President Biden’s wisdom and penetrating intelligence sometimes escape him. So far, they have stayed away for fifty years and show no signs of returning. They are often accompanied by wild exaggerations, invented personal stories and hyperbolic attacks on opponents.
Examples are not hard to find, and the public is catching on. The latest fulmination came during a campaign-style rally in Atlanta on Tuesday, aimed at supporting his bill to nationalize election laws. Since that bill contravenes America’s long, constitutionally enshrined tradition that state legislatures control voting rules (as long as they don’t violate individual civil rights), the bill will fail in the Senate, blocked by the filibuster.
Biden, once a man of the Senate, has long supported the filibuster. That’s now changed. In the Atlanta speech, he urged the Senate to junk it. Other Democratic senators, who strongly supported the filibuster when they were in the minority, have flip-flopped, too. New York’s Chuck Schumer once told the Senate that eliminating the filibuster would turn the United States into a “banana republic.” Now, he wears a Chiquita sticker on his lapel.
Despite Biden and Schumer’s efforts, the filibuster will remain. What prevents a change? The votes of all fifty Republicans plus two Democrats: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The other Democrats have attacked them without mercy.
On this issue, at least, Republicans cannot be accused of hypocrisy. When they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, President Trump demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell drop the filibuster so Trump could ram through his legislation. McConnell refused. He knew it would fundamentally change the Senate, removing any protections for the minority party and turning it into a rubber stamp for the majority, as in the House.
Since Biden knows his demand will fail, why does he campaign for it? He has two overlapping reasons. The first is to appease his party’s left-wing activists: the leitmotif of his entire presidency. That program is sharply at odds with how he ran for office and the promises he repeated on Election Night and Inauguration Day. Second, he specifically wants to appeal to African-American activists, like those who stood behind him in Atlanta. Democrats cannot win elections without near-unanimous support from and heavy turnout among blacks.
Progressive leaders within that community are not happy with Biden’s performance. That’s why the party’s presumptive candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, refused to attend. Her threadbare excuse was “a scheduling conflict.” That’s the political equivalent of turning down a prom date because you have to wash your hair that night.
What made Biden’s speech so disturbing was his peroration, read from a script. (Improvisation is not something his staff permits, given his propensity for gaffes.) As Biden wound up, he told the crowd why Congress needed to pass the voting rights bill: “I ask every elected official in America: how do you want to be remembered? At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: do you want to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Let’s be clear what Biden is saying. If you don’t support this particular voting bill and kill the filibuster to do it, you are exactly like the president of the Confederacy, like Alabama governor George Wallace (whose 1963 inauguration speech included the infamous phrase “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”), or like the vicious Birmingham police chief who used water hoses and dogs on demonstrators seeking the right to vote and integrate public places.
The best way to understand Biden’s broadside is that the president and his allies have finally replaced Dr. Johnson’s epigram “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” with a new one: “Falsely charging racism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
The point is not that it is wrong to denounce racism, just as it is not wrong to embrace patriotism. Both are worthy values, when rightly framed. It is certainly right to denounce discrimination on the basis of race. One of the West’s hardest-won achievements is the ideal that the law should apply equally, regardless of race, creed, color, income or social status. We can — and should — endorse that value, condemn those who violate it, and denounce those who mobilize supporters with false or exaggerated claims of unfair treatment.
Unfortunately, those false claims are commonplace. Unscrupulous politicians use them to promote their agendas or simply increase their popularity. That’s exactly what Joe Biden did in Atlanta.
It wasn’t the first time. In 2012, when he was running for re-election as Barack Obama’s vice president, he used equally noxious language to smear his opponents, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and their Republican colleagues. Speaking of a congressional budget bill, Biden told a crowd:
We got a real clear picture of what they all value. Every Republican’s voted for it. Look at what they value and look at their budget and what they’re proposing. Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, “unchain Wall Street.” They’re going to put y’all back in chains.
“They’re going to put y’all back in chains.” Got it? Biden is saying Republicans are the equivalent of slave masters who shackle their human chattel.
Biden was building on the legacy of Teddy Kennedy, the Lion of the Senate, who went onto the floor less than an hour after President Reagan nominated federal judge and former Yale law professor Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Kennedy told the Senate:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
Kennedy’s position won the day, showing that this kind of hyperbole, falsehood and vitriol can work.
That point was not lost on the late Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who falsely claimed (again on the Senate floor) that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had not paid any income taxes for a decade. It was a devastating assertion — and a false one. Romney actually produced his tax returns, proving Reid had lied. But with the media’s help, Reid’s lie stuck in the public mind, reinforcing Romney’s image as a plutocrat.
Later, CNN reporter Dana Bash asked if he regretted the lie. “Oh, I don’t regret that at all,” he replied. Bash followed up, noting that “some people have even called it McCarthy-ite.”
Reid: “Well, they can call it what they want. Romney didn’t win, did he?”
Joe Biden doesn’t even have that defense. His support for the voting bill and attack on the filibuster are not working, just as Donald Trump’s continued claims of a stolen election haven’t worked. Their public failures offer a glimmer of hope.
The Senate won’t repeal the filibuster. They won’t pass Biden’s bill to nationalize election rules. Moreover, as the polls show, voters have caught on to Joe Biden’s diatribes and incompetence. He entered office with a lot of goodwill, despite the close election. Now, however, the public has seen enough. Less than one third think he’s doing a good job. The lower he sinks in public esteem, the more he fulminates. His speech in Atlanta is the latest example. He fouled the public square as he slunk off into the last refuge of a scoundrel.