Potato Head Politics

Normal is no fun. Bloggers know that now. Donald Trump is gone. No, not gone from the presidency. That doesn’t matter. There are no more tweetstorms of rage or sneering insults or fantastic miracle cures for this or that, and sometimes a sudden surprise firing of this cabinet member or that. That’s gone. Twitter has banned him for life. So have Facebook and YouTube. That’s all gone, and Joe Biden is so damned normal, and so damned quiet. Trump was outrageous. Biden is boring.

That’s by design, as least that’s what Ezra Klein argues here:

American politics feels quieter with Joe Biden in the White House. The president’s Twitter feed hasn’t gone dark, but it’s gone dull. Biden doesn’t pick needless fights or insert himself into cultural conflicts. It’s easy to go days without hearing anything the president has said, unless you go looking.

But the relative quiet is deceptive: Policy is moving at a breakneck pace.

No one was ready for that, policy wasn’t Trump’s thing, but Klein notes this:

The first weeks of the Biden administration were consumed by a flurry of far-reaching executive orders that reopened America to refugees, rejoined the Paris climate accords and killed the Keystone XL oil pipeline, to name just a few. Now the House has passed, and the Senate is considering, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a truly sweeping piece of legislation that includes more than a half-dozen policies – like a child tax credit expansion that could cut child poverty by 50 percent – that would be presidency-defining accomplishments on their own.

It goes on. The White House just sent Congress the most ambitious immigration reform bill in years. It midwifed a deal to get Merck to mobilize some of its factories to produce Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, and now Biden is saying there should be enough of a supply for every American adult to get vaccinated by the end of May. Imagine! The administration is also working on an infrastructure package that, if early reports bear out, will be the most transformational piece of climate policy – and perhaps economic policy – in our lifetime.

Biden has been busy. Klein argues that the last guy only looked busy:

Trump combined an always-on, say-anything, fight-anyone communications strategy with a curious void of legislative ambition. He backed congressional Republicans’ unimaginative and ultimately doomed Obamacare repeal effort, and then signed a package of tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy. It was bog-standard, Paul Ryan-conservatism – nothing like the populist revolution Trump promised on the campaign trail. Trump signed plenty of executive orders, but when it came to the hard work of persuading others to do what he wanted, he typically checked out, or turned to Twitter.

Even so, Trump convinced many that he was a political genius whose shamelessness had allowed him to see what others had missed: You didn’t win by being liked, you won by being all anyone ever talked about, even if they were cursing your name. “Very often my readers tried to persuade me there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Trump had proven that,” Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, told me. “All that mattered was you were occupying space in the spectacle – not what was actually happening to you in that glare.”

But of course that’s just not so:

One rebuttal to that theory was always obvious. “Trump never got over 50 percent approval,” Rosen says. “He’s a widely hated man, a one-term president.” For all the talk of Teflon Don, Trump paid a price for his antics and affronts and scandals. Bad publicity actually is bad publicity.

Biden has other ideas:

Another way of looking at it is that Trump’s communication strategy was successful in getting Trump what he actually wanted: Attention, not legislation. Biden wants legislation, not attention… and so far, Biden’s quieter strategy appears to be working. He gets far less media attention than Trump – even after Election Day, the share of news stories with Biden’s name in the headline was less than half of what Trump got – and Google records far less search interest in his administration. But Biden is polling at about 54 percent, around 10 points higher than Trump at this stage of his presidency (or any stage of his presidency). More tellingly, the American Rescue Plan is polling between 10 and 20 points ahead of Biden, making it one of the most popular major pieces of legislation in recent decades. In one recent poll, Republicans were asked whether Biden’s plan should be abandoned for a bipartisan alternative, and they split down the middle, with as many Republicans saying the plan should be passed as abandoned.

And that is odd:

The American Rescue Plan is a bolder, more progressive, economic package than anything a Democratic president has proposed since LBJ. But it is not, for now, a polarizing package. It’s less polarizing even than Biden, who only polls at 12 percent among Republicans. You could chalk that up to its popular component parts, but the Affordable Care Act’s individual policies were popular, too, and the bill polled at around 40 percent. You could say it’s the coronavirus crisis, but coronavirus policy is sharply polarized.

I suspect Biden’s calmer approach to political communication is opening space for a bolder agenda.

That would mean that you get your way by shutting up and listening. Don’t expect that from Trump. But expect this:

There’s the book “Stealth Democracy,” by the political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. They marshal a mountain of survey data to show that Americans have weak and changeable views on policy, but strong views on how politics should look and feel. Many, if not most, Americans believe “political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with governmental procedures,” they write. The more partisan fighting there is around a bill, in other words, the more Americans begin to believe something must be wrong with the legislation – otherwise, why would everyone be so upset?

Mitch McConnell understood all of this, and he ginned up political bickering to undermine Obama’s agenda. But Biden seems to understand it, too.

He gets it. No tweets. No angry arguing. Nothing personal. Give the opposition nothing to work with:

Biden isn’t taking the usual Washington strategy toward that goal, which is to retreat to modest bills and quarter-measures. Instead, his theory seems to be that if you can dial down the conflict, you can dial up the policy.

And then you can get things done:

Biden’s central insight in the campaign was that negative polarization – the degree to which we loathe the other side, even if we don’t much like our side – is now the most powerful force in American politics. Biden often refused to do things that would endear him to his base, because those same things would drive Republicans wild. That strategy is carrying over to his presidency. And in part because of it, the reaction to his signature legislative package, which really is a collection of policies progressives have dreamed of for years, isn’t cleaving along normal red-blue lines.

And that leads to madness. Slate’s Jim Newell starts that tale:

Shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote to kick off Senate debate on Democrats’ $1.9 trillion relief bill. After the clerk began to read the 628-page legislation, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a customary request to waive the reading of the bill. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson rose to object… Republicans think the full recitation could chew up 10 hours. Senate clerks think they can do it in five.

The objection was the first salvo in a wave of dilatory stunts that Johnson and his Republicans have planned over the next few days as they try to do something that they’ve been wholly unsuccessful at so far: turning public opinion against Democrats’ popular legislation, which Republicans wish to frame as less a COVID relief bill than a raid on the Treasury for unrelated Democratic priorities.

Really? The New York Times’ Emily Cochrane continues this tale:

The maneuver by Mr. Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, was unlikely to change any minds about the sweeping pandemic aid plan, which would deliver hundreds of billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, schools, jobless aid, direct payments to Americans and small business relief, and has broad bipartisan support among voters. Republicans signaled that they would be unified against it, and Democrats were ready to push it through on their own, using a special fast-track process to blow past the opposition.

But in the Senate, where even the most mundane tasks are subject to arcane rules, any senator can exploit them to cause havoc. The exercise was Republicans’ latest effort to score political points against a measure they were powerless to stop and to punish Democrats with a time-consuming, boredom-inducing chore.

“Is he allowed?” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, muttered quietly when Mr. Johnson tried to explain after demanding the reading.

He was allowed, allowed to be a jerk:

Mr. Johnson did not perform the task himself, though. Instead, it fell to John Merlino, the Senate legislative clerk whose high tenor is known to avid watchers of C-SPAN 2, and a small team of his colleagues who took turns reading to lighten the load.

“It will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks, who work very hard, day in, day out, to help the Senate function,” Mr. Schumer said in the morning, before the reading began. “And I want to thank our clerks, profoundly, for the work they do every day, including the arduous task ahead of them.”

But they didn’t matter:

Mr. Johnson, who alternated between pacing the chamber and lounging at his desk for the early duration, was sympathetic but unrepentant. His request was allowed because under Senate rules, every senator has to agree to skip the reading of legislative text and move on. Instead, Mr. Johnson objected.

“I feel bad for the clerks who are going to have to read it, but it’s important,” he told reporters, later detailing his plans to prolong debate on the bill, once the reading was over, by forcing votes on a series of amendments. “At a minimum, somebody ought to read it.”

Yeah, well, whatever:

His colleagues, who normally maintain a strict routine of four-day work weeks that end with a 1:45 p.m. vote on Thursdays, said they respected Mr. Johnson’s right to manipulate the rules, even if it did not appear to accomplish anything.

“I’m kind of hard pressed to believe that too many people are going to be glued to their TVs to listen to the Senate clerk read page by page,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska.

That was a shrug, but CNN’s Manu Raju and Alex Rogers dive deeper:

Sen. Ron Johnson seems to be relishing his place at the center of the controversies dominating Washington.

For two months, the Wisconsin Republican has taken on everyone who blamed former President Donald Trump for inciting the deadly riot at the Capitol: Democrats, the mainstream media, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s raised questions about whether Trump supporters were in fact culpable for the violence, earning him the scorn of his colleagues for advancing dangerous conspiracies even as he says he’s just seeking the truth.

Now, he is leading the Republican effort against President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, employing extreme tactics by forcing Senate clerks to read its every word and offering a flood of amendments to highlight its astronomical cost.

But he has his reasons:

Johnson’s wars to reshape history and policy come at a crucial personal moment, as he chooses whether to run again in 2022, a decision that will alter the fight for the future control of the Senate.

“I think it’s obvious that I’m target number one here,” Johnson told CNN. “People are out to destroy me.”

But that might get him reelected:

Johnson is the only Republican to hold statewide office in Wisconsin, a state that chose Biden over Trump by less than one point, and could be the only senator to campaign in a state carried by the opposite party’s 2020 presidential candidate.

But Johnson is proudly pro-Trump, pushing further than many of his Republican colleagues to rewrite the narrative of January 6. Last month, Johnson said that McConnell needed “to be a little careful” after he blamed the former President for the Capitol riot, and claimed the Senate Republican leader did not speak for the Senate GOP conference. Johnson revealed to CNN that he couldn’t support McConnell for leader again.

Voters might like that, but he does tend to step too far out there:

During a recent high-profile hearing, Johnson inserted into the record a first-person account that tried to shift the responsibility from Trump to a small group of provocateurs, suggesting they turned a largely peaceful protest of the 2020 election into a rampage that left nearly 140 officers injured and five dead. Johnson then repeatedly pushed back on those who said the riot was an “armed” insurrection, saying the FBI is unaware of any arms being confiscated or any shots fired besides from law enforcement.

And that proved what, exactly? Biden will get his legislation. Things will get better. And as Politico reports, the other guys will get attention:

Over the past few weeks, Republicans have simmered over the “cancellation” of seemingly innocent family favorites, including the venerated Mr. Potato Head toy and Dr. Seuss books. Glenn Beck has likened it to fascism. Fox News has covered it obsessively. In recent days, conservative legislators have made speeches at confabs and in the halls of Congress, warning about what they describe as out of control PC culture.

And yet, even as it becomes all-consuming on the right, White House advisers and Biden aides insist they’re unbothered by the culture-wars-du-jour.

They’re more into policy:

“I don’t think there is any danger in ignoring a debate on Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss,” said John Anzalone, a Biden adviser and campaign pollster.

Anzalone contends there’s no benefit to engaging in “meaningless” topics, and that there may indeed be an upside in disregarding them as the Biden administration and Democrats close in on a massive Covid-relief package, amid more than 500,000 deaths from the pandemic. “The Republicans are in danger of ignoring getting Covid vaccine distribution money to states, funding to schools to reopen and checks in the pockets of struggling Americans,” he added.

Yeah, but that’s boring. They are fighting a different battle here:

The divide over what the right sees as “cancel culture” and what the left considers “concern trolling” is somehow growing larger in the post-Trump political landscape. And neither side is showing signs of retreating. While Biden World may find it all a tiresome distraction, Republicans see a salve. Lacking power and a unifying political message, a relentless focus on “cancel culture” has proven to be a galvanizing force for their base.

“At the end of the day I think it unifies the party but expands it into the area we need to – the suburban moms, the college educated men that we struggled with in 2020, there’s common ground with these constituencies” said Mercedes Schlapp, senior fellow American Conservative Union Foundation and a former Trump White House aide. “We’re the party of common sense and we’re not going to be the party of continuously policing what our children are reading and not for this cancel culture mob to decide.”

She gets it. They’ll ride Dr. Seuss back to the White House:

The fights metastasize so swiftly that it becomes, at times, hard to recall how they started. In the case of Dr. Seuss, the Biden administration omitted the famed children’s book author in a proclamation for Read Across America Day, which was intentionally founded on the good doctor’s birthday. Then the estate of Dr. Seuss decided not to publish six of his children’s books because they included illustrations that the estate itself considered “hurtful” and “wrong.”

The topic quickly became a fixation of GOP lawmakers and conservative cable programming. On Tuesday, it was the primary focus on Fox News even as FBI Director Christopher Wray sat in the hot seat for a hearing on the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill. All told, the network talked about it 60 times, according to a Washington Post tally.

Hey, they’re good at this, so, with adjustments, perhaps this will work:

The culture war playbook is a well-worn one for the GOP, especially when they are outnumbered in Washington. But the recent examples have taken a different form than those in the past. That was especially true in the Trump era when rather than being tied to a specific policy or politician, they often take the form of backlash to the perceived social pressure for political correctness.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, aides saw many of these “scandals” as being motivated by their dislike for him personally, or having to do with his race, or often a combination both. Incidents included photos of Obama not wearing a jacket in the Oval office (after no such pictures were snapped of George W. Bush over eight years) and the Obamas inviting the hip hop artist and actor Common to the White House as part of a poetry reading, which drew the scorn of Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. “Oh lovely, White House…” she said.

There was also the so-called Starbucks salute, when Obama informally saluted Marines while holding a cup of coffee in his raised hand.

This is just more of the same:

Last month, toymaker Hasbro announced that it was dropping the “Mr.” from its logo and branding in an effort to promote gender equality and inclusion. After an initial firestorm over the decision, the company clarified that both Mr. Potato Head and Mrs. Potato Head would continue to be sold under the names. Hasbro acknowledged the initial confusion. But by then the story had taken off. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), speaking at CPAC last weekend, mockingly referred to the Potato Head toy as “America’s first transgender doll.”

So forget policy. They choose grievance over policy once again:

Republicans, split by warring factions, have found common ground in pushing back against “cancel culture.” “America Uncanceled” was the dominant theme of Conservative Political Action Conference this year, with Donald Trump and 2024 hopefuls like Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Texas) elevating the issue along with topics like immigration, China, and climate change.

That’s okay. Biden and his Democrats will slowly fix what’s broken. That will make things better for everyone, except for Mr. Potato Head. Let the Republicans weep for him – or her – or it. Everyone else will move on.

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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