The Morning Jolt


Biden’s Campaign-Trail Gaffes

Joe Biden in Detroit, Mich., July 24, 2019 (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

It’s been a grim and infuriating week. Let’s end this week with some lighter topics, before I head out for a week: the floor of a Biden presidency; the former vice president’s recent verbal difficulties on the trail; a new television show that looked promising before a gruesome turn; and what you’ve always wanted to know about aliens.

The Safety Brakes on a Biden Presidency

Let’s put together two seemingly accurate observations. First, from Nate Silver: “It’s not that complicated, folks. Biden’s gonna lose the nomination if and when Democrats become convinced that he can’t beat Trump, or become convinced that someone else can. Otherwise he’s likely to be pretty resilient.” So far, that looks like a safe bet. Biden’s hit some bumps in the road, but he’s still ahead by a healthy margin, and voters who would prefer someone further to the left are divided among other candidates.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Chait is fuming about Biden’s declaration that “ending the filibuster is a very dangerous move.” It is, because you never know when your side will be in the minority and your only ability to block a bad idea is holding 40 members together. Chait interprets Biden’s position as, “I’ll let Mitch McConnell block everything.”

Now, a president doesn’t have any say over what the Senate does regarding its own rules and the filibuster. And the filibuster is gone for all judicial nominees.

But it does illustrate that as much as we might disagree with the policies and worldview of a Biden presidency, he would probably not be able to run roughshod over a GOP Senate minority, unless Senate Democrats won 51 seats and repealed the filibuster over Biden’s objections. Theoretically, if Democrats won 50 seats, Biden’s vice president could vote to eliminate the filibuster over the president’s objections . . . but that would be pretty weird.

A Biden presidency with the filibuster in place — along with four years of Trump judicial appointments in place, issuing injunctions and striking down new laws they thought were unconstitutional — would probably generate results along the lines of what Chernobyl engineers thought 3.6 roentgen was — “not great, not terrible.”

Slow Down, Mr. Biden. Take Your Time.

We all have moments where the words don’t come out right. We’re thinking of one name but say another, we mix up the words we’re trying to say, or get tongue-tied. Just about every candidate does it sooner or later — recall Obama’s declaration that he had visited “fifty-seven states.”

Former vice president Joe Biden’s had a rough stretch, though. Just as President Trump accidentally said “Toledo” when he meant “Dayton” in discussing the shootings, Biden lamented the shootings in “Houston and Michigan.” At the Iowa State Fair, Biden declared, “we choose truth over facts.” He also said the white supremacists in Charlottesville chanted, “you will replace us!”

And then he topped it off by declaring, “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”

Maybe he just needs a nap.

Pennyworth: Looking So Good Until . . .

I caught a few episodes of Pennyworth, the EPIX network’s concept of the young adventures of Batman’s butler Alfred. On paper it sounds like a terrible idea, but it’s much more enjoyable if you think of it as a 1960s-set British adventure series.

The first thing you should know is that almost nothing in this series ties in to Batman, other than the title character and the presence of Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, as an American expat. Alfred Pennyworth is a young Londoner who’s just finished a stint in the British army, is working as a bouncer at a just-reputable-enough nightclub, is smitten with a charming young actress, and still lives with his middle-class parents, with intermittent friction. He’s trying to start a security guard business with his army buddies. The lead actor, Jack Bannon, does a masterful impression of a young Michael Caine. The whole series has an early James Bond feel, particularly in the musical theme and opening credits, which can be seen here. (There are also repeated allusions to Oliver Twist: A villainess is named Bet Sykes, and another character sings “As Long As He Needs Me” from the musical Oliver! .)

What intrigued me the most in the well-done pilot episode was the portrait of a slightly alternate 1960s London. Besides the Zeppelins in the sky over the city (the universal visual shorthand for ‘this is an alternate universe’), the streets are patrolled by Beefeaters with machine guns, and the bodies of executed criminals still hang from gibbet cages outside government buildings.

In an early scene, the never-named Prime Minister — who appears to have a drug habit and hangs out with some femme fatale — describes the country as being quietly threatened by two rival secret societies: the Raven Society, trying to overthrow the government in order to build a fascist paradise, and the No-Name Society, trying to overthrow the government in order to build a socialist paradise. For a secret society, the Ravens are powerful and well-known enough to abduct lords, kidnap children, and intimidate the police. The idea that the British Union of Fascists didn’t go away after World War II, or that certain segments of British society took the opposite moral lessons from the war, sets up some potentially great villains. It seemed like this not-quite-familiar London would be a fun place to explore . . .

. . . until the closing scenes of episode two. Then we learn that not only does this version of the United Kingdom still execute people, it regularly does so in public in front of a roaring crowd, and broadcasts it all on television. The government doesn’t merely hang the condemned; leather-hooded executioners slice open their bellies so that their internal organs spill to the ground — and the show shows us all of this, leaving nothing to the imagination. Alfred’s parents, who up until now seemed decent and kind if a bit stuffy, seem to be enjoying the bloody (no British pun intended) spectacle. Along the way, we’ve seen the Raven Society torturing its prisoners, the British government torturing a captured Raven Society leader, a sadistic crime lord dismembering the body of a victim, and our heroes threaten to torture a street thug. That’s a lot of torture in two episodes, and then we top it off with the audiences cheering for Monday Night Disembowelment.

Maybe the execution scene and frequent use of torture is meant to suggest that the fascists are closer to winning than anyone wants to admit. But with the public execution scene, Pennyworth had its entire fictionalized society cross the moral event horizon. You can have corrupt authority figures and flawed societies in your stories of heroes and villains. But we need somebody to root for, and while Alfred still seems to be a good guy, the fact that we see a lot of Londoners cheering for executioners slicing people open as they’re choking to death makes it hard to care if someone’s threatening the city or the country. This is a city full of horrible people who whip themselves up into an enthusiastic frenzy to watch people’s internal organs spill out. It makes tuning in for a third episode look particularly unappetizing.

ADDENDA: The Thursday edition of the Three Martini Lunch examined a recent Bernie Sanders statement about the government’s knowledge of aliens and UFOs, and I had to ask: just why is it that when aliens come to visit, they always seem to be most interested in some guy named Floyd driving down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? If you were visiting an alien planet, wouldn’t you want to, I don’t know, catch a ball game or something? Just what is so fascinating about this guy’s colon that you need so many measurements of it?

And when once the public started hearing the rumors of the government’s shadowy, secretive “men in black” who showed up after alien visitations to discourage witnesses from speaking further . . . why didn’t any of the guys at the staff meeting say, “hey, fellas, I think they’re on to us, and maybe it’s because we all dress like undertakers. Jay, go out and buy a brown suit. You, go out and buy a blue one. Let’s mix it up a little, right now we stand out like sore thumbs.”

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