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The Warning Lights Are Flashing Red. Again.
Joe Biden is in a world of trouble. And so is democracy.
1. Warning Lights
It’s been a pretty good month for Joe Biden, right?
We have a crisis in the Middle East, which Biden has handled as well as any president could—really, a master class in foreign affairs, diplomacy, and hard power.
There was a great jobs report.
Inflation continued to cool.
And the GDP growth, at 4.9 percent, was nothing less than spectacular.
Presidents dream about months this good.
Also over the last month: Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped -4 points, fueled by an -11 point drop among Democrats.
The warning lights are flashing red. Again.
So let’s start by talking about two analytical fallacies.
The fallacy of fatalism is to look at a bad thing and think there’s no way around it, that doom is inevitable.
Then there’s the fallacy of optimism, where you look at a bad situation and believe that there must be a better way. That you can slice throuh the knot, or bake two cakes, or whatever.
Everyone possesses one of those blind spots. Mine, obviously, is the former. So understand that I’m deeply aware of this failing when I tell you that this is where I believe we are right now:
Joe Biden is the best possible candidate to defeat Donald Trump in 2024. Any other potential candidate would have been untested and un-vetted, would have been missing the advantages of incumbency, and would have had a much larger downside.
Joe Biden has governed as well as any observer could reasonably have hoped. He has made mistakes and done some things poorly.1 But on the biggest and most salient issues, he has been as successful as any president since Reagan.
Joe Biden should be considered an underdog to Donald Trump because the mood of the country is inexplicably sour.2
Why? If I knew, I’d tell you.
But understand, it’s not just me who doesn’t get it. Here’s Catherine Rampell:3
I do have a theory about what’s going on, though. And it involves the Republican speakership fight.
I was dubious that Mike Johnson would win the speakership. It just didn’t make sense to me.
Some Republicans had refused to vote for Jordan because (a) he was an election denier; and/or (b) he was a MAGA; and/or (c) he had no governing experience.
Jim Jordan had been willing to wage war against his colleagues because he believed that “America wanted him.”
So why would these people suddenly roll over for Mike Johnson?
These actors had already paid a large price for pursuing their incentives. Why would they suddenly stop?
When I asked this question on The Next Level, Tim’s response was: Because they’re human and human beings get exhausted.
And when you’re exhausted enough, you throw in the towel.
We have a pro-democracy coalition in this country that has come together three times over the last seven years. Democrats, liberals, progressives, independents, Never Trump-types. They came together in 2018, and 2020, and 2022. Now they’re being asked to save democracy again next year.
Maybe they’re exhausted.
Maybe they’ve been waiting for Republicans to pitch in—even a little bit—to defeat the next authoritarian attempt and have now realized that there won’t be any help. There is no Republican anti-Trump cavalry coming over the hill.
Maybe they looked around and realized that no matter how many times the forces of democracy win, the bad guys just keep coming.
Maybe they’ve internalized that because MAGA is propped up by minority rule, even winning popular majorities doesn’t guarantee victory.4
Or maybe it’s something else. Like I said, I don’t have the answer on this one.
But I’m pretty sure that the warning lights are flashing red again and that we ought to be girding ourselves for a very hard moment.
That’s what we’re doing at The Bulwark. We’re taking the world as it is and getting ready to help save democracy again. If you’d like to join us, now’s a good time.
We’re all in this together.
PEPFAR—the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—is George W. Bush’s best legacy. Begun in 2003, the program has saved something like 25 million lives over the last 20 years.
The program has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, which has reauthorized it every five years. But lawmakers this fall failed to reauthorize PEPFAR by a Sept. 30 deadline amid claims from conservative advocacy groups that the program is inadvertently funding abortions overseas — allegations that Biden officials, PEPFAR staff and public health leaders say are unfounded and threaten the program’s mission.
PEPFAR can continue to operate without congressional authorization, with much of its current funding intact. But Republicans have been placing holds on notifications that the State Department is required to send to Congress before PEPFAR spends any additional money, according to four people with knowledge of the funding delays, three of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.
The GOP-led House Foreign Affairs Committee in August began objecting to language in PEPFAR’s country and regional operational plan, which offers guidance to partners around the globe about how to administer the aid program, according to the people with knowledge of the dispute.
The Republicans’ funding delays and objections, which have not been previously reported, center on PEPFAR’s use of terms relating to abortion, transgender people, sex workers and other areas, with the committee repeatedly demanding rewrites from the State Department.
This is what happens when a party that has no interest in governing is handed power.
3. The Book of the Dead
I was listening to my favorite podcast this morning, Behind the Bastards, and the most recent episodes are about a piece of U.S. history I’d never heard of before: the Hawk’s Nest disaster.
The short version is this: In 1930 the Union Carbide corporation began work on a three-mile long tunnel in West Virginia that would be used for a hydroelectric dam. The company used mostly black laborers imported from the Jim Crow South, and the conditions were as horrible and exploitive as you would expect for an infrastructure project in West Virginia during the Great Depression.
But in addition to the racial and economic exploitation, 764 of the workers died from silicosis, because Union Carbide refused to take any of the common precautions. Hawk’s Nest would be the worst industrial disaster in American history.
All of which leads to a fascinating coda: The best account of this tragedy comes from a poem.
In 1936 a Jewish poet from New York named Muriel Rukeyser wrote an epic poem called The Book of the Dead, which took deep-dive journalism and set it to verse.
The Book of the Dead was republished a few years ago with the new edition edited by Catherine Venable Moore. I found this interview with Moore and think you’ll enjoy it.
Moore: I think Rukeyser saw Hawk’s Nest as not just a local story but a universal story about power and powerlessness — a modern American tragedy that transcended geographic borders. She saw Hawk’s Nest as not only a political and human tragedy, but she also saw it as mythic; she even called her poem cycle “The Book of the Dead,” a direct reference to the ancient Egyptian book of spells designed to accompany the dead through the afterlife and into the next realm.
Rukeyser frames her poem cycle as a journey from North to South, from a place of influence and privilege to a place with less of both. Her work in West Virginia is also an example of an outsider with privilege using some of that privilege to take a risk and speak out about something that was not necessarily safe for someone locally to discuss, especially someone whose livelihood depended on Union Carbide’s goodwill toward them, or someone whose race meant they were threatened with greater retribution for any action they might take. Rukeyser had an ongoing poetic and political interest in what was going on with African Americans back then — she had reported on the Scottsboro Trial just prior to her West Virginia trip. She was part of an urban leftist milieu that was invested in working for civil rights and greater social equality among the rich and poor, blacks and whites.
Afghanistan, student loan cancellation, and perhaps the American Rescue Plan was slightly too large and/or gave too much money to states and municipalities. There are real debits on that side of his ledger.
Here is what I mean by “inexplicably”: Imagine a thought experiment where I show you the survey data about voter feelings on the economy and then asked you to guess what the economic conditions are—guess the unemployment rate, GDP growth rate, etc.
Now imagine that I only showed you the economic data and then asked you to guess what the surveys on voter feelings would look like.
In neither case would you guess the reality that we currently inhabit.
This is what I meant yesterday when I talked about the disconnect: People don’t just say, “Man, I wish things were better.” They think we’re in the Great Recession.
See not just the Electoral College and the Senate, but the way MAGA used their minority in the House Republican conference to push out the speaker and then torpedo “normie Republicans” Steve Scalise and Tom Emmer until they got the MAGA speaker they wanted.