Sunday, June 7, 2020

Art of the Possible

This kind of thinking from one of my Rose Twitter friends, speaking of Real Leaders, annoys me so much:

I was going to let it go as a little emoprog venting, though, until I saw the same tired personalization coming from the bothsiderist right, or self-denominated center, in the person of horserace commentator Matt Bai, who's anxious to "defend" Biden from the charge of being a revolutionary, in the Washington Post, which adopted him as a columnist (to fill the gaping hole in the inanity department left by the departure of Chris Cillizza, I guess) in January:

As Biden might say: What a bunch of malarkey.
The new narrative goes like this: Yes, Biden was a realistic reformer who proclaimed, as recently as his last debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that people were looking “for results, not a revolution.” But recent events have rocked him to his core, and now Biden has fundamentally rethought his purpose on the planet and is prepared to be the “transformational” president the country needs.
But that's not what the source he cites, Matt Viser in the same paper, actually says, which isn't that Biden is changing, "rocked to the core" and coming up with an entirely new "purpose on the planet" for himself—it's the program that's changing, in response to the current crisis, which requires a different approach than the one he was bringing to the table last year, because it is in itself as radical and terrifying as the Great Depression was during the 1932 campaign, as Roosevelt began to see that this particular situation, the bank failures and monetary deflation and the crushing unemployment, called for something completely different than the cheery but budget-balancing liberalism he would have proposed in 1928 and started out with before the '29 crash:
Far from the incremental administration he promised on the primary campaign trail, Biden now offers President Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of the post-Great Depression New Deal, as a role model for tackling the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and put millions out of work as well as the enduring effects of systemic racism being challenged by a newly energized protest movement.
FDR didn't change at all, or didn't change fast enough in some views, going back to deficit-hunting in the 1936 campaign, but he wasn't a doctrinaire who wants to use the same hammer on every problem; he understood that different approaches are needed at different moments, and the terrible situation of 1932 called for really original solutions. And Biden, who may well have the same kind of "first-class temperament", gets that too.

The other thing would be that Biden is a really good Democrat, with a comfortable commitment to the party's basic principles of equality, justice, and generosity of spirit, who is ready for whatever the party is ready for, remaining backward where the party as a whole does but also catching the moment when it's able to move forward. In the 1970s he followed the standard practice (as Hubert Humphrey had never been able to do) of getting along with the unreconstructed Southern senators like Thurmond and Eastland, as the famously "left" Ted Kennedy did with Eastland and the grotesque Orrin Hatch; in the 1990s he fell into Drug War terror, like Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-VT), and worked on some really regrettable legislation. You might also try to remember those moments in his vice presidency when his readiness surprised you, like his greeting of the Affordable Care Act as a "big fucking deal", or his jumping the gun on President Obama to favor same-sex marriage.

But the revolutionary thing to my way of thinking is the way the party has changed, over the last four years and maybe a bit more radically after the last four months, which I believe is what Matty is adverting to in the linked Vox piece:
Former Vice President Joe Biden has never really sought or received a reputation as a deep thinker on domestic policy matters. His highest-profile role as a senator involved judicial confirmations and his time chairing the Foreign Relations Committee. As vice president, his best-known work was in the national security domain or as a personal emissary from the White House to Congress.
As a candidate in the 2020 primaries, his pitch was overwhelmingly about electability; his policy profile was defined primarily by the things he wouldn’t embrace. Left-wing journalists and activists criticized his opposition to sweeping proposals from Sen. Bernie Sanders like Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal. Biden argued that the plans were implausible to make real and that he would take a more pragmatic approach — frustrating proponents of a “political revolution” or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “big structural change.”
That conflict between what the left wants and what Biden wouldn’t give them became the dominant narrative about him in the mainstream press. Biden was defined by the things he was against, rather than by the substantial overlap between his policy ideas and those of his progressive critics. Biden is a mainstream Democrat, and as the Democratic Party has grown broadly more progressive in recent years, he is now running on arguably the most progressive policy platform of any Democratic nominee in history.
As would be the case for anybody who got the nomination, because that's the way it works, as it was in 2016. There was never as much policy distance between Biden on the one hand and Sanders and Warren on the other as the salivating press wanted; there was a tactical difference on how to campaign, which was largely wiped out before the coronavirus, and intensified since.

Biden's appreciation of what the party is ready for—of the kind of BFD he might be able to achieve over the next four years—has certainly grown, and more through the current craziness, between the Covid and the increasing crisis of police brutality, from his backing for the $15 minimum wage going back to 2015 to recently announced support for that California law forcing companies to treat "independent contractors" as the employees they actually are and provide them with benefits to his new rhetoric of the "open wound" of racism: 

You can think of these adoptions on his part as "pandering" in the sense of tending to some straggly ends of the coalition he's trying to assemble, or you can think of it as experimentation in the art of the possible. In the long run, though, it's not going to matter whether he's a nice person: it's going to matter whether we manage to elect the coalition that is putting itself together with Biden's name, as it turns out, in the top line. Biden isn't the result of a quest for a Real Leader but of the practice of down and dirty democracy, which you can participate in or not as you choose, but nothing else is going to get the job done,

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