No Time For Nice

The ambivalence has always been right in front of us. We admire competitive folks who, through hard work or force of will, win it all – and we grin when they find a way to bend the rules. They don’t exactly break the rules – that would be cheating – but we smile when they find a way around them – unless they’re Tom Brady. Only Patriot fans in New England smile about those slightly deflated footballs, but the rest of us really do understand. Grab whatever edge you can and make sure you don’t get caught. Winners know how to dominate, to humiliate their opponents by any means necessary. But of course at the same time we say we admire good sportsmanship – you try hard, you somehow lose, but you sincerely congratulate the winner, and he graciously says you certainly put up a good fight and that he admires you tremendously. Fine – that’s really nice. Many a father has told his son, after the kid messed up and lost the game, that it’s not whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game. If you did your best you can hold your head high.

That’s the right thing to say, even if the father in question is seething in anger. He stifles it. It’s an odd dance, but some folks just don’t dance, like the legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher, who just came out and said it. Nice guys finish last. He wanted a team of winners, not a team of nice guys – but he did say he had been misquoted – “I never did say that you can’t be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I’d trip her up.”

That’s the same thing. Being nice is for losers. There are no exceptions, even for your own mother. That’s how the game is played. That’s how life in played, in business and in politics – ask Donald Trump. He has no use for what he calls political correctness, which is what others call treating everyone with a minimal amount of respect, and listening to them, even if you think they’re jerks. Some call that basic human decency, but Trump is running away with that Republican nomination, because he’s a winner, as he’ll tell you. It’s a Leo Durocher thing. Nice guys finish last. America will finish last if we keep being nice about immigrants, and the poor, and the Russians and the Iranians and the Chinese and all the others. Trump pretty much promises to be a sneering bastard of a president, the president of a nation of sneering bastards, who always win.

Millions love that. It’s about time. Being nice is for losers. Obama has been nice and thoughtful and careful – enough said. The mood of the nation seems to have changed, and that’s why Joe Biden, a man everyone agrees is decent and honest and fair – nice, as they say – was right to choose not to run for president:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced on Wednesday that he would not run for president, ending a period of remarkably public agonizing and clearing away one of the biggest potential obstacles to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination in 2016.

In a hurriedly arranged speech in the White House Rose Garden with President Obama at his side, Mr. Biden said that he and his family had overcome their grief at the death of his elder son enough to commit themselves to the rigors of a campaign. But with just days until the first filing deadlines, he said he had concluded that it was simply too late.

“Unfortunately, I believe we’re out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination,” Mr. Biden said. “But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent.”

He won’t be silent because those aren’t the reasons he’s not running:

In typical folksy style, he talked about his upbringing, quoted his parents telling him, “Honey, it’s going to be okay,” and repeated one of his favorite nicknames, “Middle Class Joe.” And he reflected on his late son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in May. “Beau is our inspiration,” he said.

But he also used the speech to chide Mrs. Clinton. Without mentioning her by name, he criticized her assertion in last week’s debate that Republicans are her enemies. “They are our opposition; they’re not our enemies,” he said, repeating a point he made several times in the previous 48 hours.

In fact, Biden, and few days earlier had said this about the folks on Capitol Hill:

“I really respect the members up there and I still have a lot of Republican friends. I don’t think my chief enemy is the Republican Party. This is a matter of making things work,” he said, touting his ability to work with the other side of the aisle. “I actually like Dick Cheney, for real. I think he’s a decent man.”

Esquire’s Charlie Pierce counters that:

To belabor the obvious, because the obvious is just sitting there begging to be belabored, decent men do not torture, nor do they encourage others to do so, nor do they defend the practice by lying about what it really is. Decent men do not oversee the outing of covert CIA agents. Decent men do not help deceive their country into a war and then walk away with the profits. Decent men do not shoot their friends in the face and go for the Scotch bottle before they go for the cops. Dick Cheney is not a decent man. Dick Cheney is the closest thing that American democracy has produced to a Goering. …

There is now a fairly famous anecdote in which Eric Cantor suggested that the president send Biden up to deal with Congress because Biden knew how to “get ‘er done.” Not only did the monkey house reject the very notion of a deal, Cantor got bum-rushed out of the House in his next election by the onomatopoeically correct Dave Brat, a know-nothing college professor who is one of the prime public faces of a Republican House caucus now far into full-blown prion disease. What does Biden expect to negotiate with these people?

Forgive Pierce his style – he used to be a sports writer – but that incident is explained here – Biden got rolled and Cantor lost his job. Being nice was being stupid:

I know that the elite political press loves the guy almost as much as they love Democratic politicians who can reach “across the aisle” and through the barred windows of Bedlam. But we are not electing someone who merely “gets things done.” If we were, Larry the Cable Guy would be leading in Iowa. (“You mean he isn’t?”) Anyone who thinks Dick Cheney is a decent man does not have the judgment to cut his own meat, let alone lead the Democratic Party.

But, in leaving, Biden continued to defend being thoughtful and careful and nice, in contrast to Clinton:

He likewise argued against her brand of interventionism in the Middle East and elsewhere. “The argument that we just have to do something when bad people do bad things isn’t good enough,” he said. “It’s not a good enough reason for American intervention and to put our sons’ and daughters’ lives on the line, put them at risk.”

Reading from a prepared text flashed on flat screens in the Rose Garden, Mr. Biden also appeared to reproach Mrs. Clinton for distancing herself from Mr. Obama’s record lately, as she has done on trade, Syria, Arctic drilling and other issues. “Democrats should not only defend this record and protect this record, they should run on this record,” Mr. Biden said.

Hillary shrugged:

Mrs. Clinton called Mr. Biden afterward to express her admiration, and former President Bill Clinton spoke with the vice president as well. “Joe Biden is a good man and a great vice president,” Mrs. Clinton said in a written statement. Praising his “passion for our country” and his “devotion to family,” she credited him for a record of fighting for the middle class. “And I’m confident that history isn’t finished with Joe Biden.”

The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne didn’t shrug:

It was a withdrawal speech that sounded like an announcement speech, and it perfectly captured the aching ambivalence of Joe Biden. …

Biden clearly believed that despite the country’s deep political divisions – or, perhaps because of their stubborn endurance – he could run, as Obama did in 2008, against the very idea of political conflict. “I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies,” he said. “They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together.”

Those words were taken by the political cognoscenti as a not-so-subtle shot at Hillary Clinton, and perhaps they were. But this sentiment also defines Biden. He came to the Senate at the age of 30 in 1973, when Washington was a much less partisan place.

He can, of course, be a joyful Democratic warrior. His avuncular and occasionally acerbic takedown of Paul Ryan in the 2012 vice presidential debate walked millions of Democrats away from severe depression after Obama’s indifferent performance in the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney. But Biden has always had Republican friends, and he knows that’s the way politics should be.

Sure, but he’s an idealist:

Biden’s passion for faith and family has been his moral compass throughout his life. In explaining his worldview Wednesday, he turned, as he often has, to his father’s insistence upon “affording every single person dignity.” This is the obligation that should animate public life. Biden may not be running for president, but he owes it to his dad to keep his promise never to be silent.

Others are realists, as Ezra Klein notes:

During the first Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was asked which enemies she was most proud of making during her long career in public life. She ticked off a few easy villains – the National Rifle Association, the insurance industry, the Iranians – and then added a three-word kicker that will haunt the rest of her candidacy, and perhaps her presidency: “Probably the Republicans.”

And that’s the problem:

The next Democratic president is going to be facing a Republican House and will need to work with Republicans to get big things done. Hillary Clinton is loathed by Republicans, and she loathes them back – working with people she describes as enemies is not likely to be her strong suit. Moreover, voters are exhausted by bickering in Washington and disappointed that Obama’s much-hyped era of unity never came to pass. But if Obama proved more polarizing than voters hoped, Biden has been a more effective bridge to Republicans than anyone expected.

That’s what Klein was getting at two years ago:

A bit over four years ago, Obama was elected on a promise to change Washington. He and his team argued that what politics needed was something new – a post-partisan, post-boomer, post-racial president who could help the country move past old antagonisms and into a more united future. The Obama administration has had many successes, but ratcheting down partisanship isn’t one.

The irony, of course, is that the one bright spot in the White House’s dealings with Republicans has been Biden’s old-school, back-slapping, Senate-steeped, Washington-lifer approach.

And now:

Biden is the guy who negotiated the fiscal cliff deal with Mitch McConnell. He was also a major part of the 2011 deal to lift the debt ceiling and the 2010 deal that extended the Bush tax cuts in return for fresh stimulus.

There’s a reason for that – Republicans just plain like him. “We probably disagree more than we agree,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said of Biden, “but from a human and relationship standpoint, the guy’s awesome.”

And now we’re left with Hillary Clinton:

The Benghazi hearings and the email scandal have been a reminder of what a Clinton White House might look and feel like… Is it a fair argument? Partially but Biden’s effectiveness has likely been overstated by his position. Part of the reason Republicans made deals with him was that it was a safe way to make a deal with the White House – it let them make the deal they wanted to make while showing that President Obama was too extreme and partisan to work with. As president, Biden would be more polarizing, and Republicans would be less cooperative.

That hardly matters now. And so it goes. With Obama leaving, as he must, and Joe Biden deciding not to run, if Hillary Clinton becomes president, we’re in for a rough ride. Heather Parton, however, argues that this is hardly Clinton’s fault:

Her comment was greeted with wild cheering among Democrats who viscerally agreed with her allusion to Roosevelt’s famous line about “welcomed their hatred” in reference to the party which has turned from an opposition party into a gang of anarchists and witch hunters. Oddly, Biden seems to think that fairly obvious recognition of reality is a weakness.

It’s not:

Biden’s paean to bipartisanship is old thinking, a vestige of the past. That he is still making this argument in the face of all we know should strike fear into the hearts of Democrats everywhere… As of right now, the Republican Party cannot even agree on who should be the Republican Speaker of the House, what the legislative processes should be, how government is structured under the constitution or even what government is supposed to do. Touting your friendships with old bull Republicans in the Congress is unresponsive to the challenges currently facing the party and the country. …

It is clear that the even within the Republican Party it is impossible to form a compromise at the moment. The fatuous delusion that there is some middle ground to be found with the GOP and the Democrats sounds like something out of a fairy tale.

That’s not reality:

We are not dealing with normal political opponents. This has been clear to many observers for two decades ago, since GOP House Oversight Committee chairman Dan Burton was blowing up watermelons in his backyard to prove that Bill and Hillary Clinton must have killed their friend and colleague Vince Foster. But some people still haven’t understood that the Republican Party has gone completely over the cliff. Jim Webb and Joe Biden are apparently among them.

Nobody really knows what is going to break the fever. We are in unmapped political territory. But if the definition of insanity is continuously doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then the country would be certifiably nuts to be seduced again into believing that the problem will be solved by a Democratic president reaching out the hand of friendship to Republicans in hopes of finding a reasonable compromise. Certainly, until the Republicans sober up and figure out how to tame the right wing monster in their own midst, Democrats will have to give up any illusions about the president and the speaker knocking back bourbons on the Truman balcony after working hours and concentrate on how to keep these obstructionist Republicans from destroying the country while working around them to bring the country forward. The presidency today is a very tough job that requires creative thinking about how to govern with an insurrectionist opposition. The old bromides about bipartisanship are no longer convincing.

Times have changed, and of course Donald Trump gets it. Nice guys finish last. It’s a Leo Durocher thing, unless something else is going on here, so Salon’s Sean Illing suggests this:

Consider how insane it is that the door has closed for Biden despite the fact that we’re 4.5 months away from the first primary and over a year removed from the actual election. How is that possible? What need is there for a process as bloated and gratuitous as this? Who benefits?

This doesn’t happen in other developed countries, where elections are less about optics and money and more about the issues. Canada, for example, just elected a new Prime Minister after a 78-day campaign, the longest they’ve had since 1872. In Britain, elections are short, cheap, and mostly quiet – the longest campaign in British history lasted only six weeks. Part of the reason for this is that Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which means the campaign process is vastly different. But that’s not the only reason. Besides, other European systems similarly impose limits on spending and campaign periods.

American presidential campaigns, by contrast, now begin in earnest roughly two years before the election, and sometimes longer.

Biden didn’t have time for this. He needed to start running long ago, and Illing thinks that’s absurd:

This is a national embarrassment. Whether Biden should run or could win is irrelevant now. The point is that he’s forced not to run because he didn’t start campaigning a year ago. That’s a pretty damning commentary on what’s become of our political process. There’s no platform or policy position that requires more than a year to explain to the American people, so there’s no reason why Biden or anyone else should be out of time.

Sure, the frontloading of primaries is a big reason for this dilemma. But, like nearly every other problem in our political system, it’s also about money and the media. Candidates have to compete earlier and earlier for key endorsements and valuable staff members, and because our campaign finance system is hopelessly corrupt, the candidates spend most of their time courting rich people rather than explaining themselves to voters. And the 24-hour news cycle demands that every jot and tittle of the horse race be covered constantly, without end, and as soon as possible, which applies even more pressure on candidates to announce earlier.

The result of all this is a protracted farce that rewards the wrong candidates for the wrong reasons and does nothing to incentivize sanity in our process. Instead, we’re left with an absurd endurance race between candidates whose only real ambition is to collect money and avoid errors in an impossibly long contest.

There is that, but Slate’s Jamelle Bouie suggests this:

Biden isn’t thrilled with Clinton, but he isn’t going to challenge her. And for good reason: He’d lose. For all the attention on Biden’s quantum campaign, there was never a case for his candidacy. Even with bad news, a slow summer, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hillary was dominant in the Democratic field. With two exceptions – a CNN survey from early September and a Bloomberg one from the end of that month – Clinton never dropped below 40 percent in national polls of the Democratic race. …

Of course, there’s an easy retort – Clinton was ahead in 2007 too, before Barack Obama caught fire. And it’s true: Polls, even at this stage, aren’t predictive. With the right campaign, the argument goes, Biden could have won.

But this ignores a whole host of facts that make 2016 a different election than the 2008 race. This Clinton, unlike her previous self, has broad support from a cross section of the Democratic Party. She has more than 100 endorsements from national Democratic officeholders and support from key members of the Obama campaign teams of 2008 and 2012. And to that point, Joe Biden isn’t Barack Obama. He can’t make a generational contrast, he can’t claim history, and on key issues – like criminal justice, where he authored the 1994 crime bill – he can’t run to Clinton’s left. An exceptionally skilled politician could overcome this, but that’s not Biden. He’s run two campaigns for president, and both times he failed to build the kind of traction or raise the kind of money you need to win.

This was a bad idea from the start, so we’ll never get to test the hypothesis that Leo Durocher was wrong, that nice guys can win, big – but we have tested that. Even Obama gave up on playing nice – a nuclear arms agreement with Iran that wasn’t a treaty and thus didn’t need ratification, opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba without asking permission from Marco Rubio, executive actions on how to enforce current immigration law, such as it is, changing emphases, which is allowed, and on the debt limit, finally refusing to negotiate massive funding cuts to get that done. Raise it or don’t. Do you really want to crash the world’s credit markets? After a few years of nonsense it was no more mister nice guy.

Obama learned. Joe Biden is, by all accounts, a good man, a decent man, fair and honest and candid – everyone can work with him – in an alternative universe. Everyone else would trip their own mother rounding third.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to No Time For Nice

  1. Rick says:

    I keep hearing reporters say that Joe Biden really wanted to be president? I think most of us have realized for over a month now that he didn’t, really. Can anyone imagine, after all that hesitation, seeing him spring to life with all the enthusiasm needed to win it? All this drawn-out indecision reminds us of 1992 and the original “Hamlet on the Hudson”, Mario Cuomo, or even the half-hearted campaign of Bob Kerry that same year. Nobody ever wins the job who doesn’t sincerely want the job.

    But there was that hint that lingers after Biden’s announcement (during which it was easy for me, after a while, to imagine a cartoon thought-bubble above the president’s head saying, “Somebody, get the hook!”) that we may all have dodged a bullet:

    I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart. And I think we can. It’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naive to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together.

    As the president has said many times, compromise is not a dirty word. …

    Four more years of this kind of pitched battle may be more than this country can take. We have to change it. We have to change it.

    Technically, he’s right, but his implication seems to be that both sides are to blame. Maybe he’s trying a little too hard to be even-handed, sort of like saying, “Well, okay, you Jews may have a point about the Nazis. But still, one wonders if, had you just been a little bit more willing to compromise with them, things might have worked out differently!”

    And yes, I know, Nazi analogies are supposed to be off-limits in political discussion, probably because nobody else in history can ever compare to their level of evil. But I’m not saying Republicans are really like the Nazis, I’m just saying it’s hard to waste an opportunity to point out the inherent absurdity of these phony “both sides share the guilt” arguments. Both sides don’t. The only reason Obama couldn’t deliver on his promise to bring both sides together in Washington is because the Republicans decided from day one to make sure it didn’t happen, and to pretend otherwise is just dangerously disingenuous. It wasn’t until Obama himself stopped pretending it that he was able to get anything done.

    Ezra Klein’s observation, that the Republicans were happy to deal with Biden rather than Obama, is a good one, but not just because it made Obama seem “too extreme and partisan to work with” — which is totally outrageous on its own! How can someone be “too extreme and partisan”, and at the same time, as they claim, be too naive and weak to negotiate with our enemies? But it was really because the Republicans, especially the now-called “Freedom Caucus”, made the Obama name poison, and that any Republican who did deal with him at all was violating a code, and was liable to be “primaried”. It got to the point where even Obama himself, if he really wanted to get something done, knew to send in Joe to do it.

    Having said all that, I have always liked Joe Biden, and I still do, and am happy to learn that I’m not the only one thinking he would make a pretty good vice presidential candidate in 2016. After all, he’s one of the only people alive with actual experience in the job.

    The question is, I think, whether she would take him. I still think he’s a good choice, although I don’t think Joe would have the working relationship with Hillary that he had with Obama, and I’m not sure she could trust his loose-cannon mouth to not blurt out something she disagrees with.

    Meanwhile, who else is out there?

    There’s always those other candidates, especially Bernie, although her people might be afraid that the other party would label the ticket “Benghazi and the Socialist”, or some such thing. Bernie might not worry about that word, but especially if the race is a close one, the Clinton campaign would probably think they don’t need that albatross hanging around their necks.

    Rick

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