Walter Shapiro with Susan Zakin
Walter Shapiro, the man we call The Oracle, has covered 11 presidential elections. A columnist for The New Republic and Roll Call, Shapiro also teaches political science at Yale. Witnessing the latest events in Washington, D.C. we asked Walter: "Should we worry?" Here's what he said.
SZ: First, let’s talk about the extremists. It’s hard to know whether to be scared or just ignore the noise. How much power will Marjorie Taylor Greene actually have as House Speaker pro tempore? The New York Times reported that Kevin McCarthy and Greene have “a real bond.”
“I will never leave that woman,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was recently quoted as saying in The New York Times. “I will always take care of her.”
WS: First of all, Marjorie Taylor Greene presided over the House once as Speaker pro tempore as many members of the majority do all the time. It is purely ceremonial, though Kevin McCarthy gave her the honor. In the end, I think Greene and McCarthy are going to be really really happy in their institution with their padded cells where they can talk conspiracy theories until the cows come home.
We all know what McCarthy did: He sold the tiny remnants of his soul. Other than the looming crisis over the debt ceiling, nothing coming out of the nut-case House is going to pass the Senate. The budget’s going to be a mess.
All they’re doing is taking symbolic votes to make their right-wing backers in the primaries very happy. So far all their over-hyped investigations have gotten nowhere -- and failed to convince a single swing voter of anything.
Kevin McCarthy, even in the best case scenario for him, will be a speaker for a very brief time. His term as speaker will end on Jan. 3, 2025, since the Democrats have a very good chance to win back the House unless the mood in the country dramatically changes.
SZ: What about the Senate in 2024?
WS: The Senate map is daunting for the Democrats. While predictions 18-19 months in advance are the sort of thing that should only be done on cable TV…
SZ: I know how you feel about cable shows!
WS: Right. But just a quick look at the contours. There are 23 Democratic-held Senate seats on the ballot in 2024 and only 10 Republicans. And there are no obviously vulnerable Republicans unless you somehow believe that the Democrats can win Florida and beat Rick Scott.
But there are tremendously vulnerable Senate Democrats, especially Jon Tester in Montana, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Joe Manchin in West Virginia. The best of them, Ohio, was Trump-plus-eight in 2020. And in West Virginia, the Trumpiest state in the union, Biden lost by better than a two-to-one margin.
Throw in the Arizona mess. Kyrsten Sinema's insistence on running for reelection as an independent means that the Republicans could win this swing state in a three-way race. with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego coming out the loser.
One should not assume that Biden will have a Senate majority after 2024.
The House is another story since 18 Republicans members (including George Santos) represent districts that Biden carried in 2020. Most of them are likely to lose if the Democrats do well in a presidential year.
SZ: Speaking of 2024, how plausible is DeSantis?
WS: He’s plausible. He’s polling better than most challengers poll at this point but who the hell knows? The opening-gun Iowa caucus for the Republicans won’t be until mid-January of 2024. Things change and change again. Who was talking about bank bailouts 10 days ago?
Half or two-thirds of Republican primary voters, if Ron DeSantis sat next to them at a lunch counter they wouldn’t know who he was. His name is more recognizable than the person.
But it’s too early. Unlike a presidential election, primaries are sequential. The Iowa results affect New Hampshire, which shapes South Carolina and so on.
Anything could happen. But probably not this.
SZ: Is Biden tacking to the center as 2024 gets closer?
WS: This is what all rational presidents do. Once you have the nomination, you tack to the center. What we’ve witnessed in recent weeks is Biden making sure he’s less vulnerable. Biden didn’t threaten a veto when the Democratic-held Senate voted to overturn Washington DC’s rewrite of its criminal code. Forget the substance. Biden didn’t want to spend 2024 arguing over carjacking penalties in Washington.
And he went ahead with drilling in the Arctic, in the National Petroleum Reserve. A lot of voters still remember Sarah Palin screaming “Drill, baby, drill” at the Republican Convention.
SZ: He’s backtracked significantly on immigration, to the point where we’re looking at some of the same human rights abuses that took place during the Trump years. The experts are resigning from the administration and the political advisors are in control.
WS: It’s a terrible issue. Immigration is not an issue that you can win on but it’s an issue you can lose on. That's why anyone with an ounce of compassion has to ask themselves, “Do you think any Republican administration would be better?”
This gives Biden tremendous ability to move to the center.
SZ: “This isn’t who we are” is a favorite Biden line. In a recent piece in The New Republic, you brought up the question of who Joe Biden is, really. It was a wonderful piece that reminded me of The Great Gatsby, a novel that’s perennially apropos. While Biden’s working class persona is genuine, to an extent, Biden and his family have leveraged their status to get their kids into elite universities and make their way in the world.
As you wrote: “Something is wrong when even the president believes that in contemporary America you can no longer truly succeed on merit alone.”
Is Biden doing enough to make America more equal?
WS: What prompted my article was a news item in the Wall Street Journal revealing that in 2018 when Biden's youngest grand-daughter was rejected at the University of Pennsylvania on early decision, Biden personally spoke with the dean of admissions at Penn. And, yes, she was admitted in April in a year when only 7 percent of applicants got into Penn.
Biden was a private citizen -- and an awful lot of well-connected parents do the same thing -- but it certainly didn't fit the image of Middle-Class Joe from Scranton.
Back in the 1970s, after he had been in the Senate for a few years, Biden told old friends back in Delaware that he had learned that "a river of power runs through America." And it was the Ivy League. I stole that anecdote from a wonderful portrait of Biden in the late 1980s in "What It Takes" by Richard Ben Cramer. "What It Takes" remains, by the way, the best non-fiction book ever written on American politics.
He's done a bit. But, at the moment, it is hard to see what Biden or any other Democrat can do to limit that "river of power" in a country that's supposed to be a true meritocracy.
Biden may not bridge the class divisions in America -- or even do that much about income inequality. But he remains a hard figure to hate. The fact is that compared to a Hillary Clinton, compared to a Barack Obama, the hating on Biden, you have to really work yourselves up to it even if you’re a right-wing Republican.
You can hate Kamala Harris, you can hate Pete Buttigieg, you can believe the Trilateral Commission is running the world, or little green men from Mars are, but Biden himself is hard to hate. You can be disappointed in him, you can be frustrated with him, you can be bored with him. But that level of hate is really hard to sustain with Joe Biden.
That's why I think a big issue for the Republicans in 2024 will be claiming Biden’s senile and a cabal of crazed Marxists are really running the country. I may be wrong on this. But the age issue -- and Biden will be almost 82 on Election Day -- that’s the vulnerability I see.
The problem with that is Biden over the last 30 years has misspoken so often that you can always find an example that makes it look like he's gaga. He’s been a verbal gaffe machine since his days in the Senate.
The point is not the truth. The point is that you will always have fresh material that, that taken out of context, will look nominally persuasive on a TV screen.
SZ: Or on TikTok.
WS: Let me stress that I don’t believe he’s senile. Not even close. But I can see it being weaponized.
SZ: As far as hate goes, a recent target is Giselle Fetterman. She’s an engaging personality, just as her husband John is, and she’s become increasingly accomplished as a public speaker. Given what they’re going through, the attacks seem particularly cruel not to mention misogynistic.They’re going after her, but I don’t see the same level of attack aimed at her husband. How does the couple deal with that?
WS: Fetterman was courageous to acknowledge he’s at Walter Reed and getting that kind of treatment for depression. But there is no good way to counter those kinds of attacks. Fundamentally Giselle is not on the ballot. And Senator Fetterman won't face the voters until 2028. So you just ride it out.
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