Joe Biden’s ”State of the Union” address clearly marked an attempt by his White House to make their culture war seem like an afterthought. It’s not, of course, as evidenced by the president’s description of abortion as “health care” and his demand that Congress pass the radical Equality Act. But the bulk of Biden’s speech focused on “meat and potatoes,” as Chris Hayes repeatedly claimed during MSNBC’s coverage.
It’s true, Biden dedicated much of his address to Ukraine, infrastructure, the economy, health care, and Covid-19. He earned a robust round of applause with a line that said, “We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police. It is to fund the police.” He touched on guns, immigration, and the environment, but they were hardly his focus. Notably, Joy Reid lamented the absence of Jan. 6 from Biden’s address, arguing it was characteristically devoid of “red meat.”
Reid was right to find that balance remarkable. Rather than signaling a shift away from Democrats’ scorched-earth culture war, Biden’s speech signaled a shift away from the party’s strategy of obsessing over identity politics. This comes with an enormous caveat: Democrats cannot and will not meaningfully make any such pivot beyond rhetoric.
Until they’re willing to drop truly radical policies like the Equality Act, it’s all smoke and mirrors meant to distract voters from what they’re actually doing to the culture. Democrats cannot simply pretend the summer of 2020 and the lockdowns never happened, no matter how much the media might help them try, because the party has now spent years committing to inflated definitions of bigotry that would condemn any moderation from their positions.
Sure, voters have short memories and the media is complicit. But these definitions are now baked into our institutions. They are ingrained in the minds of a generation. They’re clung to by journalists and activists that Democrats need to please.
Samuel Goldman of George Washington University disrupted the annual flood of breathless SOTU tweets with a great reminder on Tuesday night. “Guys, this speech is not for you,” he wrote. “It’s for D-leaners who disapprove of the administration and these are the lines that worked for them in focus groups. Don’t overthink it.”
That’s exactly right and it’s also why Biden’s “meat and potatoes” tone felt different. From recalls and losses like Terry McAuliffe’s to Biden’s dismal ratings to Covid missteps and brutal new polls, establishment Democrats (and even their allies in the corporate press) are worried enough about their power to start making small sacrifices in the culture war, even if they’re superficial.
And they have to be superficial, because establishment Democrats have spent years emboldening the cultural left, so much that small departures from dogma are now treated as bigotry by a vocal minority of their base. While those voices may be a minority of the base, many of them are very powerful, and they can weaponize all of Democrats’ prior cultural leftism against them to level accusations of racism and sexism and all the other -isms over rhetoric alone. See this tweet Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., blasted out to her 900,000 followers after the speech.
Biden’s heavy focus on “meat and potatoes” signaled a cynical but long overdue attempt by the Democratic establishment to convince voters they’re not frenzied culture warriors. Unfortunately for Biden and his party, they are indeed frenzied culture warriors and they’re going to have a difficult time proving otherwise without alienating the radicals they’ve tried so hard to appease. It’s at least good news that voters are rejecting cultural leftism so clearly, even Beltway liberals are noticing.