Thursday, February 9, 2023

Letting Biden Be Biden

Charles P. Pierce on how Joe Biden drove the GOP crazy by being Joe Biden.

Back in 2012, when the shebeen was all shiny and new and vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden was preparing to dismantle the electoral career of Paul Ryan, zombie-eyed granny starver from Wisconsin, this is something I wrote about in anticipation of their debate. Remember, this debate came directly after President Barack Obama’s curiously passive approach to his first debate with Willard Romney.

Joe Biden is not riven with self-doubt. Joe Biden is not exhausted by the hurly-burly of politics. Joe Biden is not burdened by the weight of events and laid low by the constant battle against know-nothing obstructionism. Joe Biden is not going to take the stage tonight and find himself wishing he were anywhere else. I mean, god be good to him, as my gran’ used to say, but Joe Biden actually likes all these silly performance pieces in which we insist he be engaged in order to stay vice-president. He revels in them. He would do ten of them a day, if he could. When I consider Joe Biden, and I look at the enthusiasm with which he throws himself into the various cataracts and torrents of hogwash that constitute our politics these days, I find myself looking at him the way I look at people who sky-dive or drive in demolition derbies. I have no idea why they do what they do, and I have absolutely no intention of doing it myself, ever, but, goddamn, do those people look like they’re having fun.

We saw it again Tuesday night when President Joe Biden freight-trained his whackadoo Republican opposition in his State of the Union address. He also flipped the very idea of the State of the Union address on its head by turning it into an American equivalent of the prime minister’s Question Time in the British Parliament. He wrapped them in a bear hug so warm that they didn’t realize they were being smothered. He took on hecklers like a veteran of a Catskills resort. He smiled, he laughed, he bellowed when it was called for. He had the only microphone in the room, and he used it like a hammer.

Predictably—and laughably—the Republican opposition walked right into every clout. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, dressed (as a friend of mine said) like the White Witch of Narnia, howled from the backbenches. Speaker Kevin McCarthy was on camera as often as the president was, and we could all watch as the vice grips got progressively tighter. As for the rest of the Angry Children’s Caucus, they hit all their marks and delivered their lines perfectly as the president led them merrily over the falls. For example, on infrastructure:

Projects that are going to put thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, our bridges, our railroads, our tunnels, ports, airports, clean water, high-speed internet all across America. Urban, rural, tribal. And folks, we’re just getting started. We’re just getting started. And I mean it sincerely. I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law. And my Republican friends who voted against it as well. But I’m still — I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well, but don’t worry. I promised I’d be a president for all Americans. We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.

In that 2012 debate, when Ryan criticized the Obama administration for “wasteful” stimulus spending, Biden pulled out a letter that Ryan had written to the administration requesting some of that spending for his congressional district back in Wisconsin. And then Biden laughed, and I have forever marked that moment as the end of Ryan’s importance to our national politics. That last line—”I’ll see you at the groundbreaking”—felt like the same kind of moment. And he smiled wide as he delivered the haymaker.

The real party piece came when he dared to mention that the Republicans want to gut Social Security and Medicare—which in the case of Social Security has been a Republican goal since “The Shadow” was on the radio. He baited them and baited them, and they went for it like starving carp.

Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans, some Republicans, want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s the majority. Let me give you — anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy — I’ll give you a copy of the proposal. That means Congress doesn’t vote — I’m glad to see — no, I tell you, I enjoy conversion. You know, it means if Congress doesn’t keep the programs the way they are, they go away. Other Republicans say — I’m not saying it’s a majority of you, I don’t even think it’s even a significant — but it’s being proposed by individuals. I’m not — politely not naming them, but it’s being proposed by some of you. Look, folks, the idea is that we’re not going to be — we’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don’t respond.

Then, right on cue, the Republicans launched into a tantrum. The president has not been in politics since god was a boy to miss an opportunity like that one.

Folks — so folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They’re not to be — all right. We’ve got unanimity…So tonight, let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare. Those benefits belong to the American people. They earned it. And if anyone tries to cut Social Security, which apparently no one’s going to do, and if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it. And look, I’m not going to allow them to take away — be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. But apparently it’s not going to be a problem.

[Howard Cosell voice:] “Down goes McCarthy! Down goes McCarthy!”

It was far from a conventional political address. There were very few oratorical bells and whistles. Instead, it was something akin to FDR’s fireside chats: colloquial and intimate. So many sentences began with the word “look” and were addressed to “folks.” More than anything else, its tone sounded like it had been drawn from a particularly energetic ward committee meeting down at the AOH Hall.

It was the best speech Joe Biden ever has given because it was the most Joe Biden speech anyone ever has given. It was all him, aimed right at all of us, addressed to all of us—you know, the folks.

This is what drives the MAGAistas nuts: they can never be natural without being craven assholes, and to make it worse — for them — they know it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Governing In Prose

Eugene Robinson on the SOTU.

The call to action during President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday — “Let’s finish the job” — would never be mistaken for soaring poetry. But perhaps that’s the point. In his speech, as throughout his first two years in office, Biden made a powerful case for governing in prose.

The president took advantage of the national television audience the speech always draws to make the case that his worldview has been proved correct: Even at a time of extreme polarization, bipartisanship is not only possible but also necessary. He said there is “no reason we can’t work together and find consensus in this Congress.”

Really? Did Biden hear the MAGA extremists who repeatedly heckled him, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who yelled “Liar!” when the president said that some Republicans want to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security?

Oh, he heard them, all right. Biden came prepared for catcalls from far-right members of the new House majority. I wondered at times whether I was watching a State of the Union address or a raucous session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the British House of Commons. Rather than being rattled or angered by GOP outbursts, Biden seemed to relish them — at times, even to provoke them. And he tossed out an ample supply of folksy Bidenisms in response.

My favorite was when he praised the provision in the Inflation Reduction Act, approved last year, that capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for seniors on Medicare. He called on Congress to “finish the job” and extend that cap for all Americans. When someone on the Republican side of the room remonstrated, Biden paused before departing from his script to reply: “As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year.”

Then he translated into standard English: If anyone tries to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, “I will veto it.”

Biden took the same playful approach when he challenged Republicans to spell out their economic plans and stop threatening to send the federal government into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And while he was touting the benefits of the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that he signed into law in 2021, he noted that some Republican members of Congress had voted against it. Nevertheless, he said, “I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”

The president’s point was that despite all the hyperpartisan, apocalyptic rhetoric, the federal government has been functioning. Progress is messy, halting and incremental, but it does happen — inch by inch, step by step, mile by mile.

Biden used the august occasion — and used undisciplined Republicans as foils — to display his own vigor, sense of humor and aura of command. Behind him, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) appeared at several moments to try to shush the most voluble Republicans, perhaps knowing the clash wasn’t going well for his party.

There have been times the past two years when Biden looked and acted his age — moments in which he seemed tired, lost his place in a speech or went off on some obscure tangent. But not on Tuesday night. Biden is 80, and it is legitimate to ask whether he is too old to seek another term. With this speech, he gave an answer. He sure sounded like a man who’s running.

For Democrats, he pledged to move forward on issues that fire up the base, such as protecting abortion rights. And with the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols in first lady Jill Biden’s box, the president even got a bipartisan standing ovation with a call for police reform.

Can Biden’s words really be translated into legislation by this Congress? Realistically, the assumption has to be that most, if not all, of Biden’s proposals for legislative action are dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House. Even if McCarthy wanted to, could he convince his caucus to approve new taxes and strengthen the social safety net? Can the speaker even think about meeting Biden halfway on any hot-button issue without jeopardizing his own job, given that any GOP House member can force a vote on taking away McCarthy’s gavel?

There is, however, great peril for the slim Republican majority, in spending the next two years saying no to everything that Biden and the Democrats propose, while passing “statement” bills that have no chance of making it through the Senate. Republicans might believe their planned kangaroo-court investigations of Hunter Biden and other manufactured villains will win them support, but I am skeptical. Getting something done is usually a better political strategy than getting nothing done.

And if they thought they had a punching bag in Biden, they were wrong. They have a puncher instead.

It looks and sounds like he actually had fun, and it reminds me of the times when I’m at work and step out of my office to see the elementary school kids running wild on the playground. Their teachers are watching them closely and know precisely when to step in and tell them to behave, but they also know when not to, because the more energy they expend running around, the easier they will be to handle — or ignore — when they get them back into the classroom and make them do their work. That’s how you govern in prose.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Let Me Know How It Goes/Went

I’m going to skip the live presentation of the State of the Union and work on my new play.  I am sure there will be hours of recaps and analysis, and tomorrow is a school day.

Feel free to comment here with your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

SOTU Follow-Up

I watched the last forty minutes of President Biden’s State of the Union speech, and while I don’t think he has the oratory skills of FDR, JFK, or even Ronald Reagan, it was pretty solid for a guy facing down fascism both home and abroad.

SOTU’s are usually wish-lists of the current administration’s agenda, not unlike the Queen’s speech at the opening of Parliament.  In this case, however, the president isn’t a constitutional figurehead reciting lines written by the government.  Last night, the president needed to make the case for our support for NATO and the people of Ukraine, putting it in terms that even the viewers of Fox News could grasp: Putin is bad and we should stop him.  Only the lackeys and lapdogs of authoritarians would object to that.

As for the domestic agenda, at least one conservative commentator dismissed it as a re-run of what President Biden and most of the Democratic Party have been pushing.  That’s because he wasn’t necessarily talking to the people in the room; he was shouting over their heads to the coal miners and their families in West Virginia who need prescription drug price controls for their black-lung disease treatment and child care subsidies for the working mothers.  As for inflation, it is one of those realities of economics that comes after every global interruption such as war, plagues, and Republicans cutting taxes to the bone and encouraging greed on the part of corporations who are showing record profits but still claim they need to raise prices.  Republicans are very good at setting the trap for inflation and then blaming someone else when it happens.  For example, gasoline prices are set by a series of factors: supply, transportation, corporate structure, and marketing.  Any change to any of those will effect the price of a gallon of gas at the pump, but notice that none of them are controlled by the President of the United States.  If you think they are, you’re thinking of the wrong president.  That would be Vladimir Putin, for one.

At any rate, I think what we heard last night was a forceful defense not only of an administration’s record and its plans, but a clearer picture of who and what this country could be.  Notice that Mr. Biden did not attack his predecessor nor his minions, nor the insurrectionists who tried to prevent him from being able to speak last night.  I think he knew what really matters isn’t the shouting because you really can’t get any work done if that’s all you’re doing.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sunday Reading

Biden Being Biden — Susan Glasser in The New Yorker.

During a lifetime in politics, Joe Biden has delivered countless eulogies, many of them for Republican colleagues in the Senate. Over the years, he has eloquently laid to rest John McCain, of Arizona; William Roth, of Delaware; Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania; and even, controversially, the former segregationist Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina. He has delivered so many eulogies that the Times studied nearly sixty of them during the 2020 campaign, in search of insights into how Biden might lead the nation. On Wednesday, he took the Presidential motorcade up to Washington National Cathedral to bid goodbye to John Warner, the longest-ever-serving Republican senator from Virginia, who died last month, at the age of ninety-four.

Warner, though no liberal, had become a sharp critic of the Republican Party in the Trump era, and he endorsed Biden in last year’s election. Biden gratefully acknowledged that vote of confidence in his speech, a short, loving tribute not only to Warner but also to Biden’s favored political virtues of conscience, conviction, and consensus. The President hailed Warner’s “willingness to work across the aisle,” his “empathy” for those with whom he disagreed, and his abiding commitment to a vision of democracy that transcends differences rather than emphasizes them. “In the battle for the soul of America today,” Biden said, explicitly invoking the rhetoric of his recent campaign, “John Warner is a reminder of what we can do when we come together as one nation.”

But campaign season is over. This is Biden’s governing time, and even as he spoke on Wednesday it was very much an open question whether his promise of a return to bipartisan dealmaking would turn out to be anything other than a nostalgic prayer uttered in a cathedral. The answer came a few hours later, with the first, and so far only, major bipartisan breakthrough of Biden’s still-new Administration: a plan, negotiated by a group of ten senators—five Democrats and five Republicans—to advance a version of Biden’s sweeping infrastructure legislation, reduced to a not-quite-a-trillion-dollar package. If passed, it would be the largest infrastructure bill ever enacted. On Thursday morning, Biden called the negotiators to the White House. Less than an hour later, he emerged, grinning, and announced, “We had a really good meeting. We have a deal.”

After weeks of haggling, the deal had come together late on Wednesday. First, a direct channel between the Biden White House and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator from West Virginia, designated by the G.O.P. leadership to hold talks, collapsed. Then a larger bipartisan group, nicknamed the G-10, stepped in, led by the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, and the Republican Rob Portman, of Ohio. (In classic Washington form, it being a city where everyone wants in on the action, the G-10 swelled to become the G-21 at one point in the negotiations.) Proposals and counterproposals and late-night pizza sessions ensued; even the arrival of the pizza boxes constituted news, as reporters waited to find out if Congress just might, maybe, still be able to do something big.

The central sticking point of the deal, which envisions more than five hundred billion dollars in new spending, was not how much to lay out for roads and bridges and tunnels and other “physical infrastructure” but, rather, the “pay-fors”—as in, how the government would pay for all the new spending. Republicans insisted on no change to corporate tax rates; the Biden Administration and congressional Democrats adamantly opposed proposals to index the gas tax or enact fees on electric vehicles. By Wednesday night, faced with the imminent deadline of a two-week Senate recess, the negotiators emerged with what looked like an agreement. “We have a framework,” Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, tweeted, shortly after 10 P.M. “Meeting at the White House tomorrow.” Seeking to reassure progressives who are increasingly wary of their more sweeping agenda being sold out by the White House, the Democrats’ House and Senate leaders made their own late-night announcement. The bipartisan infrastructure deal, they promised, would be acted on this summer only in parallel with a much costlier budget-reconciliation package that would include priorities of the left, such as child- and elder-care funding, which would be passed presumably with only Democratic votes. “We’re all on the same page,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said—although, even as he said it, it was fair to wonder whether this was more than a bit aspirational.

Democrats and Republicans were still cautious on Thursday, given the realities of a fifty-fifty Senate and a House in which the Democratic majority rests on only a handful of members. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would not take up the bipartisan infrastructure measure until the Senate passes both that bill and the budget reconciliation. “There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we are going to have a reconciliation bill,” she said. “Plain and simple. In fact, I used the word ‘ain’t.’ ” In the Senate, Portman emerged from briefing Republican leaders without their commitment to support the deal, although he said that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was “open-minded.”

Biden certainly seemed to think that the votes would be there. After the short meeting with the G-10 senators on Thursday, the President announced the deal on the White House driveway, around 12:30 P.M. “This reminds me of the days we used to get an awful lot done in the Congress,” Biden said, putting his hand on Portman’s shoulder. Sounding a decidedly old-fashioned note of trust across party lines, he told reporters that “they’ve given me their word”—which, he added, “is good enough for me.” After Biden walked back into the White House, the senators picked up on his theme of nostalgia-tinged reverence for the virtues of across-aisle centrism. As Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican who often seemed to be a party of one in the latter days of the Trump Presidency, put it, “America works, the Senate works, and we can work together.” The other senators nodded their heads as he said it. “Hear! Hear!” some of them shouted.

A couple of hours later, Biden came out to meet the press again, for a more formal celebration in the East Room. As his staff circulated a fact sheet about the deal (a hundred and nine billion dollars for “roads, bridges, major projects”! Forty-nine billion for public transit! Seven and a half billion for electric buses!), the President declared the deal a boon for geopolitical relevance in the twenty-first century, one that “signals to ourselves and to the world that American democracy can deliver.” He also couldn’t resist the opportunity to lecture journalists about what he had learned during his nearly four decades in the Senate. “My party is divided but my party is also rational,” Biden said. “If they can’t get every single thing they want, but all that they have in the bill before them is good, are they going to vote no? I don’t think so.”

It all sounded so . . . normal. So much like how Washington used to work. But it’s a sign of where we are that what was once ordinary now ends up feeling like something profound: a breakthrough, a triumph, a history-defying retort to those who think the American system is broken beyond repair. Biden ran for office on the promise that rational centrism was not yet dead in the United States, conjuring a past and, possibly, a future in which Americans might still agree across party lines on some core values and shared projects. This infrastructure deal proves Biden’s theory of the case: that the elusive middle in American politics is alive, if often hardly in evidence. For that reason alone, this may go down as the biggest week so far of Biden’s Presidency.

Because, up until now, there has been almost no evidence to bolster Biden’s case. Congress has been so riven by extreme partisanship that it could not even agree to a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th attack on the Capitol. On Thursday, in fact, Pelosi announced, “with great solemnity and sadness,” a plan to appoint a House select committee on the insurrection, it being within her power to do so without the support of the Republican minority. Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-relief package received no Republican votes. And, although Thursday afternoon also produced an apparent breakthrough in talks on police reform, another Biden priority, it already appears that gridlock will prevail on many matters on which Biden hopes to make progress, such as gun control and—as a test vote in the Senate showed, earlier this week—voting rights.

For years, infrastructure has been the great bipartisan hope. Donald Trump so often claimed to be introducing—but inexplicably failed to follow through on—his own version of a two-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that the promise of “Infrastructure Week” became one of the running jokes of his Administration. In Washington these days, it is a hard-and-fast conventional wisdom that, if Biden cannot achieve bipartisan agreement on infrastructure spending, he cannot do so on almost anything of consequence. This is the easy one; it will only get harder. But in truth this was not at all easy; anything beyond this may well be impossible. The habit of taking what you can get and then voting yes has all but vanished. Permanent outrage is Congress’s brand now, not perpetual compromise.

After Biden was done talking, I spoke with one of the Senate negotiators, the Democrat Mark Warner, of Virginia. He had joined the President at the National Cathedral to eulogize his late Republican colleague with the same last name (the two were not related), who not only forgave him for unsuccessfully running against him, in 1996, but eventually became his close friend. When we spoke on Thursday, Warner told me that the late senator had been on his mind during a heated moment at the negotiations, when he almost walked out of the talks. He had closed his binder and was about to leave, Warner said, when, “honest to goodness, I thought of what I’d said earlier in the day, that mantra of ‘What would John Warner do?’ Well, John Warner wouldn’t pack up his notebook and leave,” he told me. “So I reopened my notebook and went back to work.”

In Thursday’s meeting with Biden, Warner said, both he and the Republican Susan Collins, of Maine, brought up the funeral and the muscle memory that it had conjured for them of bipartisan deals past. Perhaps, they proposed, the bill should be named for the late Virginia senator, whose funeral service had helped to bring them together. The deal isn’t perfect, but it is real. And besides, as Warner pointed out to me, many of Biden’s infrastructure priorities in the deal “under Trump, Obama, and Bush never got a dime.” It’s not exactly what the President hoped for, he said, but it’s “not a bad day’s work,” either.

Doonesbury — Take Two.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Way To Go, Joe

My internet connection came back about an hour before President Biden’s speech last night, so I was able to watch it on the TV rather than listen to it on the radio, like I was planning to.  But in a way, I could have listened to it on the old Atwater-Kent because a lot of it harked back to the kind of speech that would have been given by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

No, I wasn’t around for FDR and his transformational plans and the New Deal; perhaps the closest I come would be Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society ideas such as Medicare, Head Start, and the civil rights legislation.  But last night President Biden brought back the sweeping ideas of his predecessors, proposing spending on programs that will help every American and their children.  Those along with his proposed investments in infrastructure and the foundations of what our country is built on are markedly different than plans put forward by recent Democratic presidents.  To counter both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the era of big government is back, and government can be a part of the solution.

What a lot of people, including myself, didn’t expect was to see this kind of fire and passion from Joe Biden.

Josh Marshall:

I didn’t have great expectations for tonight’s speech because political events seldom turn on speeches. Nor is speechifying Biden’s forte. He’s workmanlike, solid. But he’s no great orator. That’s Barack Obama.

But I saw an extraordinarily effective speech. Like so much with Biden he managed to find in the historical moment things that play to his strengths. I’ve been watching State of the Union addresses for forty-plus years and I have never seen one like this. Biden delivered it with a tremendous informality. Biden is no Obama when it comes to oratory. But Obama couldn’t have delivered this speech. It would not play to his skills which are heroic and oratorical rather than empathic and conversational.

I’m curious how many times Biden departed from the prepared text. Because the delivery at least was deeply conversational. It frequently read like he was having a conversation with the people in the chamber and then, metaphorically at least, with the country at large. Perhaps it was just written to fall easily into Biden’s conversational style. But it had an informality and conversational tone that I haven’t seen any other President even attempt. It worked.

Biden continues to be blessed by the fact that late in life he rendezvoused with a political moment in which his personality and style, at other times a curiosities or even an obstacles, were uniquely suited to the moment.


Altogether, it was a powerful speech, potent in many ways because it was so understated, casual and conversational. Biden continues to bet big and in the strange alchemy of the moment, where essential elements of his public character seem to match the trauma of the moment, it seems to be working.

As we say in theatre, timing is everything. Had Joe Biden succeeded Barack Obama, I doubt that we would have seen such a dynamic attempt to change the direction and agenda of the country.  That’s because we wouldn’t have to; the Obama administration didn’t leave the carnage of divisiveness and corruption of Biden’s predecessor.  Any president who came after that would have to have taken such bold steps to stop the death spiral.

Franklin Roosevelt famously noted that “this generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”  That challenge is true for just about every generation: what choices we make for our future, our posterity, and our succeeding generations.  President Biden took that challenge and made it ours.  Now it is up to us to follow his lead.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Friday, March 12, 2021

Happy Friday

What a difference a year makes, just in prime-time presidential addresses: going from flop-sweating Trump (“Holy shit now what”) to Joe Biden and his cautiously hopeful homily about dealing with the pandemic: things are looking up, but we still have to be vigilant.  Apparently it got through because the Republicans and their Wormtongues over at Fox News are trashing their shorts about how the $1.9 trillion will destroy the beautiful world crafted by grifters and felons… and then horn in on the credit when it works.

Now comes the part where President Biden and his team goes out and sells it to the nation.  That shouldn’t be too hard since the legislation has very wide bipartisan support.  The only dissent is from the gang that still won’t acknowledge that he won the election, but that begs the question of why any reasonable person should be expected to deal with them.  They’re grousing about “unity” when they didn’t want it?  Seriously?

Speaking of unity:

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Friday, December 18, 2020

Happy Friday

Scrolling through memories and trying to put the times in perspective, it was ten years ago this week that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed.

The Moderna vaccine will soon be available, basically doubling the number of doses, and hopefully will be used in places where they are urgently needed, including the place where my mom lives.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) has been nominated by Joe Biden to be his Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet.  (Some nervous pundits are fretting about whittling away at the already narrow majority the Democrats have in the House, but the district is a safe seat; at least it was when I lived there.)

I am off for two weeks from my part-time jobs at the charter schools.  I work hourly, but I also have some work I need to do from home for year-end.

And a token of the season…

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


The grown-ups are taking charge.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will nominate Pete Buttigieg to be secretary of transportation, Mr. Biden’s transition team announced Tuesday, selecting a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and former opponent who would bring a younger voice to the cabinet and add to its diversity as its first openly gay member.


President-elect Joseph R. Biden will nominate Jennifer M. Granholm, a former governor of Michigan and a longtime champion of renewable energy development, to be the next secretary of energy, according to four people close to the president-elect’s transition team.

If confirmed, Ms. Granholm, 61, will be the second woman, after Hazel R. O’Leary, who served under President Bill Clinton, to lead the vast department, which oversees the United States nuclear weapons complex as well as 17 national laboratories and a wide range of energy research and development initiatives.

I know some folks are wondering why Mayor Pete, with all his foreign policy interests, is given a post that sounds more like a backbench job. But since the country is in desperate need of infrastructure restoration starting with roads, bridges, and a rail system that hasn’t been upgraded since Harry Truman’s whistle-stop campaign in 1948, perhaps someone with civic experience could lead us there. Also, his foreign policy background would open the door to listening to ideas from places like Europe where they have outdone us in public transportation. Having him be the first openly gay cabinet member is just a nice plus.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It Really Is Official

The Electoral College has spoken.

It began at 10 a.m. in New Hampshire, where electors met in a statehouse chamber festooned with holiday decorations and gave their four votes to Joseph R. Biden Jr. By noon on Monday, the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, ground zero for many of President Trump’s fruitless lawsuits, had backed Mr. Biden too. In New York, Bill and Hillary Clinton voted for Mr. Biden along with 27 other electors.

And when California cast its 55 votes for Mr. Biden around 5:30 p.m. Eastern time, it pushed him past the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, putting the official seal on his victory after weeks of efforts by Mr. Trump to use legal challenges and political pressure to overturn the results.

With the Electoral College vote behind him, Mr. Biden called for unity while forcefully denouncing the president and his allies for their assault on the nation’s voting system. In an address in Wilmington, Del., on Monday night, he said the Republican efforts to get the Supreme Court to undo the result represented a “position so extreme we’ve never seen it before,” and called the attacks on election officials at the local level “unconscionable.”

Here’s his speech.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Sunday Reading

Worth It — Matthew Yglesias, now with the Washington Post, on the price progressives paid to get rid of Trump.

Progressives are already registering their disappointments with President-elect Joe Biden. When he announced that Rep. Cedric Richmond (La.), one of his campaign co-chairs, will serve as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, the climate group Sunrise Movement tweeted that Richmond “has taken big money from the fossil fuel industry, cozied up w/oil and gas, & stayed silent while polluters poisoned his own community.” Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid denounced incoming presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti as a “former pharma lobbyist” who “has represented groups vociferously opposed to Medicare For All and the public manufacturing of prescription drugs.” Antony Blinken, the designated secretary of state, while well-regarded by national security professionals across the board, is very much a foreign policy hawk in the mold of, well, Joe Biden.

The left’s frustration is understandable (though some appointees, like incoming chief of staff Ron Klain and treasury nominee Janet Yellen, are better received in those quarters), but there really isn’t much ground for disappointment. As the Reagan-era mantra goes, “Personnel is policy,” and Biden promised a moderate administration, with nods at Obama-era priorities and even bipartisanship.

In the Democratic primary race, Biden argued that this was the way to beat President Trump, and it worked. Incumbents don’t often lose, and for Trump to do so while a majority of voters told Gallup they were better off than they were four years ago is extraordinary. Despite Trump’s post-election antics, the race wasn’t even close. Biden scored a larger share of the popular vote than any challenger since Franklin D. Roosevelt facing down Herbert Hoover, and his moderation was almost certainly key to that success.

Biden ran ahead of House Democrats and most of the party’s Senate candidates in key states such Maine, North Carolina and Georgia. One notable exception was former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who won his Senate race positioned to the right of Biden ideologically. Voters wanted Trump gone, and they like some of the Democrats’ ideas, but there’s little sign of a hunger in the electorate for sweeping progressive change. A general-election presidential candidate who promised that probably would have done worse.

Even a moderate Democratic president backed by big congressional majorities would be likely to deliver major policy changes — just as Barack Obama did in 2009-2010. That’s not going to happen in Biden’s Washington, though (at least not initially), and not because of whom he appoints. The congressional math simply doesn’t support it.

Congressional deadlock will fuel the left’s taste for aggressive executive action. But how much sense does it make to cast the appointments of figures such as Richmond; Ricchetti, who was chief of staff to Vice President Biden; and Blinken, Biden’s former national security adviser, as major betrayals? The personnel-is-policy lament originated in the context of an insurgent president who, conservatives believed, had promised a clean break with the Eisenhower-Nixon moderate GOP establishment. The reality of governance made it inevitable that Ronald Reagan would rely to an extent on old Washington hands, but the right sought to limit their influence and feared betrayal from within. Similarly, many Democrats backed Obama in the 2008 primary because they wanted to avoid a restoration of Bill Clinton’s administration. Watching many key positions later go to Clinton veterans stung.

On that score, much of the current bellyaching feels like characters reading a script that was written with an Elizabeth Warren or Julián Castro administration in mind — a narrative that doesn’t fit the actual circumstances. Biden promised to beat Trump and put competent people back in charge, and that’s what he’s doing. Anything else progressives get is gravy.

Progressive journalist Zeeshan Aleem defends whining about Biden appointments, saying, “This is a critical moment for dissent, and a situation where narrative-formation can be a substantial form of leverage.” Not really. The election results don’t leave progressives with important leverage. Senate confirmations will be controlled by a clutch of moderates in both parties. If Democrats win both of Georgia’s Senate runoffs in January, then they can write a budget reconciliation bill that’s exactly as ambitious as very-slightly-left-of-center Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) want to see. Other bills will need to be bipartisan.

That’s not to say progressives ought to sit down and shut up. But they do need to choose their battles. Frederick the Great is credited with saying, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” A case in point: The effort by several progressive congressional Democrats to keep “deficit hawk” Bruce Reed away from the Office of Management and Budget is considerably more credible if you’re not complaining about every longtime Biden ally who’s up for every job.

There’s also more to life than leverage. Biden’s team faces the genuinely difficult question of how to get things done with a sharply polarized Congress. The idea of student debt cancellation via executive action has gained steam largely because progressives developed the insight that this is a thing that can actually be done. But cancellation can come in various forms, and not many people are sold on the merits of canceling all student debt (including for, say, recent Harvard Law School graduates). Developing a more targeted approach that meets skeptics’ concerns should be possible and would be a big win. Similarly, progressives have an opportunity to tell the White House what their priorities and red lines in congressional negotiations are. Do they want Biden to block any tax cuts for the rich, or do they want to him show flexibility if, in exchange, he can win something important as a concession? And if so, what would that be?

Even the most left-wing White House staff members will find it challenging to make progress given the congressional math. And even the most moderate Democrats have policy ambitions grander than what Congress is likely to pass. It’s going to be a frustrating time for all Democratic factions. But there’s no gain in responding to frustration by nursing grievances over a fake sense of betrayal. Biden will do the job Democrats hired him to do. And the most valuable commodity in Washington’s new order won’t be “leverage” but viable ideas.

Welcome to Our Writing Retreat; You’re Grounded! — Patty Terhune in The New Yorker.

We are so excited to welcome you to our revolutionary writing retreat, You’re Grounded! Year after year, our alumni rave about how our services inspired incredible professional and personal growth. Our program aims to take your head out of your ass so that you may recognize the ways in which your regular routine reflects poorly on us. Everything you’ve ever done before this retreat and everything you will do after reflects on us. Yes, even that time you drove past your neighbor Tom without waving. He’s a nice man, and what better things did you have going on that you couldn’t spare him a polite hello? You know we didn’t raise you like that. Yes, here, we’re your family. That’s why you need to be Grounded.

Because everybody reacts differently to the experience of being Grounded, there is not a specified duration for your stay with us. Some people need two days, others need two weeks, and still others have been here for years. We recommend that you enter into this experience with an open mind. If you complain and whine about how your sister only had to go on this retreat for three days, you won’t be able to fully grow during your residency. You will remain here until we dismiss you, and we won’t dismiss you until we know for sure that you have learned your lesson.

Please remember, we were thinking of you when we created this space. To encourage self-reflection and to insure that everyone is fully present, we have a strict no-technology policy. So please power down your cell phones, laptops, and video games, and put them into our junk drawer. You’ll get your items back when we feel that you have earned them. Any breach of this policy will result in an immediate extension of your stay, as it shows us that you aren’t treating us with respect, which is just so typical of you. Do you think we do this because we like it? Of course not. We hate having to play this role. But we do it for you!

It may seem harsh at times, but everything about being Grounded is specifically designed to bring out the best in you. Because of that, communication with friends or other attendees is prohibited. No late-night fast-food runs, no hallway chitchat about how “this is so unfair.” If you find yourself wanting to complain, just remember that we love you—but we don’t have to like you. So choose your words carefully.

If you are feeling isolated and alone, you can journal about your thoughts and feelings. In fact, we require it. The primary goal of this retreat is to make sure that you think about what you’ve done. Then we want you to think about it again. Then sit down and force yourself to do better. We’re not mad that you haven’t been living up to your potential and have been dishonoring the sacrifices of your entire lineage. We’re just disappointed.

We run this retreat because we believe in you. We see your full promise. We see all of the amazing things that you could accomplish and all of the fulfillment you could feel. We want you to have the space to see that, too. We want you to start to treat yourself with the self-respect that you deserve and also to create an amazing piece of work. But, first, we want you to apologize to your sister for saying that her dog is ugly. She can’t help that.

Now go to your room.

Doonesbury — Blissful ignorance.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Sunday Reading

What’s inside the blue bag on front porches all over America this morning.

Our Better Angels — Charles P. Pierce.

Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile.

King Lear, Act IV, Scene 2

At the moment, we have a president*.

In a few months, it appears, we will have a president.

The asterisk is dead. May god have mercy on its soul.

I stayed up until 5 a.m. on Friday morning, just long enough for Joe Biden to pass El Caudillo Del Mar-a-Lago in the remarkable state of Georgia, and he did so with votes from Clayton County, the late John Lewis’ old congressional district. I was asleep when Pennsylvania finally flipped after the sun came up. I did what every true American patriot has done all week—curse the Electoral College for murdering sleep—and realized that I’m going to be working against muscle memory every time I type the word “president” for quite some time. I apologize to President-Elect Biden in advance in case I occasionally drop the asterisk out of habit, until I get used to the idea that this president* and his awful family and his terrible administration* are vapor.

Joe Biden has come through a lot of history, and not unscathed, either. I applied to be one of his speechwriters in 1976, fresh out of college. (I didn’t get the gig, which is why he hasn’t built his library already.) Since then, he’s run for president three times. In 1988, he was sunk by a plagiarism scandal brought to light by operatives in the employ of Michael Dukakis. (When Mike Dukakis oppo’s you out of a race, it’s like losing a fistfight with Plato.) In 2008—Twenty years later!—he was swept aside by the phenomenon of Barack Obama, of whom he memorably once said,

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

And this is why campaign aides jump out of windows.

Obama, of course, held no grudges and, by picking Biden as a running mate, revived his career as cool Uncle Joe, one of the more remarkable charisma transfusions in the history of American politics. There is no question that Biden was transformed by the vice presidency, making him the first vice president to be elevated rather than minimized by that office, at least without the president’s having died. The gaffe-ridden friend of the Delaware financial-services industry slipped on the aviators, unleashed his killer smile, and found his way back to being the decent guy, friend of the Amtrak commuters, damn fine Dad, that everybody who really knew him always said he was. The guy who choked so badly during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings was sent to wrangle votes for a stimulus deal and the Affordable Care Act, and generally was one of the great wingmen any president ever had.

So, when he announced he was running for president again—32 years later!—and when he said he was doing so to recapture the soul of America, people bought it. Even when he barely crawled through the primary processes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he clung to that message—that we are somehow better than the president* we had elected in 2016, that the better angels of our nature were not taking a few years off. The message found an audience as soon as the primary electorate became less Caucasian, especially in South Carolina, where Congressman Jim Clyburn pointed the way. At which point, the country’s simple desire for cool and blessed normality asserted itself. I freely admit that I underestimated the political salience of that simple truth.

Events then conspired to intensify that desire. The pandemic hit in the middle of the year and the economy cratered as a result. The most intense racial upheaval since the 1960s struck with the murder of George Floyd. Biden stayed resolutely on message—that, basically, we have it in us to make it all OK. There was a brilliant jiu-jitsu element to that message. It insulated Biden from being firmly tagged with any rioting and looting that went on. It absorbed every episode of angry lunacy emanating from the White House as validation of its basic raison d’être. We can survive even the president* that we have inflicted upon ourselves, the message was. There is no crisis that Americans cannot overcome, not even each other. In all honesty, the truth of that message is still very much up in air; one thing that the 2020 election has proven is that the 2016 election wasn’t anywhere near the outlier that a lot of people wanted it to be. But, simply as a reason to vote for someone, it was both extraordinarily powerful and just barely enough.

SICINIUS: What is the city but the people?

CITIZENS: True, the people are the city.

BRUTUS: By the consent of all, we were establish’d the people’s magistrates.

—Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act I, Scene 1.

Citizens of the following cities saved the American republic: Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and (possibly) Phoenix.

Remember these names: Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Ben Wikler of Wisconsin, Jane Fleming Kleeb of Nebraska. They saved the American Republic.

Black voters saved the American republic.

Women voters saved the American republic.

Over 70 million American citizens saved the American republic.

The late Congressman Elijah Cummings left behind the question for us all to answer:

When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: “In [2019], what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?

Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States.

Kamala Harris is the 49th Vice President of the United States.

At the moment, another verse from Seamus Heaney, whom Biden used as a kind of unofficial speechwriter throughout this long, weird year, seems appropriate to the occasion, to the election of a president-elect for whom fatherhood has been both glory and deep, unhealed wound, something that touched a country desperate for the kind of solace that Joe Biden brought home from Washington every night on the Acela to his bereaved sons back in Wilmington.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

Doonesbury — Shearing the sheep.

Saturday, November 7, 2020