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The curse of partisanship – Isthmus


It has become a standoff between the pundits and the pols.

Virtually every liberal and center-left commentator is calling for President Joe Biden to abandon his bid for a second term after his dismal debate performance last week. What they’re writing probably matches up pretty closely to what they’re thinking and saying. People in this group include virtually the entire cast of op ed writers at the New York Times, including Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Frank Bruni, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd (the best of those, I think), and the Timeseditorial board itself.

On the other side, virtually every Democratic politician or official is clinging to the line that Biden’s performance was no big deal and that Trump is a liar and that, anyway, Joe ‘s our candidate, period, so fall in line! As he often does, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler expressed the party line better than most when he said, “Last night, one guy needed a lozenge, and the other guy needed a reminder that he’s not running for dictator of North Korea.” Never mind that the Biden camp wanted this early debate and set up the rules for it to showcase Biden’s vitality. What the pols are saying, in many cases, is in direct conflict with what they know to be true or with what they fear.

Here’s the problem. Pundits can speak truth to power but they don’t have any themselves. The people with the ability to convince Biden to allow his party to pick a stronger candidate can’t summon the courage to do what many of them (I think most of them) see should be done. And so I’d put the chances of a second term for Donald Trump at around 80% now.

Partisanship is an odd affliction. I suffered from it briefly. When I was mayor of Madison I felt an obligation, as a holder of one of the higher profile public jobs in the state, to stand up for my party — even if the office I held was technically a nonpartisan one. So, occasionally, I was called on to say things I didn’t really believe or, more typically, express enthusiasm for something I was less excited about. I also felt the need to hold my tongue when a fellow Democrat said something stupid and to overreact when a Republican did the same thing. Partisanship doesn’t allow a lot of room for second thoughts and I am filled with second, and sometimes third, thoughts. I am, by nature, not a joiner or a tribalist. I was ill-equipped for the role of partisan bulldog, but I did what I felt I was obliged to do.

Then the voters separated me from my job but, at the same time, freed me of the heavy burden of partisanship. I’ve since thought of myself as a nonpartisan Democrat. I vote for Democrats. The party’s general philosophy is closer to mine than the other guys’, especially the other guys of the new, crazy, Trumpy, semi-fascist flavor. But I won’t defend a Democrat who messes up and I won’t attack a Republican just for being one.

As a center-left pundit rather than a Democratic pol, I’m able to be honest with myself and with my readers. It’s a role that suits me much better than my previous one. I guess I should thank the voters of 2011. But I won’t. 

In any event, it’s clear to anybody who watched the debate and is honest with themselves that Biden is simply not up to the task of being president now, much less over the next four years. And even if you buy the argument that it was just a bad night, his performance heavily undercut his chances to win because it reinforced the view that he’s too old. Even before the debate, 86% of voters thought that he was past his prime and even 73% of Democrats said Biden was too long in the tooth.

And yet the partisan pols march on grimly, whistling past the graveyard, to the nomination in Chicago. It’s like driving on a two-lane highway, seeing a semi coming at you in your lane and, with enough time to react, instead you say to your screaming passengers, “yes, but you see we have a legal right to this lane.” Splat. 

What the partisan brain cannot comprehend is that this is not about Joe Biden or the party’s processes. This is about defeating the worst, most dangerous man ever to occupy the White House. For a while I reluctantly bought into the notion that Biden was the best man to stop Trump for a second time. But in the last year it has become increasingly clear that many other candidates — Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, Pete Buttigieg, Andy Beshear and others — would have a better chance. Thursday night closed that deal for me.

I’m quite sure that most Democratic leaders know this themselves. They know what needs to be done to stop Trump. And yet their partisanship keeps them from saying it or, worse, acting on what they know. 

Partisanship could be the disease that killed America.


Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos.




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