Much to ponder in Washington
WASHINGTON, DC : The lighting of Christmas trees notwithstanding, Washington is an unhappy place. Indeed, I’ve never seen the city so glum. This applies to members of both political parties as well as those without much ideology. Trajectories that measure a president’s performance have been going down, and, as President Joe Biden is learning painfully (if he didn’t know already), it’s easier for a president’s job approval ratings to go down than to propel them upward again.
The principal reason that Biden did well in his presidency’s early weeks is not difficult to identify: he isn’t Donald Trump. Biden appeared calm, confident, and sure-footed. He appeared to value governing and to know what he was doing. No surprise here, as Biden had been in the Senate for 36 years and then for eight years was vice president to the largely successful Barack Obama.
After some hiccups, Biden picked a largely respectable Cabinet. The emphasis on diversity, almost to the point of religious belief and with a touch of comedy, slowed down many appointments, and is still doing so with regard to ambassadorships. That a large number remain unfilled after nearly a year isn’t just the fault of a few obdurate Republican senators, in particular Ted Cruz, the undomesticated right-winger from Texas and his fellow agitator Josh Hawley, of Missouri. Both men also encouraged the attempt on January 6, 2021, to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Among the long list of countries to which Biden has yet to even nominate an ambassador are South Korea, Italy, the Philippines, and the Czech Republic. Among the major countries to which ambassadorial nominations are stalled on Capitol Hill are China, Japan, France, India, and Pakistan. As an international crisis can erupt almost anywhere, at any time, the United States is woefully unprepared to cope in too many places.
The political fortunes of a president often depend on luck, and after a few months, Biden’s began to turn. Numerous observers, myself included, believe that Biden would have survived the almost universally unfair characterisations of the withdrawal from Afghanistan had bad luck not followed. For a while, Biden appeared to have a grip on how to handle the coronavirus pandemic – in contrast to the reckless Trump. But Biden’s apparent competence in handling the pandemic was undermined by two successive variants: the Delta outbreak, the most virulent thus far, coincided with his approval ratings going south in August. And now the Omicron variant is spreading fast. The relentlessness of the pandemic has led to the dispiriting thought that life might now be masks and restrictions – and untimely deaths – in perpetuity.
Even more dispiriting, it’s actually the case that some key Republican governors – Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas – and members of congress such as Cruz and Hawley have been opposing vaccinations and mandates because this could damage Biden and other Democrats in upcoming elections.
One more problem confronting Biden is his lack of a commanding presence. His normality, at first so welcome, has been transformed in the eyes of many into boringness. Biden lacks wit; we don’t quote him. Defenders of Biden point out, accurately, that, lack of dazzle notwithstanding, he’s won substantial legislative victories, and they dismiss the pizzazz of a John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Obama, or even Trump as a superficiality. But a president has to be able to lead, to move people.
Democrats’ morale isn’t helped by the evident flailing of Kamala Harris’s vice presidency. Under pressure to select a woman of colour as his running mate – a first – Biden selected Harris despite her mediocre performance as a candidate for the nomination, a Senatorial colleague of hers and friend of his says, “because he wanted to win.” She had the backing of prominent blacks.
The same problems cited for her failed presidential campaign have plagued her vice presidency: staff turmoil and a lack of clarity about what she stands for. The turmoil and extensive departures among her staff are particularly corrosive in Washington, which largely judges politicians according to the quality and loyalty of their staff. Politicians’ staff don’t mind working hard or enduring the occasional berating if the aide admires the boss. But when berating elides into bullying – as has been reliably reported in the cases of Harris and one of her competitors in 2020, Senator Amy Klobuchar – this gets around town fast and besmirches the politician’s name.
Biden can do nothing to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning or severely limiting the near-50-year-old Roe v Wade decision. Except for the minority of Americans who support the pro-life – or anti-abortion – bent of six of the nine members of the Court, the oral argument, on December 1, was a dismaying if not depressing display of political arrogance rather than of judicial temperament. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s listing of Court decisions that overruled precedent, confusing the decisions he listed, which almost entirely expanded rights, with the case before them, Dobbs v. Jackson, which would substantially limit – and possibly end – abortion rights, showed that he might be more ambitious than intelligent.
Many critics of the conservative or even radical Justices’ performance on abortion warned that it might undermine the institution’s legitimacy, but it can be argued that that had already happened. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, after all, are now raw, partisan slug matches, with the last three Justices named by Trump under questionable circumstances. In the argument over the Mississippi law at issue in Dobbs, all exposed themselves to be, as Trump promised, opponents of Roe. When asked by senators in their confirmation process whether they’d respect precedent (meaning Roe) they’d simply lied.
Unless the Court decides something miraculously unrepresentative of the way that the reactionary Justices behaved on December 1, what remains of its legitimacy will be gone. Roe drew a clear line; muddy or remove that line and chaos will ensue. More than 20 states are ready to immediately outlaw abortion, with no exceptions for incest or rape, as provided under current law.
The raw slugfests that now characterise Supreme Court nominations are reflective of what has happened to American politics. The old norms that made the legislative process work, if with increasing creakiness, have virtually disappeared. Individual senators, of both parties, put their own interests, perhaps financial, above those of party – in the case of the Democrats even if it damages the political standing of their president, which in the end jeopardises what they profess, however sincerely, to believe in.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
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