A confluence of events in recent months, culminating in Sen. Joe Manchin’s late December announcement vetoing President Biden’s Build Back Bankrupt initiative, brings to mind a phrase most famously uttered by British politician Norman Lamont. In resigning from government in 1993, Lamont said his Conservative Party gave “the impression of being in office but not in power.”
That malady currently afflicts Biden and Democrats in Congress, on just about every level. When a candidate who said he had a plan to shut down the coronavirus comes back one year later and claims “there is no federal solution” to COVID, you know this administration is floundering.
But it’s not just particular programs, officials, or individuals under fire. This competency crisis proves the emptiness of the left’s entire governing philosophy—a premise Ronald Reagan attacked in his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech nearly 60 years ago.
A little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital thought it could plan our lives for us better than we could plan them ourselves. What does Biden think about the adequacy of those efforts? “Nothing’s been good enough.”
What went wrong? First, Biden badly miscalculated his legislative agenda, an overreach that led to Manchin’s rebuff. In confusing “woke Twitter” with public opinion, and a comparatively narrow election win with a thumping majority, Biden and Democratic leaders tried to cram so much legislation down Congress’ throats that lawmakers—Manchin most publicly—came down with a severe case of indigestion.
Not even a debacle in last fall’s elections could slow Democrats down. Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia tried to offer a warning, noting that “nobody elected” Biden “to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”
Now, having tried and failed at the former, Biden’s attempt to render himself the omnipotent reincarnation of Roosevelt magnifies his impotence, drawing attention to his administration’s utter failures at the latter.
Competency an Issue
As Lamont noted in 1993, “There is too much short-termism, too much reacting to events, and not enough shaping of events.” Kamala Harris’ remarks last month regarding COVID—“We didn’t see Delta coming…We didn’t see Omicron coming”—provided further evidence of this phenomenon in the current administration.
But for Manchin’s subsequent rebuke of Biden’s signature legislation, the vice president’s shocking admission of an administration caught unawares likely would have dominated pre-Christmas news coverage given rising COVID cases. Her remarks will still haunt the Biden administration going forward, and could reappear in political ads in this coming fall’s congressional elections, to say nothing of commercials during the 2024 campaign.
Since the Afghanistan fiasco last summer, the administration’s list of competency failures—the basic blocking and tackling of government—continues to grow. Misreading “transitory” inflation. Supply chain shortages. Chaos at the border. Confusing and changing messages on COVID—whether and when to get booster shots last fall, and now when and for how long to isolate following a positive test or exposure.
The administration’s obsessive focus on enacting a multi-trillion-dollar bill to prove that government can work assumed voters would ignore very tangible arguments against it: Empty spaces on store shelves, and rising prices at the pump—signs of, as one report put it, “a government not just failing to deliver…but overwhelmed by the problems it’s confronted.”
Generational Shift—But to What?
Democrats appear as Britain’s Conservatives did in 1993: a spent force, lumbering inexorably onward to certain defeat at the next election. Doubtless, some of that mien has to do with the geriatric character of their leaders. Biden was the future, once—back when Richard Nixon occupied the Oval Office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began serving in Congress two years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s birth.
But the rot within the left goes deeper. Promises of a panoply of government programs—the New Deal and Great Society on steroids—almost cost Democrats control of the House last fall. Now an agenda that failed to motivate voters has crashed into the rocks on Capitol Hill, leaving the party further adrift amidst the wreckage. During his presidential campaign, Biden said he viewed himself as a “transition candidate”—but transitional to whom, and to what? No one seems to know.
Therein lies progressives’ existential problem—and conservatives’ opportunity. The events of the past several months resemble the death pangs of an ancien regime—a method of governance, and a governing class, overtaken and overwhelmed by events. It now falls upon a conservative movement going through its own realignment to advance an alternative vision for an anxious country and restless world.