Both US parties have been hit hard by recent setbacks

Republicans give the impression they are incapable of anything meaningful and Biden's suffered his own political debacle

Trump had a mixed week in the courtrooms that seem to be becoming a kind of primary residence for him. Reuters
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Last week was dreadful for both parties in Washington. Republicans suffered their worst meltdown yet in Congress, this time including the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, underscoring the extent to which the party has become so deeply ideological and extreme it cannot govern or even take “yes” for an answer.

The de facto Republican leader, former president Donald Trump, appears poised for a victory from the Supreme Court probably allowing him to remain on all ballots despite a Colorado Supreme Court ruling citing the constitutional ban on insurrectionists returning to public office.

But he suffered a far more serious defeat when an appellate court held, contrary to his claims, that presidents don't have permanent immunity for crimes they committed while in office. For Democrats, fresh concerns emerged over President Joe Biden’s age, even as he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in his own classified documents investigation.

Almost no one was left unscathed.

Republicans' congressional clown-car crash antics sunk to an astounding nadir. They had been bemoaning the crisis at the US-Mexico border due to unprecedented unauthorised crossings and the immigration system in near-total collapse, and angrily demanding highly restrictive measures to stem the flow of unauthorised crossings which they were sure Democrats could never accept.

Democrats have sought to pair border security with pathways to citizenship, especially those brought to the country as undocumented young children and who have lived exemplary lives. But immigration is Mr Trump's key election weapon, so Mr Biden persuaded most Democrats to move dramatically to the centre on border security in order to blunt Republican attacks.

Democrats therefore supported legislation with harsh restrictions and enhanced presidential powers to restrict entry and automatically remove would-be migrants and asylum seekers, without any new citizenship pathway. This far-reaching Republican immigration wishlist was instead paired with military aid for Israel and Ukraine.

Ukraine aid is especially crucial because of adamant opposition of many Trump supporters in Congress who are unsympathetic to Kyiv. Democrats considered military support for Ukraine so vital, and the immigration issue so dangerous, they voted for legislation filled with provisions they would normally flatly reject.

Yet being presented with most of what they were aggressively demanding on a supposedly existential crisis, Republicans suddenly said "absolutely not”. Mr Trump aggressively insisted that immigration mustn't be seriously addressed under Mr Biden, because it would be “a gift” to the Democrats who, he claimed, “don’t care about the issue” but “need it politically”.

Americans have doubts about Biden’s age and cognition, but he certainly won’t be convicted of major felonies, found liable for massive fraud and sexual abuse, or facing 91 felony charges

The raw electioneering, not to mention psychological projection, was neither subtle nor disguised.

House Republicans naturally hopped to attention and rejected the very measures they had been furiously demanding when they were sure Democrats would oppose them. But, crucially, so did many Senate Republicans, including some of the legislation's key architects.

Mr Trump’s domination is now essentially total. Senate holdouts caved while looking ridiculous by denouncing legislation they had been demanding as imperative and indispensable and claiming this “existential crisis” is best addressed by the election more than 10 months away. They managed to stumble backwards into the trap they laid for their adversaries.

Worse, their effort to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas collapsed when Representative Mike Gallagher said he wouldn't support impeaching a senior official over policy disagreements rather than, as the Constitution dictates, “high crimes and misdemeanours”. None were alleged, though Republicans disdain his performance. Another vote is scheduled for next week, and, if past is prologue, the holdouts may well cave and agree to the first US impeachment over policy differences alone.

With Republicans strongly reinforcing the impression they are incapable of anything meaningful, or even taking “yes” for an answer from themselves, Mr Biden suffered his own significant political hit. The special counsel in his classified documents case, a Republican, announced no criminal charges could be sustained, but claimed that in depositions Mr Biden presented himself as “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.

These strikingly inappropriate claims in any prosecutorial document, especially one announcing no charges, will certainly reinforce the sense among many Americans that Mr Biden may be too old and deteriorated for a second presidential term.

The subsequent uproar underscores that Mr Biden’s age and perceived deteriorating mental competence are, perhaps, his greatest liabilities. Luckily for him, Mr Trump suffers from many similar lapses in public and is only three years younger. Yet it's going to be essential for Mr Biden, if he remains committed to re-election, take significant steps to offset this impression.

He should release much more detailed health information, and engage more with the press and public in sustained impromptu exchanges. Those who have had extensive and substantive private interactions with him insist that he is well-informed, insightful and clear-headed. It's essential to show that to a public that has serious doubts.

If he can't do that, then he should urgently step aside for one of several young Democratic governors who would make very formidable candidates against a seemingly increasingly unhinged Mr Trump. Either way, the burden is now squarely on Mr Biden.

Mr Trump had a mixed week in the courtrooms that appear to be his latest primary residence. He seems likely to appear on all state ballots but, more importantly, also to face one of his most serious criminal trials before the election. His cynical and toxic claim of “absolute immunity” was demolished by a brilliant Washington DC appellate court ruling that appears carefully constructed to give the Supreme Court no plausible basis to overturn it.

Moreover, it would require an unlikely five Supreme Court justices to issue a stay preventing Washington federal Judge Tanya Chutkan from rapidly moving forward with Mr Trump’s trial, now scheduled for March, on his attempts to reverse the 2020 election. If that trial indeed takes place any time before October, Mr Trump could easily become the first major presidential candidate to run as a convicted felon, which will probably prove devastating to his chances. A conviction before the election is also possible in other cases.

Americans have many legitimate doubts about Democrats, but at least they vote for their own legislation. They have doubts about Mr Biden’s age and cognition, but he certainly won’t be convicted of major felonies, found liable for massive fraud and sexual abuse, or facing 91 felony charges. Besides, Mr Trump isn't exactly an eloquently lucid spring chicken. Despite their growing anxieties, very few Democrats would trade places with Republicans going forward into this crucial election year.

Published: February 12, 2024, 2:00 PM