Joe Biden and the political establishment's overriding goal

The Washington Post editorial page celebrates Biden's selection as "a heartening recognition that time in Washington can be useful." Is it right?

Published August 24, 2008 3:34PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Writing in a New York Times blog yesterday, Clinton pollster Mark Penn hails the selection of Joe Biden as "a smart and successful choice" and says this:

From Al Gore on, the role of the vice president seems to have fundamentally changed. It used to be where the winner parked the loser or some other figure that he wanted to neutralize. Now, with the centralization of government power in the White House, the vice president has become essentially a Cabinet head. Indeed, the last two vice presidents have had real portfolios and responsibilities, second only to the president.

That we live in a country characterized by "the centralization of government power in the White House" -- exactly what the Constitution was designed to prevent -- is now so self-evident that it's not even debated or contested any longer. A virtually omnipotent President is just an assumed fact of American political life, and the reason that there is such a fixation on the personality and "character" traits of the presidential candidates is because Our President is now, in essence, our Emperor, empowered unilaterally to do everything from attacking other countries to acting outside of and above the law. As Penn's analysis illustrates, our political establishment isn't bothered by that at all, but instead, just tacitly accepts it as the natural and desired state of things.

That, among many other things, is what makes David Ignatius' column in The Washington Post this morning so unbelievably absurd that it's hard to believe it's not satire. Ignatius believes that one of the principal problems in American politics is that Democratic Congressional leaders are too partisan and belligerent and uncooperative, and have been so intent on waging war against George Bush and the GOP that they have prevented the country from getting anything done. Seriously, that's what he -- and much of the political establishment -- actually thinks: that Congress has been too assertive and bellicose in flexing its power:

As the Democrats assemble in Denver, there's an odd dissonance to the party. The star of the show is "Mr. Cool," Barack Obama, the ultra-charismatic senator who landed on the national stage as if from outer space -- seemingly untouched by the usual racial and political scars -- promising a new era of bipartisanship and national healing.

But the supporting cast is a collection of red-hot politicians I've come to think of as the Get-Even Gang -- led by the party's congressional leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They made their names clawing and battling against Karl Rove's Republicans, and they are partisan politicians to the bone.

The partisanship of the congressional leadership has been a virtue for Democrats, up to a point. By being as tough and unyielding as their GOP rivals, they won back control of Congress. But they haven't done much with their majorities these past two years, beyond bashing President Bush. . . .

As an extra-credit assignment before this week's convention, I've been reading the books recently published by congressional leaders. And I must say, these are not works that rank with the political novels of Anthony Trollope. The titles -- Pelosi's "Know Your Power" and Reid's "The Good Fight" -- sound almost pugilistic. They reveal the mind-set that has made these leaders such effective partisan brawlers. . . .

These old-fashioned Democrats don't just oppose Republicans; they actively dislike them . . . . Pelosi and Reid rose to leadership positions during the hyper-partisan years of Republican control of Congress, and it shows. They are the people who refused to be Swift-boated, DeLay-ed or otherwise crushed by the Republican attack machine. They attacked back and were as vengeful as the Republicans. . . .It's a virtue for Obama that he seems to be above the fray -- so long as he shows the toughness and hands-on leadership to steer his party and the country out of what has been a dark, partisan period into something better and brighter.

Since Pelosi and Reid took over Congress, the Congress has funded the Iraq war without even a symbolic condition. It has rejected every proposal to limit war spending. It has enacted one right-wing proposal after the next, from warrantless surveillance and telecom immunity to declaring parts of the Iranian Government a "terrorist organization." It passed a housing bill and "stimulus" package approved by the administration. It has done nothing to reverse the radical executive power theories and has done much to institutionalize them. If there is one predominant trait of the Congress over the past several years, it has been a willingness to grant every item on the the President's wish list regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in control.

It's literally hard to imagine how Congress could possibly be weaker and more pliant than they've been. If Congress became any more cooperative, Capitol Hill might just vanish altogether. Yet David Ignatius, the ultimate establishment pundit, thinks that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are vicious partisan fighters who are so intent on waging vindictive war on poor George Bush that the country has been unable to "get anything done" -- such as saving the country from "the reality that Social Security is facing bankruptcy," which, frets Ignatius, "seems not to interest either Pelosi or Reid" (the reality that the U.S. itself faces bankruptcy from the State of Permanent War which Ignatius and his establishment comrades envision for the U.S. seems not to interest Ignatius).

The most entrenched establishment spokespeople are cheering the selection of Joe Biden because, in their minds, that selection confirms the most important fact for them: that in this election, the prevailing orthodoxies of our political system won't be meaningfully challenged. Chief Establishment Defender Fred Hiatt cheerfully announced today, also on the Editorial page of The Washington Post, that the Ways of Washington have been vindicated:

Mr. Biden may share Mr. Obama's outlook, but with an idealism tempered by years in the trenches. Which points to Mr. Biden's second advantage: experience. Mr. Obama's willingness to reach out to the kind of seasoned insider that he has, at times, derided suggests a heartening recognition that time in Washington can be useful.

David Brooks wrote earlier in the week that he hoped Obama chose Biden because it would advance what Brooks conceives of as "the good of the country." The political establishment's overriding preoccupation is that nothing meaningful should change how the political system works, that both parties should continue to embrace the central orthodoxies. The primary concern of Brooks, in particular, is that American "not hav[e] a strategic debate about retracting American power and influence. . . This is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances. This is not a country renouncing the threat of force. This is not a country looking to come home again."

Whether rightly or wrongly, Biden is approved of and deemed to have Seriousness credentials by the political establishment because they perceive that he affirms those central precepts and they see his selection as a sign that Obama will, too. And there is much to suggest that that perception -- at least as it applies to Biden -- is correct. In an October, 2001 New Republic article, Michael Crowley recounted that Biden was continuously boasting that the terrorism bill sent to Congress by John Ashcroft (soon to be called The Patriot Act) was a replica of legislation that Biden had long advocated -- ever since the Oklahoma City courthouse bombing:

Unexpectedly, a call comes in from Attorney General John Ashcroft. Biden picks up the phone and greets Ashcroft like an old Elks lodge buddy. "Hey John, Joe. Howyadoin' pal? What's the sticking points, and tell me if I can be helpful." All day, reporters had been buzzing that Ashcroft wanted to cut a deal with a Democrat, perhaps Biden, to circumvent the stubborn Judiciary Committee chairman, Pat Leahy. . . .

Rather than build up the credentials of a party deeply mistrusted by the public on foreign affairs, Biden often seems more interested in advertising his own accomplishments. In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Biden did, in fact, champion an anti-terrorism bill similar to the one now before Congress (though it was, as he complains, badly watered down by anti-government conservatives and leftist civil libertarians). And Biden doesn't let you forget it. "I introduced the terrorism bill in '94 that had a lot of these things in it," he bragged to NBC's Tim Russert on September 30. When I spent the day with him later that week, Biden mentioned the legislation to me, and to several other reporters he encountered, no fewer than seven times. "When I was chairman in '94 I introduced a major antiterrorism bill--back then," he says in the morning, flashing a knowing grin and pausing for effect. (Never mind that he's gotten the year wrong.) Back in his office later that afternoon, he brings it up yet again. "I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill."

Numerous articles are hailing Biden's steadfast "pro-Israel" record and praising him as a great liberal "internationalist" -- someone who believes in the wisdom and justifiability of U.S. military interventions in a wide array of situations. Last night, I spoke with Denver criminal defense attorney and Talk Left blogger Jeralyn Merritt, who said that Biden has long been the leading advocate of the harshest and most aggressive drug criminalization laws and general "anti-crime" measures (see this 2002 Glenn Reynolds article on Biden's "anti-RAVE" legislation as an example).

Ever since it became clear that Obama would be the likely nominee, the political establishment has been demanding of him more and more proof that his "change" rhetoric is just that -- rhetoric, and not anything meant as a genuine threat to the prevailing order of things. Obama, arguably out of political necessity, has repeatedly obliged, eagerly trying to offer proof that he is no threat to them, and the Biden selection is but the latest step in that campaign of reassurance. In sum, Biden is a reliable supporter of virtually every prevailing bit of conventional wisdom within the American elite political consensus, which is why his selection has been widely praised by the establishment, whose principal concern is that their fiefdom not be disrupted and that their consensus not be challenged.

None of this is to say that Biden is a bad pick. Given the other likely choices that had been bandied about, there were far worse possibilities, and few better ones. It's much more difficult to predict the political effect of these sorts of things than the always-omniscient political pundits like to pretend, but there are certainly many good reasons for thinking that the choice of Biden is politically shrewd. It's anyone's guess if that will turn out to be true. And on the merits, Biden's opposition to the First Gulf War suggests he's far from the extreme in foreign policy; as Reason's Dave Weigel points out, Biden, even with the numerous times he has supported deploying the U.S. military, doesn't come close to the McCain/Lieberman/Kristol bloodlust for Endless War. Biden's opposition to the series of horrible FISA bills, including the last one supported by Obama in July, demonstrates much the same thing.

What is most significant here is that for all the talk about how radical and horrible the Bush presidency has been, for all the hand-wringing over how deeply dissatisfied the citizenry is with our political institutions and direction of the country, what establishment figures like David Ignatius, Fred Hiatt and David Brooks crave most is to ensure that nothing really change. To them, what is most vital is that everything continue more or less as is, and that in particular, we continue to be a country ruled by "the centralization of government power in the White House," in which even the meekest and most ineffectual of Congressional leaders -- Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi -- are attacked for being too "partisan," disruptive and belligerent.

Congress was, in theory, the instrument for the citizenry to exert influence over the Government -- to enable citizens to decide when and if we went to war, how we conducted ourselves in the world, what power political leaders would have over citizens, what limits would constrain them. That's why the political establishment wants to reduce and neuter Congressional power as much as possible.

What the David Ignatiuses and Fred Hiatts of the world fear most is any meaningful influence on the part of the citizenry over the levers of Government (as the Post's Shailagh Murray said in explaining why the Government should ignore public opposition to the Iraq War: "Would you want a department store manager or orthodontist running the Pentagon? I don't think so"). Preserving "the centralization of government power in the White House" is the best and most effective means devised thus far for allowing the political elite to run the country without interference from the dirty, stupid masses, and though the establishment generally believes (accurately) that Republicans serve those ends more effectively, what they care about most is obtaining a bipartisan commitment to continuing that state of affairs. They're fine with rhetoric bashing the Bush administration -- now that it's almost over. What they oppose most vociferously is any effort to change the framework that enabled it.

UPDATE: Andrew Bacevich in The Los Angeles Times today:

Will the next president actually bring about Big Change? Don't get your hopes up. . . .The very structure of American politics imposes its own constraints. For all the clout that presidents have accrued since World War II, their prerogatives remain limited. A President McCain will almost certainly face a Congress controlled by a Democratic and therefore obstreperous majority. A President Obama, even if his own party runs the Senate and House, won't enjoy all that much more latitude, especially when it comes to three areas in which the dead hand of the past weighs most heavily: defense policy, energy policy and the Arab-Israeli peace process. The military-industrial complex will inhibit efforts to curb the Pentagon's penchant for waste. Detroit and Big Oil will conspire to prolong the age of gas guzzling. And the Israel lobby will oppose attempts to chart a new course in the Middle East. If the past provides any indication, advocates of the status quo will mount a tenacious defense.

People like Fred Hiatt, David Ignatius and David Brooks are merely the spokespeople for these "advocates of the status quo" -- those whose principal objective is to keep everything essentially the way it is, no matter which party wins, even as Americans become more and more deeply dissatisfied with their political institutions.

UPDATE II: Fox News tries to create some trite, inane, melodramatic storyline to feed their mindless viewers -- "The Angry Radical Far Left is in Denver!" -- and the "reporter" they sent, Griff Jenkins, receives a less than respectful welcome:

By Glenn Greenwald

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