Tag Archives: Joe Biden

Bad History is Still Good Politics

Biden_P6YI6TBVLLUBBBGXLAELast September, I wrote a bit about the frustrating rhetoric of novelty that surrounds this presidency. There are frequent claims–sometimes from the president but especially from his critics–that he is a norm-shattering figure, untethered from the historical rules and codes of conduct of the American presidency. The cry since the 2016 election of the “resistance” has been never to normalize this administration. But it is normal, at least with regard to its positioning in the grand flow of American presidential history. For every horrible (or, if you’re so inclined, laudable) thing he has done, there is a clear precedent or analogue in administrations past. He is not the corruption (or, again if you’d prefer, metamorphosis) of the US presidency, he is “its culmination–historically and morally the distillation of everything it stands for and has always stood for.”

Nevertheless, the rhetoric persists, and it appears to be born from a delusion that American global authority is rooted in virtue rather than force, exceptionalism rather than triumphalism. Neurotic though it may be, this collective self-deception has been an effective political tool for both parties for at least a century (as far back as Woodrow Wilson’s “moral diplomacy”) and probably longer. The fact that this president has thrown open the curtain–or, to recycle my metaphor from last fall, wiped the lipstick off the pig–may leave us uncomfortable with what we see, but it doesn’t change what we’ve always had. The “wizard” was always a con-artist; the pig was always a pig.

That didn’t stop the narrative from reappearing in this past week’s Democratic primary debates, where once again historical blindness came into service of political rhetoric. Former Vice President Joe Biden–who by all accounts had a rough night and who will almost certainly not suffer for it–doubled-down on the rhetoric of norm-shattering novelty in his closing remarks. See if you can catch the bogus history in the following:

I’m ready to lead this country because I think it’s important we restore the soul of this nation. This president has ripped it out. It’s the only president in our history who has equated racists and white supremacists with ordinary and decent people. He’s the only president who has, in fact, engaged and embraced dictators and thumbed their nose at our allies. I’m, secondly, running for president because I think we have to restore the backbone of America, the poor and hardworking middle class people.

If you guessed “all of it,” then you’re right. The appeal to America’s exceptional virtue is clear and utterly nonsensical. The “soul” (now lost) of the US is, for Biden, it’s racial inclusivity and its repudiation of authoritarian governments. On a night when Biden got raked over the coals for his insensitivity toward the lingering pain of America’s racial history, it is telling to me that no one has called him out on the first of these claims. Every American president at least through (and including) Abraham Lincoln would have equated southern slave owners with “ordinary and decent people.” Say what you will about a brief and radical period of Reconstruction, but most presidents since would also have embraced what the contemporary left considers “racists and white supremacists” as perfectly regular folks. When we have had eighteen American presidents who owned slaves–eight of whom owned slaves while in office–it’s pretty ridiculous to say that this president is the first to consider racism ordinary.

But pointing that out does a disservice to the narrative that this president (rather than America itself) has a pretty consistent and universal race problem.

The idea that the US had a clear and steadfast policy of opposing authoritarian governments prior to 2016 is equally absurd, as any even remotely honest reading of the Cold War in Latin America will reveal. Support for Cuban authoritarian Fulgencio Batista (a support which helped provoke Castro’s communist revolution) and the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala (Arbenz) and Chile (Allende) in favor of brutal military dictators are just the beginning. From the détente with Papa Doc to Operation Ajax and the installation of the shah in Iran, the US has a long and proud history of engaging and embracing dictators. In fact, the rise of modern dictatorships coincides–not entirely coincidentally–with the end of isolationism as a viable US foreign policy. If this president has decided to do his cozying up to dictators in public rather than through covert agencies, that is again a change in window dressing not substance.

Biden knows what he is saying is ridiculous. Or someone on his staff does. I don’t believe that no one in the whole machine of the current Democratic field is smart enough to see the patent historical absurdity of the claims being made. The problem is that bad history has always been good politics. Because “that’s not how we do things” has more resonance than “that’s not how we do things lately,” and “that’s not who we are” is more comforting than “that’s not who we pretend to be.”

 

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What to say about 2020?

It’s never too early to start talking about the next election. That’s the golden rule of the 24 hours news network. As little as it matters in reality the small ups and downs of candidates, the vast majority of whom will never make it to the presidential contest, they drive interest in the news. Elections mean change, and almost everyone wants some change all the time. And so, ink continues to be spilled daily over each new candidates every new thought. My own political views notwithstanding, I can hardly help but consume all of it, or at least as much as I can cram down my mind-gullet on any given day.

Here are what I consider the most memorable quotes from the best articles about the 2020 hopefuls so far. I offer it here in part as a primer for those not yet familiar with the current cast of recurring characters. Mostly, though, I offer it to myself as an archive–a way of recording what people thought about these candidates in the white hot heat of the moment when everything was still possibility and nothing had been settled yet. Because, in the end, most of these names will in fact be resigned to history–the kind of history only historians and grad students do, not the history you learn in school.

No one is getting more coverage right now than undeclared, front-running Joe Biden, whose “tactile” style of personal interaction has proven less than ideal in a post-#metoo political landscape. Politico has by far the best article, “What Should We Make of Joe Biden?,”taking more seriously than most the true, legitimate diversity of opinions on Uncle Joe within contemporary feminism.

All the op-eds about “creepy” Uncle Joe make me want to call up my now-long-dead rhetoric professor. “What do you call the trope in which a part of a thing stands in for the whole?” I’d ask. “Synecdoche,” he’d say. “And isn’t there a synecdochal fallacy?” Well done, he’d say (or I hope he’d say). The false inference from the property to the essence.

It’s a sly feint, that false inferring. It’s how you glide from Biden’s old-school-pol’s touchy-feeliness to his unsuitability for office, without anyone quite noticing.

The last thing Joe Biden needs, at this moment when millennial and GenX candidates are sucking all of the oxygen in the Democratic primary, is to look like somebody’s grandpa. Yet that’s the impression he gives in that rambling two-minute video, where he unbuttons his shirt collar, turns the folksy-meter to 11, and declares his sudden realization that “the boundaries of respecting personal space have been reset.” It’s one of those excuses that might possibly be worse than the crime. No, Joe, the boundaries haven’t changed; what’s changed is that people at last feel empowered to tell you that you’ve been crossing them for decades.

The precise opposite of Biden, as far as coverage goes right now, is the enigmatic media darling, Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke is continuing to thrive in his wheel-house of “not winning, but doing better than he has any right to,” but the consistent lack of specificity leaves everyone with an eerie sense that there is something more theatrical than substantial to Beto. The Washington Post unpacks some of the problems with this in “Beto O’Rourke is a Walking, Talking Generation X Cliche.”

It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it.

Kamala Harris is–despite her checklist of diversity credentials–a more traditional candidate. A coastal liberal of a less iconoclastic sort with an impressive list of public service credentials and a dynamic personal presence. She’s also, unsurprisingly, drawing from at least some traditional Democratic sources of funding: Hollywood elites. Only time will tell whether or not this is to her benefit. Says Variety’s “Kamala Harris, Other 2020 Candidates Make Push to Showbiz Donors as First Deadline Nears:”

Harris likely will lead other candidates in the money primary when it comes to the amount she has raised from showbiz sources. She has been the most prolific in courting high-dollar donors at traditional fundraising receptions. Her first big Los Angeles one was at the home of Universal’s Jeff Shell and his wife Laura; she earlier this month headlined an event at the home of J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath.

The crowd of second tier candidates have the hardest time attracting attention, and often how they attract attention is not the most productive. Enter John Hickenlooper, the folksy, riches to super riches Westerner is the long shot of long shots, for a good reason. As a Politico profile notes, “John Hickenlooper Is Running for President As Himself. Uh-oh.

He probably won’t be the president of the United States. Maybe it’s because he’s too weird. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s too normal. Maybe it’s because he’s too much like us—flawed, offbeat, human.

With Pete Buttigieg, it’s been an embarrassment of riches for the media. Once they got past the incessant joking about his names (and we’re not really past that yet), what do they focus on? He’s young. He’s gay. He’s a Rhodes Scholar. He’s a veteran. And on and on. As it so happens, it the gay thing that is the fixation, but not in the “can we elect a gay man president” way that you’d expect. Instead, it’s more of a “is this gay couple just to precious to stand; they had to be cooked up in a Hollywood lab” way. See Politico’s “Chasten Buttigieg Is Winning the 2020 Spouse Primary.”

That’s the ultimate purpose of the presidential spouse: to sell the entire package, letting us imagine the family in the White House as a symbol of success, a national ideal. As a potential first husband, Chasten would be historic but also a comforting throwback, someone who took his husband’s last name and unwaveringly supports his ambitions without wondering how they have affected his own.

Elizabeth Warren was supposed to be part of the top tier; she has, after all, the firebrand flare and New England intellectual heft of Bernie Sanders, minus the socialism and the imminent expiration date. For whatever reason though–and the ancestry debacle probably has something to do with it–she can’t seem to live up to her own name. Part of the problem may be that she just can’t seem to dissolve her brilliance and her spunk into the same tasty cocktail that Bernie has manged. This is basically the judgment of an unflattering Bloomberg op-ed, “Warren Steals a Page from Trump.”

Elizabeth Warren’s latest position paper, on agricultural policy, is a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.

Then of course there is that vast pack of candidates who don’t rise to the level of serious consideration. These are the Tulsi Gabbards, who can be mentioned just long enough to say they don’t merit mention. A surprising contender to slip down into this category is Amy Klobuchar, whose rising status has largely become a backdrop against which to view her slow death by a thousand cuts. Though an “an able member of the Senate” (talk about damning with faint praise), Klobuchar has seemed to struggle to run with the pack, even the second tier pack. Consider her unfavorable ranking in Politico’s “Latino Outreach or Google Translate? 2020 Dems Bungle Spanish Websites.”

Klobuchar’s Spanish website has perhaps the most egregious mistakes, leaving readers to wonder whether the text was copied and pasted straight from Google Translate.

There are, of course, others. The vegan candidate. The anti-circumcision candidate. The teen trolls’ candidate. Oh, and Bernie Sanders, about whom undoubtedly more has been written in the last three years than any politician save the president. But the goal is not to be exhaustive. This is already too much to say about an election that is more than a year away and a caucus that is still almost that far off.

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