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Jen O’Malley Dillon Fell Into Joe Biden’s Unity Trap

A weeklong phony outrage cycle offers a glimpse of a very annoying future.

YouTube/Beto O'Rourke

Jen O’Malley Dillon was always going to have to apologize. In an interview with Glamour, Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign manager and the incoming White House deputy chief of staff called Republicans (in general) “a bunch of fuckers” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (specifically) “terrible.”

She was always going to have to apologize because this contradicts a central theme of Joe Biden’s campaign: that Republicans aren’t fuckers but, instead, good people in thrall to Donald Trump, who will come to their senses once Joe Biden is in charge and ready to deal with them in good faith. In fact, O’Malley Dillon was using these insults in the service of enunciating and defending this very campaign theme. Republicans simply clawed the words “fuckers” and “terrible” from a longer paragraph and ginned up a tidy little outrage cycle. In so doing, they undermined Biden’s central campaign premise a lot more thoroughly than O’Malley Dillon is said to have done.

Here are O’Malley Dillon’s words in their original context:

In the primary, people would mock him, like, “You think you can work with Republicans?” I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of fuckers. Mitch McConnell is terrible. But this sense that you couldn’t wish for that, you couldn’t wish for this bipartisan ideal? He rejected that. From start to finish, he set out with this idea that unity was possible, that together we are stronger, that we, as a country, need healing, and our politics needs that too.

Having gone over this a few times, I think this is clearly a defense of wishing for bipartisanship as a politically successful campaign strategy, even if savvy insiders like O’Malley Dillon are skeptical that it has a chance of succeeding with the actual Republicans that are on hand. In other words, Joe Biden was smart toas centrist critics so frequently accuse their left-wing opponents of doingpromise the impossible. (This was a campaign, after all, that frequently promised, without caveats, to cure cancer.)

Whether that was what O’Malley Dillon meant or not, by the end of the week she had walked back her stark characterization of Republicans, declaring that she “used some words that I probably could have chosen better,” according to Politico. In clarifying what she meant, she pointed out again how many people were drawn to Biden’s “belief that we can get things done, and we can get them done if we come together.”

In other words, it is the political power of that idea that matters, beyond the likelihood of any meaningful “coming together” between the Biden White House and congressional Republicans.

The whole episode, including the predictable phony outrage cycle it prompted on the right, was a preview of the next four years. As The Daily Show’s Daniel Radosh pointed out, Biden has effectively laid a trap for his own administration and the rest of the Democratic Party. Having run on healing and comity and dealing fairly with Republicans, almost any accurate description of Republican behavior, actions, and recent history suddenly looks like a violation of that spirit of unity. And any accurate description of Republicans will then be seized upon by Republicans as hypocrisy, or an ex post facto excuse for their own behavior during the Trump years.

This will be Biden’s version of a problem familiar to anyone who remembers the first Obama years: It is trivially easy to sabotage an opponent who promises to bring everyone together by simply refusing to be a party to that great coming together.

Viewed in hindsight, it’s hard to ignore how much responsibility Obama and his administration bore for that dynamic. Not just because they failed to foresee Republican intransigence, and the intensity and extremism of the conservative opposition to Obama, but because they failed to be honest with the American people about what kind of fuckers they were dealing with.

This is especially easy to see following the publication of the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoir. Obama writes witheringly of Mitch McConnell—not just in the abstract but with lengthy accounts describing in great detail the extent of McConnell’s terribleness. Of course, Obama could’ve also told these stories as they were happening. (Failing that, he might have done well to tip Biden off to this reality before he chose to run for president on the promise of Republican epiphanies.)

This gets at a bifurcated and strange element of Democratic messaging around Republican turpitude. To a friendly audience, Democratic insiders will freely admit that Republicans are terrible. But they don’t do the work of explaining why and how they are terrible outside of this audience. I have probably put more time and effort into explaining exactly why McConnell is terrible than most Democratic politicians have. That’s part of my job, of course. Isn’t it part of theirs, too?

If Americans want to hear their leaders promise to bridge the aisle and work with the other side, it might be good politics, in one election cycle, to tell them you’ll do that. In the long run, wouldn’t it be smarter to try to get them to understand why you can’t work with these fuckers?