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Falling in Line, Not in Love
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Falling in Line, Not in Love

How outraged right-wingers actually boost support for Biden.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/Getty Images.)

Hey, 

Joe Biden’s biggest asset is also his biggest liability: No one really takes him very seriously. Oh, but you wouldn’t know that from the coverage of his State of the Union Address. It was amaster class” according to, well, a lot of people.

But the fawning itself is evidence of my point. Biden benefits from being underestimated, as were many successful presidents. But while Reagan and Bush were underestimated, too, the more apt comparison is to Donald Trump. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not running wild with the comparison. But Donald Trump’s detractors—including yours truly—would often make the mistake of downplaying his political effectiveness simply because we were utterly immune to his (alleged) charms.

My point is that the fawning is a mix of overcompensation and relief. Throughout Trump’s presidency, whenever he gave a halfway decent speech or didn’t embarrass himself in a press conference, his fans would heap wildly over-the-top praise on him, in part because their expectations were very low. It always reminded me of the way parents go nuts when their high-strung, unathletic kid gets a hit in a baseball game. Their cheers are all the louder because they didn’t think he could do it.

Similarly, Democrats are aware of—and worried about—Biden’s age and his decades-long gift for malapropisms. So whenever he clears the bar, the celebration is tinged with grading on a curve. In much the same way that gruel is delicious to a starving man, the merely adequate is hailed as stellar when the expectations are set low enough. As the Irish say, “hunger is the best sauce.”

One tell is the battle space softening in advance of a big speech or debate. Yesterday, for instance, the New York Times ran a heartstring-pulling article on how Biden struggles with public speaking because of his stutter. I have nothing but sympathy for people who deal with this condition. But we never really heard much about this story when he was the most famously loquacious member of the Senate, and we rarely heard about it when he was vice president. But now, we all must understand that his oratory missteps are something to be forgiven in advance and criticism is somehow cruel or unfair. (I did a very quick and dirty LexisNexis search. Over the nearly three decades from 1990 to 2008, there were 142 articles mentioning “Biden” and “stutter.” Over the course of his vice presidency, there were 698. And since 2020, there have been 5,936. Make of that what you will.).

Anyway, my actual point is broader. Biden doesn’t actually inspire many people. In the modern era, Democrats have typically wanted to fall in love with their presidents. They want them to be “transformative,” history-overturning phenoms. There were very prominent people who literally talked about Barack Obama as a messianic figure (Google “Barack Obama” and “Messiah” if you don’t believe me). Nobody looks at Scranton Joe and says, “There goes a lightworker.” Biden got the nomination for the old-fashioned, utterly defensible, and even laudable reason that he was the best available candidate to beat Donald Trump. More on that in a moment.

The downside of being a mere mortal, ward-heeling politico who was born when the Battle of Stalingrad was still raging—and who joined the Senate the same year The Godfather debuted and Don McLean released “American Pie”—is that almost nobody is going to fall in love with you or buy that you’re a “transformative” figure. This is why his support is so soft among Democrats. Poll after poll shows that most Democrats don’t want him to run again. Barely 1 in 5 Democrats under the age of 45 say he should serve another term.

This, too, explains the excessive fawning over Biden. Democratic leaders know all this better than we do, and they are desperate to convince the rank-and-file that they should love the guy.

So why is this an asset for Biden? Because if you’re the kind of politician left-wingers can’t fall in love with, you’re also likely to be the kind of politician right-wingers have a hard time hating. 

There were two constituencies that believed Barack Obama was a transformative figure: His biggest fans and his biggest foes. The cartoonish pro-Obama view was mirrored by the cartoonish anti-Obama view. What some saw as Christlike others saw as Antichristlike.

Just as Democrats can’t persuade voters Biden’s a secular redeemer, put on Earth to deliver them to some new stage of history, Republicans can’t persuade voters that he’s a Mephistophelean Manchurian candidate for the forces of darkness. Oh, there are crackpots and hacks who try. But the dog just won’t hunt.

But man, does it help Biden when they try.

In economics there’s a shorthand term, “Bootleggers and Baptists,” that means, well, here’s Wikipedia’s serviceable definition:

Bootleggers and Baptists is a specific idea in the subfield of regulatory economics that attempts to predict which interest groups will succeed in obtaining rules they favor. It holds that coalitions of opposing interests that can agree on a common rule will be more successful than one-sided groups.

In the Prohibition era, Baptists favored bans on alcohol (and so did bootleggers) because their whole business model wouldn’t exist if you could buy booze legally. Whether bootleggers actually supported the Baptists is debated, but you get the point. This sort of thing happens all the time.

But this dynamic isn’t reserved to the sex-soaked, drug-fueled field of regulatory economics. We saw it last night in the State of the Union address. The Republican hecklers win points from their donors and voters for making asses of themselves, and Biden scores points with his constituencies for being subjected to it. Biden gets to say “look at these crazies” and the crazies get to boast about how they owned the libs or whatever. 

The problem is that while it’s in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s interest to dress like a Narnian Ice Queen and boo Biden, it’s not in the interest of the GOP (or probably the country). The simple mathematical fact is that the people turned off by the crazies outnumber the people jazzed by them. That stuff divides Republicans, unites Democrats, and repels more people in the middle than it attracts. When Biden’s tepid supporters look at the Hieronymus Bosch caucus they don’t fall in love with Biden, but they do fall in line.

This point becomes all the more relevant when you start thinking about 2024.

Given that it’s highly unlikely there are a large number of subscribers to my members-only “news”letter who really want to see Donald Trump win the nomination and become president again (though there are some of you), it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to get into the weeds on why I think the GOP should not nominate Donald Trump (but I will say this is an amazingly long sentence and I kind of don’t want it to end, even though all things must, even this sentence).

But put simply, while the Democrats are not deeply emotionally invested in liking Joe Biden, they are profoundly, existentially invested in hating Donald Trump. You can get low propensity voters to turn out in large numbers in two ways: by exploiting their love for your candidate or exploiting their hatred for the other party’s candidate.

Sure, there’s a lucrative market for apocalyptic fear-mongering on the right. But there’s also a lucrative market for twisted barb wire art—that doesn’t mean it’s a very large market. I didn’t think I’d ever write the words “Sarah Huckabee is right.” But here we are. Last night she said—with the kind of spectacular lack of self-awareness that I’ve come to expect from her—that “the choice is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal and crazy.”

Again, she’s right. But this was the same day her former boss was peddling claims that Ron DeSantis is a pedophile and members of her own party had just behaved like the Caddies on Caddy Day at the Bushwood Country Club during the State of the Union she was responding to.

Progressives do a lot of crazy stuff, and I write about it often. But in the political arms race of which side is more beholden to crazy, the GOP is losing. If you want to argue that this is unfair on the merits, I’m more than open to it. But as a matter of public perception, it’s not close. Yes, media bias plays a role. But media bias always plays a role. Republicans once knew how to deal with that problem. Now they think it gives them an excuse not to care about how normal voters see them.

Think about it this way. In the 1950s, the right was correct about the threat posed by communism but often very wrong on how to talk or think about it. Robert Welch, the paranoid founder of the John Birch Society, is the classic illustration of this point. Welch believed that basically the entire government was run by communist agents. He even believed that Dwight Eisenhower’s kid brother might really be the man behind the curtain running everything.  “The chances are very strong,” he announced, “that Milton Eisenhower is actually Dwight Eisenhower’s superior and boss within the Communist Party.”

Russel Kirk had the best retort to all of this garbage: “Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.”I don’t know if Biden golfs, but I am fairly sure he’s not a Chinese agent or a communist. He’s an old, glad-handing, people-pleasing, liberal Democrat, intellectual middle-weight and incorrigible exaggerator and fibber, who likes America and is wrong about a lot of public policy. That this can’t be enough is why our politics is so broken.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.