The Old Man and the AOC

REVIEW: 'This Will Not Pass' by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns

May 3, 2022

One of the main characters in This Will Not Pass by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns is a gaffe-prone septuagenarian and "devoted" Morning Joe watcher with limited policy chops and an endless supply of inscrutable anecdotes who somehow manages to become president but failed to accomplish much of anything due to his subpar leadership qualities, low approval ratings, and the fractious nature of his own party.

The other is Donald Trump.

Early on in the book, which comes out Tuesday, the authors note how from the very moment Joe Biden clinched the Democratic nomination for president, he was struggling to unify "a vast set of constituencies that shared a deep antipathy to Trump and little else." Roughly two years later, it seems appropriate to conclude that Biden has failed. The historians and party activists who anointed him (without evidence) as a modern-day FDR were wrong, because of course they were. He's Joe f—ing Biden, and Democrats are Democrats, determined as ever to demonstrate their remarkable capacity for disarray.

This Will Not Pass is a thoroughly reported account of the months preceding the 2020 election, the intervening lame-duck period, and the first year of Biden's presidency. So thorough, in fact, that anyone who isn't a politically obsessed nerd will find large segments of the book too tedious to sit through. Liberal nerds and other long-suffering Trump addicts will find plenty to sate their lust for righteous outrage, as the former president features prominently throughout, while the events of January 6 are recounted with the gravity of the Pearl Harbor or September 11 attacks.

The revelations on these topics have dominated the early coverage of the book, which makes sense, given the recent complaints from White House reporters that covering the Biden administration is "boring and difficult" compared with the rush of "saving democracy" from Trump, who appears to have eagerly agreed to be interviewed by the authors. He is the central villain in the story, no doubt. In the authors' view, he represents "the most potent distillation of white grievance, xenophobia, and raw racism to strike American politics since the end of segregation." Yet hardly any of the key players come across as heroes—apart from Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), the outspoken Trump opponent who was clearly a prolific source for the book.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) is revealed as a particularly pathetic character who clearly detests his job but is also inexplicably possessed by a desire to one day serve as speaker of the House, a title he is by no means guaranteed even in the likely event that Republicans take power after the midterms. Despite his internal misgivings about Trump, he persists in debasing himself to curry favor with a man who calls him "My Kevin" to his face and a "pussy" with an "inferiority complex" behind his back.

The mainstream media will find no shortage of material with which to rile up its Trump-starved viewers. To their credit, the authors also provide extraordinary insight into the travails of an administration that many of their colleagues find "boring" to cover, and its mostly unsuccessful attempts to navigate the razor-thin Democratic majority in Congress. They track Biden's transformation from humble acceptance—resigned to be remembered as "the guy that beat Donald Trump" and little else—to maniacal hubris, convening a meeting of historians and presidential biographers for their thoughts on a single question: "How big can we go?"

The answer—"not very"—should have been obvious to everyone involved. "Nobody elected him to be FDR," said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.), a moderate from a swing district. "They elected him to be normal and stop the chaos." Few Democrats, and even fewer journalists, were as tempered in their expectations. Barack Obama could barely contain his contempt for the hype surrounding Biden's early days in office. The former president, who tried repeatedly to dissuade Biden from running, "was jealous" of his former running mate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) confided to a friend. Biden concurred.

Nevertheless, after ramming through a controversial pandemic relief bill that experts warned could increase inflation, Democrats persisted in trying to pass a sweeping welfare package full of "New Deal-style social programs." The book recounts how the party's efforts to unite its disparate wings, from moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) to progressive House members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), aka "AOC," and Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), quickly devolved into farce, thanks in no small part to Biden's inadequacies as a leader.

In one revealing anecdote, Biden makes a surprise visit to Capitol Hill in October 2021, ostensibly in an effort to break the deadlock between moderate Democrats who wanted to vote on a bipartisan infrastructure package and progressives who insisted on tackling infrastructure in tandem with a multi-trillion social spending bill. "If Biden had a plan, he did not share it," the authors recount. He did, however, tell a story about the baseball legend Satchel Paige, who reportedly explained his longevity in the sport with a rhetorical question: "How old would you be if you did not know how old you were?" What the hell was he talking about, attendees wondered.

"It was not clear what message Biden intended to convey with that story," which some lawmakers had already heard the previous night when Biden attended the annual congressional baseball game, perhaps a more appropriate setting. The bewildered Democrats came away from Biden's speech with a feeling that was "not altogether reassuring." The book suggests that Biden, a renowned glad-hander who has worked in politics for more than five decades, is ill-equipped to stand up to the Democratic Party's increasingly radical left-wing faction.

The authors document the Democratic Party's reluctant embrace of the extremist positions promoted by AOC and company—in parallel with the GOP's reluctant embrace of Trump—by revealing what the party establishment really thinks about their left-wing counterparts. Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), privately rail against the "loose talk of socialism" and defunding the police. White House chief of staff Ron Klain is increasingly frustrated, the authors write, at having to manage the party's "various identity-based interests." Mike Donilon, a longtime Biden adviser, is aghast that "these kids don't even want us putting Thomas Jefferson references in speeches!" Another Biden aide, former representative Cedric Richmond (D., La.), was more blunt, dismissing AOC and her fellow Squad members as "fucking idiots."

Such is the state of the Democratic Party heading into the midterm election cycle and what could turn out to be a historic wipeout. Martin and Burns report that the party remains as flummoxed as American voters, who are probably less inclined to laugh at jokes about the rampant inflation on Biden's watch. They are shocked, shocked, to learn that the "anti-Trump forces that granted power temporarily to Democrats had not morphed into a durable progressive alliance." Perhaps they should "spend more time explaining" things, numerous lawmakers have urged. Biden's increasingly panicked pollster, John Anzalone, suggested Democrats might explain how they plan to secure the border.

LOL. Good luck!

This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America's Future
By Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns
Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $29.99