The culture war’s irregular verbs

Irregular verbs abound in US politics. When it comes to social and cultural disagreements, the conjugation goes something like this: I am standing up for my principles, you are waging an irresponsible culture war.

“We don’t have time to be wasting on these phony, trumped-up culture wars,” said Barack Obama at a Terry McAuliffe campaign event in Virginia last weekend. “This fake outrage that right-wing media pedals to juice their ratings, and the fact that he’s willing to go along with it instead of talking about serious problems that actually affect serious people? That’s a shame. That’s not what this election’s about. That’s not what you need, Virginia.”

If you want to understand why Democrats might lose the governorship in a state that Joe Biden carried by double digits last year, I think these words from the former president tell you more than any news on the status of spending bills on the Hill or current presidential approval ratings.

Obama’s dismissal of some of the main themes of the campaign, which have centered on education — what Virginia children learn in classrooms, whether or not those classrooms are even open, a parent’s right to have a say over what their child learns in the classroom — badly misreads the mood on the ground.

The former president isn’t just waving away cultural and social issues that have a real impact on voters. He is doing so with a high-handedness that makes Democrats look hopelessly out of touch.

The same tendency was on display in a video released yesterday by the Lincoln Project, that band of mostly disgraced ex-Republicans who now spend their time trolling their former colleagues on Twitter. In the clip, they accuse Glenn Youngkin of dog-whistle racism for daring to discuss critical race theory.

I will spare you the tedious and well-worn semantic debate about what we talk about when we talk about CRT. For now, it seems safe to say that the phrase has become a stand in for a progressive pedagogy on race and American history. And the basic pro-McAuliffe position in the final days of a close campaign is to label parents concerned about what their children are being taught as racists.

With characteristic bombast, Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell shared the video online, adding “there’s a word Glenn Youngkin would really like to say to talk about black people, but he can’t so he codes it with ‘critical race theory.’” To call this overheated doesn’t do justice to how at odds with reality Democratic rhetoric on Virginia has become.

If these messages are reaching voters in Virginia, what is their effect? Are Virginians likely to agree that Youngkin, a mild-mannered finance guy, would love nothing more than to drop a few N-bombs on the campaign trail? What does the suburbanite swing voter think when she is told that any views she might have on the difficult question of how to teach her children about their country’s past are very likely racist? You don’t need to look at the polls, which make grim reading for McAuliffe this morning (see below) to know that this is not a winning strategy.

And what about parents in Loudoun County, angry at the cover-up of a sexual assault in a school bathroom? Are they not, in Obama’s words, serious people worried about serious problems?

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A whiff or a win?

An amusing juxtaposition appeared in Washington inboxes this morning. Two of the newsletters favored by the capital’s over-caffeinated foot-soldiers came to drastically different conclusions about Joe Biden’s last-ditch efforts to pass his legislative agenda before hopping on a plane to Italy yesterday.

“Big whiff,” read Punchbowl’s subject line, while Politico’s Playbook team was rather more generous: “Why Biden has already won.” So which one is it — a whiff or a win?

The case for “whiff” is straightforward enough: Biden and Nancy Pelosi have failed to meet their end-of-month deadline by which they said they would hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package. Instead, Pelosi was forced to push through another extension of surface transportation programs: a humiliating move after her repeated insistence of the urgent need for the bills’ passage.

But Politico is a lot less down on yesterday’s helter-skelter at the Capitol, arguing that the missed deadline and failure to hold an infrastructure vote “masked a major achievement for the president: Hill progressives now appear ready to swallow this deal — and that means it’s likely a matter of when, not if, it passes.”

I tend to agree with the “whiff” argument. The fact that a framework for a delayed, watered down version of Biden’s original proposal is likely to get the green light from progressives is hardly a thumping victory for the president. Nor is that victory a done deal.

Moves Like Macker

Who has the worst dance moves in Washington? My colleague Cockburn makes the compelling case for Terry McAuliffe, the Clinton fixer turned Virginia governor now running for another stint at the helm of Old Dominion. As Cockburn explains, the Democratic candidate’s shameless shimmying next to Joe Biden this week is only the latest in a long line of crimes against rhythm. Trigger warning: this article contains dad moves.

The Journal sticks to its guns

A letter to the editor from a Palm Beach retiree with too much time on his hands isn’t exactly an unusual thing to see in the Wall Street Journal. But a note from a former president is a different matter.

The Journal’s op-ed editors found themselves under fire this week for running a letter from Donald Trump in which he lists all sorts of deranged nonsense about the “rigged” 2020 election. One unnamed Journal reporter complained to CNN about the opinion side of the paper’s decision: “I think it’s very disappointing that our opinion section continues to publish misinformation that our news side works so hard to debunk.”

In a response to these grumbles, the Journal’s opinion page team call Trump’s claims “bananas” but defend the decision to publish. “We trust our readers to make up their own minds about his statement,” they write. And in response to the self-regarding warnings about “misinformation,” they rightly point out that the “media clerics… attempts to censor Mr. Trump have done nothing to diminish his popularity.”

What you should be reading today

Roger Kimball: Joe Biden takes his failures on tour

Daniel DePetris: Why is the US still in Syria?

Fraser Nelson: The battle to save COP26 

Will Ripley, Eric Cheung and Ben WestcottCNN: Taiwan’s President confirms presence of US military trainers on the island

Tyler CowenBloomberg: Three reasons inflation isn’t here to stay

Emma GoldbergNew York Times: The 37-year-olds are afraid of the 23-year-olds who work for them

Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 42.5 percent
Disapprove: 52.4 percent
Net approval: -9.9 (RCP Average)

Virginia Governor’s Race
Terry McAuliffe (D): 45 percent
Glenn Youngkin (R): 53 percent (Fox News)

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