We’re in a game of chicken over the fate of American democracy.  Is Biden up for the challenge?

We’re in a game of chicken over the fate of American democracy.  Is Biden up for the challenge?
January 4, 2020 — Vice President Joe Biden holds an event with voters in the gymnasium at McKinley Elementary School in Des Moines, where he addressed a number of issues including the recent escalation with Iran. Iowa member of Congress Abby Finkenauer was also on hand to announce her endorsement of Biden. Credit: Phil Roeder // https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

It should be clear by now the president’s flabby polling numbers can be traced back to supporters becoming disillusioned over the last year.

In the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency, there was a palpable feeling of hope for the future and aspiration for the renewal of the republic.

But with the pandemic continuing to rage, with the Republicans continuing to sabotage recovery and kneecap voting, and with two moderate Democratic senators blocking transformational legislation, the president’s supporters have lost their verve. They are now expressing their sour mood every time a pollster comes calling.

I expect his numbers to improve modestly after he nominates a Black female jurist to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. Fulfilling a campaign promise will almost certainly rebuild party confidence.

The president reaffirmed that promise today during a White House ceremony honoring Breyer. He said he will nominate a Black woman to the court by the end of February. “It’s long overdue,” Biden said.

The pundit corps seems united in expecting the president to pivot at some point – to abandon his “leftist agenda,” according to the Times’ David Brooks. But it’s not leftist. It’s popular. And progressives are not the problem. Two centrists are. The progressives got Biden’s back.

The president may pivot, but I doubt he will pivot in ways the pundit corps is expecting. He might pivot the way Kaitlin Byrd would prefer. Kaitlin is a contributor to the Editorial Board and a monthly columnist for Dame magazine. She also has one of the keenest and shrewdest perspectives on American politics. (I wish she’d write for me more!)

In our chat, Kaitlin said that to truly mobilize Democratic voters, and in the process restore democracy, the president should declare a “with-or-against-us posture” to forestall future conflicts in his party. Would that include Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema? I asked.

“Not just apply,” she said. “It’s targeted to them.

Give me your view of the confirmation process coming up.

Biden is going to be held to his promise to nominate a Black woman to the bench. It’s more important, however, to use this confirmation process as an opportunity to reform the Supreme Court, and to bring it back toward its principle, purpose and legitimacy.

As there will be brutal scrutiny on his nominee, it will be a test to show he understands the dynamics of solidarity and the power of the community most responsible for putting him in the White House.

I noticed when he nominated Vice President Kamala Harris that he left her twisting in the wind, as she was publicly savaged by the same people he had running his process (and white men, to boot). It was really thoughtless and ugly, and I didn’t appreciate it then or now

This cannot happen with this nominee, especially since court reform is not merely necessary, but essential for this republic.

My question has always been: is Biden up to the challenge of this moment? Hopefully, this nomination process will provide an answer.

What's your take on his cussing out a Fox reporter?

It’s great. He shouldn’t have apologized. (Biden called Peter Doucy later.) Weren’t we emblazoning mugs with “BFD” after Biden’s hot-mic comment when Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act?

More than that: it was accurate and it was pointed.

Fox News isn’t a news media organization. It’s a propaganda outlet. Calling out one of its reporters isn’t just a way to mobilize the Democratic base. It’s also a clear demarcation between legitimate news and illegitimate destabilizing disinformation networks.

Isn't the president just being a partisan?

Absolutely not. That’s something that has to change about the Democratic media strategy.

There’s this sense that the press isn’t something Democrats (or their allies) can move or direct, and so there’s a tendency among Democrats to let the press set the narrative.

But here, like politics more broadly, Democrats have to take opportunities to set acceptable standards of behavior.

A tough question by the right asked in good faith is different from a fishing expedition designed to feed a narrative. The failure to separate the two, to force a dichotomy, undermines Democrats and democracy.

So Biden’s remark (“What a stupid son of a bitch!”) is not only a good answer but an appropriate answer to a bad faith question, correct?

Yes.

I would even say it’s necessary, not merely appropriate.

Give me an idea of Democrats directing the press corps?

Biden is emblematic of the party’s failure to set a goal and then figure out what needs to be done to get there. There’s this huge interest in comity when we’re having very fundamental disagreements, and this interest in comity is allowing bad actors to steer the discussion.

Biden and Democrats should be saying that the purpose of the work that the presidency does, that the legislature does, that the government is designed for is to protect and serve the people.

Then we should ask exactly how others (especially bad actors) are helping achieve that goal — that’s how you break the habit.

Biden and Democrats should alienate people who don’t share those values and clarify the purpose that they work for.

Would that include Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema?

Not just apply – it’s targeted to them.

It’s been frustrating to watch Biden negotiate with people who clearly don’t care, and are looking for excuses to avoid doing their jobs.

If he set a hardline and publicly declared a with-or-against-us posture early in his presidency, he could have forestalled many conflicts.

I know we’re worried about party switching (Manchin and Sinema becoming Republicans), but the truth is that we’ve already got two Republicans undermining us under the Democratic banner.

If they switch, it will clarify the conflict and loyalties.

A with-or-against-us posture toward Manchin and Sinema might have led us to where we are now, no? With no BBB, etc.?

Sure, but we’re here anyway, and we sacrificed so much without any gain. Now we’re headed into a midterm with Democratic voters feeling like the party won’t fight for them, like it’s being held hostage by people who oppose our interests while they say they’re our friends.

But such a fundamental pivot also has to be paired with accepting that the Republican Party is not the loyal opposition – they’re the enemy.

You're suggesting that by attacking Manchin and Sinema, the president might not change anything but he will nevertheless demonstrate to Democratic voters the party is fighting as hard as it can for them.

Yes.

Fighting Manchin and Sinema might have led us to the same place, but just as likely is that fighting them might have moved them closer.

There was an insurrection a year ago. Putting Republicans on the defensive would have been much easier early in Biden’s presidency, along with tying their goals to their actions. Instead, the president opted to preserve a right flank for Manchin and Sinema.

He could have made switching parties the equivalent of jumping off of a cliff. Instead, he let them seem noble for partnering with traitors.

Is it too late for Biden to pivot? Can he pivot in your view?

Biden can pívot, but it would really require leaning away from his tendency to forgive. Like apologizing to Fox reporter Peter Doocy when Biden was right. It gained nothing and it stifled his base.

The strategy I’m suggesting requires complete commitment. We’re in a game of chicken over the fate of American democracy.

Don’t blink first.

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