In Biden’s America, the action takes place outside the Beltway.
It It took me a few days outside the country’s capital to understand how boring the place has become. I recently returned from a trip to California and found I hadn’t missed anything – no presidential scandal, no law logging, no surprise Supreme Court posts. Yes, the pace of events slows down in Washington every summer. The congress is taking a break and the residents of the subway are going on vacation. But 2021 is different. DC’s irrelevance this year is neither seasonal nor exceptional. It’s the norm.
Since Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the city has been the scene of significant events and world-defining debates. The aftermath of the 2000 elections, 9/11, the war on terrorism, the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the upswing, the financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama, Obamacare, the Tea Party, the debt ceiling, the reaction to the Arab Spring, government shutdown in 2013 – they all testified to the centrality of Washington.
Donald Trump’s descent on the escalator in 2015 increased press coverage. His victory in 2016 increased the political stakes. The Trump presidency developed in a spectacular and compelling way. It was a four-year, non-fictional telenovela that was broadcast live, complete with a climatic twist and tragic ending. Occasionally the cast traveled to Singapore, Hanoi, Helsinki and Mar-a-Lago. But the main set was the Oval Office.
Well the show is over and the thrill is gone. It used to be that the federal city – and its chief executive – drove the national conversation. But President Biden is deliberately limiting his engagement in order to remain as uncontroversial as possible. “Boring deals for the news cycle hit the partisan media” heading of an article in Axios on June 29th. The article traced a decline in web traffic, app user sessions, and social media engagement since President Trump left office. Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain tweeted the story. “I’m sorry, I’m not sorry,” he said wrote.
After twelve years of unmistakable prominent presidents, the current resident of the White House is a 78-year-old who avoids social media, rarely gives individual interviews, limits himself to about one public event per day, calls on selected reporters at press conferences, often refers to notes and returns to Delaware most weekends. Joe Biden’s spending plans may be gigantic and foolish, his decisions on the border and in Afghanistan may be boisterous and catastrophic, and his casual remarks may be enigmatic and strange, but no one is personally upset about him. Last month, Doug Rivers of the Hoover Institution watched that voters do not consider Biden to be an ideologist. It doesn’t matter that Biden’s goals are more ambitious than Obama’s: far more voters said Obama was “very liberal” than they say the same thing about Biden today.
This cautious presidency combined with tight margins in Congress diminishes Washington’s importance. Unlike his two most recent predecessors, Biden is not a ubiquitous figure. The 50-50 Senate is preventing the progressive wish list from becoming law. The result is a transfer of controversy to the state, municipal and local levels of government. For example, I have not seen in the last two decades of politics the state legislatures received as much attention as in the past few months.
Meanwhile, big political news is Democrat Eric Adams’ victory in the New York City mayor’s primary. What is special about Adams is that he led the first New York campaign in decades of national importance. His triumph underscores voter concern at rising crime rates. It showed that even the primary democratic voters in a city with a majority minority oppose the lifting of law enforcement.
“According to the latest data from democratically oriented navigator research” writes Ruy Teixeira in a current issue of Liberal patriot Newsletter, “Overall, more Americans, including Independents and Hispanics, believe violent crime is a ‘major crisis’ than they believe in relation to the coronavirus pandemic or any other cause for concern.” This alarm of rising crime manifested itself on the ground before it became clear to Washington officials, including Biden, who sought to announce a crime reduction plan in late June.
The most glaring sign of the Beltway’s detachment from national life was the movement against Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. Like the tea party, this movement is spontaneous, self-organizing and uncontrolled. Unlike the Tea Party, however, it focuses on one hyper-local (but super-important) topic: the K-12 instruction. As of this writing, the anti-CRT movement is putting up candidates for school boards. Congress is a minor matter.
The national politicians who reinforce the movement’s rhetoric carry a grass-roots phenomenon. And while the fight against CRT has implications for federal politics, it’s not that the right-wing response to far-left school boards is national curriculum standards. On the contrary: the parental revolt over “awakened” education bypasses Washington, transcends party lines and has clearly defined and limited goals.
The fascinating thing about the anti-CRT campaign is that its most prominent opponents are not elected officials. The Tea Party pitted rebels like Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz against the Republican establishment and Barack Obama. But the participants in this latest iteration of the Culture War are different. Anti-CRT spokesman Christopher Rufo from the Manhattan Institute is a documentary filmmaker and activist, while Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan are journalists. The best-known proponents of so-called anti-racist education are Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead author of the New York Times’s 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi of Boston University. Dispute over CRT does not take place in the halls of Congress, but on Tomorrow Joe.
Perhaps in the coming months political entrepreneurs will adopt the topics of voter ID, crime and anti-American education and raise them in national campaigns. Perhaps the anti-CRT movement will follow the Tea Party and use the 2022 elections as a stepping stone into the Beltway. Perhaps the next president will be imprinted on the national consciousness like an Obama or a Trump. Or maybe the next president will Be Trump card.
However, Joe Biden is currently president. Congress is bogged down. Both the left and the right are more interested in values than claims. The media follow the states, the cities, the schools. Why? Because the real action takes place in places like Atlanta, Tallahassee, Austin, Phoenix, New York City and Loudoun County. Not in Washington, DC
This column originally ran in Washington Free Beacon.