Thoughts on the Transition of Power

By: C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., Founder & CEO of Monument Advocacy

For many Republicans and conservatives, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris today generates a set of bewilderingly inconsistent reactions. On one hand, you fear that the Democrats’ shift to the hard left will bring a host of policies that should be inconceivable in a centrist country — sky-high tax rates, disdain for law enforcement, and unions in charge of education, to name a few. On the other hand, you know that the country barely survived four years of President Trump and the inability of Republicans to stand up to his toxic brew of falsehoods, incitement, and chaos — even one more day of that experiment put the future of the country at serious risk. Like the proverbial frog being boiled slowly without realizing it, my party decided each day that it was easier to hope the President’s behavior would improve, only to realize 2000 days later that it was almost too late.

I arrived in Washington as an intern in the summer of 1987. There were certainly partisan brawls of that era (Robert Bork, Iran-Contra, ‘read my lips’) but for the most part the two major parties played near the 50 yard-line for the next two decades. The fringes of both parties were exactly that, fringes. For every bomb-thrower, there were five members of Congress who cared more about maintaining consistent U.S. foreign policy or bringing home federal projects. There were not debates whether capitalism or socialism was a better economic policy or whether a disease killing thousands of people a day was exaggerated.

I left government service in 2005, which seems about the exact time the trends pushing Americans apart reached the acceleration lane. The rise of cable news, social media, online fundraising, and super PACs — at the same time as globalization and automation have divided the world into more extreme economic winners and losers — has been a lethal combination.

On the right, you can draw a straight line from Sarah Palin’s anti-elitism to the Tea Party’s anti-governmentism to Donald Trump’s anti-truthism. On the left, it is not a stretch to toggle quickly from Occupy Wall Street to Seattle’s no-police “autonomous zone,” which city leaders tolerated for weeks. To take the sports analogy one step further, the bases of both parties now operate far from the 50-yard line — more like their own 5. Donald Trump’s 5 ½ years as a candidate and as President then drove all of the remaining moderates to pick a team, a world view, and a set of preferred ‘follows’ and ‘experts.’

Then the pandemic hit, and these divisions led the United States to deliver literally the worst response to the virus in the world. Inconsistent restrictions on normal activity and inconsistent messaging from political leaders resulted in the exact wrong combination of effectiveness (little, in the long run) and economic impact (severe, especially on the lower end of the income spectrum). Public health measures became political footballs, where a governor’s performance depended less about actual results and more about what could fit on a cable news chyron.

In addition, one of the most troubling aspects of the political trends of the past decade has been the increasing demonization of business, by both parties. For all its flaws, capitalism still remains the most potent force for economic development and an improved quality of life. And we have seen a positive sea change in corporate America in what the perceived goals of business should be, with more than just platitudes related to racial justice and sustainability. Attacks on business as the ‘problem’ rather than a key part of the solution will only make our current malaise worse.

So where does that leave us? The high-wire act of the past four years requires politicians and their supporters to try to rebuild the center of the American political culture and ignore the urge to seek the viral moment or to exploit the other team’s vulnerabilities. As one example, can we imagine a world where Republicans do not immediately shift blame for high COVID-caused unemployment on the Biden Administration? As another, could Democrats be willing to allow Republicans to seek forgiveness for opposing the Biden election certification?

As I wrote to my work colleagues the day after the attack on the U.S. Capitol:

I had the privilege of working inside the Capitol for over four years, just steps from the Senate floor, where some of our most important decisions of our country have been debated and decided. I was there on 9/11 when we literally heard the plane hit the Pentagon across the river and fled the complex with another plane in-bound to DC. As a leadership staffer, I had the even greater privilege of unrestricted access to the floor so it was not uncommon to walk through the door to the Senate floor ten or twenty times a day past the Capitol police guarding the floor. On my last day as a Senate staffer, I went to the floor and sat in my designated seat about 20 feet from the Presiding Officer’s chair on the dais and thought how lucky I was to be a part of America’s struggle with freedom. The idea that a random protester, or perhaps better labeled, domestic terrorist, would sit in that same chair with Senators locked in a safe room is beyond comprehension. The visual of another rioter walking through the adjacent foyer with a Confederate flag in 2021 is worse.

Yesterday was a dark and sad day, not just because of what happened, but because it represents a virus that has infected more than a sliver of our fellow citizens. The President, of course, deserves the largest share of the blame for an escalating barrage of falsehoods, incitements, and disrespect for democratic traditions. Those who have echoed his dangerous arguments, both in and out of government, are complicit as well. The role of technology platforms in exacerbating and facilitating anti-democratic events and thinking certainly is worth contemplation. History is likely to have a long list of people that will not be judged well for the past four years. And like many Republicans, I wish I had done more to speak out against the President and the escalating shame he has brought on our country, especially in how he has tried to divide us by race and class.

Joe Biden’s first day in office is going to be remembered for a series of harsh and jarring images with armed troops on high alert, the National Mall full of flags instead of people, and the impending arrival of shocking impeachment articles against the outgoing President. However, I am an optimist on America and have faith that we will look back on January 20, 2021 as a turning point away from a brutal era, not a mere date in our continued descent into tribalism.

C. Stewart Verdery, Jr.

Since founding Monument in 2006, Stewart has built the company into one of DC’s premier advocacy firms with offices in DC, Seattle and San Francisco. Monument represents world-class clients with particular expertise in the technology, security, energy, health care and sports sectors. As CEO, he is the driving force behind the organization’s mission and vision, which has led to “explosive growth” according to The Washington Post. A major policymaker and influencer, Stewart has served in high-ranking government positions in both the Executive Branch and Congress and acted as a senior advisor to leaders at some of the world’s best-known corporate brands. A frequent guest on CNN and Fox News, he is regularly quoted in influential media outlets regarding politics, security and technology policy. A veteran of numerous corporate and non-profit boards, he holds an undergraduate degree from Williams College, and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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