Political speeches, very much including State of the Union addresses, rarely make much difference. They can, however, be useful guides to the political landscape.
President Biden was evidently feeling feisty on Tuesday. In particular, he kept baiting Republicans with the suggestion that a number of them are threatening Medicare and Social Security — which they are.
Delivering the Republican response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the United States is divided between two parties, one of which is mainly focused on bread-and-butter issues that matter to regular people, while the other is obsessed with waging culture war. This is also true. But she got her parties mixed up — Republicans, not Democrats, are the culture warriors who’ve lost touch with ordinary Americans’ concerns.
First, about Medicare and Social Security. When Biden said that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” he was greeted with shouts of “Liar!” But last year Senator Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released a “plan to rescue America” that explicitly included as one of its reforms “All federal legislation sunsets in five years.”
Yes, a program that sunsets can be renewed. But what Biden said was true — and how sure are you that the modern G.O.P. would, in fact, vote to maintain Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist?
There’s also the matter of arithmetic. Republicans have pledged to eliminate the budget deficit within 10 years, and unless we raise taxes — which they vehemently oppose — that’s essentially impossible without drastic cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
And let’s not forget that these are programs for seniors — programs that are central to Americans’ long-term financial planning, the bedrock on which most people’s hopes for a decent, dignified retirement rest. Putting them on the chopping block every five years, even potentially, would create immense anxiety.
Hence the hysterical G.O.P. response to Biden’s claims. But those claims were entirely true.
But let’s talk about the Sanders response to Biden, which was even more revealing.
Sanders’s speech was a diatribe against wokeness. This is standard G.O.P. fare these days and exactly what you’d expect in, say, an address at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But this wasn’t a CPAC speech; it was meant to address the nation as a whole and rebut the president of the United States.
So as Greg Sargent of The Washington Post points out, it was remarkable that Sanders spoke largely in right-wing insider jargon. She boasted of eliminating C.R.T. in her state, without even explaining the abbreviation; how many Americans know that it stands for “critical race theory,” let alone why that’s supposed to be such a bad thing?
For that matter, focus groups suggest that most people don’t know what “wokeness” means, or why they should fear it.
But wait, it gets worse. Sanders seemed to say (although her syntax was a bit garbled) that woke policy was responsible for “high gas prices” and “empty grocery shelves.”
So first of all, how does that work? How did critical race theory cause a global spike in crude oil prices, which raised prices at the pump all around the world? How did it snarl supply chains and cause a worldwide shortage of shipping containers?
Second, a politician who was actually in touch with real people’s concerns would know that the examples she used to illustrate Biden’s policy failures are well past their sell-by date. Gas prices did indeed surge for a while, hitting around $5 a gallon last summer. But they’ve fallen drastically since then.
Currently, my preferred indicator of fuel affordability — the price of a gallon of gas as a percentage of the average worker’s weekly earnings — is roughly the same as the average for 2018-2019. I don’t remember Republicans howling about gas prices at the time.
And the complaint about empty shelves is even more out of date. Supply chains were very messed up a year ago, but the pressure has greatly eased since then, and while there are always a few scarce items — avian flu helped cause an egg shortage, although prices are probably heading down — complaints about empty shelves are very stale at this point.
Put it this way: Sanders’s version of the problems facing ordinary Americans seems to be based, not on any direct sense of people’s lives, but on Fox News reporting that hypes bad things under Biden and never mentions when things get better again.
Just to be clear, there are culture warriors on the left, and some of them can be annoying even to social liberals. But few have significant power, and they certainly don’t rule the Democratic Party, which isn’t locked into a closed mental universe, impervious to inconvenient facts, whose denizens communicate in buzzwords nobody else recognizes.
Republicans, however, do live in such a universe — and what Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed us was that they can’t step outside that universe even when they should have strong political incentives to sound like normal people and pretend to care about regular Americans’ concerns.
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