Brief | November 3, 2021
A Time To Sow
What could you infer from a manufactured contest pitting a private equity alum of The Carlyle Group against a veteran of the Clinton fundraising machine? Granted I know neither of them well, they both strike me as uninteresting men endowed with pleasant sounding all-American names. Glenn Youngkin. Terry McAuliffe.
This is not to say that the Virginia gubernatorial election result was an uninteresting one. From a practitioner’s standpoint, comparing the precinct-level and demographic data with historical figures—specifically that from the presidential election exactly one year ago—gives us insights into questions of candidate quality, the impact of different campaign strategies, and changes in voter patterns within Virginia. With an appropriate statistical model, this result is also an important data point for those gambling on next year’s congressional elections.
But no respectable practitioner would go so far as to say that the state of Virginia is a “bellwether” in the pundit’s sense of word—a glimpse deep into the soul of the nation that somehow confirms all the political misgivings one has held all along on network television.
It is perfectly fine to believe that President Joe Biden’s popularity is eroding precipitously. Approval polling confirms it.
It is perfectly fine to hold views about whether the Democratic has shifted too far in a particular ideological direction or shifted too slowly away from a dysfunctional status quo.
But anyone who tells me that Youngkin ascending to the Virginia statehouse is somehow obvious proof that President Biden needs to pursue this particular tack in passing his infrastructure package(s) now is either suffering from rotting D.C.-brain or has something to sell me.
Honestly, I would very much like to stay out of these meaningless conversations about the “meaning” of yesterday’s election for Democrats because it’s entirely a bad-faith discussion divorced from actual data. Nevertheless, I am forced to consider this nonsense because it matters to the media, who do think in such terms, and thus to the elite who are glued to those media.
If there is a strong enough consensus within the Democratic Party elite that the blame for this loss falls squarely on the change faction of the party, any ambitious legislative gesture will be dead on arrival. Thus, the current fragile alliance between the change faction and the President will be broken. The change faction, whose ranks openly despise the establishment, will have no reason to stick with the President if he cannot deliver what they want. On the other side, the President will need to shed his ties to such rabble-rousers in order to comfort and reaffirm his commitments to the aggrieved party elite.
Of course, such a transparent attempt to quell dissent is sure to have the opposite effect. Members of the change faction will continue to voice their discontent with the status quo in ways that make the party elite anxious, and the formidable ecosystem of right-adjacent media outlets will continue to amplify any soundbites they can get their hands on. Unable to purge radical associations from their party, the elite will have almost nothing at their disposal to salvage their hopes of re-election. Given the stark disparities in the electoral map brought on by gerrymandering, the tendency of Democratic voters to cluster in cities, the failure of supposedly favorable demographic shifts to materialize into actual electoral benefits, and the lack of any real electoral strategy, only one trick remains in their political playbook.
They can jettison their very leader, turning the uncharismatic, aging Biden into a persona non grata by giving him the same treatment swing-state Democrats offered his previous boss, the highly charismatic former President Barack Obama throughout most of his presidency. It helps that Biden has shown himself quite adept at blending into the background, emerging occasionally from silence to deliver a statement expected of him.
It is one thing to be ridiculed by one’s ideological enemies or the people. Mockery can be endured. It is another to be abandoned by one’s allies.
There was a time when I was bullish on Biden. Even though the covid situation was still miserable on the day of his inauguration, I saw a window of opportunity then. The vaccine rollout was still in its infancy, advancing in fits and starts, but I was confident that it would eventually overcome its growing pains. The economy, severely repressed under lockdown conditions, would soon start back up again. Through no action of its own, I reasoned, the Biden Administration would reap the fruit of rising vaccination rates and economic growth, a windfall that would be theirs to invest or squander in service of their political agenda. While I had little confidence that Biden would live up to the FDR hopes wished upon him, he had assembled a reasonable team of advisors to guide him, steering away from serial economic saboteurs such as Friend-of-Epstein Lawrence Summers and keeping interventionistas out of his foreign policy team. Having been heavily bearish on Biden during the campaign, I decided then to give the newly minted executive a shot and to wish him and my country the best.
But now, I think back to the bitterness I experienced in 2020 at being handed a miserable set of choices. It was criminal, I thought at the time, for the Democratic Party to face its greatest challenge in recent history by stage-managing the rise of a politician whose main qualification was patiently waiting for his turn in the system. It is with a tired heart, rather than a bitter one, that I reiterate my short Biden call today.
The legacy of the Biden era may well be positive. It marked the end of the American military involvement in Afghanistan. It marked the start of non-emergency, universal-ish cash transfers—a material gesture of reconciliation from the state to its subjects—in the nascent form of the Child Tax Credit. It marked the realization that America needed to rebuild her aging structure and build it back better. But it will be the narrative of an Administration stumbling its way through history, as unelected entities such as the Taliban or the Federal Reserve took the initiative to create enduring circumstances on the ground that the President could only weakly shape. In some sense, that is true of most presidents. But most presidents are at least offered the chance to pretend at having some agency. Any such pretense left for Biden will soon be stripped away.
I still remember Biden’s victory speech, which sounded none of the notes of triumph but moved me nonetheless.
The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season — a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal.
Biden, unlike many of the mediocrities who covet his position, is a man who understands his own frailties and the failures of his generation. He understands them well, not out of any particular brilliance but out of the sheer weight of decades of disappointment in a long political career.
It is for that reason that I both respect him but also know that he is not the man for our moment. He’s made his peace with his lot in life, as I have with my mine.
It will fall upon my generation to sow, and upon my children’s, if they can, to reap.