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Dispatch from the Bunker

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

The president and the congressional Democratic brain trust may yet pull from their nether regions something to pass in tandem with the bipartisan infrastructure bill (reference to a congressional Democratic brain trust being a venture into oxymoronic territory). At present, not much inspires confidence. But as longtime readers know, I am an eternal pessimist. I could be wrong.

My hopes and expectations for the Biden presidency were modest. A modicum of competence. A measure of civility. A soupçon of decency. That does not seem a lot to ask. But this is America. Ushering the scabrous sack of pus and venom that defiles everything it touches out the White House was an upgrade in and of itself. Beyond that Biden and the rest have me shaking an old gray head whose hair deficit increases by the day.

It is not a matter of making excuses to note that Biden stepped into multiple raging dumpster fires and an executive branch near wrecked by a predecessor whose tenure in the Oval Office was a virtuosic exercise in malevolence and incompetence. Onto these dumpster fires, the pandemic, extrication from Afghanistan, chaos on the border, myriad economic challenges, and deep, intractable social and political chasms, gasoline is poured by enemies and putative comrades alike, a Republican Party whose commitment is not to good governance but to destruction of governance and a progressive wing of the Democratic Party afflicted with hubris and prey to puritanical instincts. To use the word "Stalinist" in conjunction with the progressive left would go too far, but it is tempting. Deviation from the party line is not looked upon kindly.

The going would be treacherous for the most talented and skillful of leaders. To this the president brings, well, what exactly? A lifetime of experience in Congress, a narrative of decency and empathy, and shortcomings all too ordinary and human in nature. No one has ever accused him of eloquence or a towering intellect. His reputation as a legislator may be a trifle overblown. He is notoriously prone to gaffes, more pigheaded and less open-minded than is optimal, and more prickly than I had picked up on before. Loyalty to family leaves him blind to deficiencies in the moral faculty evident in his son Hunter and his brothers.

I still believe Joe Biden is a decent person. (Nota bene: Respected friends of diverse political persuasions may disagree vehemently on this point.) His empathy for individuals suffering pain and grief is genuine. The statesman Lindsey Graham said Biden is "as good a man [as] God ever created" and "the nicest person I think I've ever met in politics" (Eliza Relman, Lindsay Graham called Joe Biden 'as good a man as God ever created' in a resurfaced 2015 interview, Business Insider, November 22, 2019). On another occasion Graham said, "If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, then you got a problem. You need to do some self-evaluation. ’Cause what’s not to like?" The once warm relationship did not endure Graham's ascent to the status of bootlicking golf buddy to the former president. Earlier this year Graham attempted to revive the friendship with the explanation that he only joined attacks on Hunter Biden as a "bare minimum" to satisfy Trump supporters (Martin Pengelly, 'Short and not especially sweet': Lindsey Graham called Biden over Trump support, The Guardian, August 16, 2021). Biden reportedly was cool to the overture.

One might think that a president boasting thirty-six years of experience in the Senate and another eight as vice president would have thought to count the votes before signing on with Bernie Sanders, Pramila Jayapal, and a parade of progressive Twitter celebrities passing themselves off as solons to govern as if given a mandate by an election where the party lost seats in both houses of Congress, leaving them with a razor-thin majority in the House and a technical majority in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote when both parties vote in lockstep.

What possessed Biden to channel his inner Bernie Sanders and go big in these circumstances is beyond me. I remain generally on board with the Build Back Better Act while reserving the right to quibble about particulars, but no matter how compelling the need and persuasive the justification for these programs, you have to get beyond the windbaggery that goes with telling supporters that everything can be done for everybody. You have to pass legislation.

Joe Manchin is an irksome pettifogger and blockhead of long standing. As Hunter Thompson memorably said of Hubert Humphrey, he should be put in a damn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current. Manchin is also the only Democrat who could be elected to the Senate in a state that in 2020 went for Trump 68.6 percent to Biden's 29.7 percent. Without him Mitch McConnell gleefully heads up a Republican majority. We cannot afford to set Manchin afloat just yet.

Kyrsten Sinema has not been on the scene as long as Manchin and prior to this year had a lower profile, but she too has not hidden a taste for recalcitrance. Whether they negotiate in good faith or bad, whether they are genuinely willing to compromise or treacherously aim to tank the whole deal, is beside the point, as is progressive screeching that they are in the pocket of corporate interests and this explains it all. I am willing to give them benefit of the doubt (here too I expect some readers will disagree) and speculate that like most of us they act from a murky mix of principle, ill-founded and wrongheaded for the most part but principle nonetheless, and self-interest. Regardless, they are what they are. No one who has been paying attention should have been blindsided by their antics.

Yet members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus appear to have assumed that the wayward senators would be satisfied with some token bombast, after which in the end they would dutifully fall in line and vote with the president, and perhaps failing this progressives could steamroll Manchin, Sinema, and any other dissenters (reportedly some Democratic senators, happy to lurk in the shadows while colleagues take the heat, share reservations about the reconciliation bill and objections to doing away with the filibuster) in the same way they stuck the figurative knife in the back of Nancy Pelosi and shafted House moderates on a commitment to a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill at the end of September.

All this is water on the bridge now. Whether I am right or wrong in my belief that Biden, Democrats, and the country would have been better served by passing bipartisan infrastructure and touting it along with coronavirus relief legislation passed in the March and the vaccine rollout as major accomplishments Democrats could run on in the next election, while continuing to press for Build Back Better programs, voting rights legislation, immigration reform, etc., is academic at this point. Interminable wrangling over the reconciliation bill is not yet at an end despite the latest happy talk that next week will bring a deal, and it continues to do damage. We are where we are.

There is substance to the appearance that Democrats are chaotic and inept. Back in September Pramila Jayapal dismissed the bipartisan infrastructure bill as not that good. This is politically dimwitted whatever merit her arguments about the bill's shortcomings may have, and it leads one to wonder just what line progressives will adopt if a severely pared down Build Back Better Act indeed becomes law. The spectacle also conjures the prospect that the old circular firing squad will be assembled next year for progressives to primary moderate incumbents. The party's chances in the general election will be harmed whatever the outcome, whether it is an incumbent weakened by a move to the left made to survive the primary or a progressive in a race that a progressive has no more chance of winning in a general election than I have of being awarded one of those MacArthur genius grants, but a moderate Democrat up against a Trump Republican just might have a shot.

A thoughtful reader might wonder why I harangue Democrats generally and progressives in particular at such length in light of far greater threats to constitutional government and rule of law posed by the Trump Republican Party, adherents of dingbat theories positing constitutional sheriffs who are laws unto themselves, sovereign citizens gibberish that might be expected from a sophomore radicalized by Ayn Rand, and kindred ideologies. We need Democrats to be better because the alternative is catastrophe. Some of that entails recognizing and making common cause with people of good will even when we differ on any number of issues and sometimes on principle. It also entails the frustrating recognition that the ongoing project of giving our fellow citizens and ourselves for that matter a little better shot at a decent life in a civilized society will be realized, to whatever extent it is realized, in incremental steps, and for every step forward we will be taken back three-quarters of a step, sometimes due to the efforts of people who for whatever reasons oppose that step forward, sometimes because the best of intentions can lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences, and sometimes through chance and contingency in a world that does always not bend to human will. Our options are to keep at it against great odds or to give up. I continue to harangue Democrats because we need them to be better, and non-Democrats of good will too for that matter. We all need to be better, and not ready to give up.

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