January 13, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Biden, classified documents and the pain of false equivalence
Watch that word – “political” and its variants.
The US military completed its pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021. It was a disaster. I won’t recount details. Point is the news was huge. Many in the press corps asked how the president would survive the “political fallout.” Some in the pundit corps wrote his obituary. The Republicans yelled.
No effect on the following year’s midterms.
Joe Biden’s current “debacle,” as it’s being called, is the discovery of government documents marked classified, first, in an office he used after his vice presidency at a Washington think tank and, second, in his home in Delaware. It’s early, but I suspect this news will have the same effect on his chances of reelection two years from now as the disastrous Afghan withdrawal had on last year’s midterm elections.
Ripping off the bandage
Nothing is the connection between the two.
The president knew a decision had to be made about when to complete the pullout. (The decision about whether to pull out had been made by his predecessor.) Biden knew it would be a disaster, much like everything else the United States has done to Afghans.
So he chose to get it over with. He ripped off the bandage. By the time Christmas of that year rolled around, the only ones still talking about the Afghan pullout were foreign policy journalists and Republican congresspeople embittered by seeing everyone else moving on.
I don’t have a substantive reason for saying this, but it feels to me like the president’s team is taking preemptive action, as if to prevent Biden from experiencing what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
They’re getting all this stuff about government documents out of the way, so that by the time campaign season arrives, our memory of it all will be as fresh as our memory of the Afghan withdrawal.
That doesn’t mean the Republicans won’t keep making a stink. That doesn’t mean the press and pundit corps won’t keep rekindling the question. But, assuming the number of documents is minimal, and assuming what’s been discovered isn’t too serious, the mojo needed to sustain a Washington scandal will by then be thoroughly depleted.
I don’t have a “substantive reason,” because there’s no underlying evidence on which to base my claim. But I do have a reason.
Preemptive action would explain the president’s attorneys going to the Penn Biden Center. (Why go there otherwise?) It would explain the subsequent search of his house. It would explain, on discovering more than a dozen documents marked classified, they went to the National Archives and have conducted themselves by the book.
But ripping the bandage off now makes sense.
“Political” and its variants
When ripping off a bandage, expect pain.
In this case, the pain of false equivalence, or the art of forcing unequal things to seem equal and making the morally better of the two seem not so good, the morally worse of the two seem not so bad.
Newsspeakers and opiniontalkers are already comparing the president’s story to the story about Donald Trump’s absconding from Washington with 10,000 government documents, some top secret regarding Iran and China. Trump lied about having them. He lied about how many he had. He interfered with the National Archives’ lawful attempt to get them. He’s under investigation for obstruction, perhaps espionage, too.
These cases are so different as to be virtually unrelated, but that reality must contend with another set of realities. One, that the Washington press corps loves scandal. Two, that the press corps now has an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not biased against the Republicans. Three, that the GOP will manipulate coverage of the scandal to make Trump’s apparent crimes seem not so bad, to wit:
“It politically neutralizes the Mar-a-Lago issue, and everyone knows it,” Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist, told USA Today. “It raises the question of fairness and double standards. Details here don’t matter as a political debating point, even if they do as a legal matter.”
Watch that word – “political” and its variants.
That’s where the pain of false equivalence resides.
The facts, as known, are clear. These cases, as I said, are so different as to be virtually unrelated. The law is unclear, but it will be clear in time. The US attorney general has assigned a special counsel who will review the documents and assess possible criminal violations.
That leaves the “political.” It’s here that “objective” journalists are at liberty to suspend the ordinary rules of objectivity, permitting them to speculate wildly using language whose goal is attention-hoarding.
“Furor over documents creates unexpected political peril for Biden” was a headline in the Post this morning. In the report, Matt Viser said to expect investigations in the coming weeks, thus “making it harder for Democrats to blast Trump’s handling of sensitive papers.”
Oh no! Things will get harder!
Viser goes on to say that Biden “suddenly confronts a ballooning political problem that threatens to hamstring his agenda and blunt the momentum he hoped to seize at the halfway mark of his term.
Political: Sure, if we choose to forget the facts and the law, and allow the GOP to narrate the plot of Biden’s story. Hamstring his agenda: I recall the Republicans control the House these days. There is no agenda, legislatively. Otherwise, Biden will do what presidents do, scandal or not. Blunt the momentum: a totally meaningless phrase.
More: The Biden document story “is likely to rob him of the unvarnished ability to criticize former president Donald Trump for his own handling of sensitive material — even if the cases, and the two presidents’ approach to them, have been notably different.”
Rob him: Give me a break. Unvarnished ability: When has Biden needed or wanted this ability, varnished or not? Notably different: This goes back to “political problem.” Even though they are different cases, have different facts and applicable laws – even though, it’s a “political problem” because … no one’s sure but they know it is.
And finally: “The revelations, dribbling out throughout the week, began to reveal a picture whose legal significance is still murky but whose political ramifications seem clearer. … That creates at least a superficial equivalence between the cases … with Republicans likely to complain of a double standard if Biden faces fewer consequences.”
Still murky: Yes, because the investigation is just getting started. Even so, it’s factually different from Trump’s case. Seem clearer: Sure, because the Republicans say it seems clearer. Superficial equivalence: this is a bald-faced rationalization of this story and the way it’s been written. Double standard: Only because the Biden and Trump stories are being equated, reduced and distorted beyond all recognition.
See what I mean? Pain, all the way down.
But it’s temporary, I think.
The only thing giving this story legs is the question of when news of the documents was revealed. Why didn’t the White House say anything until after the midterm elections. Why did it mention the documents only after CBS News broke the story this month?
In that question is another question: what is Biden hiding?
The answer is nothing. His attorneys told the National Archives. The National Archives told the Department of Justice. Legally and morally, that was the end of the president’s obligations.
Otherwise, he was acting politically. He chose not to sabotage himself and his party right before the midterm elections.
Then why keep asking?
Because they like pretending that acting politically is bad.
There’s another reason – the Washington press and pundit corps’ tendency to believe that they represent all Americans. If the president didn’t tell them, he was hiding something from us.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.