The Elephant and Donkey Go Plunging Over the Cliff
David Ake)
The Elephant and Donkey Go Plunging Over the Cliff
David Ake)
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In the 19th century, when political parties worried about voters who couldn’t speak English or read campaign flyers, they adopted animal symbols. Despite originally being a symbol of ridicule, the Democratic Party came to embrace its inner donkey. Likewise, the Republican Party grew to love the elephant. It was an easy way to identify their candidates. Today, the elephant and donkey are less-beloved mascots and more like Wile E. Coyote, who continually plummets over the cliff in futile pursuit of the Roadrunner.

The GOP pachyderm took the plunge on Jan. 6. Outgoing President Donald Trump sat unsteadily atop the beast, where he remains, and contributed mightily to losing two Senate seats in Georgia. His behavior after the November election alienated many undecided voters and even some erstwhile supporters. He fumed and fulminated, contested the election results without winning in court, and stampeded GOP congressional leaders over the size of the next round of stimulus checks. His refusal to accept certified vote totals challenged basic constitutional norms. That behavior hurt the candidates he ostensibly backed in Georgia, costing his party its Senate majority. Outgoing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was furious and said so publicly. Most of his Republican colleagues agreed but remained silent. They knew Trump would retaliate for any criticism and his die-hard supporters would back him.

The giant splat of the elephant hitting the canyon floor was the sound of Republicans losing the upper chamber. That loss has had immense political consequences. It is the dominant fact of Joe Biden’s presidency so far. The only way to moderate his agenda, aside from court decisions, would have been Republican control of the Senate.

With their slender majority, Democrats gained control of all Senate committees and held the sole power to conduct hearings and subpoena witnesses. Since Democrats already controlled the House of Representatives, albeit narrowly, they found themselves in control of both Capitol Hill and the White House. That gave them free rein, something donkeys are unused to, and they used it to reign freely. They proceeded to do exactly what Trump had done after November: gallop at full speed toward the cliff’s edge.

The Democrats seized the moment. Damn what they told the electorate in the run-up to November, when Joe Biden sat frozen in his basement, read (poorly) from a teleprompter, avoided press conferences (with no pushback from partisan journalists), and promised to govern as a bipartisan president who would work as hard for those who voted against him as he did for those who supported him. Remember those campaign promises? Thanks to those surprising Georgia victories, he didn’t have to keep them, and he hasn’t. He and his party made a fundamental choice to use their momentary advantage to push through every progressive proposal on their wish list. Opportunities like this are rare.

The decision to go “big and fast” seems to have been based on the Democrats’ revisionist notion that Barack Obama had not accomplished enough in his first two years, when he held similar control on Capitol Hill. Although Obamacare was a huge achievement, it was the president’s only big win. This time, Democrats wanted to accomplish much more. Even though they lacked a national mandate for large changes, they have rammed through liberal bills on party-line votes. They aim to lock in their new legislation, making it virtually impossible for a future Republican president and Congress to repeal it. They would even consider changing both the legislature and federal courts to solidify their party’s long-term control.

With this ambitious agenda in mind, the Democrats strapped a wobbly, aging, and none-too-clever Joe Biden atop their donkey and whipped it ahead at full speed. They know the path almost certainly leads them over an electoral cliff. They nearly lost the House in 2020, and, despite the president’s current popularity, most observers expect them to lose it next year. While they certainly hope to avoid that disaster, they have decided to accept the risk so they can accomplish big things during this fleeting moment.

Democratic leaders have decided their party should:

  • Not moderate their legislative proposals or compromise with Republicans.
  • Pass as many large, progressive policies on their wish list as possible, even if voters oppose them and the policies lack a broad national consensus.
  • Make their new policies permanent by making them entitlements, which are difficult to repeal.
  • Convert their temporary advantage on Capitol Hill into a long-term one, if possible, by adding two new states (expected to add four additional Democratic senators) and packing the federal courts (expected to override existing conservative judicial majorities).

Progressives may not achieve all these goals, but they are determined to try. So far, Biden is going along for the ride.

Democrats could never have attempted these policies without control of the Senate. For that, they thank Donald Trump every day. Silently, of course. GOP office holders are silent, too. They can’t utter that obvious truth since Trump still controls the party, not in some titular sense but in a very real one. Any Republican he opposes will face a serious primary opponent. If history is any guide, the insurgent is likely to win. So, unhappy Republican incumbents (and major party donors) grumble behind the scenes and worry about whether Trump will run again in 2024. Until he decides, he blocks the party’s next crop of presidential candidates. None can afford to incur Trump’s wrath since they need his voters.

While Republicans try to scrape their elephant off the canyon floor and revive it, Democrats are busy propelling their donkey toward the same precipice. They have logged on to Acme Supply and ordered truckloads of anvils, boomerangs, and clever traps. As Wile E. Coyote would say, “Genius.”

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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