The Kremlinology of Joe Biden and the DNC
Should apparent efforts to replace the president atop the Democrat ticket be taken seriously?
It seems it’s the season for half-hearted coups.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner private military company’s all-but-official chief executive, was said to have pledged his dependence, his loyalty, to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of July 4. This according to the Kremlin.
Outside the Russian Federation and its auspices, the media narrative is that Prigozhin is not friend to Putin, but foe. An ex-chef, Russia’s violent answer to Anthony Bourdain is said to be a man on the bleeding edge of Eastern politics, perhaps even a man who came within a hair of taking Putin’s place last month. We don’t know.
Nearer the Russian River Valley, a similar-enough political dynamic has taken hold: a seeming succession, stalled in a holding pattern. The favorite son of San Francisco, Governor Gavin Newsom, pledged loyalty to his party’s primogeniture.
“I’ve told everyone in the White House, from the chief of staff to the first lady,” California’s chief executive said after Biden’s surprising electoral overperformance last November. “I’m all in, count me in.”
Replacing Biden with Newsom, the face of the most unadulterated form of modern liberalism—California progressivism—would be a bit like swapping Putin for Prigozhin, the Russian hawk of hawks. What the Wagner chieftain lacks in looks, he makes up with superior capacity for aggression.
This a column that is “short” on the efforts, such as they are, to replace President Biden in the Democratic fold. Though he has entered his ayatollah decade, the sitting president is likely to be his party’s nominee in 2024, no matter what maneuvers appear to be happening behind the scenes.
As in the 2019-2020 primary, Biden is again abjectly underrated. Though the Democrats are doubtless a machine, the president is atop that machinery, even if a frightened conductor. The biggest secret going is that Joe Biden is the most powerful man in the world.
Only Joe Biden, or a spectacular twist of fate, can dislodge Joe Biden from the commanding heights of his party. I read once that Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, who the president feted in Washington in June, got his first job in the Bharatiya Janata Party by doing whatever he was told. Biden’s oeuvre has been much the same. Biden has survived in electoral politics long past other men, particularly other white men, in his party, by doing what he is told and going where he is sent.
What that looked like began to transform at the end of last decade. Biden had become a form of himself many didn’t recognize. This new Biden was written off as merely senile—though, in the American gerontocracy, what is senile? More accurate and charitable, the Biden of 2019-2020 was: withdrawn; careful; more frightened of a world he understood less intuitively (most everyone he had ever known was dead); but at the same, he was less nervous.
“You don’t have to do this, Joe,” Barack Obama reportedly told his ex-lieutenant about a 2020 run. The former vice president, accused of plagiarism back in the day, essentially replied by cribbing a line from his frenemy former boss: Yes, we can.
Four years later, the situation, at least in terms of his own party’s politics, is so much unchanged, even if Biden’s personal situation is worse.
I tuned into the president’s interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last week. It was awful; he is getting unwatchable. I say this as a longtime appreciator of the man’s talents. The underrated fluidity and verve that Biden could exhibit in the last primary, or when he bravely withdrew America from Afghanistan (though botching the life-and-death details of withdrawal)—that’s all gone, it would appear.
Check out Biden’s South Carolina victory speech in primaveral, pre-pandemic panic 2020. Recall his Treaty Room address in 2021, announcing the Afghan withdrawal. Biden doesn’t talk like that anymore. Biden’s starting to prove his most carping critics right.
So, Biden has been an inspired president for four days of his term. He has been Brandon the rest of the time. What is unclear is if it matters.
Biden spectacularly overperformed in the 2022 midterms, and he is arguably still the party’s strongest nominee. Lucky for him, Biden does not exist in the undersaturated, monocultural 1960s and 1970s media environment of four or so channels and record shops. Those post-World War II generations either removed or had removed five presidents before eight years in power: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Today’s Biden could not politically survive those days.
But Biden is president at a time of oversaturation, of a lack of shock at government mediocrity, during an era when many Americans can’t even remember the last time they went to a movie theater. Everything is going on, and absolutely nothing is. Biden fits the mood.
(So does Donald Trump, a tantalizing swig of that bottle the country has sworn off, but that’s another dispatch.)
Let’s examine the Democrats’ alternatives.
Can Newsom, the former mayor of one of the infamously least black major cities in the United States and the governor of notably un-black California, galvanize black turnout in Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia? Biden can and did.
Suffice to say: Pete Buttigieg’s problems on this front are even worse.
Kamala Harris is genuinely underrated—telegenic and a sop to a Democratic base consumed with identity concerns—but is she more potent on the ballot than the president? It is not clear even if she can or will make that case.
Who is J.B. Pritzker? Internet zoomer ironists aside, the governor of the Land of Lincoln may be better known on the right as the bogeyman behind the trans phenomenon than as a Democratic strongman.
Salutary aspects aside, the Bernie Sanders project looks to be going the way of the British Jeremy Corbyn movement, only spared the pitiless rebuke of a general election vote.
The most plausible Biden exit scenario—short of House Oversight Chair James Comer really getting the goods on any Biden family connections to China—was put forward, as has happened on occasion in the vicissitudes of history, by William Kristol of the late Weekly Standard. Kristol says Biden might have teased an exit for the autumn of 2023 way back in December 2019.
“Biden signals to aides that he would serve only a single term” reads the headline of the Politico piece from last decade. Like his late friend John McCain, Biden declined a one-term pledge in 2008 to (in theory) maximize his political capital in office. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Biden didn’t make that pledge to himself somewhere along the way.
Word of Biden’s alleged anger problem, based on a decade-old book, made the rounds this week. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida amusingly, if credibly, put forward the idea that the media piece(s) were an operation to make the president appear more sentient.
The “layer cake” idea, my own terming, on Biden’s apparatus remains most trenchant. Or as put forward by James Carden of the Asia Times, and as alluded to by former senior government officials with whom I’ve spoken, Biden’s inner court is anchored by the “the Cardinals.”
Wrote Carden last year:
A longtime Democratic operative told me the Biden White House works in a way that is eerily similar to the way the Ronald Reagan administration worked during its first term. Back then, a chief executive of questionable sentience relied on a small cast of political operatives to run the day-to-day operations of the White House.
… So, if Reagan’s first term was dominated by the Troika, the White House of Joe Biden, an ardent Catholic, might be said to be dominated by three Cardinals: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti and deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed.
There are further notable figures in a state of exception: longtime Biden hands such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and more baroque hires such as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (who Biden made a point of hiring over Democratic all-star Michèle Flournoy).
But beneath the Cardinals frosting in this Layer Cake, are the officials who would have gotten the elite jobs they hold, based on their credentials, in any “replacement” Democratic administration, to mix my metaphors further and filch a baseball term. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Attorney General Merrick Garland. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Après cela, le déluge.
Below that are scores of plausibly extremist officials that Biden appears to fear. This, after all, is the politician who responded to the George Floyd furor and the reputed summer of love in 2020 by repeatedly counseling law enforcement to merely shoot violent suspects in the leg. Biden’s political instincts are dated, at least vis-à-vis the left: and he knows this. But, once again, does it matter?
The species-wide obsession with conspiracy theories in the 21st century is evidence of the precious rarity of real conspiracies. It is all (mostly) written. In a morbid way, World War I went on longer in part because of democracy and scrutiny. Even then, the gentlemen of Europe had their hands tied, in the early 20th century, in a way the glorified statesmen of the early 19th century who end-noted Napoleon’s audacious romp through Europe did not.
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In a sense, it has only gotten worse since then. Humanity might have killed itself off quickly had it not been for the development of the technology to kill itself off instantly.
The man who ordered the wartime cremation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, President Harry Truman—notoriously, infamously, implausibly—didn’t know of the most important project in the history of the species before assuming its most powerful office. Truman met with his legendary boss only once before assuming the position, and in the morass of twentieth century technocracy, was not briefed. That whole history will be commemorated by the release Oppenheimer this week, which might draw non-obnoxiously literate audiences back to the theater seats.
But here I sit, on Biden and 2024: There is no conspiracy. Even if we would like there to be.