The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Senate Democrat: ‘There’s No Magic in the Oval Office Right Now’

President Joe Biden speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021. (Paul Ellis/Reuters)

On the menu today: Happy Election Day. It turns out that Joe Biden is not the legislative genius his fanbase wishes he was; the desperate, sweating Terry McAuliffe falsely accuses Glenn Youngkin of being an “anti-vaxxer”; and the great Kevin Williamson and the great Charlie Cooke are at loggerheads over whether conservatives should be, you know, rooting for Brandon.

The White House’s Missing Mojo

A few weeks ago, one House Democrat griped to CNN that it felt as if President Biden was missing from the negotiations over his own agenda. “The reality right now is that a lot of people are saying, ‘Where’s Joe Biden? This is his agenda, why isn’t he more involved in the negotiations?’”

Throughout autumn Democrats have set deadlines to pass both the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the “Build Back Better” legislation and, week after week, like Lucy and the football, the deadlines pass without any agreement.

For a man who spent 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president, Joe Biden seems surprisingly ill-equipped for getting legislation passed through Congress.

Granted, getting legislation through a House of Representatives with 220 Democrats and 212 Republicans and a 50–50 Senate is not particularly easy. But slim majorities are better than no majorities, and one answer to Charlie Cooke’s challenge was that Biden was supposed to be good at cultivating relationships with lawmakers

People are noticing that, “After several one-on-one meetings between the president, [senator Joe] Manchin and [senator Kyrsten] Sinema, Democrats don’t seem any closer to agreeing on a framework than a month ago.” As one senator put it to The Hill, “If [Biden] had been able to walk away and say, ‘I have a commitment to $2 trillion from both [senators] and now we’re working on the details,’ it would have been like a sense of momentum: ‘the president’s magic of the Oval Office comes in once again.’ But instead it was like, ‘There’s no magic in the Oval Office right now.’”

As Phil Klein observes, before leaving for Europe, Biden sure sounded as if he and other Democratic leaders had worked out their disagreements:

He went to Capitol Hill to meet with House Democrats in what was supposed to be a speech followed by a vote passing his infrastructure bill.

Instead, Biden took off to Rome and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed the vote yet again. Still, Democrats gave the impression that they were just working on a few odds and ends and expected to vote Tuesday. Progressives claimed they were all in and just waiting for Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema to publicly commit to the framework.

But now that Manchin has said that the framework is full of “shell games” and “budget gimmicks” to hide the true cost of the proposal, last week’s theatrics look even more absurd.

One factor that probably doesn’t get enough attention is that Biden’s decades in the Senate really means that he spent years cultivating great relationships with fellow senators who are now either retired or dead. Sure, Patrick Leahy and Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell are still around, and Biden’s relationship with Bernie Sanders is generally amiable and not antagonistic, even if Sanders feels like he never gets enough of what he wants.

But 26 senators took office since January 2017, arriving in Washington as Biden was leaving. In the 2018 midterms voters sent a lot of new Democrats to Congress, folks who hadn’t been in Washington before and who probably had never met Biden, never mind had much of a working relationship with him. This includes members of “The Squad” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — as well as other progressive leaders in the House such as Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna who have never worked with Biden before.

The other point to keep in mind is that Biden’s time in the Senate involved chairing (and grandstanding on) committees but not necessarily leading his caucus. Biden was a famous talker, not a famous listener. There’s little indication that Biden really appreciates what key Democratic legislators can and cannot vote for, based upon the ideological, economic, and cultural leanings of their home states.

A good caucus leader understands where his members draw their red lines. It would be foolish for Mitch McConnell to expect Senator Susan Collins to vote against a defense-appropriations bill that included a ton of spending for Bath Iron Works in her home state of Maine, even if other Republicans thought that spending was wasteful. It would be unreasonable for anyone to expect farm-state senators to vote against agricultural subsidies, or a Michigan senator to vote against an auto-industry bailout. You can argue that legislators shouldn’t allow parochial economic interests to outweigh the greater good until you’re blue in the face, but you’re still asking them to commit career suicide. Welcome to politics. You can’t always get what you want.

Joe Manchin is not going to vote for legislation that’s going to hurt the coal industry – period. Full stop. According to the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training, the state’s coal industry “provides about 30,000 direct jobs, including miners, mine contractors, coal preparation plant employees and mine supply companies,” produces $3.5 billion in gross state product, and has a payroll of $2 billion per year. The industry also pays two-thirds of the business taxes in the state and approximately $70 million in property taxes annually, and coal provides 99 percent of the state’s electricity.

Kyrsten Sinema’s state leaned Republican, often heavily Republican, for a long time, and only turned purple-ish in the last election cycle. (Arizona’s GOP governor, Doug Ducey, crushed his opponent, 56 percent to 41 percent, in 2018.) She’s not going to sign on to a big-spending bill, particularly if she doesn’t think most of her voters will feel the benefits. The last time a new Democratic president was facing a midterm election after passing a big-spending stimulus bill that promised economic nirvana, Sinema was an Arizona state house member running for the state senate. She won her race, but all the Democrats around her got demolished. In 2010 John McCain won reelection with 59 percent of the vote; Republicans picked up two congressional seats; won Arizona’s gubernatorial, secretary of state, and attorney general’s races; expanded their state-senate majority by three seats to a 21–9 split; and kept their 40–20 statehouse majority. Sinema has seen this movie before, and she knows how it ends.

The dynamic that Biden is up against today is the same one he’s been up against all year. Because there are 50 Democratic senators and Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the ties, any one Democratic senator can sink an entire bill. This means the bill must be the lowest common denominator — whatever all 50 Democratic senators and at least 217 House Democrats can agree upon. That’s going to be way less than what progressives want, but that’s reality. Unhinged and angry progressive activists can chase Sinema into the bathroom every day from now until the midterm elections, but it’s not going to change the political cultures of Arizona or West Virginia or the current makeup of the U.S. Senate.

And Joe Biden sure as heck is not going to be the guy who changes the political dynamic in the country or in those states. The surprise is not that there’s no magic in the Oval Office right now; the surprise is that anyone expected the magic to be there.

The Term ‘Anti-Vaxxer’ Doesn’t Mean Anything Anymore

Virginia’s desperate Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, appeared on Meet the Press this past weekend and said, “What I get asked about every day, Chuck, is COVID. And I’m running against an anti-vaxxer.”

Glenn Youngkin is not an anti-vaxxer. He is fully vaccinated and supports vaccinations. He aired an ad encouraging people to get vaccinated, declaring that, “The numbers show COVID vaccines save lives. That’s why I chose to get the COVID vaccine. It’s your right to make your own choice, and I respect that. I do hope you’ll choose to join me in getting the vaccine. We can protect lives and livelihoods here in Virginia. And together, we can keep our communities, our schools and our businesses open.” The difference between McAuliffe and Youngkin is that McAuliffe wants unvaccinated people fired from their jobs and Youngkin does not.

“I’m running against an anti-vaxxer” is a bad-faith, dumb, dishonest argument, and we’re seeing it because Terry McAuliffe is a bad-faith, dumb, dishonest kind of guy.

Should We Really Call for Brandon to Go?

Something you don’t see every day — in fact, you almost never see it — is Kevin Williamson and Charlie Cooke on diametrically opposed sides, with each man utterly convinced that the other is wrongheaded. These are two guys whom I admire greatly and whose writing and clarity of thinking often stir my envy.

You should read both arguments in full, but in short, Kevin thinks:

The “F*** Joe Biden” stuff matters, not because the president is a special magical person, but because of what it says about us — as a people, generally, and as conservatives in particular. It matters a hell of a lot more what kind of people we are than whether the top tax rate is 39 percent or 37.5 percent. . . .

In truth, this isn’t a “meltdown,” and this isn’t pearl-clutching. Either conservatives stand for public decency and public order — that “well-ordered liberty” we used to talk about — or they don’t.

And Charlie thinks:

As Rich notes, we have done this in one form or another throughout our history — hell, the Founders did it to each other — and I am pleased that we have. Human history is packed full of nations in which the people were unable or unwilling to berate their leaders. To lament that Americans often go a touch far in the other direction is, in my view, to miss the broader point.

I could live happily in a world that was more polite and mannerly, where using profanity in public was seen as rude and obnoxious, as Kevin would prefer. Or I could live happily in a world that was the rhetorical wild, wild west, where anything went and anyone could denounce anyone else in any terms they saw fit, no matter how harsh or profane, as Charlie would prefer. I’m adaptable and can function in the mahogany halls of great libraries or dish up off-color trash-talk in the parking lot of MetLife Stadium.

All I want is one consistent standard, applied equally to everyone who participates in public debate. None of this my-side-is-just-impassioned-or-overexuberant, your-side-is-a-bunch-of-domestic-terrorists double-standard stuff.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, New York City is shutting down firehouses over the city’s vaccine mandate; in three weeks the number of container ships sitting and waiting outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has increased from about 60 to about 100; and there’s no sign of that Department of Homeland Security investigation into those Border Patrol agents who were accused of whipping Haitian migrants, even though five weeks ago, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told Congress the investigation should be completed in a matter of days.

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