Biden’s Gaffes and Rumsfeld’s Law

Friday morning, Joe Biden said something stupid on live national television. Well, on the internet. Most weeks, this would typically only be recognizable as “Friday,” given the gaffes-per-day pace of ol’ Gaffe Machine Joe. But this time, it was about the real third rail of American politics — not Social Security, as the original formulation had it, but race. On a radio interview with popular host Charlamagne tha God, Biden, pressed for time and being hustled away by aides, was asked by the host to return for further questions, to which Biden snapped back “What questions? If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

Of course. Yikes.

Charlamagne Joe Biden
Somewhere, James O. Eastland and Strom Thurmond are smiling

Equally predictable was the Biden team’s walk-back of his comments, before the day was out. Also predictable, because race is such a charged issue in America, and because Biden is supposed to have a magic with the black electorate that (in Dems’ telling of it) eludes other candidates, was that this was going to draw public discussion since it was a bigger deal than the typical Biden mouth-foot.

Unfortunately, however, Joe Biden making a serious gaffe and then apologizing for it wasn’t the only predictable thing that happened surrounding this story. Within hours, Democratic swells and professionals who should know better by now were all over Twitter with takes like these:

What’s wrong with those statements? Aren’t they true? Well, yes. Yes they are. It isn’t the truth or perspicacity of these statements themselves that’s the issue here. It’s the follow-through from Democratic thought leaders that’s the problem. Or rather, the lack of it, of connecting those observations to their strategy.

Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq War once infamously quipped: “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had.” Rumsfeld was rightly pilloried by the troop-loving press and public, but his basic point, however inartfully stated it may have been, was that it’s important to recognize the landscape for what it is, rather than what you think it is, or – even more dangerously – what you think it should be. Call it Rumsfeld’s Law, if you like: it’s a truism I wish more Democrats had learned — because it looks they’re going to be falling afoul of it in this year’s contest, just like they did to ruinous effect in the past few elections.

Lockhart is a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House, and a better working definition of “lifelong Democratic insider” you won’t find. Pfeiffer’s pedigree is equally shiny – he was a senior adviser to Barack Obama from the very beginning, and is now the co-host of centrist-focused Pod Save America. Neither should be making the mistake they both just made, above. What mistake is that? That of rying to run a campaign (or cheer for one, anyway) in the environment they wish existed, or against the opponent they wish existed, not what actually exists in reality.

Lockhart might be a little more easily excused of this since he was part of the victorious Clinton Presidential campaign – by which I mean Bill’s, not Hillary’s. In Lockhart’s lived experience, they DID win. But Lockhart’s also so plugged into ClintonWorld that Rumsfeld’s Law shouldn’t have escaped him, had he bothered to do a rigorous after-action in November of 2016. You can point to many reasons Hillary Clinton lost that election, but one of them was unquestionably that the Democrats went to war with the candidate they wished they had, not the one they actually had. Time and again in 2016, I heard Democratic loyalists and strategists talk about how experienced and vetted and stable and battle-tested Hillary Clinton was (and I remember thinking: so was Dick Cheney, the consummate insider). They said all this without recognizing what was obvious to anyone outside of the beltway bubble (and especially the Clinton bubble): that Hillary Clinton has the most negative baggage and public perception of any major candidate in modern memory.

Is that fair that Hillary Clinton has this negative perception in so many minds? Probably not. But it exists, and it can’t simply be wished away or ignored because Democrats think it shouldn’t exist. Decades of white-hot hatred from the right and a steady drum-beat of bad coverage from Fox News had indeed worked to shape a negative image in the collective public mind about who Hillary was. To Democratic insiders and many loyal voters, she was the smarter-than-Bill, tough as nails, accomplished-as-hell architect of what was dubbed “Hillarycare,” US Senator, Secretary of State — and how could any reasonable person not want to vote for that, they thought? I suspect they knew on some level that many Republicans would never vote for her, but the fact that so many of Hillary’s public positions and statements over the years seemed calculated to appeal to the unicorn-rare (in today’s politics) moderate Republican (Iraq war vote, trade deal statements, on and on), suggests strongly that both Hillary Clinton and her strategists always believed if she just centristed hard enough, she’d “win the election in the middle” or some such poorly-defined wishful thinking.

By contrast, Dan Pfeiffer should really have known better. In March 2015, in the earliest days of the last quarter of the Obama Presidency, Pfeiffer left the White House, no doubt to secure his future prospects. On the way out, Jonathan Chait (of all people) secured what is among the most-remarkable interviews with a departing high-level Obama staffer ever printed. In it, Chait catches Pfeiffer in a reflective mood, musing about the roads not taken. And Pfeiffer comes across Rumsfeld’s law, in his own time and his own way, in relation to the things he would have suggested his boss do differently, in retrospect.

The single largest missed opportunity of the Obama era was to spend the first eighteen months or so, the exact time his leverage was highest (with the most Democratic control of Congress), in a doomed pursuit of bipartisanship. This was Team Obama’s original sin: violating Rumsfeld’s Law by not recognizing the landscape in which he became President. Obama initially rose to national prominence with his amazing speech to the 2004 DNC, that hopeful one about there being no red or blue states but instead the United States. Obama was always a brilliant, stirring speechwriter (and speaker), and as an aspirational political lead-in for the main even that year (the equally doomed John Kerry), it was the kind of political porn that mists the eyes of Democratic centrists everywhere, reliably. Note was taken in many quarters.

By the time Obama’s meteoric rise was complete and he gave the even more stirring speech in Chicago on election night about how “change has come to America,” people wept openly — because after eight disastrous years of the George W. Bush Presidency, change — real change — was indeed what America was ready for, even craving. Not the GOP, of course, most of them wanted more of the same: wars, tax cuts, white supremacy. But there was a moment that was missed through not recognizing it fully, where not just Democratic usual suspects but the entire country who weren’t partisan GOP, were ready for real change.

But despite consciously using the rhetoric and cadences of real change on the campaign trail and in speeches, the Obama team missed the opportunity, and allowed itself to be guided by cautious technocracy and a stubborn belief that Obama was a transformational figure who could transcend the petty partisan squabbling of past decades and through hard work and the sheer force of his brilliance and goodness, usher in a previously unknown era of post-partisanship where even stubborn GOP leaders and rank-and-file would have no choice but to vote for such reasonable, positive proposals like the ones the Democratic supermajority and new, smiling, multiracial President would turn out. It would be a new Golden Age of sensible progress, where we could still fight the right wars while being smart enough to avoid the “dumb wars.” Where the fruits of prosperity and progress could be created by a cooperative business world and a rising tide of investment and technology, and distributed to all without resorting to clumsy and distasteful redistributive legislation.

I wish I remembered that Golden Age, and I’ll bet everyone from Joe Lockhart and Dan Pfeiffer to many of you wish you remembered it, too. It seems almost quaint from the perspective of today to think Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP leadership was ever going to do anything but work like dogs to destroy every single thing Obama tried to do. But that’s exactly what they did, of course. And here’s the thing – it wasn’t impossible to know it was going to be this way, well before Obama won. In fact, anyone who’d lived through the Lewinsky matter both could and should have seen it coming. The GOP we all know today as the party of Trump had long been building to this, not in secret, but right out in the open, bit by bit, getting more and more intransigent and ideologically extreme with the Fox News fuel, since at least 1998, and arguably much earlier.

Sure, the election of a well-adjusted black man with the middle name of the guy we’d just wrongly attacked in Iraq drove the GOP even more nuts, but it wasn’t responsible for the origin of their scorched-earth strategy and tactics. Many of us could see it then. The unforgivable part is that those responsible for policy – the Obamas and the Lockharts and the Pfeiffers – didn’t see it, or they chose not to believe what they saw. That interview with Pfeiffer that Jon Chait got on his way out the door was so unusually notable because it represented one of the few at-length, on-record times a senior adviser like that actually admitted how wrong they’d been:

The original premise of Obama’s first presidential campaign was that he could reason with Republicans—or else, by staking out obviously reasonable stances, force them to moderate or be exposed as extreme and unyielding. It took years for the White House to conclude that this was false, and that, in Pfeiffer’s words, “what drives 90 percent of stuff is not the small tactical decisions or the personal relationships but the big, macro political incentives.”

“Whenever we contemplate bold progressive action,” Pfeiffer said, “whether that’s the president’s endorsement of marriage equality, or coming out strong on power-plant rules to reduce current pollution, on immigration, on net neutrality, you get a lot of hemming and hawing in advance about what this is going to mean: Is this going to alienate people? Is this going to hurt the president’s approval ratings? What will this mean in red states?” And yet this hesitation has always proved overblown: “There’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it.”

I asked Pfeiffer about how his boss’s view of politics has changed. “He had hopes of being able to change the polarization, not just in the country, but in Washington,” Pfeiffer told me. “We learned very quickly that that was a lot harder than we thought.”

Did you though, Dan? You certainly didn’t learn it quickly — it took the loss of your supermajority in freaking Massachusetts to begin to jolt you awake. But did you learn it at all? I mean, at this point I’m sure you’re well prepared to, as the generals say, fight that last war. If you had it to do over again, knowing what you know now and with the benefit of hindsight, you’d have gone bigger on real progressive policies, maybe urged Obama not to waver on the public option in the PPACA so that now, we could be talking (with evidence!) about pushing that forward, not stuck in neutral on health care eleven years later. But the real lesson of Pfeiffer’s regrets of Obama’s early years aren’t the specific ones of individual policy fights, it is – or rather, it should be – the overarching issue of recognizing the lay of the land. And on that score, it looks like Democratic insiders still have way too much learning to do.

How else to explain the same Dan Pfeiffer who says he learned from his 2009-10 era mistakes, publicly lamenting that yesterday’s coverage of Joe Biden making a forehead-smacking racial gaffe (and then apologizing) gets 100x the coverage of Trump saying something much worse and the press barely mentioning it because they expect it of him? Do you really not understand this is the media environment in which we’ve been living for decades, Dan, since the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle and the moving of news departments to being profit centers instead of public-service loss-leaders? If not why not? Trump gets clicks and eyeballs, so he gets free media coverage. Is this terrible? Yes! Is it reality? Also yes.

And the fact that Joe Lockhart and Dan Pfeiffer and who knows how many other insiders were out here yesterday bemoaning this fact after having coalesced just weeks ago to defeat the genuine progressive candidate and put forth Joe Biden instead, suggests they haven’t really internalized Rumsfeld’s law: you must play it as it lays – as it IS…not as you wish it was. With an opposition party that was genuinely loyal, that put country before party, things might be different. We are not in that situation. With a media that valued genuine investigation and judiciously representing the interests of the readers/viewers who trust these grandees to tell them what’s lies, instead of just lazily reporting who said what or covering whatever gets eyeballs/clicks, things might be different. With an electoral college that didn’t tilt the playing field toward certain less populous states, things might be different. But again: we. Are. Not. In. That. Situation. And it looks as if the Democrats have yet to take that to heart, in the ways that matter.

Those Democrats have now put us all once again on the road to war with the candidate we have, not the candidate we might have wished we’d have. I’m going to try very hard not to fall afoul of Rumsfeld’s Law and kid myself about what that might mean. And I just hope the candidate we have is enough. Right now, I have my doubts. As deaths from COVID-19 approach 100,000 and unemployment tops 38 million (more than one American in ten), you’d think Biden’s candidacy would be a near-certainty. Hmm, where have I heard that before?