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Big change is coming under Biden — and it won't be a smooth transition

Big change is coming under Biden — and it won't be a smooth transition
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There can be little doubt that 2020 will be remembered as one of America’s most tumultuous years. We are living through a time of momentous change. The long expected demographic shift in our politics is upon us, much to the chagrin of those who view such rapid change as an affront to the traditional American way of life. 

The selection of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden talks NATO, climate change in first presidential call with France's Macron Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick Senators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal MORE (D-Calif.) as former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Drastic measures for drastic times — caregiver need mobile health apps Boycott sham impeachment MORE’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket ushered in a wave of commentary about her status as the first woman of color to serve in that role. Biden has proclaimed himself as a bridge to the future of the Democratic Party, surely an accurate assessment of how Democrats view his candidacy. 

Many on Wall Street cheered Biden’s choice as a win for moderation over extremism, but that victory may be short-lived. For even the most casual political observer, it is impossible to miss the impatient rumblings on the left from those hoping to push a future President Biden far away from the center, hastening the change many Democrats see as long overdue. 

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In the ongoing congressional primaries, there is little evidence that moderation is a winning formula in the current political environment. Seven congressional incumbents were defeated in 2020 primaries, many by candidates running from what used to be considered the political extreme. Three members of the activist group of Democratic House freshmen known as “The Squad” faced well-funded primary challenges from more moderate candidates. 

All three — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTexas man charged for alleged role in Capitol riots, online death threats to Ocasio-Cortez DC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor MORE (D-N.Y.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Overnight Energy: EPA rule exempts many polluting industries from future air regulations | Ex-Michigan governor to be charged over Flint water crisis: report | Officials ousted from White House after papers casting doubt on climate science Ex-Michigan governor to be charged over Flint water crisis: report MORE (D-Mich.), and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocrats poised to impeach Trump again Pence opposes removing Trump under 25th Amendment: reports Pelosi vows to impeach Trump again — if Pence doesn't remove him first MORE (D-Minn.) — won easily. They are right to claim these outcomes as vindication of their philosophy and approach. Their numbers and clout will only increase in the next Congress because they will be joined by like-minded freshmen such as Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush, who ousted longtime St. Louis Democrat Lacy Clay in a campaign based upon social justice themes. Anyone expecting these passionate activists to sit back and wait their turn as a potential Biden presidency unfolds clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

On the Republican side, President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE continues his thinly veiled and bizarre messaging related to what he believes is the fear among “suburban housewives” about a proliferation of public housing under a potential President Biden. Like their Democratic counterparts, voters in this year’s Republican congressional primaries have favored politically extreme candidates who in past years would have been considered unelectable. Those expected to join the next session of Congress include Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, a vocal advocate of the nonsensical QAnon conspiracy theories, and Lauren Boebert, who gained national notoriety for encouraging employees to open-carry guns at her Colorado BBQ restaurant. 

Such results no longer are unusual. As the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman points out, many of these districts are expertly gerrymandered. In 2016, Omar’s Minnesota district voted for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE by a 73 percent to 18 percent margin, while Taylor Greene’s Georgia district supported Trump by a 75 percent to 22 percent margin. Is it any wonder these districts send to Congress some of the most polarizing candidates our nation has to offer?

The Senate is favored to switch to Democratic leadership, which undoubtedly would lead to party infighting about whether to do away with the filibuster rule in an effort to pass progressive priorities more easily. Although such a significant change is unlikely right out of the gate, it would become more plausible should Republicans, as expected, resist the climate change regulations, economic reforms, and health care and union expansions that are sure to be proposed early in a Biden administration. 

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Yes, Joe Biden is a transition figure; however, that transition is unlikely to be smooth. The cold, hard truth for Republicans is that the country is changing rapidly. Opposition to political issues such as marriage equality, expensive social programs, immigration reform and gun control used to be keys to conservative control of Congress. Today, those are mainstream issues with widespread public support. After the success of the Affordable Care Act and electoral passage of the related Medicaid expansions in some of the country’s most conservative states, Americans have become more comfortable with government intervention in their health care. Decisive action on climate change is likewise favored by a huge majority of Americans. 

The unvarnished truth is that the “fringe” of the Democratic Party today looks a lot more like mainstream America than does the “fringe” of the Republican Party. President Trump’s behavior and performance in office certainly have played a role in hastening this transition. But that transition was coming either way. It should come as no surprise that those who are frustrated as they see “their America” slipping away view this election as a referendum on their very way of life. 

This is where Joe Biden truly becomes a transition figure — not just for Democrats, but for America itself. Even if he were to serve only one term, his administration would face the possibility of being one of the most consequential in American history. If he wins, how he handles what is sure to be a messy, vitriolic transition will set the tone for how our country moves forward. He would have the chance to begin the healing process that is necessary in order to stamp out the flames of partisanship that have engulfed America. 

That healing will not be achieved, as many Democrats would like to believe, the moment President Trump leaves office. With what is likely to be complete control of Washington in 2021, Democrats must avoid the temptation to overreach while performing the same type of finger-pointing end zone dance in which Republicans engaged after 2016. Doing so would destroy a historic opportunity to finally bring our country together to face the challenges of the new and better America that awaits.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is a partner with Integrated Strategy Group, a business and public affairs consulting firm with offices in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.