Watergate Fifty Years On

Many of us might wish we had Dick Nixon back instead of Trump. Until, that is, they remember Watergate which set the pattern for corruption and deceit in government. If you need an update on that, here’s a good one by Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story.

 My friend Jack and I, in our mid-thirties and drinking a lot, were writing a book about our authoritarian fathers. The subject led naturally into the manifestations of authoritarian government and the recent scandals of Watergate. Here’s some of the conversation I recorded. How little has changed in fifty years.

JOHN: So this justice for the Supreme Court is asking [Alexander] Bickel, the attorney for the New York Times, “You know there has to be a clear and immediate danger to the security of the United States.”

The Justice: “Well, suppose it’s gonna kill 100 soldiers in Vietnam. Would you say 100 is a clear and present danger? Is it 90?”

The whole prosecution had such a specious argument. And John Mitchell, you know, he is just so ripe, the ripest fucking old Dad. What is he now, Nixon’s campaign manager? So he gets up and says—he and Nixon both said it—that the Washington police did such a great job with the Mayday arrests: 15,000 people were detained and arrested, for not doing a goddamn thing!

JACK: Wait a minute, they did a good job! I don’t know any other police department that could get so many arrested that fast. That’s law and order, get ‘em out of there. Like the army, dig ‘em up, move ‘em out. It’s like police call, arrest ‘em all [laughter]. I think they did a great job.

JOHN: Did you read the story that the White House was hosting a Finch College reunion since Tricia had gone there? And Grace Slick, another Finchie, was coming with Abbie Hoffman. The thing that wasn’t in the Times but was in Rolling Stone from an interview with Grace, was that they had all kinds of acid that they were going to dump in the tea, turn on the whole fucking crew, dump it in the samovar or whatever. Their great hope was that Dad might come down and share a cup with them. Greatest idea I ever heard of. But they wouldn’t let them in: husbands and boyfriends were not invited, it was Finch graduates only, so they got turned away.

JACK: Best line of the whole testimony before the Supreme Court: The government made the case that one thing of grave and immediate danger to the security of the U.S. was that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen some of the contingency plans for carrying out the war in Vietnam. And apparently Bickel, the defense lawyer, had seen the Pentagon Papers, and he said, “Mr. Justice, everybody knows what these plans are. Any reasonably intelligent high-school boy could probably draft them in about fifteen minutes. Either we’re gonna bomb the shit out of North Vietnam, A-bomb them into oblivion, or get out. What’s the big secret?”

JOHN: As it turns out of course it’s not saving the face of the U.S., but saving the face of all those assholes who made the policy.

In [Nixon’s] eyes, the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed the existence of a radical, left-wing conspiracy throughout the government and media, whose purpose was to delegitimize him and topple his administration. Nixon resolved to fight back with every tool at his disposal, making the fateful decision to break the law to achieve his ends.”

A Modest Proposal for the Gun Predicament

Some of you may remember Jonathan Swift’s grand satire on how to deal with the Irish potato famine. He proposed selling babies of the starving poor as food for the greedy rich. Present-day Republicans have gone Swift one better, allowing children to be killed so they can have their guns. And they do this with none of Swift’s irony.

As one of a few who realize how far gone we are, Michelle Goldberg writes:

Guns are now the leading cause of death for American children. Many conservatives consider this a price worth paying for their version of freedom. Our institutions give these conservatives disproportionate power whether or not they win elections. The filibuster renders the Senate largely impotent.

Others express “an overwhelming sentiment” too that nothing is going to change. McConnell’s proposal to look for compromise with the Democrats is just smoke that will dissipate in testy negotiations. Far-right Republicans have proven they prefer violence over compromise. Goldberg  again:

the more America is besieged by senseless violence, the more the paramilitary wing of the American right is strengthened. Gun sales tend to rise after mass shootings. Republicans responded to the massacre in Uvalde by doubling down on calls to arm teachers and “harden” schools.

The history of gun control attempts in this country is a pathetic tale of one failed attempt after another. When I worked in Washington, I recall meeting with the people who worked so hard to get the Brady Bill passed. It did pass in 1994 and the NRA mobilized to kill it four years later. Despite the carnage in Uvalde and Buffalo, I can’t imagine any serious gun control legislation making it through Congress.

Efforts by Republicans in Congress have a long history of universally shooting down every legislative attempt to attack the problem. Every sensible person knows this, yet even now they talk about fig-leaf proposals that cannot properly address the problem. Background checks and red flags will never begin to eliminate the deep culture of gun violence in the U.S. The sorry history of all this is well documented here, and the Supreme Court has long thrown up major impediments and will continue to do so.

And yet, as many of you know, most Americans want very much to “do something” about gun violence—now more than ever. But Republicans are overwhelmingly captive to their conservative, mostly rural, constituents who could conceivably vote them out of office for waffling on guns. Toadies like John Barrasso of Wyoming say things like, “We don’t want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

So the many people like him, who have been obstructionists to gun reform for as long as I can remember, are the problem. And they will never vote to reform the filibuster, which keeps their minority in power.

So my modest proposal is: just throw the Republicans out. Vote them all out. What else is there to do? They will not change their goal of holding up any and all attempts at gun control, and they have proven that you’ll get no realistic gun reforms while they hold the legislature at bay.

To accomplish this and win back at least the Senate, Democrats will have to make gun reform the absolute centerpiece of their campaigns in the midterms and beyond. Joe Biden and others with any clout will have to speak out in every kind of forum and at every opportunity. For once, they will have to get nasty and loud, and stop playing games of reconciliation with the enemy.

Who knows if this long-shot strategy would work? There is no more real collegiality left anyway. Maybe the voters would finally appreciate some straight talk about how one corrupt party would sacrifice their kids for more guns.

Power to the People

Guy Immega

I started this blog writing on climate change but soon became confounded by two obstacles—one, the complexities of the problem and two, as a non-scientist, trying to penetrate the fog of global politics surrounding it.

 To respond to Bill McKibben’s somewhat rosy case for renewables, my friend Peter Yedidia thought to enlist his former colleague on an Africa project to tell us on Zoom why McKibben’s view came up short. We also wanted to know how he looks at the immediate future of power distribution.

 A retired aerospace engineer, Guy Immega has worked for many years on the problems and the promise of renewables and the electrical grid. Per his bio, “From 1980-1985, Guy was the Renewable Energy Coordinator for the Province of British Columbia (Canada). He contracted an engineering survey of small-hydroelectric sites and organized the first wind and solar installations feeding the electrical grid.”

 Guy is still very much involved in the global aspects of electrical power, its distribution, and its economic dynamics. Here is some of what he told us about these issues, a bit edited and shortened.

 We’ve got to stop burning coal. We must stop it. Stop it now. But we can’t because there are some places like India where you can’t stop it. Probably can’t stop it in China either. These countries have economic pressures that make it almost impossible to stop because they need the cheap energy from coal.

Coal is a fossil gift from the past and we simply have to stop burning it. The problem is you’re not trying to compete using solar. Solar has already won, it’s a done deal. There will be a small refinements in solar where it will get more and more efficient, but the efficiencies will be just small percentages here and there.

The solar singularity has arrived. Solar is cheap. Solar is reliable, but solar will not supply a base load. And that’s what you have to compete with. One way to make power available is to build a coal-fired power plant. Another way is to have giant batteries on the grid. Another way is to have all the Tesla cars plugged into the grid at night. You can’t just say buy solar because solar is cheap. That’s a one-dimensional answer to a multi-dimensional problem. So the real issue is what is the cheapest way to maintain the right mix—so you can always turn on the lights, right?

There are a dozen ways that you can smooth the power out, but they’re all expensive and a little bit awkward and not easy to control. So if you want power at night, batteries are still more expensive than coal. That’s the issue. And so we’re looking at dozens of small tricks to maintain stability on the grid. I’m an advocate for the smart grid though there are lots of politics around the smart grid that I don’t pretend to understand.

You need to be able to absorb renewables like wind and solar into the grid. And one way to do this is to ship the power where it’s needed instantly. If you can move the power around with “power wheeling” (it’s an actual technical term) that means that you can ship power from Maine to California cheaply.

And so if a wind farm is going great guns on the coast somewhere, and you don’t need the power locally, then you ship it somewhere else. One of the problems with Hawaii is that the local Hawaiian power grid turns off windmills when there’s too much extra power. When you install a wind farm in Hawaii, you have to sign a contract that you will shut the turbines down when they tell you because their grid gets overwhelmed with wind power and they can’t control it. They have no way to store it. And there it is, the gnarly problem. I like that word gnarly. It’s a gnarly problem—distributing energy easily and smartly.

In British Columbia we were able to wheel power to Washington state, one of our big customers. Do you remember when you had the Enron crisis in California? They were turning off their local power plants and buying our power. Well, it’s ridiculous what happened. British Columbia gouged California and sold power at the highest possible price because California was desperate for electricity and we wheeled it down there and collected the money. And then later California sued. And we had to pay back $750 million of gouged funds. So, you know, that’s another little power morality tale.

I’m sure the coal industry is putting political pressure on Joe Manchin, but this can’t last. If coal doesn’t make economic sense, then they’ll jump to something that does. But the problem is technological at its foundation, and that is cheap energy storage. We aren’t there yet, and nobody’s come along with a magic bullet.

So the fact that discrete elements like solar are cheaper than coal is, well, that’s nice but that doesn’t get us there. And that’s the big gap I see and, for me anyway, McKibben’s article is really misleading. Well, that’s why I was disappointed with it.

You know, we hear the dire forecasts—basically that if we don’t get off our ass, we’re going to be hopelessly behind and never catch up. But given the current state of affairs, you could have said that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Now with all the attention focused on the war in Ukraine, how many people are really paying any attention to that IPCC report yesterday?

Yet that report is such a big shock that nobody knows what to do with it. We’re being told that doom awaits us, and nobody has a solution. If you look at the numbers what the IPCC has been advocating is emissions control. So they’re saying we have to stop burning fossil fuels. All very good, and emissions control is the restraint necessary, but nobody’s doing enough of it.

Nobody’s keeping up. Canada is not keeping up with its commitments. You know, India is going to burn coal because it’s pulling itself out of poverty with coal and they just won’t stop. They will not stop burning coal. And so we’re going to have problems clamping down on emissions. And what will happen is you’ll have more and more wild and extreme weather events. Another reason to stop burning coal is that we can’t further acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification is a huge problem, and cooling the climate won’t stop that.

There’s so much coal in the world that it’s infinite. I’m using coal as a metaphor for fossil fuel. It’s the dirtiest, it’s the nastiest, and it’s the most abundant. Germany decided that nuclear was bad, and they would switch off all their nuclear power plants.

And so they put up some wind farms in the North Sea. Good for them, but that’s not enough. They’ve got to have Russian oil and gas and this is a big problem now with Ukraine in the picture. So they have to get off oil and gas and they want to get off nuclear. So what they do is burn coal. They have huge coal mines in Germany, and coal is keeping the lights on and industrial Germany alive.

So I guess what I’m saying is take it piecemeal. I don’t know of any other way. We had to find as many small fixes as possible. In World War II they had victory gardens, people growing vegetables in their backyard. That was a little piecemeal solution to an agricultural crisis. Conservation is good, finding ways to use less energy, but that’s not enough either. It’s just part of the mix. We need top-down solutions, too. That includes large scale storage—grid scale batteries. We need wheeling of power on a smart grid. We need to use every trick to make it possible to absorb more clean renewable power.

Finally, the IPCC should reconsider geoengineering solutions to actively cool the climate. But that’s another topic.

Politics Visits the Dismal Science

A lot of people, myself included, avoid serious dealing with economics. You hear their gurus make pronouncements clouded with jargon, impenetrable concepts, and fixed ideas. They frequently disagree and like to argue. Many disdain the world of politics, though that is a living part of economics.

Now Larry Summers, the king of controversy, has joined with Ezra Klein on his show in a long but surprisingly enlightening discussion about the present inflation, how it developed, and what to do about it. This may be intimidating to some of you, yet very illuminating if you choose to get into it.

The problem both of them confront is the heavy downside of the strong U.S. economy. Both seem to agree that Biden’s American Rescue Plan was needed and welcome. But “it ran the economy hot.” Notwithstanding obvious benefits to the labor market, Summers believes, our virulent inflation resulted. Planners seemingly ignored the long-term consequences of runaway demand.

And the doctor who prescribes you painkillers that make you feel good to which you become addicted is generous and compassionate, but ultimately is very damaging to you. And while the example is a bit melodramatic, the pursuit of excessively expansionary policies that ultimately lead to inflation, which reduces people’s purchasing power, and the need for sharply contractionary policies, which hurt the biggest victims, the most disadvantaged in the society, that’s not doing the people we care most about any favor. It’s, in fact, hurting them.

For Summers this echoes and replays what happened in 1982, when Paul Volcker came in and instituted draconian reforms that finally tamed record inflation, though at the cost of a recession. There was outrage among many of the lefties, but the medicine worked. Now, once again, demand is out of whack, meaning too much money chasing too few goods. Ezra Klein seemingly accepts this but asserts that supply disruptions have played a role too: Ukraine and China and Covid have had their effects.

I think they both agree that the Fed must act soon and strongly. There is really no other instrument to control what seems likely—a long-term inflation of some 6% a year. The politics of all this become pretty obvious. Politico tells us:

Democrats worry about growth-killing [Fed] rate hikes in the middle of a midterm election year. But inflation is even worse for them politically. Recent polls show that price spikes are by far the top concern among voters. An NPR/Ipsos survey showed that 40 percent of Americans are worried about higher prices and 94 percent are aware of rising costs for food, energy, housing and other items.

One aspect of all this struck me. Left-leaning Democrats typically look for immediate relief to help the beleaguered victims (and counter the upcoming threat of the midterms). Bernie Sanders and others have proposed windfall excess profits taxes on Big Oil. Others want to rescind the federal gas tax.

More conservative Democrats like Larry Summers look for longer-term, painful fixes. I’m reminded of the blowback President Biden received for speaking his mind about Putin. He took a lot of undeserved flak for that, much of it from his own administration, which “overreacted and undercut him.” The State Department and the Kremlin both signaled unhappy long-term consequences from his remark.

Not everyone is on the same page regarding Putin, and unfortunately not everyone is on the same page regarding inflation. Summers and Klein did try to bridge that gap in a good, reasoned exchange.

Personal Reflections on War and Ukraine

In 1944 I was 10 years old. World War II was raging and I, like some kids, got caught up in following the constant news reports and accounts of the fighting. Movie theaters showed weekly “newsreels” of the battles in the Pacific and Europe. My father’s friend Jack was flying B-24s with supplies for China over the Himalayas. He sent home wonderful photos that I still have of the bases and people of India and elsewhere that supported these missions.

Once again, it’s the civilians who feel the brunt of war. The fighting in Ukraine has focused on the rank and file and their struggle: their street fights, their persistence in the face of Russian atrocities, the million refugee women and children fleeing the violence. The United States homeland was never really at great risk in WW-II. As kids we were fearful, but in the spirit of the time we had immense faith in our military. Years later I explored massive, overgrown 16-inch gun emplacements hidden away on the coast of Rhode Island. The guns were never fired in anger.

Ukrainians are battling Russian tanks with thousands of molotov cocktails. They were also used in Finland in 1939, in Hungary in 1956 and, of course, in WW-II. It’s an old-fashioned and very effective weapon. Flamethrowers and napalm were modern variants used in Vietnam. The U.S. military stopped using them in 1978.

We were never subjected to photos of burned and mutilated corpses in WW-II. Now such images are all too frequently on the internet. It’s an escalation even from what we saw and heard in the Vietnam years. I was teaching and living in New York then, marching in protests, hearing speeches from eminences like Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. Such protests, we know, did help end the war. But war was still something mostly remote and apart from our daily lives.

The Ukraine disaster has prompted Biden to declare that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight there—a legacy of our involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But social media and the internet now bring the conflict home and may well influence its outcome. Many people see Putin as a madman and comparisons to Hitler abound. Putin’s threats often put Hitler’s bluster to shame.

Since WW-II the U.S. has fought or undertaken and mostly lost numerous foreign interventions. “While the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” These interventions have generally failed badly. The media have been relatively kind to various administrations in reporting this. But American geopolitical interference has contributed to the rise of China and, some would argue, the disaster in Ukraine. We are now paying the price for that.

The invasion has pointed up not only the futility of Russia’s strategy but our own. Some old technologies, like molotov cocktails, still work; the old battle plans and interventions do not. This horrendous invasion points up the need for powerful new strategies to avoid conflict. We don’t yet know what they are or how to implement them. And nobody knows the West’s endgame yet except to get Putin out of power.

Ukraine Was Predicted

Sometimes Tom Friedman blathers and sometimes he speaks the truth. But he often has a sense of history and geopolitics that others lack. He came on strong in The New York Times yesterday about how the U.S. and its NATO allies aren’t just “innocent bystanders” to Putin’s despicable offensive in Ukraine.

In my view, there are two huge logs fueling this fire. The first log was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after—indeed, despite—the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the second and far bigger log is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership.

In what now seems like the dreamlike ‘90s Friedman says that the U.S. chose recklessly “to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak.” Bill Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, later recalled that moment in 2016: “Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.”

Our present disaster, however, has been years in the making. After NATO expanded in 1998, Friedman talked with George Kennan, then and still one of America’s wisest foreign policy professionals. Here’s what Kennan said to him in full, though you should read the whole piece.

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.

Friedman comments: “It’s EXACTLY what has happened.” We also should note that Putin is living out a distorted view of history, a revanchist effort to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory. How we get into conflicts like this can be as important as how to resolve them.

Grand Delusions about Ukraine and U.S. Power

The mess in Ukraine is part of a broader picture of how U.S. policy has failed for many years to impose a liberal order on the world. Here John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago speaks compellingly about our delusions of power and influence—and how they have led us to the edge of conflict with Russia.

Mearsheimer’s arguments put into perspective what many of us have felt. I urge you to hear him out. You’ll learn what “liberal hegemony” means.

 

All Greek to Me

Our lives are increasingly controlled by health care gods like the WHO (World Health Organization) and the CDC (you know that one) who spread confusion about all the good virus fighting they are doing. Plain communication seems lost in a welter of political correctness and scientific puffery.

Consider how they use the Greek naming convention. My friend asked why the health care gods had omitted so many Greek letters in naming the new virus variant. “They called out Delta, then skipped over ten letters to get to Omicron.” This got me thinking about why they were compelled to use the 24 Greek letters at all.

The answer is complicated. The WHO was obliged to consider many factors, or so they thought. They settled on Greek names like Alpha, Beta or Gamma “to help the public talk about the variants more easily without reverting to identifying them by the countries in which they were first identified.” That would be “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

They skipped over Nu and Xi, Nu being too easily confounded with “new” and Xi of course echoing Xi Jinping, a political no-no.

They considered Latinized names, as in biological species, but found that cumbersome. SARS-Covid has more than 100,000 genome sequences, so the researchers got caught up in that, despite the fact that the public doesn’t care about this when talking about the virus. Scientific identifiers, with sets of numbers and letters (as in B.1.617.2 for Delta) will remain for research work.

The question for me is why we have to use Greek at all. How many people read Greek or know its alphabet? The scientists may be comfortable with it; who else is? Why not V1 or V2 to keep it simple? They apparently rejected that because V2 was “the name of a German rocket used during World War II.”

Similarly, a numerical system of “variants of concern,” such as VOC1 and VOC2, was dropped because that “sounded too much like a common swear word.” Can you believe it? Simplicity gives way to political correctness; scientists become censors.

Apparently the custodians of our moral health had big debates about all this, and one can only imagine the fatuity of such discussions. I learned something a long time ago in doing health care communications: if you want to convey important information to people who need it, you must keep it simple and clear.

Happy New Year.

The Toxic Arrogance of Rumsfeld

“Toxic” and “arrogant” are two words that writers have continually cited in reviewing Donald Rumsfeld’s career in government. How fitting and revealing they are. The man was also wily and supremely confident in his views, as if confessing there were “unknown unknowns” could explain how deeply wrong he was.

Rumsfeld, who passed on Tuesday, was two years older than I, grew up in the same North Shore Chicago milieu, went to New Trier High School and was a wrestler, then on to Princeton and, later, flew for the Navy. In the ‘50s he got to Washington, worked for four presidents, and “did everything well.” Another ‘50s golden boy, another Robert  McNamara.

When I was working for the Navy in 2003-2006, Rumsfeld was W’s Secretary of Defense and the war in Iraq was raging. Our PR shop naturally tuned into the many press conferences, which the Secretary often treated as his own personal extravaganzas. The ever-worsening war effort was blithely written off with phrases like “stuff happens.”

My boss liked to give a half-day seminar on media training so the Navy folks would know how to deal with the press. He had rather different ideas about this than I had, yet my opinion was not solicited although media training had been my business for some years. Finally, at the end of a long-winded seminar, he showed a video of CNN’s Greta Van Susteren interviewing Secretary Rumsfeld and tossing him puffball questions. Rumsfeld’s tortuous replies were offered as examples of finely crafted answers.

The insane war with Iraq and its consequences have been with us to this day. What happened at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib has never been forgotten. What developed in Syria and made Iraq a shell country has made Iran powerful and created persistent enemies of the U.S. Biden’s recent withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan has been a tacit confession of defeat, and the country will now belong to the Taliban.

Rumsfeld, with the connivance of Cheney and Bush, set all this in motion. The process was well documented in 2013-2014 by Mark Danner’s pieces in the New York Review of Books; now available here, here, and here. You, or some of you, will remember such odious names as Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith, Ahmed Chalabi, Paul Wolfowitz. These were Rumsfeld’s boys.

Finally, the hostility to Islam took on a new and powerful form, which Trump and his cohorts pursue to this day. Danner writes:

Rumsfeld is first and foremost a patriotic midwesterner, a politician who nourishes in his soul a primordial and undying belief in the manifest need for, and rightness of, American power. To him this truth is self-evident, imbibed at an Illinois breakfast table. Who do we want to lead in the world? Somebody else? The idea is plainly inconceivable. And it is because of that plain necessity for American leadership that after September 11 American power and credibility must at all costs be restored.

Sound familiar? As Rumsfeld later told the press, “I don’t do quagmires.” Well,

It did not turn out that way. Having watched from the Oval Office in 1975 the last torturous hours of the United States extracting itself from Vietnam—the helicopters fleeing the roof of the US embassy in Saigon—Rumsfeld would be condemned to thrash about in his self-made quagmire for almost four years, sinking ever deeper in the muck as nearly five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. He was smart, brash, ambitious, experienced, skeptical of received wisdom, jealous of civilian control, self-searching, analytical, domineering, and he aimed at nothing less than to transform the American military. The parallels with McNamara are stunning.

And, just as surely, he defined the world that Trump inherited.

N.B. How Rumsfeld charmed the press, and how his doctrine of warfighting has continued to cost us.

Biden Assessed

If you look at how the Republicans are responding, the Biden presidency has been a major success. If you look at its prospects for passing more expansive legislation, you find little hope. All our broken mechanisms of government are responsible for that.

Joe Biden, the liberal standard bearer, could end up like Don Quixote or Walter Mitty, a failed visionary. We hope that doesn’t happen because the stakes are way too high.

How has Mr. Folksy become our Last Best Hope? Even as he confronts an impossible political situation, Joe Biden’s mastery of politics so far has been decisive. A big test came in his meeting with Vladimir Putin last week. As Susan B. Glasser wrote, “The triumph of Geneva is that it was not Helsinki.” Biden carried it off, mostly with aplomb.

The contradictions in how Republicans viewed this event are telling. They called it “appeasement” and worse. Which, after Trump’s blatant gaslighting at Helsinki, is just laughable. They call Biden “a dangerous radical” while most Americans consider him a moderate and an establishment figure.

Biden’s moderate image will give him the space to advocate more liberal ideas and still prevail, while Republicans struggle to convince voters that his proposals are extreme and dangerous. As one Republican lawmaker conceded, “it’s hard to hit someone who reminds you of your grandpa.”

But they keep trying by advocating harsh voting restrictions and gerrymandering, which Biden has few tools to deal with. He has been dealt a razor-thin majority in both houses and must work with deadheads like Joe Manchin. He has not pushed hard enough on climate change and taxing the wealthy, issues on which he has public backing.

For example: the administration has proposed a significant clean electricity standard, which is key to countering climate change. But getting that through Congress will be a major hurdle, “a moon shot kind of thing.” One advisor said that “Biden’s team will fall short of their goals unless they can put a policy in place that gives renewable energy the advantage over natural gas, which, because of fracking, is likely to be abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future.”

Issues like this will require a major effort by the administration to make its case in strong but uncomplicated ways to the public. So far it hasn’t done this. The impacts of climate change are still an abstraction for most people; they acknowledge its importance but not its urgency. Biden would rather address something like Juneteenth (thoughtfully appraised here) by making it a federal holiday. That has immediate payoff.

The prospect of getting major legislation passed depends on Biden’s willingness to play political hardball, something that has become more obvious with each passing day. He seems temperamentally disposed not to play that kind of game. But he surely knows that the game can’t be won any other way.

Winning it will require all of Biden’s considerable skill as a politician, plus continued Republican stumbles, plus a lot of public pressure. If you think it’s just politics as usual, I urge you to read this analysis: “Are Democrats Sleepwalking toward Democratic Collapse?”

As Mort Sahl once said, “The future lies ahead.”