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What's a Fellah Got to Do to Win Around Here?
It’s been a mug’s game all along, this debt ceiling business. All the “looming disaster” hoo-hah. All the eschatological screeching. When it came down to not paying our bills and risking who knows what, we decided, by a vast bipartisan majority, that we probably should pay our bills. Majorie Taylor Greene, who is becoming one of my favorite comediennes—Mrs. Maisel is retiring, there’s an opening—called the bill a “Shit sandwich” and then voted for it. Would you like some Grey Poupon with your meal, my dear?
There are two substantive questions that arise from this springtime allergy-sneeze of an “issue” and its resolution: one concerns Joe Biden, the other is about the media.
The one about Biden is obvious and near-impossible to answer. This guy is a very effective President, perhaps he’ll even be regarded as a great one years from now, given our acrid era. So why is he so damn unpopular? I don’t have a theory—well, maybe I do, but I need to build narrative tension so you’ll keep reading. Anyway, here are some possibilities:
His age makes people nervous. As in: Ok, Joe, you’re doing a good job, but we don’t want to encourage you too much on the off chance that persistently low polling numbers will convince you to change your mind and not run again. We’re fearful you’ll really lose it in a second term and we’ll be stuck with Kamala Harris, a woman who demonstrates the impossibility of appearing stable while trying to stand still on roller skates.
A question, in the manner of Mark Halperin: What was the bigger event this week: The budget deal or the fact that Biden fell on his keister at the Air Force Academy?
The boy who cried wolf. Nobody—aside from Swamp People—took the deficit ceiling very seriously, so it didn't seem a major triumph for Biden. The national debt is an abstraction. It exists in the same area of the civic imagination as climate change, which is real—but near the bottom of public concerns when polled. I mean, is the possibility of climate change enough for me (not me) to give up my gas-guzzling Dodge Ram? Abstractions that demand action are the toughest sell in politics.
Is there anyone who can explain the reality of deficit peril, anyway? And when it kicks in? Let’s work it through: the Chinese keep buying our debt. We keep buying their products (and keep their clunky Stalinist state industries afloat). So, hmmm. Here’s the deal: We get Walmart prices and Apple phones, and they get our paper. Toilet paper, perhaps. Is there something I’m missing here? I’m sure there is, but don’t we have them over a barrel? I’ve asked the question of great economists—to their annoyance—some of whom are good friends—doubly to their annoyance (how could they befriend someone so stoopid?)—and no one has been able to explain to me, in a manner that I can understand, why Mutually Assured Depression is any less plausible a deterrence than Mutually Assured Destruction was during the Cold War. So why give Joe Biden credit for a triumph no one understands?
Especially when his Republican partner is Kevin McCarthy, who is from Bakersfield, California. I once tried to engage McCarthy on a really important topic: Merle Haggard, Bakersfield’s greatest artist. He couldn’t demonstrate any appreciation at all, which I found tragic. But, in the debt negotiations, he showed an ability to do the Texas Two-step backwards. Which was inevitable because the spending cuts he was demanding weren’t anything anyone really wanted. The work requirements he got for food stamp recipients aged 50 to 54 were a microscopic victory that will cost too much, I predict, to be implemented by a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to implement them. Oh Kevin, “My Kevin,” half a year in the public eye, has acted the very definition of a patsy and so Biden’s ability to wrassle him toward Sanity may not seem all that much of an achievement to the general public. Too bad, because defying his right flank was a very promising, and perhaps courageous, development on McCarthy’s part. Credit should be given.
We the People have lost track of how to celebrate the cautious triumphs of democracy. Indeed, we don’t understand what those triumphs are. They rarely involve the Marines raising Old Glory on Mount Suribachi, though that was a good one. The real victories in a mature democracy are the building of consensus, the consigning of extremist nutball legislators to the outer reaches of relevance. They involve the mini-brilliance of the horse trade: I’ll fund a museum of paper clips in your district if you vote that we pay our bills. Making sausage and getting the votes is victory. Making a sausage that signifies nothing, as the debt ceiling bill did, and getting the votes is…genius. Which leads us to point two:
We the Media spend so much time hyping the “divisive” and “hyper-partisan” style of post-Fox politics that we actually seem to believe it’s true. It isn’t, quite. There is a vast American moderate Sanity Caucus. There would actually have been a vast Congressional majority for a lot of things if Republicans hadn’t fallen prey to the Hastert Rule—which forbids a Republican Speaker from bringing a bill to the floor of the House if a majority of his caucus opposes it. This was named for Dennis Hastert, a Speaker who graduated from the House to Prison, for paying off the families of boys sexually abused when he was a wrestling coach.
Just think of it: Without the Hastert Rule, we could have an actual bipartisan Sanity Majority, on some issues—but assuredly not on others—that could have avoided the neurotic disaster-surfing of the Congress this past quarter-century. And more, we could have had a majority which represented the actual disposition of this country.
This is a founding principle of Sanity Clause. The interest groups, the crazies, the media all have a stake in maintaining the fiction that we’re about to have a civil war. Extremist demagogues like Donald Trump, who are able to mobilize a majority of the Republican Party, throw enough heat in primaries to make more-moderate colleagues scared to vote Sane, or take him on. On the Democratic Side, caucuses like the Society of Left-Handed Inuit People throw enough heat to intimidate the moderate leadership and allow anachronistic Brooklyn lefties like Bernie Sanders to pretend to be
men people of the people.
The Sanity Caucus in both parties has been intimidated by ideological extremists, who have held our democracy hostage. And so if this vote, on this abstract bit of ephemera, proves that it is possible to gather a majority in an act of Sanity, it may also be possible to move on from the Trump Era of delusional division. If the media—see below—comes to understand that the majority, not the screamers, is the story, we may be able to scratch out a return to rational public debate in the 21st Century. As David Ignatius writes, “What I like best about this deal is that it begins to reestablish a broad bipartisan political center.”
To the extent that Joe Biden helped steer us toward this result, he deserves laurels. But I still think he should rest on those laurels and retire.
Chicken Noodle Stew
Tim Alberta is a great magazine journalist. He’s one of those folks who, as soon as I see the byline, I commence reading. But he seems slightly boggled by Chris Licht of CNN, the subject of his latest Atlantic profile. On the one hand, there are moments when Licht seems eminently smart and creatively sane:
Licht recalled a recent dustup with his own diversity, equity, and inclusion staff after making some spicy remarks at a conference. “I said, ‘A Black person, a brown person, and an Asian woman that all graduated the same year from Harvard is not diversity,’” he told me.
A minute later—after noting how sharing that anecdote could get him in trouble, and pausing to consider what he would say next—Licht added: “I think ‘Defund the police’ would’ve been covered differently if newsrooms were filled with people who had lived in public housing.” I asked him why. “They have a different relationship with their need with the police,” he said.
On the other hand, there are Licht’s dreadful results: The Don Lemon Morning Show with Kaitlin Collins and Poppy Harlow. The Trump Interview with Kaitlin Collins. The very notion that the foolishly opinionated Mr. Lemon should be put in front of a camera. The firing of Brian Stelter—why? The firing of the stately John Harwood—why? The inability to find a consistent, authoritative style of newscasting. The inability to find the right prime time format for Jake Tapper (Hint: A straight-ahead news show wasn’t it.) Alberta doesn’t offer a convincing theory for these flops.
The answer may reside in the Hamptons, which—along with Martha’s Vineyard—is where the most precious of us hang out in Summer. David Zaslav, the Warner-Discovery boss who pulls the strings, has a place out there. Does Zaslav really rule the roost? Alberta hints but doesn’t commit.
As I’ve written before, the problem with CNN doesn’t lie on the Objective-Subjective spectrum. It lies on the Smart v. Not Very spectrum. There is a middle course between Fox and MSNBC. It is, in fact, a superhighway. There is a reason why political decision-makers watch Morning Joe, the show Chris Licht helped create. It is more a salon than a TV show (Tapper might be able to bring off some version of it). It is informed yet informal, and conveys the impression that this is what people who breathe politics really sound like; it has authenticity. It can be cranky and wrong, of course, but Morning Joe stands at the opposite pole from Wolf Blitzer saying, portentously, “This is a crucial, crucial story” and then strutting out a report that corn has been discovered in Iowa. 1
If Licht actually wants to succeed—I should say, if he’s given a chance after all the fol-de-rol of the past year—he’s going to have to trash the political correctness and worse, the constant marketing gimmicks that cripple CNN. He needs people on camera who not only understand the words on the teleprompter, but are obsessed and intrigued by the material…and can, maybe, give it a fresh spin without seeming to try so hard. Smart should be the new Woke.
Good news in that regard from NBC, by the way. Chuck Todd, a superb political analyst but not so great a TV interrogator, is leaving Meet The Press to become…a political analyst for NBC. He will be replaced by Kristin Welker, who ran an excellent presidential debate in 2020. Well deserved!
My own history with Morning Joe should be noted. It was good. Then it was not so good, after I said in 2016 that Donald Trump appealed to peoples’ “lizard brains.” Now, it’s good again and I thank Mr. Scarborough for using me and Sanity Clause material on air.