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I’ve been bemused by what I’ve called the Cult of the Presidency since long before it became my job to write about it. To an awful lot of people, the President of the United States is held personally responsible for things he can’t do a blessed thing about, from the price of Cocoa Puffs to the mutation of viruses. And too rarely given credit for things he’s done right.
Given the onset of climate change, it won’t be long before we’re blaming the White House for the weather.
But hey, it comes with the territory. A person would have to be downright mad with ambition to want the job.
That said, I’ve always felt warmly toward Joe Biden, if for no other reason than his resemblance to my late father, another Irish guy with a great smile and a fondness for the word “malarkey.” He also favored the phrase “donkey dust,” basically “nonsense.”
Something else that comes with the presidency is the attention of the nation’s esteemed Washington press clique. To find a group more prone to insider gossip and groupthink, one would have to be transported back to a high school lunchroom.
By way of historical context, Eric Boehlert provides the following example of press clique conventional wisdom on his Press Run website: “A year into his presidency, President [Blank] faces a polarized nation and souring public assessments of his efforts to change Washington, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.”
The year was 2010, the president, Barack Obama. Pundits predicted that the Ebola virus would ravage the nation and Obamacare would enter a demographic death spiral. Neither happened. So, it’s best to keep things in perspective when CNN asks “Is Biden’s Presidency Doomed?”
That said, Covid continues to ravage the nation, affecting every aspect of American life from education to inflation—no thanks to red state Republicans’ conversion to a pro-virus death cult. Hospitals are overwhelmed with the sick and dying, and what are they upset about? Face masks, Dr. Fauci.
Then too, congressional Democrats and the White House wasted months pretending that a 51-50 advantage in the Senate would allow the passage of “Build Back Better”—sweeping legislation few voters understood.
Altogether elsewhere, Vladimir Putin appears determined to occupy Ukraine, driving a wedge between the US and our NATO allies.
Of the above crises, only the time and political capital wasted pursuing “progressive” daydreams can be laid at Biden’s feet. Not only was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVV) never going to give Bernie Sanders’s supporters what they wanted, his constituents don’t want him to. West Virginia voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 69 percent to 30 percent -- more than two to one.
“You don’t have to be a genius to succeed in politics,” the late Robert F. Kennedy told a friend of mine. “But you do need to be able to count.”
Biden wouldn’t be the first president to overrate his personal charm and persuasive skills. It’s been known to happen.
Left out of many negative assessments of Biden’s first year, however, was the extraordinary success of his economic policies. Thanks in large part to the fiscal stimulus plan he signed into law last March, unemployment has declined to 3.9 percent, almost where it was pre-Covid.
Since Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. economy has generated more than six million new jobs — an extraordinary achievement. Workers’ wages have risen as well. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about high gasoline prices and seven percent inflation, both outside the president’s control, and both likely to be brought under control after Covid recedes, the president’s economic record could hardly be stronger.
That said, yes Biden’s polling numbers fell considerably beginning in August 2021, in seeming reaction to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Not that anybody wants to go back.) But that hardly makes him an outlier, notes Tim Noah in The New Republic: “That also happened to Trump, Obama, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter.”
In short, the post-honeymoon phase of the presidency tends to be rough on everybody. Noah also notes that Washington media gossip has little bearing on a president’s political success: “Time famously pronounced Clinton ‘The Incredible Shrinking President’ on a June 1993 cover.”
Three years later, Clinton was re-elected easily despite the press clique’s obsession with the make-believe “Whitewater” scandal.
George W. Bush was saved from sinking polls during his first year by the surge in patriotism following the 9/11 terror attacks, only to plunge to historic lows after his disastrous Iraq invasion. In case you’ve forgotten, the Washington media led cheers, dressed up in fatigues, and followed the troops into battle.
Chances are Joe Biden hasn’t yet encountered whatever it is that will determine his administration’s place in history. But it’s clear that poll numbers won’t define it. Those fall under the heading of what my father would have called “donkey dust.”
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On Monday, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) warned that his office was getting calls from Fox News watchers whose reliance on Tucker Carlson had led them to argue that the United States should be supporting Russia. Not just supporting Vladimir Putin in his plans to invade a sovereign nation, but supporting Russia’s “reasonable” position in their arguments that NATO is somehow the aggressor.
It’s not just Democratic lawmakers getting these calls. As Axios made clear on Thursday, Republicans are also hearing from their base. And, in the modern Republican tradition, those Republicans are doing what they always do when confronted by extremists in their own party — rolling over.
“Leery of the base, they are avoiding—and in some cases, rejecting—the tough-on-Russia rhetoric that once defined the Republican Party. GOP operatives working in 2022 primary races tell Axios they worry they'll alienate the base if they push to commit American resources to Ukraine or deploy U.S. troops to eastern Europe.”
Strangely enough, Axios gets through the whole article about Republicans being afraid to offend Vladimir Putin, without mentioning one little thing: The whole reason that this is happening, is because Russia interfered in U.S. elections to support Donald Trump.
Repeatedly, the Axios article comes close to spilling the beans. Republicans who are still willing to be critical of the idea that Russia should be allowed to swallow whole Europe’s second-largest nation while the U.S. cheers from the sidelines are described as “still making statements that sound more at home in the pre-Trump GOP.” This shift in the Republican base is attributed in part to “President Donald Trump's warmer posture toward Russia.”
But let’s go to the tape. Or, in this case, to the five-volume report on Russian interference in the 2016 election prepared by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, and finally released just three days after the 2020 election.
What does that report have to say about Russia’s actions in 2016?
- “The Committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian
effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak
information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president. Moscow's intent was
to harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process.”
- “The Committee found, that the [Russian intelligence operation] IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton's chances of success and supporting Donald Trump”
- "Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency"
- “Russia's targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society”
- “The Russian government ‘aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him’”
- “[Russian] social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump, and to the detriment of Secretary Clinton's campaign”
- “Posing as U.S. political activists, IRA requested-and in some cases obtained-assistance from the Trump Campaign in procuring materials for rallies and in promoting and organizing rallies”
- “IRA employees were directed to focus on U.S. politics and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary”
- “[S]tories about Democratic emails might have mentioned that their release was part of a Russian influence campaign and that Donald Trump's repeated references to the releases, his stated adoration of WikiLeaks, and his solicitation of Russian assistance were taking place in the context of an ongoing influence campaign to assist him.”
- “Manafort hired and worked increasingly closely with a Russian national, Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer. … Prior to joining the Trump Campaign in March 2016 and continuing throughout his time on the Campaign, Manafort directly and indirectly communicated with Kilimnik, Deripaska, and the pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine.”
- “On numerous occasions, Manafort sought to secretly share internal Campaign information with Kilimnik.”
- “The Committee obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU's hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election.”
- The Russians who Manafort and Donald Trump Jr met with at Trump Tower had “significant connections to Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services.” This included Natalia Veselnitskaya, whose connections to the Kremlin “were far more extensive and concerning than what had been publicly known.”
What Russia got for the few million it expended is priceless: Not just Trump in the White House for four years, defending Moscow’s interests from Ukraine to the Middle East, not just a greater-than-ever gap in American society, but a fundamental shift in the Republican base, and in right-wing media, that turned them into an extension of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.
In 2012, Mitt Romney took heat for the vehemence of his antipathy toward Russia. Romney’s warnings about Russian aggression drew scorn at the time, though soon after the election the Utah Republican actually got apologies from Democratic officials and candidates as Russia massed its forces on the border of Ukraine and staged an invasion with the assistance of Republican insider Paul Manafort.
Romney’s position wasn’t unusual at the time. In fact, most of the heat he took from his anti-Russia stance was based on the idea that the presidential candidate wasn’t putting any thought into his response. He was simply continuing a long Republican tradition of using the threat from Russia as an excuse to bolster U.S. military spending.
From the Cold War right up through the Obama administration, Republicans didn’t just maintain a solid front when it came to the danger represented by Russia, they built their foreign policy around that threat.
It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Putin has been handed a gift by the radical right. In 2014, with the invasion of Crimea underway, Mitch McConnell stood in the way of passing a bill considered vital for Ukraine. Why? As Politico explained at the time: “McConnell faces a tea party primary opponent in May.”
“Twenty, 25 years ago, if you told me McCain would be the leader of the Republicans on foreign policy and McConnell [would be] on the sidelines, I would never have believed you,” said one veteran of President George H.W. Bush’s administration. “Mitch was one of our go-to guys.”
Yeah, well, Mitch is always willing to go … wherever the wind blows him. When it looked like a Tea Party candidate might challenge him, McConnell threw away his “beliefs”
Republicans have been riding the whirlwind since those Tea Party days, banking on an anything-goes faux populism that champions hurting fellow Americans over anything else. They stayed on that whirlwind even when they knew their candidate was being backed and bankrolled by Moscow. And now they have a party that’s urging them to surrender an ally to Putin, arguing that the U.S. should just ignore military aggression from an expansionist authoritarian empire and it will go away. Because that’s worked so well in the past.
Putin bought Trump. Cheap. Now he owns the power-base of an American political party, with GOP candidates falling all over themselves to prove how much they don’t care about Russia tearing a chunk out of Europe.
It’s almost as if the Republican tough-on-Russia position was never real, to begin with, but just something they were doing to bolster donations from defense contractors and create the impression that they had a serious position on foreign policy.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos