One of my great peeves, as longtime readers and listeners know, is when the dentist puts his knee on my chest to get leverage to pull a tooth. But that’s not relevant right now.
Another peeve: When bad things happen under Republican presidents, it’s their fault. When bad things happen under Democratic ones, they just happen.
“Republicans pounce” is a subgenre of this phenomenon. As Kevin Williamson puts it: “When a Republican does something stupid or wrong and gets criticized for it the story is that a Republican has done something stupid or wrong. When a Democrat does something stupid or wrong, the story is ‘Republicans pounce!’ on the episode, cynically looking to wring some petty advantage out of the mess.”
(This is kind of the media criticism version of an even deeper peeve of mine. Think of bad episodes in American history: eugenics, anti-communist excesses, Jim Crow, etc. It’s amazing to me how when you read a lot of standard history, these incidents are either the result of “the right” or America itself. It’s very hard to find a non-conservative historian who places the blame on progressives themselves. They exist, of course, particularly among Marxist historians like Gabriel Kolko, though they are so far left they tend to define liberals and progressives as “the right.” This is a general tendency, not an iron law. Still, I don’t want to get sidetracked, but if you do, click here and I’ll rant about that in a sidebar.)
But what happens when the Republicans don’t pounce or you can’t in good conscience write that the real story is Republicans pouncing?
Well, there’s one useful scapegoat: The cold impersonal forces of a cruel and imperfect universe.
Consider the Biden presidency so far.
With the notable exception of his craptacular handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, one might think listening to much of the media—and the White House itself—that the universe is really pissed off at Joe Biden.
Last week, there was an enormous amount of chatter about how Biden had “a bad week” or was “dealt setbacks” or got “bad news.” Erick Erickson, who noticed it too, flagged this Tweet from the Associated Press:
Biden “was dealt”?
Once you notice it, it’s hard not to see it all over the place, especially at the Associated Press for some reason. It seems that Biden keeps “finding” himself in unfortunate situations. On September 19, the AP reported that “over the past several months, Biden has found himself at odds with allies on a number of high-profile issues.” Reporting on the FDA’s rebuke of Biden’s push for universal booster shots the day before that, it wrote, “But after campaigning for the White House on a pledge to ‘follow the science,’ Biden found himself uncharacteristically ahead of it with that lofty pronouncement.”
Found himself? Has he been in a sweat lodge downing peyote and speaking to his spirit animal, or is he the president of the United States? It’s like he’s the character in a Talking Heads remix of “Once in a Lifetime”:
And you may find yourself, ahead of the science.
And you may find yourself, eating an ice cream cone.
And you may find yourself, watching the Taliban drink your milkshake.
And you may find yourself, getting yelled at by allies.
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
Even Biden plays this game. In his remarks about our withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 16, his one concession to error was a passive, “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” Jim Geraghty called this “a strong nominee for the Disingenuous Public Relations Spin Hall of Fame.”
Heck, even the Canadians are getting in on the action. In their U.N. Human Rights Council statement they lamented, “the events that have unfolded over the past several weeks in Afghanistan.”
Now “unfolding” is a fun word. It can mean, “the steady revelation of events beyond our control,” and it can refer to personal action, like unfolding a ratty lawn chair. Some events have unfolded beyond Biden’s control, but mostly he’s experienced the ratty lawn chair kind of unfolding. And figuratively speaking, he’s gotten his fingers or some of his danglier bits caught in the pinchy things.
Biden didn’t “find himself” ahead of the science, he rejected or disregarded the science—to the point where two career FDA staffers quit in protest. If Trump (or any Republican president) did something similar, the story wouldn’t be about Trump “finding himself” at odds with the science. It would be that he defied the science like a rabid spider monkey refusing to put on a dress.
The events in Afghanistan didn’t merely “unfold” in front of Biden. He’s like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club denying he pulled the screw out of the fire door. “Screws fall out all the time, the world’s an imperfect place.”
Afghanistan fell apart because Biden unscrewed the U.S. military from Afghanistan and screwed the Afghan army by removing all support—a veritable pas de deux of screwing. You can absolve him of his actions, but you can’t absolve him of the fact that he took those actions.
Similarly, the drone strike was something he did. He boasted about it. This was supposed to be all the evidence the world needed that we can conduct “over the horizon” counterterror operations. Instead, we killed 10 civilians, including an Afghan aid worker who’d cooperated with America, as well as seven kids. No terrorists were harmed in the execution of this political operation.
Biden hasn’t “found himself” at odds with allies, he antagonized allies. The Brits, the French, and even the Canadians were pissed about how we withdrew from Afghanistan. Our allies are furious that Biden has doubled down on Trump’s protectionism. These are choices, not cold impersonal forces. If I take my friends to a cut-rate Brazilian churrascaria, à la Bridesmaids, and everyone is laid low by explosive colonic decompression, they get to say they “found themselves” sitting on a sink screaming, “Don’t look at me!” But I don’t get to chalk it up to the universe dealing me a bad hand.
I think the new deal with the U.K. and Australia is actually a masterstroke. I give him credit for it. But if he’s going to get credit for it, he also gets blame—or at least responsibility—for how it was received by the French. Maybe the French are overreacting. Maybe there was no way to do this without blindsiding them. I doubt it, but I don’t know. But whatever the truth is, he made a choice, and French outrage was part of the price for his decision. It wasn’t akin to the weather, wholly out of his control.
Oh, and let’s not forget that when Biden chucked his eviction ban moratorium to the Supreme Court—fully aware that it was unconstitutional and the court would say as much—the response from the administration, Democrats in Congress, and much of the press was, “The court dealt him a blow.” No. He chose to have that blow dealt to him so he could then blame the court for doing its job. If I slather myself with honey and vanilla ice cream and walk into a bear pit, the bears will certainly deal me a blow before they eat my face. But only a fool would blame the bears.
I think the reasons for all of this passive voice stuff aren’t complicated. Let’s run through a few of them.
First, there’s old-fashioned liberal media bias. Just because I’m exhausted by the fixation of some folks on the right on this issue, doesn’t mean it isn’t a thing. The press has rooted for Biden since the beginning of his administration. This is the natural order of things.
Second, and closely related, is the Trump distortion field. There was a nice story a lot of people told themselves that everything that was going wrong in the world was caused by Trump’s malevolence and incompetence. Biden was the return to normalcy candidate, the competence candidate, and the get-rid-of-COVID candidate. And while I think Trump made any number of terrible choices in response to the pandemic—choices that almost surely cost him the election—the reality is that there are problems that aren’t fixable by a president, whether they say the words, “I alone can fix it” or not. COVID is only the most obvious example. Issues such as climate change, crime, income inequality, and invasive Burmese pythons are big and complicated.
Third, and also closely related, is that a whole generation—perhaps two generations—has been taught that Democrats are the party of government. I don’t mean that they like big government, which of course they do. I mean that they know how to run things. They’re experts and technocrats. They think there are answers to every problem, and the answers always conform to what the experts and technocrats want to do. Biden’s failures undermine this whole mythology. It’s better to say that the Fates dealt him some bad cards than to admit he played his cards badly.
Fourth, there’s the fact that people, and not just journalists, like Biden personally. (If you don’t know anyone who does, you live in a bubble.) Very few people love him the way some folks loved Trump or Obama, but plenty like him. The problem is, Biden is old and he shows his age. Attacking his competence reads to a lot of people like mocking him for being old and infirm. And it doesn’t help that a lot of people are mocking his age and making sweeping, rude statements about him being senile.
Finally, Biden started his presidency by wildly overpromising what he could deliver. A lot of people who consider themselves part of the smart set bought into all that new New Deal talk. It was preposterous from the outset. The Democrats’ hold on Congress is the narrowest in American history. The idea that he could go “bigger than Obama” was always a pipe dream. But rather than accept that Joe Manchin is closer to where most Americans are, they have to convince themselves that only two things stand between them and the Promised Land: evil, “obstructionist,” and anti-democratic Republicans, and the unjustness of the system itself. The filibuster, the “undemocratic” nature of the Senate, the Electoral College, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, and “white supremacy” all stand in the way.
A big part of Biden’s appeal was that he knew how to work with the system. But it never occurred to a lot of liberals that working with the system means compromising with reality. Activists and pundits shriek daily that Manchin stands poised to destroy Biden’s agenda. But it doesn’t dawn on them that this is an indictment not of Manchin—or the Senate, or the filibuster, or any of that other stuff—but of Biden’s agenda. Imagine I’m 17 and I tell my dad, “I want a pony, a Ferrari, a Caribbean island full of Hawaiian Tropic models unhealthily attracted to 17-year-old boys, and $10 million in gold Krugerrands,” and he says, “No.” My demands won’t suddenly become more realistic if I say, “But Dad, you’re threatening my whole agenda!”
Biden chose to pursue ridiculous goals and bad policies (or good policies if that’s your point of view). But he made those choices and their results aren’t “happening” independently. That’s the difference between events and consequences.