Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Trump-supporting students brought their television onto the famous party balcony overlooking North Court Street in Athens, Ohio, to watch the September 27, 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

The Price of a Weak Leader

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 12:20 PM

It is said that those who can’t, teach. To which I’d add that those who can’t, and who also can’t teach, become bureaucrats. If they clean up well, their path to the loftiest halls of government is clear.

This is especially so in an administration such as the current one. You’ve probably seen or heard President Joe “Bugout” Biden described as “risk-averse.” This is a euphemism. It means “a coward.”

Mostly, this hasn’t mattered and in fact has been an advantage — you do not want someone of diminished capacity making bold decisions. The last thing anyone in a desperate situation needs is the likes of Joe Biden, feeling his oats.

You may remember that when the meeting was held to give the go-ahead to eliminate Osama bin Laden, it was Joe Biden who argued against it. “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go,” he quoted himself as saying when he later described the scene. Barack Obama had learned, as everyone who has dealt with him quickly does, that the wise course of action is to ignore Joe Biden’s always-cowardly opinion if the subject is of any importance. Biden was appropriately ignored and soon thereafter bin Laden slept with the fishes.

I daresay anyone in that room the day of the bin Laden decision could have predicted that Bugout Joe would be too frightened to take a hard stand against Russia’s obviously planned invasion of Ukraine back when it stood a chance of preventing that invasion. (As NATO is surely quaking in its boots at Biden’s claims that the U.S. will defend “every inch of NATO territory,” coming as it did only a few months after an equally outraged, how-dare-you-question-me pledge to evacuate every American from Afghanistan — which he made before surrendering to a bunch of goatherds and leaving Americans behind.) No one who has paid any attention is surprised at all.

While the relationship between Biden and Obama was cordial, there’s evidence that the latter saw his vice president as something like that neighbor who stops you to offer unsolicited and useless advice — or maybe like that rescue dog that simply can’t be taught not to poop on the rug. The opinion was not limited to Obama (who also has Ukrainian blood on his hands). “[M]any senior aides, sometimes tacitly encouraged by the president’s behavior, dismissed Biden as eccentric . . .” wrote Politico in August 2020. “‘You could certainly see technocratic eye-rolling at times,’” said Jen Psaki, the former White House communications director [who is now Biden’s press secretary].”

Nor was Obama quiet in his appraisal of Biden. In his first press conference, Obama was asked about Biden’s view on something. “I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly,” the new president replied. In private, Obama was a little more direct. “One Democrat who spoke to Obama recalled the former president warning, ‘Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f—- things up.’” Perhaps he was remembering the signing of the Obamacare bill on March 23, 2010, when Biden, next to an open microphone, described the event as “a big f—-ing deal,” which became the story, rather than Obama’s triumph, questionable though it was.

Now, as the people of Ukraine who aren’t already dead in the streets are forced to hide underground from withering Russian bombings, Biden is a shuffling cardboard cutout of a leader of the free world. “What’s all the fuss about?” he might be wondering. “I spent the entire 2020 campaign hiding in the basement, and it worked out fine for me. I sure do miss the Barcalounger. Need to get back to it in Delaware this weekend . . .” Bugout Joe is blocking Ukraine from getting the fighter planes Poland has offered — even as he goes hat in hand on bended knee to Russia’s allies Iran and Venezuela, offering to give them the control over U.S. energy he claims to have taken away from Russia. Nor is he held in any esteem on the international scene: When he tried to contact the heads of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in an effort to bail himself out of his oil mess, they wouldn’t take his call.

In his speech yesterday in which he turned off the Russian gas spigot (having been forced by Congress to do so), he said, “It’s simply not true that my administration or policies are holding back domestic energy production.” Yet “Biden Administration Halts New Drilling in Legal Fight Over Climate Costs” was the New York Times headline less than three weeks ago. Is Biden lying or too enfeebled to remember — or maybe out of the loop in his own administration? You be the judge.

Biden is not a bright man — never has been; he flunked third grade — but he is a malleable one. Having always been seen as a the dimmest bulb on the string, he seems to have taken his presidency as an opportunity to gain the approval of Obama (who appears to be only a little more impressed with his former vice president than Jodie Foster was with John W. Hinckley Jr.). One way his fading mind thought he could do this was by hiring a busload of Obama administration retreads, the “technocrats” whom Jen Psaki described as rolling their eyes at his nuttiness.

So we have Anthony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state and deputy national security advisor for Obama, now as secretary of state. Robert Malley, the scion of a leftist French magazine editor, who with the aid of Russia is trying to give Iran everything it wants in exchange for a pro-Russia nuclear deal, was a special assistant to Obama. Malley graduated in the same class from the same day school in France as Blinken. (The old, bad-but-not-as-bad Iranian deal was “negotiated” by John Kerry, the pickle heir by marriage who now travels about the world on your nickel, trying to win the favor of a Swedish high schooler.) Jen Psaki. liar for hire, is back in the press office. And so on.

And those people, none of whom can point to the slightest real-word success, who can’t and who can’t teach, have found that what’s left of Joe Biden is easy to push around. He’ll do what they say, albeit while adding a touch of incoherence to their wrong-headed policies.

Biden is so desperate to help Iran and by extension Russia that his Justice Department has failed to indict two Iran terrorists sent to kill former National Security Adviser John Bolton, to prevent Iranian embarrassment.

How did we get here? Oh, my.

Biden wouldn’t be president at all if his predecessor, Donald J. Trump had found it in his heart to be one percent less a jerk. (A stronger word, having to do with the evacuatory orifice, is called for, but jerk will have to do.) The self-regarding Trump could no more do this than a salamander can play banjo. The Trump administration achieved considerable success, but that’s because Trump was pushed into hiring competent people under the promise that this would free him to spend more time with his mirror and the various suck-ups, bum kissers, bedding vendors, and other Trump worshipers who spent (and spend even now) time affirming his deeply held sense of personal greatness. (You’ll have to decide on your own which of the two would be the lesser evil in the current crises. I hope you don’t think that either of them is the best the country can do.)

All of which is to say that there is something terribly wrong, terribly broken, with how we “choose” our presidents. And no, I don’t mean the election was stolen, because it wasn’t.

No, instead it’s how we select our presidential candidates.

People like to flap their lips about “democracy,” about which they know nothing. The United States is not a democracy, it is a republic. It was never intended to be a democracy. The Constitution provided specifically limited democracy: the members of the House of Representatives were to be popularly elected, but both the president and the Senate were not.

Until the 17th Amendment in 1912 — you probably didn’t know this, because civics is no longer taught — Senators were not popularly elected. They were chosen by state legislators, because the founders thought that the upper house of Congress ought to represent the states. Some states had already moved to popular election, as was their right. That action and the new amendment diminished the role of the Senate as a deliberative body and decreased the influence of the states. Senate races became popularity contests.

Nor is the president popularly elected. Instead, voters pick a slate of electors who in turn elect the president. This is like a hybrid of the popular vote and the states’ interest concerns as expressed in the original selection of senators. That way, as with each state having two senators no matter its size, all interested parties have a voice (diluted though it was by the execrable 17th Amendment). Two states have decided to allow proportional assignment of electors based on the popular vote, thereby ceding any voice those states had in selection of the president.

There is a call, voiced by progressives and idiots (I’d love to see that Venn diagram), to eliminate the Electoral College, which would mean that the most populous states would be masters of all the others which (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notwithstanding) is currently not the case. If more than half the population were in California and every single one of them voted for one candidate, but no one in the rest of the country voted for that candidate, that candidate would not win. Under democracy, that candidate would win and the non-California part of the country wouldn’t matter. (This is also an important argument in favor of states retaining power, as specified in the rather more sensible 10th Amendment.)

At about the same time the 17th Amendment did its part to dismantle the Constitution the idea of primary elections for presidential candidates reared its addled pate. Say what you will about smoke-filled rooms, they gave us Abraham Lincoln, while the inordinately goofy presidential primary system gave us Donald John Trump Jr. The only good, if you can call it that, from the primaries is that they give the all “news” channels something to talk about that requires neither reportorial skill nor much effort.

Political organizations used to choose delegates, most often by state conventions, who went to the national convention where they chose candidates for president and vice president. The picture was not always pretty — in fact, it usually wasn’t — but it came nowhere near the absurdity that we have now.

Consider: Iowa conducts a couple of events, the “straw poll” and the “caucuses,” which are devoid of any actual meaning but which get that state into the news as it otherwise hasn’t been since Feb. 3, 1959, when a small plane crashed near Spirit Lake, killing the pilot plus Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.

This is followed by the New Hampshire primary, which is also, when you look at the numbers, inconsequential. It is lovely as a quaint tradition but ridiculous when taken as a matter of political import. New Hampshire is followed by an ever-battling-for-position number of state primaries, each with its own rules and few that are comparable to each other. Some are limited to party members while some are not, allowing persons during the year to vote for a candidate they have no intention of supporting in November: the most basic of political dirty tricks.

The system comprises a ridiculously large number of “debates,” in which candidates are trotted out and supposedly all given their say on the issues of the day. That some of the candidates are barely heard from makes no difference, because this is not about politics. It is entertainment. The successful “debater” learns to say outrageous things or make wild accusations or speak in sound bites of 20 seconds or less for inclusion in news broadcasts later. It has nothing to do with who the candidate is, what he or she stands for, or why we might want to have him or her running the country.

Proof of this is the wild swings in popularity that are manifested in the results of the next batch of opinion polls and the primary that follows any given debate. We’re selecting candidates based not on ideas or political skills or policies, but on glibness. When a debate — any debate in which no candidate announces he wishes to destroy the country, say — results in a 20-point swing in voter sentiment, that debate has too much influence. It has been argued, and not just humorously, that Richard Nixon was defeated in 1960 by his 5-o’clock shadow, because it rendered him shady looking in the otherwise largely content-free presidential debates. (That was the first year we had televised presidential debates. It is worth noting that the country had somehow struggled through for 171 years without them.)

We have allowed ourselves to get pushed into a situation where much of our future governance is determined not by statesmanship but by entertainment value. A steady stream of morning-line-like poll results fill newscasts, enabling newscasters to breathlessly give the easy story instead of troubling to learn about and report upon the more difficult one — the one in which the substance of the candidates is covered. Instead of news coverage (and this doesn’t apply only to elections), we have “argumentaries,” in which people holler at each other, no actual news getting delivered. (Now, more and more, news programs simply interview the hosts of other news programs.)

Advocates would say that this is good, that it “opens up” the process, that it involves the voters more, and on and on. They are, whether or not they know it, blowing smoke.

That smoke would better be returned to the rooms it once filled, where politicians, from hack to statesman, slugged it out, made deals (thereby honing negotiation skills that are useful among those who govern), and selected what were, over all, not a bad batch of presidential candidates.

Left to state conventions and caucuses followed by national nominating conventions, we would have experienced neither Trump nor Biden. There would have been motivation for something called, quaint term, statesmanship. You can call Trump and Biden many things, but “statesman” is not among them.

We’re facing crises at every turn, and we have the empty husk of not much of a man “leading” us. Once we get past this, if we do, we ought to remember this day and find a better way — no, return to a better way — of selecting our presidential candidates.

It would begin with the elimination of presidential primary elections.

And, as long as we’re doing impossible things, repealing the 17th Amendment, too.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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