At a recent dinner party, conversation turned to books and it became clear others preferred to focus on fiction.
I interjected that I had read four books on Donald Trump’s final year as president. After a silent pause, we returned to fiction. Apparently no one wanted to talk politics. I understood.
Authors of the Trump books included two pairs of Washington Post writers — Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig on one, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on the other. (Costa has since joined CBS News.) The other two were written by longtime journalist and author Michael Wolff and Jonathan Karl of ABC News.
Taken together, they painted Trump as perhaps the most volcanic, narcissistic and dishonest leader in American history. Wisconsin’s former Republican Gov. Scott Walker was certainly no Trump, but he too governed by scaring and dividing us.
You might think that President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, both normal, decent centrist leaders who seek to collaborate, would be faring better with the public than they apparently are.
People seem to forget that the Republican alternatives to these guys are not Dwight Eisenhower as president or Tommy Thompson as governor, but the assortment of crazies and grifters who dominate the modern GOP.
Yet the most recent Marquette University Law School Poll, the state’s preeminent measure of voter sentiment, had Evers’ job approval at only 45% and Biden’s at 43%. (Poll director Charles Franklin said the next poll would be out in March.)
What underlying factors make it hard to be popular while governing as an ideologically moderate adult? I can think of four that apply:
Republicans block everything and pay no price
The GOP is evilly brilliant in executing on its foremost goal — never, ever cooperating with Democrats. Biden arrived in the White House with hope that he could win over some Republicans as he did in his back-slapping, deal-making days as a U.S. senator from Delaware.
That was inexplicable given how, as vice president, he saw firsthand that job one — more than any public policy concern for the GOP — was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. They failed, but that’s who they were and still are.
Evers did know what was coming even before taking office in 2019, when the Republican Legislature diluted the authority of his office prior to his inauguration. This week a big state budget surplus was announced and Republicans immediately indicated they would not support Evers in trying to use the surplus to help people hurt in the pandemic because it might lift the governor in this, an election year.
Biden and Evers must mollify the far left
This has been a bigger problem for Biden than for Evers. Wisconsin Democrats seem to realize that Evers has limited ability to pass much given the GOP Legislature’s wall of resistance. What Evers has done is interrupt the state’s decade-long sprint to the far right with his veto pen. There has been some grousing that Evers could be more adversarial on the state budget, for example, but it is hard to see that as a political winner.
For Biden, though, this has been a central problem. He has had to hold together a coalition of far left and moderate interests that won him the election, but by pursuing ambitious programs coveted by the far left, he has undercut his own narrative.
Instead of being able to take credit for his big pandemic recovery and infrastructure programs and for returning normalcy to American government, Biden has had to pursue a much larger spending agenda that has so far failed, creating an unfair “loser” narrative.
Given the 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate that includes Democrat-in-name-only Joe Manchin of West Virginia, truly transformative spending was never going to happen, but Biden apparently decided he owed his far-left supporters the effort, even though it has cost him politically.
The right’s language domination endures
Biden and Evers continue to be hurt by the malevolent mastery of Republicans at branding. The best recent example is their success at taking the phrase “critical race theory” — a decades-old, common sense academic concept that says race is a social construct embedded in cultures — and slapping it on every racially connected controversy. The GOP has used this to poison even modest efforts to move the country forward in conversations about its racial history.
Another example is how the GOP paints all of those who want increased scrutiny around police behavior as being part of the “defund the police” movement, which is a major problem at a time when violent crime in Wisconsin and nationally has increased. The same Republicans who want to ignore the Jan. 6 insurrection love to blame Democrats for protest violence of the kind that occurred in Kenosha.
This has been going on a long time. Think “open borders,” “death panels” and “Obamacare.”
Face it, Democrats are just not as good at finding distorting labels for mainstream GOP ideas.
The media play along
Too often professional journalists, under relentless attack from Republicans about mostly nonexistent bias, engage in what some call “bothsidesism” by suggesting that blame for political dysfunction is equally shared, which is simply not true.
On Biden, here is recent proof.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank asked a data analytics organization to comb through more than 200,000 articles from newspapers, network and cable news channels, political publications, news wires and more to do a “sentiment analysis” of coverage.
The result? Biden was treated at least as or even more negatively than Trump.
“How to explain why Biden would be treated more harshly than a president who actively subverted democracy?” Milbank wrote. “Perhaps journalists, pressured by Trump’s complaints about the press, pulled punches.”
Milbank acknowledged the need for a skeptical and independent press, but wrote, “But how about being partisans for democracy?”
This is a double win for Republicans. They continue to reject any negative coverage by top-tier journalists as “fake news” while keeping the pressure on mainstream media to not label GOP claims, especially around election integrity, as “lies,” even though they are.
Taken together, these four factors make it more difficult for Biden and Evers to govern. There are no easy answers to these troubling and enduring themes. Maybe understanding them as a group is a start.