In early 2009, Rush Limbaugh, asked about his hopes for the historic first black President, provided a succinct statement: “I hope he fails.” Eight years later, speaking about President Trump, I repeated those words. In both cases a similar explanation was provided: we hoped that he succeeded for America, but we knew what they had said on the campaign trail and we hoped that their agendas went unfulfilled. Both of us had our hopes dashed… President Obama did push through a national health care system as well as a few other liberal policies (although not nearly as many as his progressive fans hoped nor his conservative adversaries feared) and he was a poor representative for individual liberty on the world stage, capitulating to our adversaries. President Trump, for his part, was far worse – every bit the corrupting, criminal influence I had feared, and acting as a puppet for America’s enemies.
In neither of these cases were there broad calls for unity from the losing party. The Republicans, under Obama, rejected the olive branches he offered because they came with a price. He made clear that he wanted unity on his terms… come over to the Democratic position and he’d be happy to have them. The Democrats, under Trump, didn’t get even a weak offer of any olive branches; he made clear from the first day, when he lied about the size of his inauguration compared to those of Obama, that he was going to use the Democrats as foils. They were the enemy.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, to demonstrate that the line of “Presidents are expected to unify” is ridiculous. Should they? Absolutely. But there is hardly a mandate for this. Presidents Obama and Trump may have each been unique in their way (first black President, first openly treasonous President) but not in their approaches to the opposition party. The history of America shows other Presidents who were aggressively partisan. Second, to explain why I’m going back to 2001 for my primary example.
George W. Bush is a man who deeply respects the office of the Presidency. Upon getting into office, he discovered that the Clinton staffers had left the White House in disarray. Most of the remotes for televisions had been stolen. Desks were glued shut. Phones were yanked out of walls (they still plugged phones into walls in those days.) Keys – the “W” key to be precise, Bush’s nickname – had been removed from computer keyboards and one at least one occasion glued to a ceiling. Furniture had been broken.
Word leaked out about the damage, and President Bush downplayed it to the press, at first saying that he didn’t believe that any intentional damage had been done and the reports were wrong, and then, after continued digging from the press, admitting that there were a handful of incidents but nothing exceptionally bad.
This was done for the sake of unity. It wasn’t worth heightening the tension between the Democrats, still angry because of Clinton’s impeachment (at the time, many Democrats insisted that Clinton had done nothing wrong and was unfairly targeted with lies and false evidence) and the newly ascendant Republicans, particularly after the contentious Florida recounts and with a split Senate. A member of the General Accounting Office was trotted out to perform a cursory investigation and came back with the finding that the damage reports were likely overblown.
Democrat activists, rather than accepting the bone they’d been thrown, used W.’s statements to their advantage. They claimed that the damage had never happened, that it was merely a smear campaign by the Republicans, an extension of the smear campaign against Clinton. It was held as proof that Republicans were evil and Clinton was their paladin, tarnished but undamaged.
The rumors grew that it had all been a cheap attack, until it became the accepted “fact”. It was in this atmosphere, months later, that the GAO performed a full investigation. This time, damage was catalogued, and it was extensive. Most of the initial reports were true (there were some, like reports of plumbing being clogged by notebooks or cabinets set on fire, which were false). What couldn’t be certain is when the damage had been done… maybe the furniture had been broken, the items like letter openers and hangers removed and the remote controls lost years prior to the transition; without evidence to the contrary they could not say with certainty all of that damage had occurred because of the transition. They came away with certainty only about the removed keyboards, the phones yanked from walls, and the superglued desk drawers.
Still… the key was that the reports were true, and the Democrat activists had spent months spinning their base and fundraising off of the blatant lie that they’d been unfounded. The Democrats had vandalized the White House, then made money and political gain by abusing the President’s desire for unity.
Fast forward twenty years. The Democrats are now going into the White House, and the Republicans have had a segment of their activists do something wrong. Unlike a dozen or two staffers, this was an act of hundreds of people. Rather than gluing some desks shut, this was an effort to overthrow the government where multiple lives were lost.
If Biden were to accept the “unity” argument right now, he would see the exact response that the Democrats enacted back in 2001… there would be cries that it somehow proved that Antifa was behind it all and that he was just afraid that investigation would expose it. The Trumpists would double down on their crazy – if that’s even possible – and instead of providing the unity he desired Biden would be seen as weak and a target. If he stuck to that tactic, he would be harassed by the opposition for the remainder of his Presidency with cheap attacks and conspiratorial lies.
Worse, it would provide a new baseline for what people can get away with in politics. Vandalism is bad, don’t misunderstand; but there are worlds of difference between petty criminality and an attempt to overthrow the government, even when that attempt fails.
The calls for unity are in reality a petulant demand for political cover. Exposure is what has been earned. Biden must press for a full investigation of the attack on the Capitol, from top to bottom, and then he must press for dire repercussions for all who participated, whether they be instigators, facilitators or actors and whether they be the poor, the wealthy, Congressmen and their staffers or even the former President and his staffers.
Republicans have made “personal accountability” a hallmark of their policy for decades. They should be forced to embrace it again, taking the damage as it exposes the corruption within.