"And now for something completely different," John Cleese routinely intoned between absurdist sketches on "Monty Python's Flying Circus." He might have been wearing a tuxedo or a pink bikini, and on one occasion he said it while appearing to be roasting on a spit.
After the debacle of 2020 — a year that felt a little like being on that spit -- many people are yearning for a clean break, "something completely different."
It might be too much to ask. The year begins with two pieces of leftover business: the runoff elections in Georgia Tuesday that will determine which party controls the US Senate, and the session of Congress Wednesday at which the Electoral College's votes to elect Joe Biden will be counted. The first is genuinely suspenseful, the second purely a formality, though one some Republican lawmakers are threatening to use as a forum to air President Donald Trump's baseless claim that he was cheated of reelection by massive voter fraud.
The GOP objections have "zero chance of succeeding," wrote election law expert Joshua A. Douglas. But that doesn't mean they won't cause harm -- "American democracy cannot survive the losing party refusing to accept defeat."
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert sued Vice President Mike Pence this week to empower him to throw out electoral votes against Trump when he presides over the congressional session. "So ridiculous," Elie Honig wrote. "If Gohmert were right -- if the vice president could, at his own whim, simply discard certain electoral votes while accepting others, then on January 6, 2017, Vice President Joe Biden could have decided to install President Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump. And on January 6, 2001, Vice President Al Gore could have named himself the winner of the 2000 election...You can see the absurdity here." A federal judge dismissed Gohmert's lawsuit Friday and a circuit court rejected Gohmert's appeal Saturday.
In fact, Pence's only constitutional role is to preside over the counting of the votes cast December 14, when Biden received 306 electoral votes compared to Trump's 232, and to announce Trump's defeat. That makes it an excruciating position for the veep to be in, as Michael D'Antonio pointed out: "Pence's tenure as vice president has looked like a continuous show of servility. When he wasn't offering over-the-top praise to Trump and his policy choices, he stood at his side beaming, with the kind of adoring expression that recalled Nancy Reagan's appreciative look toward her husband, former President Ronald Reagan."
After the Electoral College voted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally recognized Biden as the President-elect. "Let's be clear," wrote Jill Filipovic, "McConnell doesn't get applause for foot-dragging, for belatedly doing the normal thing. It's not even the right thing -- 'doing the right thing' implies some sort of moral courage."
Even the Trump-friendly New York Post called on the President to abandon his futile effort to overturn the election results. "If you insist on spending your final days in office threatening to burn it all down," wrote the Post's editorial board, "that will be how you are remembered. Not as a revolutionary, but as the anarchist holding the match."
Election security official Christopher Krebs, who was fired by Trump after not backing up his fraud claims, wrote that his agency at the Department of Homeland Security geared up to prevent foreign meddling with the 2020 election, "but we did not see any successful attacks or damaging disruptions." Instead, the threat came from within after the election: "We began to see wild and baseless claims of domestic origin, about hackers and malicious algorithms that flipped the vote in states across the country, singling out election equipment vendors for having ties to deceased foreign dictators. None of these claims matched up with the intelligence we had, based on reporting from election officials or how elections actually work in this country."
Trump's railing against the outcome of the election and his sour attitude to the Covid-19 relief stimulus bill his own administration negotiated is making things tougher for the two Republican senators in Georgia.
"This holiday season, President Donald Trump has wreaked havoc on Congress, our democracy and our judicial system by pardoning political associates and convicted murderers," wrote Joe Lockhart. "But Trump has saved a special kind of Grinch-like behavior for the two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia who are headed for runoff elections in January and for Senator Mitch McConnell, whose fate as majority leader depends on the GOP winning at least one of those races."
To Frida Ghitis, "the truly strange part of this prolonged battle for the Senate is that if Democrats win, it will be in large part thanks to the bizarre behavior of a Republican president, who didn't just energize Democrats and repel many moderate Republicans, but, through his consistent undermining of the electoral results in Georgia, triggered a mind-boggling campaign that persuaded some Republicans not to vote for at all."
Edward Lindsey, a Republican from Georgia, is betting that voters in his normally red state will bring victory to David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Their Democratic opponents, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are running to the left of previous candidates from their party in Georgia, Lindsey noted. "Embrace of Biden and the Democratic Party's agenda is a two-edged sword. While it whips up the Democratic base, it also assists Republicans in sending the message to their base that the stakes of this special election are bigger than just the Senate -- they could decide the fate of the first two years of Biden's presidency," wrote Lindsey.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Richard N. Bond urged his fellow Republicans to concede the election to Biden, while noting that his party could take pride in its "astonishing and wholly unexpected gains on the federal, state and local level." On a variety of policy priorities, he wrote, "progressives will likely be disappointed in the outcome of the next two years. Because even if Democrats win both Senate seats, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has declared he will not support several of these ideas, and in a 50-50 split, Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote."
After griping about the stimulus bill and saying its $600 payment to most Americans was too low, Trump ultimately signed it Sunday night. Democrats agreed with Trump that the payment should be raised to $2,000 but McConnell blocked action on that in the Senate. In the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell argued that the debate over $600 vs. $2,000 is the wrong question. "Sending money to nearly every American family to ensure that help gets to the much tinier fraction who actually need it is not a terribly efficient use of resources," she wrote. "The payments end up being a pittance for higher-income, fully employed households, yet insufficient for the households that suffered large income losses."
For more on politics:
Kate Andersen Brower: How Trump is making this hard job even harder
Jeffrey D. Sachs: The ugly part of the $900 billion stimulus bill
Julian Zelizer: Trump's wrecking ball of a transition
Here come the vaccines
The most promising sign for 2021 is the rollout of vaccines that look to be extremely effective against the virus that causes Covid-19. But the disease is still rampant and hospitals in parts of the country are running out of space.
What's more, the number of Americans vaccinated as of Saturday is 4.2 million, far behind the 20 million goal that had been set for the end of December. Dr. Kent Sepkowitz noted that the slow-moving rollout is not surprising given the logistical challenge of mounting a national public health program and "the clear lack of urgency from the White House." He predicted that "the Biden administration will increase the pace and address all the contingencies efficiently and without politics," after it takes over on January 20.
"We are in the midst of a national disaster," wrote Dr. Megan Ranney, a CNN medical analyst and an associate professor of emergency medicine. "We -- politicians and public health officials -- are asking people to do the very hardest thing: to not see their families during a series of holidays that revolve around families, in order to stave off future disease spread." Which is why, she noted, it's painful to see officials who know better failing to heed their own advice.
"The Democratic mayor of Denver told residents to stay home for Thanksgiving -- and then flew to Mississippi," Ranney wrote. "The Democratic mayor of Austin recorded a video imploring his constituents to stay home -- while on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, more than 800 miles away. ... Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the administration's most publicly recognizable scientists, traveled during Thanksgiving to be with multiple generations of her family. (Dr. Birx says she went to Delaware to winterize a property before a potential sale rather than to celebrate Thanksgiving, but that her family had shared a meal together while in Delaware.)"
To end the pandemic, wrote Drs. Howard K. Koh and Michael R. Fraser, 75% to 85% of Americans must be vaccinated, a much higher proportion than that of Americans typically receiving flu shots. To get there, they wrote, "we all must first give public health professionals their own 'shot in the arm': recognition, support and resources from policymakers and the public. Now is the time for the nation to rally behind public health professionals -- an often invisible, underappreciated workforce -- as they orchestrate all the highly visible aspects of vaccination, from invention to injection."
Reaching out to the public is crucial if the Biden administration is to succeed in fighting Covid-19, wrote Héctor Carrillo. "Mounting the formidable battle against the spread of the virus requires a comprehensive, national campaign that spells out in simple terms — with consistent, engaging, and compelling messages — a crucial point that the Trump administration was not willing to articulate: Covid-19 is preventable and can be eradicated if each of us engages consistently in preventive practices and if we pursue testing after a possible exposure."
For more on the pandemic:
Lord Tariq Ahmad and Elizabeth Cousens: How to distribute Covid-19 vaccines fairly around the world
The Blackwater pardons
Thomas O'Connor worked as a team leader on an FBI evidence team for more than 20 years before he retired in 2019. He investigated the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, along with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and of the US embassy in Kenya in 1998. But one of the experiences he will never forget is investigating the killing of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on September 16, 2007. President Donald Trump pardoned four Blackwater security guards who were serving time for what O'Connor established was an unprovoked shooting spree at a traffic circle in Baghdad.
Among the dead were a mother and son driving in a white KIA. She was a doctor and he was going to medical school. Another was a 9-year-old boy, hit in the head with a Blackwater round, who slumped into his father's arms.
"The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free, thanks to a pardon by the President of the United States," wrote O'Connor. "This simply makes me sad and angry . ... There is no forensic evidence of anyone shooting at the Blackwater team. How do I know? The evidence told me that."
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Turning the page
But there's no getting around the fact that the usual year-end rituals felt tougher than ever this time. Reviewing the year in the Miami Herald, Dave Barry wrote, "We're trying to think of something nice to say about 2020. OK, here goes: Nobody got killed by the murder hornets. As far as we know. That's pretty much it."
Still, there's hope for a better year ahead, wrote David Faris, in The Week. When enough people are vaccinated, he noted, "We're going to party down at the weddings that were canceled when the pandemic descended upon us, as well as the graduation parties and family reunions and music festivals and the slew of holiday celebrations that sensible people put off."
Faris imagined what's to come: "Sometimes when I can't bear the thought of one more day of this miserable, attenuated existence, I picture myself in July at Chicago's Wrigley Field on a glorious, sun-soaked day, a Goose Island in hand and my toddler nestled into my other side, as a sold-out crowd of newly liberated revelers gives a five-minute standing ovation to a gaggle of doctors, nurses, grocery workers and Amazon drivers. It gets me through some tough nights. And it's coming."