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Biden vs. Biden
That the Biden administration should be incoherent is the least surprising development so far of 2021 — Joe Biden himself is generally incoherent on a personal level. Biden’s incoherence is not (contra the popular right-wing talking point) mainly the result of his advanced age or the state of his mental acuity — he has been a little bit dim and a little bit all over the place for the entirety of his very, very long career in public office, since he was a young man, because he is a creature of pure self-serving opportunism without a moral center or real principles.
It would be easy to call him a weathervane, but a weathervane is anchored on something and centered. President Biden is more like that plastic bag blowing around in American Beauty — empty, lightweight, subject to the moment’s prevailing wind.
Because of this debility, President Biden cannot manage a “team of rivals” the way more serious figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt did in their respective times. This is a particularly troublesome shortcoming in a president for whom FDR and his administration are the guiding lights, even if the guidance derived from that quarter is almost exclusively a matter of rhetoric and nostalgia.
Like the Biden administration, the Franklin Roosevelt administration comprehended a genuinely diverse array of political tendencies, from agrarian progressives (Claude R. Wickard) to crypto-Communists (Henry Wallace) to Republicans (Henry Stimson), but its members were obliged to take seriously the two great crises of the time (depression and war) and were disciplined by the president’s own masterly — and often masterful — leadership. As with the resolutely non-ideological (and effectively nonpartisan) administration of Dwight Eisenhower after the war, the character of the administration amplified the character of the man.
The Biden administration also is home to quiet rivalries between its moderate-pragmatist elements (Janet Yellen, Lloyd Austin), its hardcore left-wingers (Xavier Becerra), its amoral power-seekers (Kamala Harris, in the West Wing, with the icepick), and its workaday crackpots (Deb Haaland et al.). But the Biden administration does not have Franklin Roosevelt at the head of it — it has the bad luck to be headed by Joe Biden, who apparently believes that he can be Donald Trump when it comes to the so-called war on drugs while being Patrisse Cullors on police reform, and that he can be the Ronald Reagan of a new Cold War with China while playing Woodrow Wilson’s role in a new League of Nations. At home, he presents himself simultaneously as the sensible pragmatist and . . . Santa Claus.
Unlike the Roosevelt administration, the Biden administration does not bring a particularly intense focus to the great crises of the time — in spite of its bursts of rhetorical vehemence. On the matter of the coronavirus epidemic and its aftermath, the administration has allowed itself to be pulled in six different ways by bureaucratic inertia, narrow political self-interest, and competing approaches to risk-management; on the matter of China, his administration lacks the intellectual rigor and moral seriousness to disentangle the knot of economic and geopolitical factors that actually shape our real-world relationship with the so-called People’s Republic, which is quite different from both Washington’s rhetorical account of Beijing and Beijing’s rhetorical account of Washington. Biden has access to some excellent advisers on both of those issues, but all advisers can do is offer advice. Biden makes decisions like a man who expects the music to stop abruptly and fears that he will be the one left without a seat.
You can tell how much of this is stagecraft requiring the suspension of disbelief. President Biden would have us believe things that are logically incompatible, e.g., (1) that climate change is one of the most important crises facing the human race, and (2) that John Kerry should be entrusted with leading our response to climate change. John Kerry should not be in charge of climate change — he should be in charge of addressing the national debt, because the only thing in life he ever has had much talent for is marrying money. (Mr. Kerry has married two heiresses; the current Mrs. Kerry has married two senators — these are totally normal people and not weird at all.) You don’t put John Kerry in charge of something because you think it is an existential threat that requires a substantive response — you put John Kerry in charge of something when you want self-regarding summitry and highly refined New England umbrage. On that front, John Kerry always delivers.
Unlike many of my fellow conservatives, I think climate change is a real problem. But if I didn’t think it was a problem, I’d expect it to become a cosmic crisis after putting it in John Kerry’s portfolio. But from Joe Biden’s vantage point, John Kerry is a promising young man.
It was not easy to take Joe Biden very seriously as a candidate. It is impossible to take him very seriously as a president. The Biden administration is like an angry chimpanzee at a chess tournament — it isn’t going to win the match, but that isn’t what we should be worrying about.
A little bit of incoherence is not necessarily a bad thing in an administration, if it is the right kind of incoherence: Often, successful political leaders do not seem to be operating from any sort of grand plan because they are not operating from any sort of grand plan, but rather are pursuing piecemeal reforms as opportunities present themselves. There are worse ways to govern.
In U.S. politics, a president typically gets to do only one or two big things — the really successful ones get two big things done (Ronald Reagan won the Cold War and oversaw important changes in economic policy), the moderately successful ones get one thing done (Richard Nixon ended the Vietnam War, Barack Obama signed a health-care bill), and many fail to achieve even one big thing. The ones who fail to put even one big thing on the scoreboard aren’t necessarily bad presidents or failed leaders — Harry Truman spent his presidency finishing up Roosevelt’s unfinished business, and George H. W. Bush showed his quality in a foreign-policy crisis that forced itself onto his agenda — though some of them surely must be understood as failures. Donald Trump’s two big issues were trade and immigration, and he achieved lasting reform on neither issue.
Pragmatism and compromise can be expensive. George H. W. Bush broke a campaign promise (“read my lips”) in order to broker a budget deal with intransigent Democrats holding the majority in Congress, which was the right thing to have done as a matter of policy but probably cost him reelection. (Democrats razzed him about it, but the people who really carped most bitterly on the tax-pledge issue were Republicans led by Pat Buchanan. The more things change . . . ) George H. W. Bush had a kind of cultivated integrity that was not to be found in Barack Obama or Donald Trump. He wasn’t an ideologue, and he wasn’t uncompromising — the coherence of his administration was to be found in a set of very wide principles, liberally applied. George H. W. Bush’s presidency was less shaped by what he thought his career was about than by what he thought his country was about, and what he thought it should be about.
But even the most successful presidents are compressed in memory until they are as two-dimensional as a Herblock cartoon. Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest peace-seekers of his time — he talked constantly of peace, sought to make peace, entered into controversial arms-control agreements (over the strenuous objections of the editors of this magazine), and even dreamt of developing an effective anti-missile system and then simply giving the technology to the Soviet Union and other countries in order to render our own nuclear missiles ineffectual along with everyone else’s. But history will remember him as a warmonger, even though he was remarkable among modern presidents for his disinclination to use the war-making powers at his disposal. Our cartoon history cannot account for the reality that the great military crisis of the second half of the 20th century was resolved in no small part through the efforts of a celebrity libertarian from California who used the words peace and peaceful 14 times in a short address at Eureka College in the second year of his presidency — long before the war had been won.
But Reagan had an unusual political gift and the benefit of being on the right side of the most important issues of his time.
The difference between Biden and our more effective executives may simply be that those other presidents knew what they wanted and, for that reason, had some idea of what to do. They often did things that were politically difficult rather than simply try to triangulate their way into popularity. Because of the way history compresses things, it is easy to forget that many Americans energetically opposed U.S. involvement in that second European war (Roosevelt himself promised voters, “Your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign war”) and that the New Deal, the most significant political development between Appomattox and Pearl Harbor, was bitterly opposed by many Americans. Ronald Reagan’s antagonists included an American Left whose best minds were either pro-Communist or committed a nearly religious belief in the moral equivalency between the United States and the Soviet Union. Abolishing slavery was a distinctly minority enthusiasm in Abraham Lincoln’s time.
What is remarkable is that while Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan were able to exercise leadership on genuinely controversial issues, Joe Biden is overmatched by an issue about which there is an effectively universal consensus regarding outcome: Nobody wants the coronavirus epidemic to continue, and, aside for a few kooks in the “voluntary human extinction” movement, there is no pro-coronavirus faction. But on such practical matters as workplace rules relating to COVID-19, the administration is unable to move forward in a direct and timely way. Faced with the thorny cultural politics of vaccine refusal, President Biden’s big, bold idea is . . . paid time off. It is remarkable how many social problems Biden and Biden-style Democrats believe can be addressed with paid time off or higher wages for government workers — paid time off is now, according to the Biden administration, “infrastructure,” of all ridiculous things.
Perhaps President Biden can free-stuff his way through the rest of the coronavirus epidemic. He stepped into a situation that was about as encouraging as could be expected — the vaccines were good-to-go and the economic recovery already was under way — but, even with that great advantage, his administration acts as though it is in a constant state of low-level panic.
And so expectations should be modest indeed for the Biden administration’s work on the much more difficult issue of China. The epidemic has been awful, but the virus does not have 350 nuclear warheads and something north of $1 trillion of U.S. public debt in its portfolio.
And Xi Jinping is not looking for paid time off.
Words About Words
I have mentioned masterful before, but I would like to briefly revisit the word. Masterful is different from masterly — a masterly performance is one that demonstrates a high level of accomplishment, but a masterful performance is one that exhibits a controlling or domineering character. Franklin Roosevelt was both a masterly politician (he was good at politics) and a masterful one (he was at times tyrannical).
One of the strange new habits associated with our increasingly tribalistic politics is that it is now verboten to observe that someone “on the other side” is good at something. These are words that — for some people, anyway — must not be spoken. But Bill Clinton was a really good politician. Slimy and dishonest, to be sure, but one with real talent — masterly. Understanding that is useful for understanding all sorts of things, from the history of the 1990s to why Mrs. Clinton was less successful in her quest for power than Mr. Clinton was. Paul Krugman was a good economist before he was an incompetent newspaper columnist. Alec Baldwin is a very fine actor, a fact that is not nullified by his juvenile politics.
There is a danger in excessive admiration for mere skill (here, the Bill Clinton example is again useful), but there also is danger in refusing to give even a devil his due. Conservatives are very sensitive to current efforts to police our speech and our thought, but we are at the same time developing a language-policing and thought-policing culture of our own. This should be discouraged.
If we cannot speak plainly about things and write plainly about things, then we will lose our ability to think clearly about those things — as, indeed, we already have in many spheres.
May vs. might is a fun one. Some advice holds that may should be used when something is more likely and might when something is less likely, but that does not seem to me exactly correct. May is best used to indicate an ordinary fact and might a hypothetical or counterfactual. “He has a debt that may take years to repay” vs. “If he loses his job, he might not repay that debt at all.”
Also: Might is the past tense of may. “I may win this race. I had thought I might win the earlier race until Andretti shot past me.”
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In Other News . . .
After taking my first flight in more than a year, I briefly visited New York City last week, to host a dinner conversation with the National Review Institute’s regional fellows as part of the “Burke to Buckley” program. The conversation was great, but New York City, or at least Manhattan, is positively shell-shocked. Parts of Midtown were deserted at midday, and the mood on the street was somewhere between Great Depression and war zone. The only sign of normalcy was the consultant types at Pershing Square have too-loud conversations intended to communicate their personal importance. (You get a much worse version of that on the NYC–D.C. Acela, or at least you used to, pre-plague: “You tell Goldman Sachs to reschedule — I have a meeting at the White House!” “We have $500 million in that deal!”) Empty storefronts, shuttered businesses, even more widespread vagrancy, etc. — I cannot remember having seen New York City quite so grim.
Some of these problems are the result of the coronavirus epidemic. Some of them are not.
New York City got hit a lot harder than many other parts of the country did, and it has a claim to our sympathy on that count, but the evidence of institutional failure and misgovernance is visible everywhere from Battery Park to Fifth Avenue to Harlem. Conservatives write off New York City just as we write off California, and we are wrong to do so in both cases. New York City went 20 years without electing a Democrat mayor, and while Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg may not be everybody’s particular hot steaming cup of Lord Bergamot, a party that cannot make a credible case for itself in the wake of the incompetence and maladministration of Bill de Blasio has some soul-searching to do.
The same is true of Gavin Newsom’s California. It won’t do to tell ourselves that New Yorkers and Californians are simply zombies who will not listen and cannot be reasoned with. It is the job of those who would hold power to persuade. The typical Californian and the typical Republican may disagree about 80 percent of the issues, but they could probably have a fruitful conversation about affordable housing. New Yorkers don’t want urban blight and terrible schools — there is room for intelligent negotiation and persuasion.
The Republican mayoral primary will pit a bodega activist with no Wikipedia page against celebrity vigilante Curtis Sliwa.
Check out Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, for observations on figures ranging from James Baldwin to Susan Sontag and from Hans Morgenthau to Elvis.
Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders. In such cases, the very repressiveness of the state ultimately drives people to resist it, if necessary, by force.
While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections.
The objective I propose is quite simple to state: To foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.
This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy. Who would voluntarily choose not to have the right to vote, decide to purchase government propaganda handouts instead of independent newspapers, prefer government to worker-controlled unions, opt for land to be owned by the state instead of those who till it, want government repression of religious liberty, a single political party instead of a free choice, a rigid cultural orthodoxy instead of democratic tolerance and diversity?
–Ronald Reagan, Speech to the British Parliament, 1982
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