The latest Beltway kerfuffle involves Jen O’Malley Dillon, Joe Biden’s campaign manager and incoming deputy chief of staff, calling Republicans “f - - - - ers” and Senate Republican chief Mitch McConnell “terrible.”
Republicans who seemed not to mind at all when Donald Trump said horrible things about Democrats are up in arms. Democrats who screamed about Trump’s misbehavior are . . . saying the same thing I just said about Republicans in order to defend or excuse Dillon’s remarks.
There is an animating idea behind the words Dillon spoke, but it’s not the one people have been arguing about since Glamour released its interview with her. People seem to think it might have been a shot across the GOP bow or a message to McConnell. I seriously doubt that. In fact, I’d bet $1,000 it was an unguarded mistake.
Dillon was famous among the press corps during 2019 and 2020 for her refusal to make herself a public figure as Biden sought the presidency — the focus was to be kept on the candidate and the message.
She wasn’t the new Carville, the new Axelrod, the new anybody. You probably had no idea she existed until this week, even though she was atop one of the most successful campaigns in modern political history.
Her surprising invisibility and that of other Biden staffers were key elements of the iron discipline and long-range thinking that made the Biden campaign one of the most sheerly competent political machines we’ve ever seen.
Dillon was trying to make a point. She did it badly, but it wasn’t about how awful the other team is. It was about how wonderful, how idealistic, how visionary Joe Biden is.
Consider the offending quotation: “The president-elect was able to connect with people over this sense of unity. In the primary, [Democratic] people would mock him, like, ‘You think you can work with Republicans?’ I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of f - - - - ers. Mitch McConnell is terrible. But this sense that you couldn’t wish for that, you couldn’t wish for this bipartisan ideal? [Biden] rejected that. From start to finish, he set out with this idea that unity was possible, that together we are stronger, that we, as a country, need healing, and our politics needs that too.”
In some sense, Dillon was saying that her boss is wiser and more far-seeing than she could ever be — and wiser than partisan Democrats who do not understand the value of believing in a message of unity and healing.
Thursday, Dillon acknowledged she “used some words that I probably could have chosen better.” The question is, what about the idea behind the words? Is it really true that healing and unity will be key to a Biden administration?
One should never say never, but I’d bet another $1,000 the “bipartisan ideal” she talked about is a fantasy. Generally, true bipartisanship has always been the exception rather than the rule. You can count the important bipartisan moments in modern American history on two hands.
The parties came together to support an active strategy against the Soviets to support democracy in Europe after the Second World War. They came together to support Ronald Reagan’s tax reform in 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1989, welfare reform in 1996 and the No Child Left Behind education bill in 2001.
The last genuine moment of bipartisanship in recent American history helps explain why there has been so little of it since — the vote to authorize the war against Iraq in 2002, which garnered support from half the Democrats in the upper chamber.
The 18 years since have seen the ideological split of the parties harden and sharpen to a rapier’s edge. The narrow results of the 2020 election give us no reason to think anyone in either party aside from Biden is going to have much of an incentive to deal.
Therefore, Biden’s message is either foolish or canny. If he thinks he can slide along that rapier’s edge and get himself some deals just because he’s a more pleasant guy, then he’s probably foolish.
But if he thinks he can use his PR pitch about reaching out as a kind of cudgel against Republicans — by saying he did everything he could and they just want to see the nation burn, and thereby hasten the journey of suburban voters into the Democratic camp — then he might be on to something.