Friday, May 21, 2021

Joe Did What? Access Journalism

Andrea Pozzo, anamorphic ceiling fresco in the Church of Sant'Ignazio (1690), Campus Martius, Rome, photo by Anthony Majanlahti, 2005.

Weird spectacle in Politico in a lengthy piece by Laura Barrón-López: a bunch of old more or less rightwing Democratic retired senators, Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, Bob Kerrey, coming out to say that Biden seems to have become a completely different political thinker since he was in the Senate himself, but they're mostly pretty OK with that:

Current and former Democratic lawmakers who’ve known Biden through the years describe his current spending initiatives as an evolution. But none see his presidential agenda — cast in the face of the historic pandemic — as a misstep or simply the result of liberal pressure. Conrad, a self-described conservative Democrat, said Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan was “not out of the Biden playbook of the past.” But he said that he’d support it if he were still in the Senate today.

What's that about? I mean, not why is Kent Conrad thinking that way, though that's an interesting question, but why is a story about him expressing a positive view of Biden popping up in Politico? Do you suppose it's possible Democrats could be learning how to use Politico-style access journalism?

Because this story is putting out a kind of specific narrative with a kind of specific purpose—

  • Biden's never really been a domestic economic policy guy, his main influence when he was a senator was in the areas where he chaired committees, foreign policy and judiciary, but
  • when called on he was always pretty much a voice for "moderation" as it's been understood since the 1980s, a desire to keep the deficit down and not overdo the spending, just like Conrad, Nelson, and Kerrey, not to mention
  • current senators like Manchin and Sinema loyally keeping that tradition alive; but
  • things are changing, not only because of the emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic and attendant economic wreckage, but also 
  • because the neglect of infrastructure and all the things that are being called infrastructure over the last 40 years has led to a really parlous situation that desperately needs to be rectified, and
  • Biden is happy, indeed anxious, to see the needed expenditures "paid for" in the mostly traditional fashion, and would generally like to see the US move back to having a regular relationship between tax revenues and government spending, if only he can get some congressional cooperation on that,
  • which Conrad, Nelson, and Kerrey would probably give him if they were back in the Senate themselves

—so probably Manchin and Sinema ought to give Biden their cooperation too. 

From a certain point of view what this looks like is a big slippage in the Overton Window, having expanded left to the point where even Conrad and Kerrey can get a glimpse of the Promised Land of Socialism (Nelson comes across as more doubtful), but you know how I hate that metaphor, and the physically preposterous picture of political life as a kind of endless narrow corridor in a lower ship deck with a porthole that keeps growing and shrinking as it lurches back and forth in and out of the view of the assembled politicians along with the rocking of the ship. It makes me seasick. To me, democratic political management is about building coalitions among interest groups, including I guess ideological interest groups, to implement plans that are consistent with the aims and aspirations of enough people to make a majority. A better metaphor would be that of an Overton Anamorphosis, after those artworks that look different depending on the perspective from which you're looking at them.

In this way it isn't the size of the window that matters, it's the size of the plan, which can succeed in two different ways, by being small enough that it doesn't frighten too many people away, like the 2011 budget Obama snuck by Boehner and McConnell, or big enough to accommodate a real movement, where the groups are so attracted by the meeting of their own demands that they have to put up with the satisfaction of others, like the New Deal, and it's in the latter category that I see Biden's plans for the post-coronavirus economy. Because they have so much, indeed, that excites people from different categories: the bridge-and-highway infrastructure is monumental for House members anxious to be associated with particular projects and job-rich for senators anxious over employment statistics, the broadband is for techies who need jobs and farmers who need Internet, the tax proposals are for "centrists" who want to see a move toward budget balancing and leftists who want tax inequities to be resolved in favor of the poor, and so on.

The move in the Politico piece looks a little bit orchestrated, in fact, as a step in mobilizing "centrist" support for the Jobs Plan and Families Plan, with the rectification of the income tax and corporate tax anomalies of the 2017 Trump legislation, because

former Senate colleagues say his economic plans — which combined with the Covid-relief law add up to more than $6 trillion — are meant to address those perils. It’s not just the pandemic, though. Income inequality, the rise of China and the dangers of climate change are all at the forefront of his agenda; convincing him and his team that they need to move quickly....

Those close to Biden define “Bidenomics” as a laser-like focus on the needs of workers, based on the idea that a fairer tax system and strong unions will bolster the working and middle class and close the income inequality gap. To prove the consistency to these core values, the White House pointed to different votes Biden cast over his decades-long career in support of unions, bargaining rights, increased pay and expansions of child and caregiver tax credits.

It looks as if Biden has recruited a bunch of his old pals to underline how traditional (in the pre-1980 tradition of course) the proposals are, even as the "left" begins to understand how radical (from a post-1980 perspective) the approach is going to feel, in advance of the meeting Politico's Playbook reports this morning:

INFRASTRUCTURE — The dominant issue in D.C. this spring has been overshadowed this week by violence in Israel and jockeying over a proposed Jan. 6 commission. But look for the focus to shift back today when GOP senators meet with White House officials including senior adviser STEVE RICCHETTI and head of legislative affairs LOUISA TERRELL.

The AP reports that the current mood heading into today’s talks is pretty pessimistic, at least inside the West Wing, and that Democrats are getting antsy about the negotiations going much longer.

The key passage: “The lead Republican negotiator Sen. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO of West Virginia was encouraged by the talks and expected the White House to be back in touch by week’s end, her office said. But there was some dismay at the White House that the Republican counteroffer did not substantially alter the party’s original $568 billion proposal, leaving it far short of the White House’s plan, according to an administration official not authorized to speak publicly about the private conversations.

“The White House’s hopes for a bipartisan deal on infrastructure have cooled but they have not abandoned the effort, the official said.”

when attention is going to be paid to Joe Manchin's hopeless but beautiful Schopenhauerian yearning for self-dissolution in a sea of left-right unity, and we're going to see how utterly Republicans fail to live up to the challenge of understanding it. 

I think Biden's people are starting to see how you use the media to put a picture across, though, and what you can get Politico to do for you by giving them access to quotable quotes, and that makes me a bit more hopeful than I was for the future of the plan itself.

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