Sunday, January 23, 2022

How Biden Lost the Plot

 It's Andrew Sullivan, at the Weekly Dish, "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...