Is it too early to call the Biden administration a catastrophe? It is time, I am afraid, to tell it like it is.
Example A is the complete rout we are now suffering in Afghanistan. Yes, it was long past time to end a war that should never have begun. But there are many ways to lose a war, and Joe Biden chose the worst: with a date certain for the Taliban to plan against; with intelligence that failed even the test of common sense; with a puppet government and a paper army, sunk in corruption; with no coherent plan to protect and evacuate the tens of thousands of Afghans foolish (or greedy) enough to have worked with us over the years and now with targets on their backs. Biden promised that we would not see a repeat of the helicopters flying off the roof of the U.S. embassy at the end of the Vietnam War. Instead, we got precisely that and more, including the sight of desperate refugees clinging to the sides of planes already in the air. It is hard to imagine a once-great power suffering a more humiliating retreat.
No, Biden was not responsible for the war in Afghanistan, but he will be forever tainted by the fiasco of its end, just as the fall of Saigon remains the indelible image of the Gerald Ford presidency. To have exposed himself to such a calamity in the first year of his administration was both arrogant and stupid. Nor will any member of his administration escape a loss of credibility.
The cost of this loss will be exceedingly high for the remainder of Biden’s agenda, but he had already squandered much of his political capital by senselessly dallying with his Republican opposition — an opposition that, still in thrall to Donald Trump, largely rejects the legitimacy of his election even now. This folly — or worse — he called bipartisanship, the premise that legislation is the art of leaching out principle by compromise. There could be no worse time to indulge it than the present, when power at all costs, including democracy itself, is the only principle the other side recognizes. And if, in fact, Biden’s goal was simply to restore Republicans to their Congressional majority, he could not be going about it more deliberately. But I cannot make the point more clearly than Marc Thiessen, the former George W. Bush speechwriter turned arch-reactionary columnist, as he wrote in the Washington Post earlier this month:
“With passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, Senate Republicans have scored a policy and political trifecta: They have saved the filibuster, complicated Democrats’ plans to pass their partisan $3.5 trillion non-infrastructure spending package and made it more likely that the GOP will take back the House and Senate next year.”
Thiessen makes all the essential points. For the Democrats to pass their legislative agenda, including programs to address desperately needed reforms in infrastructure, voting rights, tax and income inequality, immigration reform, domestic violence and above all climate change with slim majorities in both houses of Congress, they needed above all else to eliminate the Senate filibuster that enabled the Republican minority to virtually paralyze the legislative process at will. But Biden has set himself — without explanation — squarely against eliminating it.
The only way to get around a filibuster would be a so-called reconciliation bill, a time-consuming process that suspends the filibuster in the case of bills involving budget appropriation. Biden did invoke it to pass a relief package in the first weeks of his administration, but instead of doing the same for his large infrastructure bill, he broke it into two parts to placate Republicans who refused to support any legislation promoting clean energy, an increase in the minimum wage, or help of any kind beyond broadband expansion for struggling families, debt-ridden students, and families crushed by medical bankruptcy. This had the effect of enabling Republicans to claim credit for a bill that, weakened as it was, was actually rejected by most of them, while alienating the Democrats’ own far larger progressive caucus in the House of Representatives where no Republican support was assured and virtually every Democratic vote needed.
In order to hold progressives in line, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would not consider a vote on the shrunken infrastructure bill until the far larger package originally attached to it was approved in the Senate, presumably by reconciliation. This in turn left the latter bill hostage to a handful of Democratic “centrists” in the Senate who objected to various elements of its costs and provisions. Meanwhile, both bills languished, with passage of neither assured.
In short, as Thiessen notes, Biden has bitterly divided his own caucus, while throwing a lifeline to a Republican Party that has no national legislative agenda of its own and therefore no record to run on except mischief, obstruction and fealty to a former president soundly repudiated at the polls — a problem his party was preparing to fix by a raft of restrictive voting laws in almost every state of the Union.
Or did the country actually elect a Republican surrogate to the White House last year whose name happened to be Biden instead of Trump? To judge by Biden’s conduct to date, it seems a pertinent question to ask. Yes, Biden has talked the talk. He goes on about ensuring voting rights, enacting gun control and police reform, and dealing imperatively with the climate apocalypse that has already turned the world’s weather upside down. He declared victory over COVID-19 to celebrate the Fourth of July, only to have it roar back for a fresh run. And he was too distracted by whatever may have been on his mind to deal with the threatened eviction of millions of Americans from their homes until the last possible minute.
Afghanistan is just the icing on this cake. But let us not underestimate it, or consider it a momentary embarrassment. It is not only the greatest debacle in American military history — defeat in a week after a 20-year war — but it marks our definitive eclipse as what was once called a superpower. Was it only months ago that Joe Biden declared America “back” to lead the world as the champion of freedom, democracy, and human rights? That world now sees a small man adrift in a divided nation that can issue no clear call to anyone, its former allies included. And he is shrinking by the day.