As an exhausted public school teacher in Gary and New Orleans, I often fell too comfortably into a routine. My students would let me know this. For a teacher, reading groups take a long time to organize. Essay prompts are tedious as hell to write. But I could always count on one of my sharper students to challenge me in my complacency. She’d wanted a new group. She’d want a different prompt: “Mr. Warnke,” she’d say, “We been done that.”
I thought of my deficit of the imagination in these weeks before we blunder into the Biden years. The Groundhog Day quality of the Democratic Party now at least foretells what is coming tomorrow: more of the same.
In 2021, we’ll have a center-right President, animated by “norms” and “guardrails” as well as a “Soul of the Nation” schtick offered up by America’s most boring historian, John Meacham. Old songs will return. The tired hymns of “reaching across the aisle,” “bipartisanship,” “obstructionist conservatives” and “exploding deficits” will be sung in high dudgeon through every think-tank in the land. Let a hundred petty tweets and a thousand cable shouting matches bloom!
True, events will shape our politics, as always. But soon, the doddering do-nothing Dems will wander through 2021 like Diane Feinstein at a Judiciary hearing, repeating sad lines over and over again. After all, “Trump is bad” has been the only song in their rusted jukebox since even before the collapse of Russiagate. Like James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, they’ve lost any talent they had by years of endless repetition. Their yesterdays foretells tomorrow with the ossified Democrats.
Yet, I wonder: Will anyone in this clearcut land of pestilence and wage-slaves really be listening to the DNC nickelodeon? Can we really know what Dems will do? Maybe it will be extraordinary! (Do you remember the New New Deal?)
For me, the Democratic agenda is a bit of a mystery, it’s not as if national Democrats run on ideas or policy, anymore. AOC has even called Biden’s ideas “hazy.”
But for anyone looking, Biden revealed his hand in a shameful interview Wednesday, when he was challenged by progressives rightfully wary of Senate races in Georgia. The old tomcat even beat President Obama in the race to neuter his own Presidency before it began. Think of it, Senator Credit Card has not even pressed his nose against Amy Coney Barret’s hair at a socially-distanced inauguration before neutralizing his own administration. Pressed to use his executive authority, he lashed out and said he had little power because—you guess it—The Constitution. Honk from your drone, Barack!
Fresh from his recent anointing in crude oil by James Clyburn’s conclave of Big Pharma funders and Wall Street goons, Biden finally admitted what we all knew: his administration would not pursue executive orders for progressive causes. Student debt? Climate change? Healthcare? Why discuss this when you can get Van Jones to get moist about the “soul of the nation”?
The Delaware Dud is feeling bold! Rehoboth Beach may not be a Capris, but the new emperor feels he’s got some enemies to pitch off the cliffs. Thuggish with confidence from the Democrat’s pitiful primaries, Biden spent months kicking left only to win their sloppy kisses this November. Democrats had clipped their own wings in the spring with the “electability” trap. Biden won the national election waving around a mask and “By Gollying” Trump’s ham antics. To be fair, Biden did earn the grudging support of a majority of the public—certainly whipped into terror by cable news and the criminal negligence of a quarter million corpses the Trump years offered us. But Biden feels he’s the man of the hour, a chosen leader with little to do but serve the comfortable and afflict those noisemakers seeking hope and change.
As for the rest of us, this interregnum may be the grimmest lame duck session since 1933. As Trump wanders the state legislatures like Ahab, seeking the white whale of his soft coup, President-elect Biden spent Wednesday hectoring and howling at his door-knockers and apologists. “I’ve got to go,” was his petulant preface to even a mild critique of his recent rash of Rainbow Raytheon hacks.
Isn’t all this familiar? Yes, we been done that. In 1992, Clinton’s humiliation of Jesse Jackson with his “Sister Souljah” moment became a model to rule by, at least for corporate Democrats. This year, the “Aww Shucks” Uncle Joe-style consistently evaporated when dealing with people urging Biden to actually stand for something or use his powers for the people: “I’m not going to exercise executive authority where it’s a question, where I can come along and say, I can do away with assault weapons. There’s no executive authority to do away with that.” He shouted, slowing down in that condescending adult-in-the room way, “I am not going to violate the Con-sti-tu-tion.”
Biden’s condescension should be no surprise. We been done that. The Constitution is always used as a cudgel by standpatters like Biden and always will. Obama left the Sherman Antitrust Act to moulder during his timid tenure, Clinton, too. Jimmy Carter shockingly complained in his own diaries that he didn’t want to make appointments to judgeships! In these low times, the Constitution is rarely used to discuss the activist language of the Preamble, as progressives like Hubert Humphrey once did: “The Preamble is the most concise statement of public purpose and policy. Every single part of that Preamble is an action. The thrust of it is action, purpose, decision, drive.”
For standpatters, the Constitution is a dead roadblock, not a passport. The old manner of invoking the Constitution is being deployed by cynics like Biden to remind the public that we can never, ever have nice things. President Andrew Johnson notoriously did this during Reconstruction. “I stand on the Constitution,” was Johnson’s tedious harangue in his stump speeches. Buried in Greenville, Tennessee with the Constitution in his squalid coffin, he notoriously conducted a “Swing Around the Circle.” Ever the stemwinder, Johnson circled the country by train and hectored civil rights in demagogic speeches in an attempt to connect reactionary forces in the North and South. He condemned efforts to redistribute He condemned efforts to redistribute slaveowners’ lands, denounced his many critics, assailed the Freedmen’s Bureau, and condemned other “radical measures.” Like today’s Bidencrats, “No we can’t,” was the hill to die on.
But in those years, the Congress circled around him. The crowds booed him, too. The Democratic Party didn’t even renominate him before he tucked tail and clopped back to Tennessee before Grant’s inauguration. A petty snub I’m sure we’ll see quite soon.
What will the masked crowds of 2021 do when Joe Biden plays “No We Can’t,” once again?
Everyone but an overpaid Beltway journalist understands Biden. He’s a notoriously thin-skinned mediocrity who got kicked upstairs after falling into a Senate seat the same year Nixon was bombing Hanoi. Biden’s half-baked Senate career tells us more than we want to know about the bleak years to come.
In the Senate, Biden had no principles but power, no ideology but convenience and nothing but gauzy sentiment and family tragedy to glaze over the horror of his victories and the failures of his ambitions.
Biden spent his middling decades close to power, as the great Andrew Cockburn spelled out in Harpers Magazine’s deft warning “No, Joe!” Joe sold himself to the highest bidders. He shifted like a sail to wherever money or resentment politics blew his empty suit. In my own calculation, punching left is the only time you’ll see Biden’s pulse rise above a cold-blooded 35 beats a minute.
Even Wednesday’s mild critique raised the remaining hackles beneath Biden’s hair-plugs: “I mean what I say when I say it!” He yelled this, no doubt alluding to his hazy “Build Back Better” platform I’ve yet to hear one liberal coherently explain or one surrogate articulately pitch. Perhaps we should take Biden at his gibbering word. In a few delicious moments from the campaign, the public was able to see the real Uncle Joe. You know, the “go vote for Trump” or “Listen, Fat!” statesman we got to know last year. No, I don’t mean Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 2020, nor do I mean the Soul of the Nation steward mouthing Meachem’s recycled platitudes. I mean the real Joe Biden: The corporate stooge we know and loathe. The do-nothing glad-hander and friend of segregationists. Mr. Bankruptcy Bill. Mr. Crime Bill. The bony-legged scold who sniffed that he had “no empathy” for young people today. The guy who would fundamentally change nothing. The Senator who misspent his youth criticizing desegregation and fretted about “racial jungles.” The guy who put Neera Tanden up for “his friend” Bernie Sanders to shepherd through Senate confirmation.
Joe “means what he says when he says it,” indeed.
For all of us still gobsmacked by the power of Democrats to eat their own in the primaries, we’ve seen all this self-harm before. Yes, we been done that. Biden is simply doing what those in power put him there to do: calm the rhetoric, scare suburbanites, and blame the kooky Right. One wonders how the smart-set liberals, always correcting the manner and tone of other Americans, can even stomach Biden’s response to the pandemic. Nearly a year into a global plague, Biden’s novel notion is to repeat on camera: “Wear a mask for 100 days!”
Joe, we been done that, too.
The struggle for the public is to have the power of facing what’s obvious. It’s often difficult to see what’s clear: The Democrats are a miserable failure. After all, over the course of a sad year we’ve been offered hope from wish-thinking reporters: The New Yorker’s Biden is an FDR. The American Prospect offered a laundry list—how Biden might change America by executive order if Georgia doesn’t work out!
But all of this is castles in the sky, of course. Corporate Democrats do not change, they crush. We been done that. In Robert Reich’s excellent Locked in the Cabinet, Clinton’s Labor Secretary detailed the workings of a conservative Democrat in power. In the nineties, Bill Clinton was swiftly rope-a-doped into deficit hawkery by his Wall Street appointees before he did all the foul deeds of the conservative movement, free of charge. The center-right priorities of Clinton’s DLC clique and of Atari Democrats like Biden have always been to stiff workers in favor of professional-class moral preening and phony fussbudget “kitchen table” canards.
Clinton was too sloppy and craven to even support the people who took a chance on him in 1992. He promised much and delivered little. Perhaps Biden did the impossible: He didn’t bother even lying to us as his buddy Bill did.
Clinton was uncharacteristically honest about his wasted first year as he ranted, mustard-stained and bloated in his sinking White House: “Education, job training—none of the things I campaigned on. What’ll I be able to tell the average working person I did for him? We’ll do the budget first. Then health care. At least I’ll have health care to give them.”
Hillary, in her star role as Lady Macbeth, subsequently screwed up healthcare like she did 2008 and 2016. Two for the price of one? Yes, we been done that, too.
More recently, we’ve seen Biden’s do-nothing attitude in the Obama White House. We could sense the smell of putrefaction even before Obama received notice of his Nobel Prize in 2009. As Reed Hunt pointed out in his excellent A Crisis Wasted, Obama’s “premature announcements, mistaken assumptions, misplaced fear of deficits, untoward concern for big banks, self-serving assessments, and constraints imposed by non-stimulus considerations” all crippled his Presidency. Obama may have scuppered his Presidency, but boy did he get a great book deal, right? And did you see his sweet house in Martha’s Vineyard from Richard Branson’s surfboard? So feng shui!
For the left, in the upcoming months, we will see Biden “reach out” to the diseased hand of right-wingers, super-spreader donors, and Q-Anon kooks. Some hideous Trump orders will be rescinded, but I certainly don’t remember 2015—before the great orange simoom—as being a golden age of comity.
Perhaps the real terror is not “gridlock.” The duopoly seems to happily agree on “the military budget” (Washington-speak for funnelling billions to five companies). They also agree on inveterate opposition to social spending or even bold action on climate change. No, perhaps our real fear should be that corporate Democrats will actually “accomplish” something, such as their long desired cuts to Social Security, or some other “market-based reform” Neera Tanden can giggle over in the wine caves.
Anymore, Biden is the wrinkled face of the Democratic leadership. The party is not just corrupt, it’s old, snide and ruled by seniority. While Republican young guns push their party toward even sillier conspiracies and dumber plots, the cruel joke is that right-wingers have gone too far to even “compromise” in slashing programs the nearly extinct Blue Dog Democrats would love to axe! One can almost hear a woebegone Hickenlooper, pulling up his woolen knickers above the Colorado peaks, whining to his valet: “Oh, why can’t we just get back to the good old days of kicking down and kissing up?”
Out here in California, Diane Feinstein’s own staffers are worrying she’s going to blow a fuse before 2021, as she did in those Senate Judiciary Hearings, endlessly repeating questions as the audience sat in polite horror. Maybe DiFi will pull a Thad Cochran and simply wander off into the portrait gallery to see Ryan Zinke. He’ll be there, depicted in oils, clopping through the Bears Ears monument he nearly obliterated before resigning in disgrace.
Stranger things have happened in these screaming times.
Donovan called it “The Season of the Witch.” Sure, there may be witches: Tanden, Flournoy, and Maddow will be chanting every sad step. There will certainly be a lot of sound and fury. But to appease corporate donors and the smug suburban back-to-brunchers, standpat Democrats will persist in dumping popular economic policies for their kente cloth photo-ops. The liberal culture wars may even work, if a vaccine is doled out without too much corruption.
But for working people, there will be little to show when the Biden years are finished.
How do I know? We been done that.