Dick Cheney’s bizarre speech last night accusing Democrats of violating the sacred canons of Washingtonian candor and honesty is drawing the catcalls it deserves, but it does help raise an issue that’s been percolating just between the surface about the nature of this administration’s obstinant mendacity. Have these guys been consciously lying through their teeth all this time about Iraq, about the economy, about the budget, about, well, all those things they are getting so egregiously wrong? Or is there an element of self-deception going on? Now, for many Democrats, this very question is provocative: of course they are consciously lying, every day, on every subject, and to suggest otherwise is to go soft and concede some decency to people who will just see this as a sign of Democratic weakness. But as Mark Schmitt usefully points out over at TPMCafe, self-deception in high office is arguably more dangerous and damning than conscious deception. His post lays out the idea that the White House under Bush has been dominated by an “ideology of information” that sorts evidence into “useful” and “not useful” categories based on a pre-conceived agenda, essentially filtering out any empircal data interfering with the administration’s agenda in a way that creates a hermetically sealed echo chamber of self-validation. Even as the bloodhounds continue to search out and find multiple examples of conscious White House mendacity, the one truly incontrovertible thing about this administration is its incredible intolerance for anything like internal debate and self-criticism. Sure, there are differences of opinion, but only at the margins, and only on occasions where The Line is not dictated by ideology or the dark political calculations of Karl Rove. In the Bush White House, the only deadly sin has been anything like a continuing internal, much less external, dissent (see O’Neill, Paul and DiIulio, John for Object Examples of what happens to people who violate this rule). This is an inherently disastrous approach in any executive operation, much less one commanding a multi-trillion dollar budget, the world’s most powerful military, and to be blunt about it, the power to ruin and end lives, and shape a society for decades to come. There are very few costless mistakes in the White House. In my first government job, working for a Georgia Governor (recently deceased) named George Busbee, anyone briefing the Governor knew he would have to run the gauntlet of an incredibly smart young lawyer named Cecil Phillips, whose job was to sit in on any policy discussion and raise tough questions about anything proposed. This Policy Ombudsman approach always struck me as one of the smartest and simplest quality control arrangements I’ve ever seen. Nobody went into that Governor’s office without marshalling facts and thinking about contrary opinions. And a lot of bad policy decisions were probably avoided as a result of that process. In the White House of George W. Bush’s predecessor, you didn’t need an Official Devil’s Advocate, because free-flowing debate went on every day on every subject, and nobody shut up until The Big He made a final decision. And even then, dissenters did not get sent to Siberia. Moreover, Bill Clinton’s intellectual voracity–so different from Bush’s remarkably unreflexive nature–drove him to seek out advice from people who were not on his payroll, over and over again.Many of the failures of the Bush administration are easily and directly attributable to this huge blind spot: a White House hostile to debate, dissent and contrary evidence on issues large and small, and where all the incentives pointed to lockstep conformity and demonization of any divergent point of view. And this attitude of “don’t-confuse-me-with-facts” has been echoed among the Republican regime on Capitol Hill, especially in Tom DeLay’s House.Given the overwhelming evidence that Republican self-deception is feeding its attempted deceptions of the American people, why do some Democrats insist on proving that these people are consciously lying to us? After all, it’s easier to prove criminal negligence than criminal intent, and even though the latter carries heavier penalities in courts of law, the former is if anything more damaging in the court of public opinion.It’s entirely possible that some key White House players are in fact cynical liars, and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are obvious suspects in this case. But in general, a president and an administration so isolated from reality that they don’t even know when they are lying to themselves or to us, is a bigger danger and a bigger target for Democrats.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Staring at the polls and recent precedents, I offered some blunt thoughts at New York on exactly how popular Biden needs to be in 2024:
There’s abundant evidence that if it were held today, a general election rematch of Joe Biden and Donald Trump would show the 46th president in serious trouble. He’s trailing Trump in national and most battleground-state polls, his job-approval rating is at or below 40 percent, his 2020 electoral base is very shaky, and the public mood, particularly on the economy, is decidedly sour.
The standard response of Biden loyalists to the bad recent polling news is to say “The election is a year away!,” as though public-opinion data this far out is useless. But it’s only useless if Biden turns things around, and while there’s plenty of time for that to happen, there has to be a clear sense of what he needs to secure victory and how to go about meeting those needs. Vox’s Andrew Prokop provides a good summary of possible explanations for Biden’s current position:
“One theory: Biden is blowing it — the polls are a clear warning sign that the president has unique flaws as a candidate, and another Democrat would likely be doing better.
“A second theory: Biden’s facing a tough environment — voters have decided they don’t like the economy or the state of the world, and, fairly or not, he’s taking the brunt of it.
“And a third theory: Biden’s bad numbers will get better — voters aren’t even paying much attention yet, and as the campaign gears up, the president will bounce back.”
The first theory, in my opinion, is irrelevant; Biden isn’t going to change his mind about running for reelection, and it’s simply too late for any other Democrat to push him aside. And the second and third theories really point to the same conclusion: The president is currently too unpopular to win in 2024 and needs to find a way to change the dynamics of a general-election contest with Trump.
There’s not much question that Biden needs to improve his popularity at least modestly. There is only one president in living memory with job-approval ratings anything like Biden’s going into his reelection year who actually won; that would be Harry Truman in 1948, and there’s a reason his successful reelection is regarded as one of the great upsets in American political history. There are others, including Barack Obama, who looked pretty toasty at this point in a first term and still won reelection but who managed to boost their popularity before Election Day (Obama boosted his job-approval rating, per Gallup, from 42 percent at the end of November 2011 to 52 percent when voters went to the polls 11 months later).
Given the current state of partisan polarization, it’s unlikely Biden can get majority job approval next year even with the most fortunate set of circumstances. But the good news for him is that he probably doesn’t have to. Job-approval ratings are crucial indicators in a normal presidential reelection cycle that is basically a referendum on the incumbent’s record. Assuming Trump is the Republican nominee, 2024 will not be a normal reelection cycle for three reasons.
First, this would be the exceedingly rare election matching two candidates with presidential records to defend, making it inherently a comparative election (it has happened only once, in 1888, when President Benjamin Harrison faced former president Grover Cleveland). In some respects (most crucially, perceptions of the economy), the comparison might favor Trump. In many others (e.g., Trump’s two impeachments and insurrectionary actions feeding his current legal peril), the comparison will likely favor Biden.
Second, Trump is universally known and remains one of the most controversial figures in American political history. It’s not as though he will have an opportunity to remold his persona or repudiate words and actions that make him simply unacceptable to very nearly half the electorate. Trump’s favorability ratio (40 percent to 55 percent, per RealClearPolitics polling averages) is identical to Biden’s.
And third, Trump seems determined to double down on the very traits that make him so controversial. His second-term plans are straightforwardly authoritarian, and his rhetoric of dehumanizing and threatening revenge against vast swaths of Americans is getting notably and regularly harsher.
So Biden won’t have to try very hard to make 2024 a comparative — rather than a self-referendum — election. And his strategic goal is simply to make himself more popular than his unpopular opponent while winning at least a draw among the significant number of voters who don’t particularly like either candidate.
This last part won’t be easy. Trump won solidly in both 2016 and 2020 among voters who said they didn’t like either major-party candidate (the saving grace for Biden was that there weren’t that many of them in 2020; there will probably be an awful lot of them next November). So inevitably, the campaign will need to ensure that every persuadable voter has a clear and vivid understanding of Trump’s astounding character flaws and extremist tendencies. What will make this process even trickier is the availability of robust independent and minor-party candidates who could win a lot of voters disgusted by a Biden-Trump rock fight.
So the formula for a Biden reelection is to do everything possible to boost his job-approval ratings up into the mid-40s or so and then go after Trump with all the abundant ammunition the 45th president has provided him. The more popular Biden becomes, the more he can go back to the “normalcy” messaging that worked (albeit narrowly) in 2020.
If the economy goes south or overseas wars spread or another pandemic appears, not even the specter of an unleashed and vengeful authoritarian in the White House will likely save Biden; the same could be true if Uncle Joe suffers a health crisis or public lapses in his powers of communication. But there’s no reason he cannot win reelection with some luck and skill — and with the extraordinary decision of the opposition party to insist on nominating Trump for a third time. Yes, the 45th president has some political strengths of his own, but he would uniquely help Biden overcome the difficulty of leading a profoundly unhappy nation.