How Biden Lost The Plot
Listening to interest groups and activists is no way to get re-elected.
If I were president (I know, I know) I’d take an hour or two each week and observe a focus group. Presidents never get the full truth talking directly with the public, let alone the nuances of the feelings behind various positions — but if the prez is behind a one-way mirror, people are much less intimidated or showboaty. And because a president is constantly surrounded by like-minded people in politics, he can easily drift into internalizing the priorities of his peers and pleasing his activists and forget what ordinary people actually wanted when they elected him.
That’s my best take on why Biden had such a terrible first year — his marination in Democratic politics and his distance from moderate voters are the problem — and why his long presser this week was so starkly out of touch with political reality.
The NYT just published the transcript of a fascinating focus group — with Americans who voted both for Obama and Trump at least once. And they’re not happy with Biden. They’re sick of Covid restrictions, frightened by inflation, and unsettled by rising crime and social disorder. Here’s one quote from a member of the group:
I think they’ve taken us back to cave man time, where you would walk around with a club. “I want what you have.” You’re not even safe to walk around and go to the train station, because somebody might throw you off the train, OK? It’s a regression.
Another old white man? Nope. That’s a statement from a 60-year-old Latina woman. The group takes a rather complacent view of January 6, 2021, and when asked about their concern for democracy, one respondent said: “You see how the Democrats in power, they seem to be wanting — changing the rules, you know. Voting rights, we can’t win free and fair elections, so let’s change some rules there.”
Of those who said they’d vote Republican in November, there were two reasons given: “I just want to send a message. I think the Democratic Party is nuts at the moment, and the only way I can send that message is with my vote,” and “Yeah, the progressives have taken over the Democratic Party.”
Now imagine these people watching Biden’s press conference on Wednesday.
It would have said absolutely nothing to them. It would show that the president doesn’t share their priorities, that he sees no reason to change course, that he has no real solution to inflation, and that his priority now is a massive voting rights bill that represents a Christmas tree of Dem wishes, opposition to which he categorized as racist as Bull Connor. Biden was, as usual, appealing as a human being: fallible, calm, reasonable, and more “with it” than I expected. I can’t help but like him and want the best for his administration.
But the sheer gulf between the coalition that voted for him and the way he has governed became even wider as the time went by. Joe Biden can say a million times that he’s not Bernie Sanders. But when his priority has been to force through two massive bills full of utopian leftist dreams, and conspicuously failed to pass either, while also embracing every minor woke incursion in American life, he’s just a Bernie Sanders without the conviction or mandate. Which is … well, not great.
Voting rights matter, obviously. The filibuster is a very mixed blessing — capable of creating complete gridlock when the country is so deeply divided. I favor the anti-majoritarian ethos of the Senate, but there’s a decent case that the filibuster renders the minority far too powerful. I think most people are open to reforms on both, and I sure am.
But is this really what Americans want their president to be focused on right now? And the way in which Biden framed the question — as about the core legitimacy of future elections, and about racism — seems wildly off-base. In 2020, we had record turnout in an election that made voting far easier than at any time in history (and the GOP picked up seats in the House). If we are in a crisis of voter suppression, it’s a very strange one. The evidence that Republican vote-suppression tactics actually work in practice is absent; the assumption that higher turnout always benefits Democrats is highly dubious; and many Democratic states have appallingly cumbersome electoral systems, like New York’s. Does that make Chuck Schumer a “white supremacist”?
More to the point, laws — like that recently passed in Georgia — are far from the nightmares that Dems have described, and contain some expansion of access to voting. Georgians, and Americans in general, overwhelmingly support voter ID laws, for example. Such laws poll strongly even among allegedly disenfranchised African-Americans — whose turnout in 2012, following a wave of ID laws, actually exceeded whites’ in the re-election of a black president. In fact, the normalization of ID in everyday life has only increased during the past year of vax-card requirements — a policy pushed by Democrats.
And Biden did something truly dumb this week: he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election in November now that his proposal for a federal overhaul has failed: “I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit.” No sitting president should do this, ever. But when one party is still insisting that the entire election system was rigged last time in a massive conspiracy to overturn a landslide victory for Trump, the other party absolutely needs to draw a sharp line. Biden fatefully blurred that distinction, and took the public focus off the real danger: not voter suppression but election subversion, of the kind we are now discovering Trump, Giuliani and many others plotted during the transition period. Reforming the Electoral Count Act could, in fact, help lower the likelihood of a repeat of last time. And if the Dems had made that their centerpiece, they would have kept the legitimacy argument and kept the focus on Trump’s astonishing contempt for the rules of the republic.
So why didn’t they? For that matter, why did the Democrats design massive cumbersome bills in 2021 — like BBB and the voting rights legislation — which are so larded up with proposals they are impossible to describe in simple terms? Why did they not break out smaller, simpler bills — such as the child tax credit — and campaign on one thing at a time?
And why have they wildly inflated the threat to election security and engaged in the disgusting demagoguery of calling this “Jim Crow 2.0”? The WSJ this week tracked down various unsavory GOP bills to suppress or subvert voting in three states — three states Obama singled out for criticism — and found that they had already died in committee. To argue as Biden did last week in Georgia that the goal of Republicans is “to turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion — something states can respect or ignore,” is to add hyperbole to distortion.
One explanation, perhaps, for Biden’s dense and hard-to-sell legislative juggernauts is that if he’d broken them up and prioritized any single policy, he’d have split his own party. Look what happened when infrastructure passed the Senate first: the left went nuts. In that sense Biden is not so much governing the country as trying to keep the Democrat coalition together, and in the end, achieving neither.
Another aspect of the problem is that so many Dem activists and groups have deeply imbibed the notion that America in 2022 is a “white supremacist” country, designed to suppress non-whites, and that we are now living in a system of de facto “legal fascism,” with a minority “white” party holding the country in its undemocratic grip, perhaps forever. The Democrats and elite liberals really seem to believe that we are back in the 1960s or 1890s or even 1860s, that we live in a black-vs-white world of good vs evil, and that the choice today is literally, in Biden’s words, between backing Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. This is as self-righteous as it is ludicrous. It’s MLK envy. It’s an attempt to recreate the moral clarity of the civil rights movement, in a country no one from 1964 would begin to recognize.
The Democrats also increasingly view the Constitution itself as a problem for democracy. Notice how frequently they bring up the anti-majoritarian nature of the Senate and the Electoral College, as if that’s a bug and not a feature of the American republican balance. Notice how adding seats to the Supreme Court is also popular among Dems, because they have been outmaneuvered by the wily and shameless McConnell in the Congress. And how many more columns in the MSM do I have to read by people who believe the next election will be our last if the Republicans win? I remember when Norm Ornstein and Ron Brownstein, for example, were solid pillars of centrist conventional wisdom. Now, they both appear to believe it’s 1933 in Weimar, and without a federal takeover of elections, our democracy is over. Our democracy isn’t over. It’s our liberal democracy that’s under threat, and this kind of morally pure Manicheanism is one reason why.
Yes, we should absolutely worry about Trump and his enablers. His disgusting lies and criminal plot to stay in power in 2020 are horrifying. But hyperventilating and then failing to pass a massive voting rights bill while delegitimizing the next election — which Biden just did — doesn’t hurt Trump at all. It’s a gift to him. Holding up the infrastructure bill for months to appease the left didn’t hurt Trump. It stepped on a key moment for Biden to show Americans he really was a centrist who could get the Senate to work.
Here’s what hurts Trump. Biden doing sensible deals with Manchin and Sinema on tangible areas of agreement, instead of castigating and alienating them. Insisting that our election system is, in fact, solid and legitimate. Celebrating the re-opening of schools. Firing the heads of the CDC and FDA, after their appalling performance during Covid. And imagine if Biden had given a tub-thumping speech last week not on why it’s still 1964 in America, but on why he is appalled by the soaring murder rates in many cities, especially in poor and minority neighborhoods, and opposes the catastrophic soft-on-crime policies Democrat DAs are promoting around the country. Go visit the NYPD with Mayor Adams. Work with Romney on childcare assistance. Head to San Francisco to support Mayor Breed’s attempt to rein in anarchy. Now that would hurt Trump.
Biden also seems incapable of grappling with the cultural leftism — from critical race theory to the replacement of biological sex with subjective gender — that is increasingly defining the Democrats as a party. He’s just absent, distant, irrelevant on these issues, even as they have shown to be deeply unpopular and deeply divisive. Has he said anything about education and the rights of parents, a burgeoning issue for many suburban voters? Not that I’ve noticed. Meanwhile his party becomes more and more associated with the teachers’ unions, whose refusal to teach children in person for two years is now legendary.
His capitulation to the cultural left — from federal funds for abortion to “equity” across the federal government — is puzzling. I can’t believe that Biden really thinks that deliberate discrimination in favor of some races but not others is an American value, but that is what he is doing everywhere he has authority. I doubt he believes that the United States remains in its essence a slavocracy, whose true origin was 1619 and not 1776, and that this should be taught as fact in high schools across the country. But he will not say a word against the poisonous canard that helped deliver Virginia to the GOP. I doubt he thinks there is no biological difference between men and women — but that’s what his policies on trans issues reflect. Has he ever used the term “Latinx” in private? Again I doubt it, but he mouths that linguistic absurdity in public speeches.
His silence on all these things offers a chance for a future pivot, of course, to remind us that he was once Barack Obama’s vice president, and not merely Ibram Kendi’s tool. But he’s as cowed by these fanatics as the rest of his party. And I doubt he hears a smidgen of criticism of wokeness from his advisers. I mean he appointed Susan Rice to impose it on the entire federal workforce. All he hears, I suspect, is that opponents of wokeness are just racist, transphobic bigots.
Maybe a huge Republican wave this November will force Biden to recalibrate, as happened with Bill Clinton. But Biden, one is increasingly reminded, is a party man, and his party has moved so far to the left in the past five years there is no way he can pull a Sister Souljah moment without splitting the Democrats in two.
So he may well become a transitional figure like Jimmy Carter — a response to a criminal president, as Carter was, but too isolated, partisan and controlled by left interest groups to build a coalition for the future. Instead, a growing backlash including many Latinos, black voters, a slice of Asian-Americans, and suburban parents could create a viable and resilient multiracial coalition for the center right. We just have to pray that Trump is not the man who leads it.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my conversation with Roosevelt Montás on the value of the humanities for immigrants such as ourselves — and everyone else; reader dissents over my column on trans athletes; many more dissents, assents, and stories from readers on the subject of CRT and trans activism; six notable quotes for the week that include references to South Park and the Simpsons; an Yglesias Award on school closures; 15 recommended links to other Substackers on a wide array of topics; a collection of creepy ads via Copyranter; a Rickroll for the OG Anglo-Saxons, urban windows from Baltimore and Lambeau Field; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge, showing a gorgeous sunset. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a subscriber and fan of the Dishcast:
Today I listened to Christopher Rufo’s episode, followed by the video you posted of Glenn Loury and John McWhorter. All are people who challenge me to think. They are people with important things to say. Then I realized I had “met” these people through the Dish. If I were to seek this kind of benefit from a university, I wouldn’t get this quality and it would cost a whole lot more. I hope you can see what value you deliver to many who would otherwise have limited horizons.
We’re planning to invite Glenn on the pod soon. John’s episode so far has the highest number of downloads of any Dishcast — more than 70,000. Here’s a taste:
Our #2 episode is Wesley Yang on the woke threat, and #3 is Woodward & Costa on the Trump threat — check ‘em out if you haven’t already.
Dissents Of The Week: The Sticky Wicket Of Trans Sports
A reader writes:
In focusing your latest column on Lia Thomas, I’m surprised you didn’t mention her meet last week with Iszak Henig, the trans male swimmer who crushed Thomas in two events. Henig isn’t even on testosterone. Doesn’t that give you pause over the supposed dominance of natal men in sports?
Not really. Read my reasoning here, along with three other reader dissents on the topic. A quick correction: my claim that Azeen Ghorayshi’s NYT piece failed to mention the bone-density factor was incorrect. My apologies. I somehow missed it. A reader flags another flub:
I know it’s hard keeping track of all the Downing Street parties, but Boris Johnson hasn’t been accused of attending either of the two that happened before Prince Philip’s funeral (April 16, 2021) — though the fact they happened at Number 10 has damaged him. The party he admitted to attending, the one Starmer was ridiculing him for at PMQs, was in May 2020.
As always, please keep the dissents coming, along with any corrections when we miss something: email@example.com.
New On The Dishcast: Roosevelt Montás
Montás, who led the humanities-rich Core Curriculum at Columbia for a decade and still teaches there, has a new book out, Rescuing Socrates. I loved this conversation. We were able to talk about Augustine and Freud and Gandhi in a way that left our current political agonies behind. And Montás shows how emancipating the discovery of ancient texts can be — to anyone trapped in the cult of contemporaneity, and to readers of all backgrounds and races. Reducing the classics to “whiteness” — a topic the Dish tackled last year — is a vile and racist reductionism.
For two clips of our conversation — on why the humanities are in crisis, and on whether the bodily desires of humans make them less free — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
That link also takes you a ton of reader response — dissents and otherwise — over last week’s episode with Chris Rufo. We also hear from more readers on the trans athlete question. The whole page is rich with stories and arguments, thanks to Chris Bodenner. It’s like an op-ed page with a real debate going on. And where else are you going to find that these days?
Creepy Ad Watch
Copyranter kinda likes it:
Many will call it “creepy”. Which it is. Some will call it “erotic”. Which it kind of is. But everyone will call it “unexpected”. Which should be the goal of every CW and AD as they start the creative process. This underwear ad is unlike anything ever produced before. And that’s a very special thing.
Four more of the “Best Truly Bizarre Commercials You’ll Ever See” here.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers topics such as the synagogue attack in Texas, YIMBYs and AOC, and the return of the flu. Below are a few examples, followed by a brand new substack:
What can Biden do to help the economy? Barro takes a serious look.
Emily Van Duyne, who’s writing a book on Sylvia Plath, reflects on getting pregnant at the start of the pandemic and overcoming both alcohol and the urge to abort. (Props to her son’s name, Bowie.)
Musician Amanda Palmer launches an advice column — welcome!
You can also browse all the substacks that Bodenner and I follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please drop us a link: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
See you next Friday.