President-elect Joe Biden could largely avoid the quagmire of political turmoil he’s about to inherit by following a thoughtful course of action. Here’s a three-step plan that could pacify the entrenched partisan divides:
Step 1: Announce in advance that on taking office he’d pardon Donald Trump and any of his potentially culpable Cabinet or staff members for misdeeds they may have committed while in government service.
As far back as 1866, the Supreme Court ruled that the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.”
But whether a president can pardon himself remains a contentious question for legal scholars. Many feel that such an action would likely ignite a constitutional crisis. “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause,” wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers, “because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.”
Presidents have exercised their pardon power on behalf of others freely over the course of history, however, and many pardons have been blatantly political and consequently controversial.
In 1858, for example, James Buchanan pardoned the polygamous Mormons of Utah in exchange for their accepting U.S. authority over the state. Similarly, in 1865, Andrew Johnson pardoned thousands of Confederate troops willing to pledge allegiance to the federal government.
In 1977, in his first day in office, Jimmy Carter gave a blanket pardon to over 200,000 young men who’d left the country to avoid serving in Vietnam. In 2001 Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, pardoned two of his major donors (Marc and Denise Rich) and newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
In 2017, Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, who’d sent WikiLeaks thousands of classified war documents. Just last year Trump pardoned four men convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Promising to pardon Trump, while controversial, would assure his supporters that the outgoing president is not a target and help calm tensions.
Step 2: Call out the military to quickly and effectively distribute the already widely available COVID vaccine.
Biden would significantly boost American’s morale by genuinely helping them face the pandemic head on.
Step 3: Stem fears that he’d bankrupt the economy by rolling out some easily understood and doable stimulus packages.
The country would likewise be invigorated were the president-elect’s proposed economic stimulus plans to succeed. So would a healthy housing market. A number of financial gurus suggest that both are realistic possibilities.
All of this underscores what’s right with America. Few other nations are as addicted to self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-realization. What other people are engaged in such constant and impassioned discourse on the nature of liberty and democracy, where all are equally entitled and enabled to say their piece without fear of governmental repression or repercussion?
Biden should look for ways to dissipate widespread cynicism about our cultural misdeeds. He should spread the word that American exceptionalism is not a myth: We have the world’s largest immigrant population — and the kind of social mobility that allows it to become mainstream. College courses in business ethics show growing enrollments. Americans contribute more to charity than any other people in the world.
Though today’s shrill rhetoric often fogs the view, it’s still possible to see shared and abiding goals of national parity and purpose. This is due at least in part to the decidedly cynical sense of humor we apply to politics. Said Mark Twain, over a century ago: “All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; all Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” Added Will Rogers, a bit later: “That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.”
Polarized as we may be at the moment about Trump, we’ve weathered similar storms before. After World War II, Harry Truman saw a country “built on courage, imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln dreamed “of a place and time where America will be seen as the last best hope of earth.” George Washington unabashedly praised his countrymen following the Revolution: “Your love of liberty, respect for the laws, habits of industry, and practice of the moral and religious obligations, are the strongest claims to national and individual happiness.”
Today’s common folk understand that “Making America Great Again” is mere sloganeering. To them the country has always been a beacon of get-it-done democratic values.
The task before Biden is to keep it that way — to recognize America not only as a place of eternal paradox, but also of perpetual promise.
Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law: email@example.com. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.