The explosion at the nail-gun factory that was the Trump administration ended six weeks ago, yet I’m not sure most people have fully exhaled. Like victims of spousal abuse still cowering after their wild-eyed husbands have been hauled off in chains, we remain girded for further strangling and spit-flecked screaming. Trump’s appearance last Sunday at CPAC validated these fears as he offered the audience his signature Trump cocktail: two parts bile to three parts self-infatuation.
I voted for Biden enthusiastically, while at the same time not being that enthusiastic about him. Yes, of course, I knew he’d be a better president than Trump, just as a piece of day-old baguette is preferable to a breakfast of thumbtacks and whatever you can suck out of your hairbrush. I expected him to be what we know him to be—decent and kind. Also bumbling, tin-eared, and eager to split the difference with the Republicans in the name of bipartisanship. (As Obama learned too late, the G.O.P. believes only in unipartisanship.) I was further worried that Biden’s too shiny, fresh-from-the-undertaker look suggested we might be in for a money-saving twofer: inauguration and state funeral.
Yet after a lifetime of tripping, since winning the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden has barely set a wrong foot. My delight does not dispel my curiosity: Where did this unwobbly and bracing confidence come from? During the debates, whenever he spoke, I clutched the arm of our couch as I would the lap bar of a roller coaster, sometimes wincing and moaning as his answers collapsed. At his best, he offered dull if coherent clichés, but often he sounded like a nursing-home patient talking to himself in a corner. Since taking office, though, he has been commanding and clear in circumstances both extemporaneous and prepared.
His team’s sense of statecraft is every bit as strong as those of the recent masters of political presentation, Obama and Reagan, starting at the convention with the roll call of the states, which was as imaginative and vivid and moving as a folk-art mural. (I think they should show it on a loop in the Museum of Modern Art.) The inauguration, as brisk and cheering as a Sousa march, was suffused with hope and friendliness, the latter not usually a color on the inaugural palette. The ceremony gave us a beautiful portrait of the nation in miniature, minus the foaming white nationalists recently seen breaching the Capitol. Biden’s speeches since then, most particularly to honor the numerous, unnecessary dead from the coronavirus, have been models of dignity and compassion, both of which, along with vegetables, were off the presidential menu for the last four years.
I was further worried that Biden’s too shiny, fresh-from-the-undertaker look suggested we might be in for a money-saving twofer: inauguration and state funeral.
As for the fear that Biden would waste weeks and then months chasing the votes of the G.O.P., he has surprised us again. Biden ran singing the song of unity, but that is an easy goal for the G.O.P. to thwart—they simply withhold their support and he fails. Biden knew how much time and energy Obama wasted chasing Republican votes for his health-care plan in the hopes that the legislation might be presented to the nation as a bipartisan accomplishment. And Biden has learned from that—which is itself a shocking break with the custom of the last four years, during which learning from one’s mistakes was considered a sign of weakness. Biden continues to preach bipartisanship while simultaneously redefining it as not the will of a small coven of Fox-owned legislators but as the desire of millions of Americans who support his coronavirus-relief package. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of American voters and 60 percent of Republicans favor Biden’s coronavirus plan.
So Biden will not waste his time chasing the votes of a party that surrendered its legitimacy when Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz urged its members to overturn millions of legitimate votes for no legitimate reason. Again to my surprise, Biden’s more than 40 years of service have not dulled but sharpened him. He knows what his ruthless friends across the aisle have long known: it doesn’t matter how many votes you get as long as you get what you need. The Affordable Care Act passed with no support from the G.O.P., not one vote, and who cares? It’s here. It’s saving lives. No Democrats, not one, voted for Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. She was given her gavel and black robes with only 52 votes in her favor, yet she has every bit as much power as Sonia Sotomayor, who ascended to the court with the support of 68 senators.
Just as important as passing his legislative agenda is for Biden to build support for government itself. The very idea of government has been under poisonous assault since Reagan took office in 1981. (The January 6 terrorist assault on our Capitol is but the culmination of that campaign.) And in the 40 years since Reagan’s inauguration, Democrats have never effectively made the counter-argument. They were cowed by Reagan’s popularity and wanted his success as their own, so Bill Clinton, the master triangulator, rather than defend the ideas of responsible government, declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over.”
According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of American voters and 60 percent of Republicans favor Biden’s coronavirus plan.
But it wasn’t, and it isn’t, and it never will be—almost 50 percent of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and children’s health insurance. Even the most perfervid government-haters cash those checks. Another 16 percent goes to defense, which, apart from its obvious responsibilities, is also one of the great educational and employment programs in the nation. That is now 64 percent of the federal budget. The rest of the budget goes to, among other things, science and medical research, to veterans’ benefits, education, and infrastructure. People love what they get from big government, but, thanks to 40 years of propaganda, they don’t associate the programs they love with this thing they’ve been taught to hate. They need to be taught otherwise.
As with so much in modern American life, it is a matter of rebranding. Think how shrewd it was for the forces of unregulated capitalism to market their philosophy as “free enterprise.” What a charming term, combining two appealing words which cheerfully summon images of Horatio Alger and Captain Kirk. In fact, “free enterprise” might more accurately be called “ruthless cage fighting.” But no one will sign up for that, so “free enterprise” it is.
The Democrats need to create a commercial that makes the case not only for the ideas of compassionate and helpful governance but for the Democratic Party itself. The country should be reminded over and over again that these essential lifeline programs were not only created by Democratic presidents, and their legislators, but have been protected by the party when, time after time, Republicans tried to cut or eliminate them. And the Democrats need to take the fight behind enemy lines: this means skipping the already converted on MSNBC and CNN and going deep inside the red bubble to run the ad on Fox and Newsmax and OAN. And it should run until people can recite it.
The commercial should be inspiring but blunt. None of this hip subtlety I recently saw in a video listing the early achievements of the Biden administration. Biden was sitting at the Resolute desk signing things while lists of his achievements scrolled silently by at a satirically fast pace—Evelyn Wood couldn’t have read it. Most people, if they can’t speed through a commercial, go to the kitchen, or the bathroom, or check their phone. A silent scroll running at a pace Ritalin couldn’t slow down will not reach them.
Think how shrewd it was for the forces of unregulated capitalism to market their philosophy as “free enterprise.”
Is government perfect? God, no. Is it seamlessly administered? Certainly not. Far from it, too far from it. But does that mean it isn’t still essential? (For everyone who believes only in the power and magic of the “marketplace,” I give you Lehman Brothers, Enron, Blockbuster Video, and the Edsel.) There are less than two years until the voters get another chance to shuffle the deck, and odds are always heavily against the incumbent party. It is vital not only to use the time to pass the legislation Biden wants but to make the case for the Democratic Party—who wants to pass it—and for governing in general.
Because, as January 6 showed, most Republican legislators no longer believe in either.
Douglas McGrath is a filmmaker, playwright, and a columnist for AIR MAIL