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White House

Biden’s Throwback Presidency: A Return to Dukakis

President Joe Biden speaks about the at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: how the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency give us a good look at what a Michael Dukakis presidency would have been like in 1989; and the administration’s odd, vague, soft response to the hacking attack on the Colonial Pipeline.

The Long-Delayed Dukakis Presidency

Joe Biden is not a young, woke, revolutionary progressive, and in many eyes, including that of most Democratic primary voters, that made him the safer option. Biden is the oldest of old-school Democrats, a throwback to an earlier time and an increasingly distant era.

But being the oldest of old-school Democrats has its own set of flaws, ones that are becoming clearer the more Biden settles into the job.

The popular concept in the conservative commentariat these days is to point to the return of inflation and gas lines on the East Coast, and conclude, not-so-jokingly, that Biden represents the return of Jimmy Carter, and to insert jokes about disco and bell bottoms somewhere around here. And that’s as fine, as far it goes. The moment is ripe for that comparison, as Biden did visit former president Carter and offered that weird optical-illusion photo suggesting the current president had somehow cruelly transformed the Carters into marionettes.

And something about Biden really does carry the vibe of That ’70s Show. For a while now, progressives within the Democratic Party have argued that Biden is “stuck in the 1970s.” A writer at The New Republic observed that the old Onion caricature of Biden as “Diamond Joe” “is a creature wholly of the late 1970s and ’80s.”

But in terms of how President Biden approaches his job, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is something distinctly pre-Bill-Clintonian about Biden. He’s reversed many of the Democratic policy concessions on welfare, crime, and trade from that era. Bill Clinton famously said that, “The era of big government is over.” Chuck Todd recently summarized Biden’s message as, “The era of big government being over is over.”

By the late 1980s, Biden was considered a “New Democrat,” even though he was not a particularly new Democrat. The Daily Kos crowd contends that Biden was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, but Biden is (literally) a footnote in some histories of that movement. The notion of Biden as a centrist reformer pulling his party to the middle is overstated by both his critics and supporters; Biden’s Senate voting record doesn’t really fit him into either the center or left-wing factions within the Democratic Party. “Biden was on average more liberal than about 75 percent of the Senate overall. Among Democrats, he was in the middle of the pack. On average, he stood at almost exactly his party’s center line.”

In 2020, Biden might as well have run on Dukakis’s unofficial slogan, “This election is about competence, not ideology.” (Whenever a candidate doesn’t want to talk about his ideology, you should worry about his ideology.) Dukakis ran on the fairly generic message, “Good jobs at good wages.” Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” and $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan” all offer variations of the promise to create good jobs at good wages.

In the brochures for his 1988 presidential campaign, Dukakis promised he wouldn’t “go along with new taxes until the federal government goes after the tax cheats who cost us $100 billion last year.” Likewise, Joe Biden believes that by increasing the IRS budget by $80 billionthe agency’s current budget is just under $13 billion — the federal government will recover $700 billion in illegally dodged taxes.

Biden voted for the welfare-reform bill in 1996, but the early Biden presidency is all about the expansion of the welfare state through the above $6 trillion in new spending. The 1996 reform package included work requirements for recipients; when the Trump administration made the same move, Biden called the proposal “morally bankrupt.” The 2021 edition of Joe Biden is vehemently opposed to the 1996 edition of Joe Biden. The man is not a centrist in the sense that he is in the center of American politics; he is a centrist in the sense that he is always in the center of his party. As the Democratic Party moves dramatically to the left, Biden moves with it. There are glaring differences, of course; Michael Dukakis suffered from a dearth of personality while Biden suffers from a surplus.

But like Dukakis, Biden represents Reagan-era liberalism, mentally set on autopilot. It apparently never crossed Biden’s mind that people might prefer a check from the government to taking an offered job; in fact, he still doesn’t believe it. Earlier this week he said, “I know there’s been a lot of discussion since Friday — since Friday’s report that people are being paid to stay home rather than go to work. Well, we don’t see much evidence of that.” A few days after the jobs report showed 9.8 million Americans looking for work, new data showed 8.1 million new jobs. Bigger unemployment checks aren’t the only factor keeping unemployed people from applying for all of those jobs . . . but it’s hard to believe they’re not a factor.

It never crossed Biden’s mind that dumping this much money into the economy this fast could create inflation. It never crossed Biden’s mind that loudly and publicly reversing Trump’s immigration-enforcement policies could create an incentive to try to cross the border illegally. Even with a shortage of steel, Biden is keeping steel tariffs in place.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have fired 1,600 rockets toward Israel since Monday evening, and Biden is sending an envoy to “urge de-escalation.” Biden and his team offer old, tired, predictable responses to events, straight out of a late 1980s Democratic playbook.

The One Area Where Biden Doesn’t Deserve Blame

Continuing my streak of never pleasing anyone, let me point out the inconvenient truth that the hack of the pipeline that created gas lines in the southeast isn’t Biden’s fault, and there’s little he or his administration could have done to prevent it. It’s not like Biden manages cyber-security for Colonial Pipeline. A dirty little not-so-well-kept-secret is that the vast majority of elected officials can barely get their minds around the details of cybersecurity, much less take an active role in crafting good policy. This is why, way back in 2009, I argued that for all of the criticism of Obama administration’s “czars,” a cyberczar made sense.

But Charlie Cooke is right: It’s weird that the Biden administration apparently has no position on whether the company should pay the hackers’ ransom demand. (Hasn’t anybody in this administration read Kipling’s Dane-Geld? What do you think happens when people hear you’re willing to pay a ransom?)

But I’ll go even further than Charlie. While we’ve got limited reason to believe the hack of the Colonial Pipeline was the work of a hostile state, the FBI is publicly saying “DarkSide” is the perpetrator — they’re believed to operate in Russia and never seem to hit targets who are friends of the Russian government. For what it’s worth, a former NSA hacker appearing on CNBC said yesterday he thinks Putin is “100 percent” connected to the DarkSide attack. “They are absolutely working in cahoots with the government,” David Kennedy said. “They are sanctioned by the government to conduct these operations. Nothing happens in Russia, from a cybercrime perspective, without it going through the Kremlin.”

In light of this, why is Biden talking about a summit with Putin sometime in June? If Russia wants to use cut-outs to fight cyberwarfare and disrupt and harass American life, why are we pretending not to notice? What’s the upside for us to play along with the charade?

ADDENDUM: Speaking of Charlie, you must read his revelatory profile of Rebekah Jones, the not-a-whistleblower in Florida.


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