After the Election: Governing by Grown-Ups
COMMENTARY

December 18, 2020by Sam Liccardo, Mayor of San Jose
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo

“What do we do now?” —Bill McKay, “The Candidate”

The smoke has cleared: the Electoral College has certified the result, the highest courts have refused to intervene, and even many leading Republicans have accepted the inevitable. As if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t have enough difficulty securing this hard-fought election six weeks after the last vote was cast, the toughest turf lies ahead: governing.

Despite their victory, there appears little hope for a Pax Democrata. Biden will enter office with a divided Congress, and a divided nation. Worse still, the Democratic Party will splinter in the absence of a unifying subject of enmity in Donald Trump. Biden will lack a sufficient base to govern from within his party, particularly if distrustful progressive Democrats feel unheard, and their demands predictably remain unrequited.

Never in our lifetimes has our nation depended so much on whether a president can build the necessary political support to lead – to navigate through a paralyzing pandemic, rebuild its economy, and to heal America’s wounds. To muster that support, Biden will need to embrace a pragmatism that will have him governing less like a president and more like a mayor.

Yet that support depends less on the President-elect’s actions, and more on ours. Biden’s center-left positions appear well settled; it’s the political landscape that has shifted around him. Berniecrats and Trumplicans will not soften their social media attacks merely upon seeing a kinder, gentler Twitter feed from the Oval Office.

A new coalition must emerge from the millions of pragmatic Democrats, disaffected Republicans, and the 40-45% of Americans who consider themselves unaligned with either. To enable Biden’s—and the nation’s—success, a mandate must emerge from Americans willing to push their leaders to transcend partisanship for principle, and to offer a new approach to leadership.  

What new approach? Battle-weary Americans must insist that their leaders embrace a mandate for what I call “governing for grown-ups.” Grown-up governance comprises a few basic principles:   

To enable Biden’s—and the nation’s—success, a mandate must emerge from Americans willing to push their leaders to transcend partisanship for principle, and to offer a new approach to leadership.  

First, much as parents must take the “long view” to save and sacrifice for their children, we must insist that our grown-up leaders put kids first. This embraces the left-leaning imperative to confront climate change by aggressively de-carbonizing our economy, for example, but also acknowledges the conservative’s righteous indignation over the unsustainable burdens of entitlement spending, unfunded pension liabilities, and federal debt on our progeny. The long view halts tax incentives for fossil fuel exploration, but also require advocates for single-payer health care or universal basic income to identify how to pay for those programs before enacting them.

Second, responsible leaders rely on evidence and independent expertise to navigate pandemics, economic crises, or natural disasters. It rejects impulsive allegiance to ideology, clan, and dogma, and embraces the battle cry of the policy wonk: “In God we trust; all others must provide data.” Comedy clubs offer drink discounts during “amateur hour” because heeding the opinions of amateurs rarely appears worth the time without compensatory intoxication. We shouldn’t support leaders that do. 

Third, as Biden has implored, grown-up governance chooses uniting over dividing. Whether Donald Trump’s bigotry or the “cancel culture” of the far Left, extreme partisans suffer from what I call the ‘division delusion’: “the fantasy that the other half of America can be conquered, and when it disappears we can get everything we want,” in David Brooks’ words. The delusion has mired us in a political Verdun, enduring lengthy battles that move entrenched positions by inches, but leave a wake of miles of destruction. Finding solutions to our toughest problems require voters to support leaders pushing for compromise and common ground, rather than punishing them in the next primary election. 

Finally, responsible leadership treats the governed like grown-ups. It recognizes that the daunting complexity and magnitude of our challenges—whether a pandemic, a warming planet, multigenerational poverty, or gun violence—requires empowering Americans, not manipulating them.  It calls for mobilizing people to collectively engage in difficult adaptive work, rather than pitching snake oil. Americans too readily allow politicians to play King Canute, purporting to hold back irrepressible global and technological tides with quick fixes ranging from raising tariffs, to building walls. Responsible leadership focuses on enabling displaced workers with the information, education, and skills they need to more nimbly navigate a rapidly changing economy.  

To emerge from our crises—and to break the gridlock over our response to it—the long-stifled voice of a pragmatic center must emerge. Some signs of hope have emerged, such as the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus’ birthing of the most recent fiscal relief package. Public support must embolden Congress to make the compromises necessary for the passage of critically needed legislation, whether fiscal relief for states and cities, immigration reform, a federal COVID-19 testing strategy, or a renewed investment in infrastructure.

America’s history gives ample comfort that, in our darkest days, we remain a nation capable of summoning leadership that can lift our gaze, inspire our better angels, and find common purpose. Yet in a democracy, we get the leadership we deserve. To enable that aspirational leadership, Americans must have the will to summon it.


Sam Liccardo is the Mayor of San Jose, America’s 10th largest city.  His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Mercury News. He is a Democrat.

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