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Another Conversation the Dems Won't Have
Aimlessly wandering through the channels, in search of a sporting event more compelling than cornhole, I came across the President of the United States, one Joseph R. Biden, delivering balm to the residents of Florida recently submerged by Hurricane Idalia. It was shocking, and sad. He seemed so old. His eyes were slits, he turned the pages of his very prepared remarks haltingly. He slurred his words, slightly. His physical condition overwhelmed the message. He assayed passion in a few closing sentences about the racist murders in Jacksonville, but it wasn’t passion that came across—it was the attempt to convey passion.
Age can be cruel. I’m about to celebrate (?) my 77th birthday and I’d like to believe I’m still spry and sharp. I don’t shuffle when I walk or stumble about, but I do find myself searching for the right word and my car keys, and there are all these pills, and I find myself…resting a lot lately. Oh, I feel stronger in other ways—I have a sense of perspective, and calm, that I didn’t have when I was younger. I can still write and thoroughly enjoy the act of putting words together. But I used to be able to spend weeks on end in Iowa, working 12 hour days in the dead of winter—and I wouldn’t want to attempt that now. “You’re a glutton for punishment,” an editor once told me, as I headed off to yet another Bill Bradley town meeting. He was right, but my gluttony was apt. You have to be a glutton for punishment if you want to do anything well.
Eventually, though, ardor is tempered by wisdom. There is a sweet spot, a balance between ardor and wisdom, before wisdom is eventually compromised by exhaustion. This part of life is called being a grownup, an invaluable quality among politicians. Indeed, inexperience has been a plague on American politics in the television era. I watched a succession of baby boomer presidents—Bill Clinton, George W, Bush, Barack Obama—learn the painful lessons of what is possible in office. Of course, experience can be a mixed blessing, too: I think a lot about Bush, a good man suckered into Iraq by two “experienced” men, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, too old to understand the ephemeral nature of Al Qaeda and Sunni terrorism.
Which brings me back to Biden: I’ve been reading Franklin Foer’s unsatisfying account of our disastrous departure from Afghanistan in The Atlantic. Foer is a terrific journalist and the excerpt is from a book about Biden that will make some noise this week, so I’m hoping that there will be more context than the tick-tock account I read. The great unmentioned irony: Biden was one of the few American politicians who was right about Afghanistan from the start. He argued against the military’s “Afghan surge” during the Obama Administration; he understood that Afghanistan was, if anything, a special ops war: get rid of Al Qaeda and get gone before you’re sucked into nation-building.
For those of us who spent time in Afghanistan, the endgame came as no surprise. I made several visits to a once-crucial town called Sanjaray in Zhari District where a series of American Army Captains learned these truths: that the local leaders were thoroughly compromised by the Taliban, that the local people couldn’t distinguish us from the last invaders, the Russians; that the Afghan civilians were happy—grateful, really—for any help we could give them; and everyone, especially the Talibs, knew we would eventually leave. A mixed message to be sure. But no surprise when the Afghan “army,” which we’d spent billions funding, evaporated in the face of the Taliban offensive. It turned out that almost everybody in the Afghan establishment had made the same calculation as the local warlord in Sanjaray—his name was Hajji Lala: they all had secret deals with the Taliban.
How could Biden not know this? How could he not plan for it? Why did he abandon Bagram, the massive American airbase that might have been a less chaotic staging area for our evacuation than the commercial airport in Kabul? Perhaps there will be answers in Foer’s long-form account and I would hope that they’re deeper than this:
Foreign affairs was sometimes painful, often futile, but really it was emotional intelligence applied to people with names that were difficult to pronounce. Diplomacy, in Biden’s view, was akin to persuading a pain-in-the-ass uncle to stop drinking so much.
Yeah, maybe. One of Biden’s great strengths as a politician was his ability to distill complicated policy into kitchen table folk wisdom. But he also was a sophisticated foreign policy thinker who was right about most of the big issues of his era (although he did vote for the war in Iraq). And Biden had other significant strengths: his experience helped him navigate a near-impossible legislative situation as President, passing infrastructure, industrial policy and climate change bills that will have a long-term impact (even if their political impact will be negligible in 2024). I’ve known Biden for more than 30 years and he has had bad moments—the Clarence Thomas hearings, for example—but he has almost always acted from a foundation of sanity and pragmatic politics rather than ideology. His presidency has been like that, for the most part.
So it’s sad to watch him now, past his sell-by date. His campaign seems creaky, contrived—this whole, lame Bidenomics pitch is an apt metaphor. Old Joe was out on Labor Day, trying to be enthusiastic, touting his economic record, shouting “Jobs!” while the public was moaning, “Prices!” (It is a conundrum: inflation is “down”—the Fed seems to be gliding toward a soft landing, a real feat—but prices are up, higher than last year, every trip to the market a shockeroo, and so neither Biden nor Jay Powell are getting the credit they deserve for slowing its course.)
And there are all the things the President won’t talk about: Immigration, education (especially charter schools, supported by the vast majority of Democrats), fentanyl, Trump, Hunter. He is running as a void: he isn’t Trump. That may be enough to win, but I’m sensing—or maybe it’s just me feeling this—a growing frustration among Democrats. A growing desire for…energy. Biden is a ghost of what the country needs right now.
It’s said the Biden people are worried by Gavin Newsom’s clever appropriation of the political space, his gleeful taunting of Ron DeSantis, whom he’ll debate in November. They should be. The contrast between Biden’s dirge and Newsom’s verve is damning (though I’m closer to Biden’s politics than Newsom’s). And there is a fascinating generation of Democratic governors on the horizon—Newsom, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Colorado’s Jared Polis, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro…and around the next corner, Maryland’s charismatic Wes Moore.
Those who say only Biden can beat Trump don’t know politics. Any of the governors listed above can beat Trump. And Nikki Haley, the freshest voice in presidential politics right now, can beat Trump, too—watch the numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump’s polls right now are a protest vote. They are Republicans telling Democrats, leash your lawyers. Enough already. The threshold question hasn’t yet been considered by Republicans in the early states: Do we really want more of this guy? The answer may be yes. We’ll start to know more in December. The numbers may not change, but I won’t be surprised if they do. And if Trump collapses, Haley or Pence or even DeSantis can beat Biden.
Biden has done what he said he would. He’s been a solid “transitional” President, but transition requires transit, a second act. We need to transition to something, a new Democratic vision of America—or to someone who can plausibly promise a creative way out of this molasses stasis. But Democrats are paralyzed. They’re terrified that a real conversation, a real political contest, will result in chaos—that Biden will collapse under pressure and there won’t be anyone credible to replace him. That is certainly a possibility; history has not been kind to incumbent presidents who faced primary challenges.
But it’s the wrong concern. Democrats really should be terrified by the opposite: that nothing will change between now and election, except Joe Biden will get older.
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