I’m also ambivalent about Biden running again, but last night was a good illustration of why he happened to be the right candidate in this particular historical context:
The answer, of course, was yes. As if to prove the point, even McCarthy’s audible shushing could not get a few House Republican hecklers to shut up. And if their goal was to rattle the eighty-year-old President, embattled and down in the polls and facing questions even from within his own party about whether he should run again, it’s safe to say that it didn’t work.
Biden, it seemed, had carefully prepared for their antics. Had he scripted their reaction, he could not have asked for a better foil than Marjorie Taylor Greene, the former QAnon promoter who flirts with white supremacy. Greene arrived for the State of the Union dressed for the TV cameras in an all-white fur-trimmed outfit that made her seem like a villain in a Disney movie. “Liar!” she stood and shouted at Biden, after he accused some members of her party of wanting to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security in the name of fiscal discipline. Unfazed, Biden challenged her and the others who were jeering him to prove that Republicans did not actually support such a thing. When they then rose to their feet to applaud, alongside Democrats, his pledge not to cut either Medicare or Social Security, Biden claimed it as a victory for the bipartisan dealmaking that he wants to be remembered for. “We got unanimity!” he exulted.
Even that did not fully serve to stop the G.O.P. kooks. “It’s your fault!” a Republican shouted at Biden later in his speech, right after the President had paid emotional tribute to a dad who had lost his daughter to a fentanyl overdose. Every boo from then on might as well have been a campaign contribution to Biden’s reëlection. The dystopian Republican response later in the evening from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Arkansas governor and former Trump White House press secretary, peddling Fox News talking points about the culture wars and portraying Biden’s America as an American-carnage-style hellscape conjured from her former boss’s Twitter feed, only reinforced the point. Joe Biden has been lucky in his enemies these last few years.
Bland, quiet competence looks better when the most prominent members of the opposition are determined to look like clowns. But also important is that Biden has learned from the past mistakes of the Democratic establishment; “Social Security is not getting cut no matter what Rick Scott wants” is right on the merits and much better politically than getting suckered into a Grand Bargain negotiation. However Republicans respond, you win — a wedge issue where public opinion is strongly on your side.
The Sanders response is also telling. For better or worse, the Reagan-Bush era GOP was good at coming up with effective cultural wedge issues that actually divided Democrats. Now their culture war stuff unites Democrats and requires spending several hours a day with Fox News and Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter feed to even make heads or tails of. It works in the Villages, but will it play in suburban Atlanta and Phoenix?