions about the vulnerability of a former president to lawsuits; addressing political questions about the prudence of indicting a declared candidate for the presidency; confronting complex questions about the applicability of executive privilege; weighing whether to proceed with legal action in a highly charged environment when doing so inevitability will be seen as an offensive against a political figure; and deciding to what extent the power of the state can be brought against the powerful of the state.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.