He Who Gaffes Last ...
#49 -- Biden's problem isn't the ad libs. It's the libs.
Excelsior! My friend John Ellis (of News Items) calls this mini-profile of Dina Powell — wife of GOP Senate candidate David McCormick—a “hit piece” that “misses, badly.” Maybe it does. Still, I learned a lot! Not only is Powell a shape-shifting climber who made partner at Goldman Sachs by spending its money on ridiculous PR causes like Tina Brown’s “Women in the World” conference, she’s also charming and “real fun to have a drink with,” which is truly terrifying. (I don’t doubt it’s true.) … Meanwhile her husband’s current Breitbart-lauded plans to “prioritize our own citizens” and “[implement] a Hire American program” are somewhat at odds with the American Enterprise Institute paper he published just last year, after Biden took office. There he suggests:
"The [U.S.] could abandon numerical caps on visas and green cards or replace them with a standards-based model that welcomes all who meet certain criteria."
I assume McCormick would say he was only talking about skilled immigrants (not, say, H-2B visas for unskilled, non-farm, workers). But he could’ve said that. And even if he had, blowing the lid off numerical caps in any large employment category is not "‘prioritizing our own citizens,’ is it? …
You wish it was a gaffe: To read much of the commentary on Biden’s big speech in Warsaw, you’d think the problem was the ad lib at the end. (“For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.”) No. The whole speech was too strident, polarizing, and grandiloquent for the current situation. About halfway through the speech, Biden had his Reaganish ‘Mr Putin, tear down this wall’ moment—“Putin can and must end this war.” But then he went on to make it clear that ending the Ukraine war would not satisfy him, because it wouldn't end the long-term anti-Putin, anti-autocracy fight he thinks he is launching: "[W]e must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after. And for the years and decades to come. It will not be easy. There will be costs. But it is a price we have to pay ..." etc. etc.
Not only did this make it less likely that Putin will end the war (what’s the payoff?—we’ll still be out to get him) —it also completely fed into Putin's worldview of a Western conspiracy vs. Russia. (Putin guru Aleksandr Dugin:"The Eurasian Empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, the strategic control of the USA") That makes it easy for Putin to rally support at home, which seems to be what is happening.
So Biden’s Warsaw pronouncement was not just a “bad lapse in discipline,” but a mistake — a thoroughly planned, well-considered mistake. Take away the ad lib and it was still a mistake.
Why’d he do it? Why the need for a grand, bloviating, global ideological Armageddon when “Help Ukraine stop the invasion” would do? Possibilities:
1) Biden believes making a BigThink deal of Ukraine will help politically by conferring Churchillian gravitas;
2) The White House felt a show of rhetorical strength would help erase memories of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal (which seems to have had a huge negative impact on Biden's polls) and short-circuit a future "weakness" charge;
3) Biden's emulating JFK — specifically the latter’s inaugural ("long twilight struggle") and “Ich bin ein Berliner” speeches (except Biden's seems more sweepingly adversarial, less nuanced than either of those).
4) Most disturbing, maybe it’s not politics at all. Maybe the speech actually reflected what Niall Ferguson says it did: a deluded, high-risk “cynical/optimistic plan” to “protract the war in Ukraine, bleed Russia dry, topple Putin and signal to China to keep its hands off Taiwan.”
P.S.: The closing Warsaw ad lib, if it was an ad lib, replaced whatever the last line of the prepared text was. (I doubt the speech was written to end on "Of decency and dignity and freedom and possibilities.") So what was that last line Biden didn't read? It would tell us something. I bet it's pretty strident!
P.P.S.: The Biden White House is famously leak-proof (in sharp contrast to Trump’s White House). This deprives the public of valuable information, such as who is pushing Biden into foolish stridency. But the worst effect is probably on the White House itself. For one thing, leaks of policy changes can be badly-needed trial ballons. If the Washington Post had published a story, a week before Warsaw, titled “Biden thinking of saying Putin should go,” the president would have gotten a generous smack o pushback that would probably have dissuaded him. In general, if everybody knew who was pushing what policy—and who were the internal opponents—it would be easier for influential non-insiders to weigh in and steer policy in more sane directions.
But wait! Maybe the problem isn’t that this White House is leak-proof. Maybe top reporters talk to White House aides all the time, and know exactly what is going on — but (at their sources’ request) they’re saving all that information for their books … maybe their post-presidency books, when it’s too late to act on that information ...
Elephant in the Theater: New York Magazine claims to have compiled a list of “more than 80 takes on Will Smith’s Oscars slap.” They missed two of them! See the first 17 minutes of this week’s Parrot Room. Partial spoiler: “It’s clear that he attacked Rock in part because he has the weird marriage and he had to prove to the world that the weird marriage was in some sense real." Not even such non-obvious takes! …
The Two “Transformations”
This is an edited version of a spiel I gave at the Monday Meeting, a Republican gathering in New York City:
I voted for Trump. Twice. That's why I'm in New York, not LA. In LA, when I email a friend and say "Hey, let's get dinner," she emails back: "You voted for Trump twice."
But I had a reason! In 2020, I was convinced the Democrats were going to take the House and the Senate by large margins. (They thought they would too.) And when they did, they'd pass the things they've been trying to pass for decades--there was, in the cliche of the auto industry, pent-up demand. Number 1# on Democrats' list was a mass amnesty for the 12 million or more immigrants living illegally in the country -- coupled with the usual ephemeral promises of enforcement in the future, of course. That would be a victory for the Democrats' idea of justice and also guarantee a supply of future Democratic voters to help pass lots of other laws.
It'd also be a disaster. This would be our second huge, across-the-board amnesty. (The first was in 1986). Would-be migrants around the globe would know that if they just got into the US, there’d eventually be a third amnesty. Our nation would be committed to serial amnesties, big population increases, a permanently loose labor market for less skilled workers, low wages, and greater class differences. True, this wouldn't be an existential threat, or even a "nation-breaking" event, but it would be .... transformational. To borrow Bill Clinton's cunning phrase, it would end America as we know it. The only way to prevent this epic setback was for Trump to win reelection and be in a position to veto it.
I was wrong, of course. Dems did unexpectedly badly in the 2020 Congressional races, leaving them only a tenuous majority. Enough to tolerate a porous border for two years; but not enough to pass a mass amnesty. Apocaplypse avoided. One of them avoided, anyway.
Because you know what happened next.
Biden may have been elected as a moderate who could build bipartisan bridges — but he did something else. He chose to go big, and to go big in a way that responded, not to the demands of voters, but to the long time demands of his party's activist factions.
One way to think of it is that Biden was a cargo ship: He sailed through the primaries making promises at each port of call, loading another policy on board. (It's not like he was going to win the nomination on his charisma.) Jim Clyburn in South Carolina wants Biden to say he'll appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court? Load it up! By the day of the election the USS Biden was low in the water.
He decided to unload it all. Again, why? Maybe because his election was so close — and he couldn't afford to displease any part of his base. Maybe it was because he's weak, or because as a Senate veteran he knows a President often has only the first 2 years in office to get anything significant and difficult done. Or maybe it was Jill. We don't know because the White House is a no-leak zone.
Also--maybe it was precisely because these weren't initiatives designed to please voters tht Biden and the Democratic leadership displayed a fatal inability to choose among them. It's not like they could go, "Sorry, backers of Program X . Voters seem to really want Program Y more." Voters didn't want program Y either. They weren’t demanding any of these things.
So, having done so much worse than they expected, Democrats shifted seamlessly from 'We are the invincible victors so we will pass a huge legislative grab-bag' to 'We're doomed in 2022 so we will pass a huge legislative grab-bag' Historians converged on the White House to tell Biden he was the new FDR, and this was his New Deal. It was going to be … yes, "transformational."
It wasn't a New Deal, of course. FDR created Social Security and old age pensions, the Wagner Act and unemployment compensation, and -- we shouldn't forget--the WPA's promise of a guaranteed job.
It wasn't even the Great Society: Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare..
It was more a themeless collection of second-order additions to the welfare state--sort of like adding power options to your Honda Accord to turn it into an Accord LX. The model with the day care and family leave package.
Again, not what voters really wanted. Voters wanted Biden to tackle the pandemic and the economy -- something he arguably had done in his first big bill, the American Rescue Act,. But that had passed in his second month in office. After that, the electorate didn't seem to appreciate Biden spending his obviously limited energy on the expensive, partisan, Dems-only "Build Back Better" project.
But was it a transformational vote-for-Trump-and-destroy-Mickey's-social-life-level disaster?
The answer is mostly: no. It's true, key parts of Build Back Better were horribly flawed. For example:
The child care part sought to do two things: first more than double the wages of child care workers from $25,500 to $60,000, and second make child care more affordable. Seems a bit contrdictory -- but hey, with enough subsidies anything is possible. Unfortunately the Democrats didn't synch up the massive subsidies and the massive cost increases, so middle class parents would wind up paying $13,000 more for child care for several years.
The plan for paid leave was so complicated you needed to take leave from your job just to figure out how to get it. First you had to gather your records and ask your employer, Then you had to gather your records and ask your state. And only if they couldn't help you could you gather your records and ask the federal government.
OK. But what about the plan for "universal" pre-school? Even Joe Manchin likes that! Well, it wasn't universal -- states could turn it down. More important was the latest study --a randomized, Fauci-level analysis of Tennessee pre-schools. It didn't, as you might fear, show that state run preschool did nothing to help low income kids. Oh no. It showed pre-school actually harmed them, compared with low income kids who didn't get it. Yikes.
Finally as Ann Coulter documented, the BBB bill was hopelessly larded with race preference and wasteful subsidies for Democratic service providers. Not just the usual millions in payoffs. Literally, a billion here a billion there.
But none of these things was a near-nation breaker like amnesty. Most of them, if passed, would simply waste a lot of money. They could be cancelled. The worst of them -- well, if the preschool results are as bad as that study suggests, math test scores would fall form 324 to 316, to pick one example. That's bad. But it doesn't seem "transformational." We'll still be America, just a bit stupider.
But there was another threat, a threat I'd missed before the election. Something transformational, but again not in a good way. The press initially didn't publicize it. It goes by the innocuous name "Refundable Child Tax Credit." But it's basically an attempt to undo the largely successful welfare reform of 1996.
If you're of a certain age you remember “welfare reform.” Welfare, which was technicaly called Aid to Famlies with Dependent Children (AFDC), was a notoriously unpopular cash aid program dating back to the New Deal. Like Biden's Child Tax Credit, it was officially intended to help kids but the checks went to the parent --usualy a single mom- not to the kids. Administration after administration had tried to reform AFDC and failed. By the 1990s, it seemed to be subsidizing an "underclass" culture in which young women took it as normal when they had an out-of-wedlock child and got on the dole instrad of delaying childbirth until they had jobs or got married.
So-called "underclass" communities (defined as neighborhoods with a lot of welfare recipients, broken or unformed families, high-school dropouts and low male labor force participation) were widely considered America's greatest social problem, chronicled in books like Ken Auletta’s The Underclass, Ze’ev Chafets' Devil’s Night, Nicholas Lemann's Promised Land, and wrenching newspaper serieses like Leon Dash’s for the Washington Post.
After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, presidential candidate Bill Clinton pledged to tackle this problem at its root, through welfare reform that would "break the culture of poverty and dependence." Whenever Clinton got into trouble in the '92 campaign, he’d run ads featuring his promise to "end welfare as we know it.”
Which he did.
In 1996, a Gingrich/Clinton effort killed off AFDC, replacing it with a new program run by the states, with federal rules requiring work and a tough-sounding 5-year limit on aid. Senator Moynihan of New York anticipated “children, sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen.” That's not what happened. Helped by the strong pre-2000 Clinton economy, single moms went to work in unprecedented numbers. The welfare caseload fell by half. The poverty rate kept dropping, including for children.
Not everything worked: Any effect on out-of-wedlock births seemed to fade quickly. But by 2006, the number of" “underclass” areas had sharply declined.. The now-working moms to a large degree stuck with it, through the ups and downs of the 2000-2016 economy, It turned out that when people worked, they were prepared to take advantage of the ups! By 2019, child poverty was at record lows, for all races. Black child poverty declined from 40%% in 2010 to 26.4 % right before COVID hit. A huge advance.
The left wasn't about to take this success lying down. They were determined to undo the 1996 reform’s work principle, and the vehicle they chose was very clever: what if we took the child tax credit, which gave a modest tax rebate to families with kids, and made it refundable, so poor people who didn't work and thus didn't make enough to pay taxes got a monthly check, just like welfare?
Unfortunately, these economistic liberal policy types were joined by thougtful conservatives searching for a way their party might move beyond tax cutting and become champions of the disaffected working class. These conservatives often also feared declining U.S. birth rates and population loss. (You don’t want to be Japan, do you? … Do you?) What bettter way to solve both problems than to send people who have kids helpful checks?
The result has been a bipartisan gang-bang-- from Matt Bruenig and Sherrod Brown and Matt Yglesias on the left and Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru on the right plus the Niskanen Center (Hammond and Orr) -- and Mitt Romney and Biden -- around plan that simply dispense dolllars on a per child basis to all married or unmarried parents except those at relatively high income levels.
Biden's version would pay $300 a month per kid under 6, $250 a month for kids 6-17. For a single mom with two kids under 6, that's $7,200 a year -- more than the maximum that the old AFDC program paid in 21 states. Add to that the $6,400 you get in SNAP food stamps and it's a total of $13,600. Plus you get free health care -- Medicaid. That might be enough to barely survive on, without working, in many low-cost areas. If you throw in off-the-books cash, it might be enough even in New York.
The "expanded" child tax credit became law for 6 months during the pandemic. Then it died with “BBB” at the hands of Joe Manchin, who expressed old-fashioned misgivings about sending people who don't work checks. But it's not really dead. Manchin has a slimmmed down BBB he says he's willing to pass, and even the editorials (as in the Washington Post, for example) that say Dems should Manchin’s deal say "of course can't they add the refundable CTC." Senator Bennet vows to include it, which will be tough because it costs way over $100B a year just by itself. ($1.6 trillion over 10 years.)
So what's the threat from the CTC? It should be clear enough. Why won't this no-strings cash reverse the effect of welfare reform, encouraging the sort of people who went to work after 1996 to stop going to work -- enabling the new growth of a culture of non-work and non-marriage, in neighborhoods where single women have children and simply expect to live off aid, Here's Ross Douthat's succinct summary:
[The CTC] might encourage a retreat from marriage and the labor force in poor communities — a combination, warns Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute, that could impede the “long-term prospects” of the benefit’s recipients “and, more important, the well-being of their children,” even if they get an immediate financial boost.
The worry isn't that two-worker families will become one-worker families, or cut back their hours. The worry is that families will go from one worker to zero workers. We’ll have millions of kids growing up fatherless in areas where the mainstream world of employment is a foreign country, for generation after generation--where few of the plausible occupations can compete, in terms of money, survival and status, with crime.
Yet here is Douthat's concludion:
The conservative goals of supporting work and marriage remain important, but in the balance they have to yield a little to a more fundamental goal — that society should reproduce itself.
All-righty! I'm not sure even Douthat believes that sentence. In any case, it has to be the least persuasive sentence he's ever written.
Do we want to be a slightly bigger country with an underclass or a slightly smaller one without an underclass?
A university of Chigao study --just a study, but a reputable one -- estimated that 1.5M mainly single mothers -- would stop working in the short term with Biden’s child checks. That might not seem like a lot, but the whole underclass in the ‘90s was 1.8 to 2.5 million people. You'd be surprised how much damage to the social fabric can be wrought by a relatively small minority who've dropped out of the bottom of society.
Of course if a long-term culture takes hold, 1.5 million will just be a quaint memory ...
A couple of points about this new underclass.
1. I think it will be a whole lot whiter than the old underclass. Black America is thoroughly exposed to welfare. (An astounding 72 percent of black children born between 1967 and 1969 spent at least one year on welfare, for example.) White America isn't, yet. And white Americans haven't faced race prejudice, so it's been harder to discriminate against them, force them into specific neighborhoods and shape them into an underclass. That's changing. We're seeing emerging, in the old deindustrialized communities of the midwest, the sort of proto-underclass, described by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. They marry less, they work sporadically they dress differently, they're more prone to drug addiction and early death. Put a new no-work dole into that community and … look out.
2. Second, we rightly worry about America becoming divided. Many of the think tankers who support the tax credit dole worry about America becoming deivided. But there's nothing more divisive than an underlcass. Whole areas of cities become places to be avoided. The middle class flees public schools and insulates itself in the suburbs with zoning rules or window-bars. Public spaces — where different classes can get together — are rendered unusable.
The best unifying foundation for American daily life remains work. I recommend Jason Deparle's book, American Dream. It showed that when people leave welfare for work, even in low-end jobs, they meet more people and people meet them. They don't necessarily find their calling, though some do. They find their fellow Americans. A check can't do that.
I can't completely blame liberals for ignoring this. They're liberals, after all. Or, rather, at least most of the influential ones in DC and the media and academia are what I've called Money Liberals. They care about how much money poor people have and tend to ignore the effects on culture, be it work, marriage, or social equality, of how people get that money. 'Send more checks' has become their default solution (even, most recently, for inflation).
But shame on the best and brightest conservative minds who’ve talked themselves into recreating the social dynamics that led Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to lead the campaign against welfare in the first place.