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How 9/11 shaped Joe Biden’s approach to the politics of national tragedy – POLITICO




Like everyone else on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe Biden found himself in a state of confusion when word trickled in that a plane had struck one of the iconic Twin Towers in New York City. He was on his way from Wilmington to Washington, D.C., anticipating a rather mundane commute and a rather mundane Senate confirmation hearing for John Walters, President George W. Bush’s pick for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But thirty minutes or so after boarding his usual train, fellow riders started buzzing about reports coming in from downtown New York. Shortly thereafter, his wife Jill called to break the news.

In those subsequent moments, Biden made his entrance into a dark and difficult chapter in U.S. history, one that would see him play an instrumental role in the U.S. response over the course of two decades. In the process, he gave the American public one of the first real glimpses of a personality trait that has come to define his career in politics and his conduct in the presidency. The then-Senator’s first inclination in the milieu of fear and chaos was that he had the responsibility, perch, and unique skill set to comfort; and that he needed to find a way to speak to the public.

Biden has always prided himself on his oratorical skills, which he had honed over time despite a childhood stutter. Sometimes, they worked to his benefit — like when he was hailed early in his career as the leader of a new generation of Democrats and presided over the Judiciary Committee during critical Supreme Court nomination hearings. Sometimes, his confidence in them was betrayed by the results, like when he went on a riff about Barack Obama’s articulateness during the 2008 primaries, or the countless other moments when he said something off the cuff that he later had to clarify.

But never, prior to 9/11, had he attempted to apply those skills to a moment of national tragedy.

When he stepped off the train that morning at roughly 10 a.m., Biden rushed the few blocks between Union Station and the Capitol. Off in the distance, smoke was rising in the air across the Potomac. Another plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had crashed into the Pentagon. A Capitol police officer stopped him at the entrance, refusing to let him into the building.

Margaret Aitken, Biden’s press secretary at the time, met up with him on his way to the Capitol steps. She recalled Biden trying to find a way to get in front of the C-SPAN cameras on the Senate floor in order to say something that the public could find reassuring. “He wanted our country and the rest of the world to know that our government was still operational. That was extremely important to him at that time,” Aitken recalled.

Part of Biden’s desire to speak that morning was driven by the fact that the other national figures couldn’t. Bush was still being kept away from D.C. for his safety, having spent the morning in a classroom in Florida promoting education and literacy. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney was in the presidential bunker. Biden, who had recently become the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was arguably the most senior foreign policy figure not in the executive branch.

But those who have worked with Biden note he also believes firmly in his capacities to project calm and empathy in moments where those two notions seem lacking. Whereas some politicians find it difficult to comfort the afflicted, Biden has taken pride in his ability to do so. He has eulogized colleagues who have passed, given national addresses around moments of gun violence, and commemorated grim milestones around the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a role not every politician can play. And, as the day of 9/11 unfolded, it was not clear if Biden, or anyone, could either.

Despite Biden’s protestations to Capitol police, he would never be allowed onto the Senate floor. Aides recalled, at that moment, that Biden looked at the jumble of lawmakers, staffers and tourists standing in shock after evacuating the Capitol and began going up to people individually, grabbing their shoulders, and sharing the message he wanted to share with the cameras: “We’re going to be OK, we’re going to be OK.”

Former Rep. Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was with Biden that day. The two of them tried to convince other members of the legislative branch to team up and push for access to the Capitol to gavel Congress back into session, if only to signal that the government was unbowed. But after hours of trying, they gave up.

Biden looked at Brady.

“He said, ‘you got a car?’ I said, ‘yeah I got a car,” Brady told POLITICO. So the two lawmakers, a member of Brady’s staff and Biden’s brother, Jimmy — who had been in D.C. that day and made his way over to the Capitol — piled in a car together to head home.

And then, Biden got what he had been looking for.

On the way to the car, Biden ran into Linda Douglass, the Chief Capitol Hill Correspondent for ABC News at the time. She had recently been evacuated herself and was looking for a place to do a live shot and, more importantly, any senior government official to talk to.

”It was just such a relief to see somebody of his stature and seniority, able to talk to the country, which was in a state of terror and confusion,” said Douglass, who went on to become an aide to the Obama-Biden 2008 campaign. “That is the part of it that was significant to me: there were no other voices. There were no other leaders who were able to start reassuring the country.”

Back at the studio, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings asked Biden about al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was already being discussed as the mastermind behind the attacks. “The tendency in these circumstances is to be too focused on one man, one idea, one prospect … I think it’s much too early for us to make those kinds of judgments,” Biden said. “This cannot be dealt with overnight. It’s an incredible tragedy. But it’s a new threat of the twenty-first century, and we will find a way to do it. ”

After the interview, Biden and Brady hopped in the car, jumped into the heavy afternoon traffic and took what Brady remembers as a somber and quiet ride to Wilmington. The men listened to the news the entire ride, talked to family members and spent most of the ride in shock. “We just didn’t know what to think about it, what to do about it,” Brady recalled. He says the men sobbed and said a prayer any time there was an update on how many had been killed that day.

Close to Baltimore, Biden’s phone rang again. It was President Bush thanking “him for his remarks,” Brady said. The president also told Biden the intelligence community was telling him to stay away from the nation’s capital. Biden pushed back, “Mr. President, come back to Washington.”

Bush would eventually return to D.C. later that evening and would address the nation from the Oval Office at 9 P.M., nearly 12 hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

Brady dropped the Bidens off at the Wilmington train station, where Biden’s own car had been all day. The next morning, Biden held a staff meeting back at the Capitol, where he found himself consoling young aides with a speech that Aitken says she told him more people needed to hear. So, they called the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show.

“I’ve literally gotten heads of state on the phone quicker than Oprah,” Aitken says with a laugh. Her show was preempted by 9/11 coverage for days and Biden would appear on Monday, the 17th, nearly a week later.

The Oprah interview (done via satellite from Delaware) was a preview of the role that Biden would ultimately play for years to come: part soothsayer, part foreign policy analyst, part consoler.

Oprah introduced Biden as “a key player” for the country at that moment. The senator read from a letter written by the son of the University of Delaware’s president, his alma mater.

“We have fought evil. We have preserved our constitutional rights, our values and everything that’s so important to America,” Biden read before remarking himself, “They do not have the capacity to take this nation down. They don’t have the capacity.”

He would share a similar message two days later at the same university, where his reassurance included predictions that were much rosier than what ultimately happened.

“Don’t let yourself get carried away. What happened was horrible. Some have called September 11 a ‘second day of infamy,’” Biden told the students. “Some are telling you that it will change our way of life. I’m here to tell you it will not — cannot, must not — change our way of life. It is the beginning of the end of the way of life for international terrorist organizations — not ours.”

Biden would spend the next days, weeks, months and years helping to craft the policy responses to 9/11. His “focus in foreign policy shifted to Central Asia and the Middle East. And it should have,” recalled Mike Haltzel, the Democratic Staff director of the European Affairs subcommittee.

He made political calculations in the moment that would come back to complicate his career. He spoke highly of President Bush and worked closely with the Bush administration. He offered his support for the use of military force in Iraq, giving the White House the type of bipartisan buy-in to confidently launch the invasion.

But aides also say that Biden, over his four trips to the region, became disillusioned with the outcomes of 9/11, not just with the war in Iraq but also with the efforts to build a semblance of a nation state in Afghanistan.

“For years, it’d been more, ‘this is a f—ed up situation. The Bush administration is f—ing it up. And if I could just sit down with Karzai, maybe I could figure out a way of getting it un-f—ed,’” said Jonah Blank, the policy director for South and Southeast Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1999 to 2011. That, said Blank, led to “‘Okay, I’ve sat down with Karzai and no, he’s not part of the solution. He is part of the problem. I just don’t see a way of breaking through this. I don’t see a way of getting to the other side on this.’”

Just under 20 years after he stepped off the train, Biden found himself in a position to do something about that disillusionment. As president, he oversaw the full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of August, despite immense political pressure to reconsider that decision. It was a bloody, chaotic mess of a withdrawal, one that raised serious questions about his approach to the region. To fend off the doubts about it — and to honor the U.S. military casualties that came with it — Biden followed his instinct once more: he gave a major national address to the nation.

Biden made a promise to avenge the deaths of the 13 American service members killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul in the final days of the drawdown.

“As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice,” he said, “it’s time to look to the future, not the past — to a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure, to a future that honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called their ‘last full measure of devotion.’”

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Slammed doors or warm welcomes for women in politics? – Policy Options



Canada has had more than 100 years to modernize elections and campaigns so that women candidates can compete on a level playing field.

What’s taken so long? How is it possible that obstacles dating from the suffrage era continue to pose significant barriers?

Veronica Strong-Boag’s forthcoming biography of the first woman cabinet minister in the British Empire reveals problems that continue to this day. In 1892, Mary Ellen Smith left the dusty coal towns of northern England for Nanaimo, B.C. She arrived as an experienced public reformer, committed to improving the living and working conditions of families like her own – composed of white European miners, their wives and children. Smith became a leader in West Coast campaigns to extend the vote to women and to strengthen minimum wage, public pension and child labour laws.

The sudden death of her husband Ralph, an MLA for Vancouver, led Smith to contest his seat in a provincial byelection. Despite fierce competition, she won in 1918 and in two subsequent races. Smith became not just B.C.’s first female MLA but also a minister without portfolio in the province’s then-Liberal government.

As an immigrant from the U.K. whose first language was English, what were her rewards? Smith was provided no stipend, staff or seat at the cabinet table. She resigned as minister without portfolio less than a year after her appointment, stating she refused to be a superfluous “fifth wheel on the political coach.” In 1928, the B.C. Liberals pushed Smith off the stage entirely, running her in a Tory bastion on Vancouver Island. Smith, as well as the B.C. Liberal Party, lost that election.

During much of Smith’s time in the public spotlight, political leaders and media pundits remarked on little beyond her attractive face, fashionable clothes, feminine speaking style and congenial personality. Smith became a sexualized commodity of the time: B.C. Liberal leader John Oliver announced that he’d kissed the victorious candidate out of “duty” rather than sin. Another B.C. Liberal proposed marriage with a $3,000 monetary incentive. In short, the substantive commitments that had long dominated Smith’s civic involvement were buried in a volley of commentary that highlighted her “comely” good looks and “quiet, gentle voice.”

Mary Ellen Smith stands among the first women in Canada to walk away from parliamentary politics with a deep sense of disappointment. But she was far from the last.

What can be done to ensure that today’s women candidates escape these sordid legacies? First, sustained focus in public debate on policy content rather than personal minutiae would go a long way toward improving our political climate. As they did 100 years ago, contemporary news reports and commentaries that highlight hair, wardrobe and tone of voice trivialize the contributions of half the population by turning political campaigns into old-fashioned beauty pageants. This trend is particularly worrisome in our visually saturated era, when social media emphasis on style and imagery is usurping the somewhat more-substantive orientation of older news outlets.

Second, I encourage candidates and leaders to channel Mary Ellen Smith by calling out the biases they confront. To their credit, a number of diverse women who abandoned federal politics in recent months, including Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, did just that. Back in mid-June, Qaqqaq announced she would not run in the next federal election. A member of the NDP caucus since 2019, Qaqqaq said the House of Commons was “a very uneasy place,” where staff did not recognize her status as an MP. Qaqqaq also felt stymied in her attempts to improve housing and prevent suicide in Indigenous and Inuit communities.

A Liberal MP and cabinet minister for one term and then an independent MP since 2019, Wilson-Raybould explained in July that she’d decided not to run again given a “toxic and ineffective Parliament” characterized by “harmful partisanship.”

Instead of quietly exiting the parliamentary arena, both Qaqqaq and Wilson-Raybould spoke publicly about what ails the system. They. along with embattled Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. have identified problems that continue to impede participants who come from traditionally marginalized outsider groups. Paul’s comments this summer suggest that the internal Green Party debate over the Middle East conflict and the defection to the Liberals of Jenica Atwin, a Green MP from New Brunswick, was far from civil. In fact, Paul told reporters that racist and sexist allegations were levelled against her at an emergency meeting of the Green Party’s national council in mid-June.

Not surprisingly, these contemporary trail-blazers include women who are Indigenous (Qaqqaq and Wilson-Raybould) as well as Black and Jewish (Paul). Their entry to Canadian public institutions that were constructed for and by white Christian men has provoked discomfort, hostility and lots in between.

Third, as the citizens whose voices ought to be represented in legislative chambers and in cabinet meetings, we – as members of a diverse Canadian public – need to demand better. It’s our responsibility to hold editors, journalists, bloggers and tweeters to foundational standards that require fair coverage of election campaigns. Emphases on the coiffure, sexual allure or voice of female candidates tend to go hand-in-hand with neglect of their substantive politics. This approach remains as vapid and imbalanced now as it was a century ago.

We also need to insist that parties and legislatures open their doors to change-oriented participants who don’t look like the Fathers of Confederation. If public institutions remain closed to candidates like Qaqqaq, Wilson-Raybould and Paul, those structures are sure to calcify as bloated parking lots full of status quo advocates.

Our job, in short, is to help ensure the experiences of women candidates and parliamentarians in 2021 are measurably better than they were in the era of Mary Ellen Smith.

Data shows that during this pandemic, public trust in elected leaders in Canada has dipped precipitously. Just imagine how much worse those trends will become if we don’t find ways to elect women like Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Annamie Paul – and ensure they are effective and are able to be influential inside the system.

This article is part of the How can we improve the elections process special feature. 

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 

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Daoust: Stop the unfair whining about politicians. They get a lot of things right – Ottawa Citizen



Overall, the studies are very clear: most of the time, governments deliver a majority of their pledges.

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There are good reasons to be upset about politics and the behaviour of our elected representatives. However, it strikes me that many citizens are over-cynical and whine about politics for unfair reasons.


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Let me be clear, we must be critical of the government and hold politicians to very high standards. This is particularly important in times of crisis where their decisions will heavily impact our standard of living or even our health conditions, as we have seen with COVID-19.

That said, many comments about politicians that I hear are unfair and cheap.

First, politicians are said to constantly break their promises. The good news is that we can actually verify the extent to which they do — and fortunately, several academics do this important work. Overall, the numbers are very clear: most of the time, governments deliver a majority of their pledges.

We also hear a lot that politicians, and especially the prime minister, are strategic and pursue their self-interest. These are two extremely puzzling complaints. Why would it systematically be a bad thing to be strategic? At the end of the day, there are many very good policies that are appealing for a majority of voters (and thus benefiting the government if adopted). Implementing them should not be seen as Machiavellian.


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Moreover, it is very difficult to imagine that most of those who run for the job of member of Parliament do it for their self-interest. In terms of financial incentives, many of these people would make much more money in the private sector. They don’t do it for money.

People also do not become politicians in the hope that it will allow them to have more free time. In fact, being a politician is a very time-consuming job, and for many it requires being away from home; just think about the size of the country and how many constituencies are not within a commutable distance from Ottawa.

To borrow an expression from psychologist Ashley Weinberg: the job should come with a government health warning, as it is a mental health hazard. Not only are politicians likely to develop mental health problems, but recent research has also shown that voters penalize politicians who suffer from depression (a mental health disease that affects many Canadians and should be the source of stigma) more than they penalize politicians who suffer from a physical disease such as cancer or high blood pressure.


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Many people won’t be thrilled about the current election because they are simply not interested in politics. Political junkies are a minority of people, and this is perfectly fine. However, I find it troubling and unfair that citizens, especially those who do not closely follow politics, are exposed to a ton of negativity about politics and politicians. I hope that this text will reach people who are not interested in politics and thus less likely to be aware of the above considerations. Their vote choice should not be based on cynicism and misleading conceptions of Canadian politics and politicians.

I’m not calling for fewer critical comments. I just hope that they become fairer.

Jean-François Daoust is a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh.



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Pandemic politics fuel long-shot Republican challenges to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott – NBC News



Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has $55 million banked for his re-election campaign, a 73 percent approval rating among Republicans, and an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

And, thanks to restrictive abortion and voting bills Abbott has signed in recent months, Texas has become an epicenter of the national conservative causes that rally the GOP base.

None of that, though, has stopped a crop of critics — including Allen West, a former Florida congressman with a right-wing following who briefly served as the Texas GOP chairman — from announcing plans to challenge Abbott in next year’s primary.

Sept. 7, 202102:11

Their complaint isn’t so much that Abbott is not a conservative. It’s that he’s not the hard-line conservative they believe that Texans crave — particularly when compared with some Republican peers and their hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“He’s not Ron DeSantis, and he’s not Kristi Noem,” one veteran of Texas GOP politics said, referencing the governors of Florida and South Dakota who’ve upped their national profiles by resisting extended lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates and other restrictions to limit the spread of Covid.

Pandemic politics are likely to play out in GOP gubernatorial primaries elsewhere, most notably in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine already has two challengers on his right who disapprove of the cautious approach he took early in the crisis. In Texas, West is one of at least four Republicans who are already campaigning against Abbott. Also in the race are Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator from the Dallas area who has endorsements from former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chad Prather, a conservative comedian and commentator for BlazeTV; and Paul Belew, a criminal defense attorney running with a television-inspired “Better Call Paul” slogan.

Abbott’s allies are unfazed by the early moves against him. The governor won primaries in 2014 and 2018 with more than 90 percent of the vote and comfortably won his first two terms. In a huge state with expensive media markets, he has a cash advantage that even the independently wealthy Huffines, who already has loaned his campaign $5 million, is unlikely to match.

“They don’t have any money, they don’t have any fundraising ability,” said John Wittman, Abbott’s former communications director who now runs a public affairs firm in Austin. “They are all fighting over the same 10 to 12 percent of Republican primary voters.”

Dave Carney, Abbott’s political strategist, said he takes nothing for granted but is “not worried at all” about challenges from the right.

“We’re really focused on the general election,” he added. “The primary is a great opportunity for us to do a dress rehearsal.”

Aug. 17, 202104:28

Abbott’s rivals could be a nuisance nevertheless in his bid for a third term. They repeatedly hammer him for business closures and mask mandates during the early months of the pandemic. And they don’t give him credit for being among the first governors to ease off such orders, using strikingly similar rhetoric to dismiss his decisions as an affront to liberty.

Said West: “I mean, you can’t give back something that you really had no right to take.”

Said Huffines: “That would be like thanking a thief for bringing some of your stolen goods back.”

Said Prather: “When you play arsonist and firefighter, the hypocrisy bleeds through pretty fast.”

Abbott was careful not to call public health measures he took in April 2020 a “stay-at-home order,” though he subsequently clarified in a video message that he was requiring “all Texans to stay at home except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store.” He began reopening, with limitations, in May 2020 only to pause those efforts the next month because of a surge in coronavirus cases. A mask mandate quickly followed and stayed in place until March this year, when Abbott fully reopened the state.

Even so, using the pandemic as a wedge against Abbott, who last month tested positive for Covid, is not a slam-dunk primary message. More than two-thirds of Republican voters approved of his response to the crisis when surveyed in an August poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Other critics, particularly Democrats, have argued his pandemic response has been too lax, pointing in particular to his July order barring mask and vaccine mandates in the state despite the highly-contagious delta variant surge.

As of Thursday, confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas were up 11 percent over the last two weeks. Deaths were up 38 percent.

The primary challengers have other grievances.

West, Huffines and Prather all accused Abbott of not doing enough to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, even after the governor pledged to deploy more state police and free up state funds to continue building a border wall.

Huffines wishes Abbott would have called for what he termed as a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election — a calling card for right-wing candidates eager to please Trump. (The former president won the state of Texas.)

Prather mockingly calls Abbott a “campaign conservative” who is all talk, no action.

“The media gives him a lot of credit because he uses a lot of conservative rhetoric,” Prather said. “But there’s a difference between saying and doing. And, you know, Ron DeSantis does. Kristi Noem does. And Greg Abbott, a politician who lives off his polls, is good at saying.”

Several experienced Texas GOP operatives downplayed these ideological differences.

“Allen West has a history of pandering to the never-happy crowd,” said Chad Wilbanks, a former executive director of the state party who supports Abbott’s re-election. “Then you have … Don Huffines, who’s also pandering to the never-happy crowd.”

“You know, you’re never going to make everybody happy,” he added, in defense of Abbott. “And a leader who tries to make everybody happy is not very successful.”

The presence of several anti-Abbott candidates could split whatever anti-Abbott vote exists. Huffines and Prather see strength in numbers, predicting that a crowded field could keep Abbott below 50 percent in a primary and trigger a one-on-one runoff in which anti-Abbott voters can consolidate around one candidate. (“I’m not doing the wolf pack thing,” West, who dismissed such a strategy, said.)

The problem with that thinking is in the poll numbers. Abbott’s 73 percent job approval rating within his party, as measured by last month’s Texas Politics Project survey, has fallen 8 points over the last year, but it’s still high enough to leave little room for a successful primary challenger.

“They’re presuming that 5 or 10 percent of the electorate that may wish our governor was more conservative,” is a path to victory, said Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and personally supports Abbott. “But that defies third-grade math.”

There’s also the Trump factor. The former president endorsed Abbott in early June, then joined him at the border to raise alarm about immigration. Huffines believes Trump’s endorsement, like others that have gone wrong, including one earlier this year in a special Texas congressional election, is a mistake.

“The president has supported a lot of losers, and this is just going to be another one in that column,” Huffines said. “And it’s sad — for Trump, it’s going to be sad.”

Prather suggested Trump could change his mind “as this thing really heats up.”

That won’t happen, a senior political adviser to Trump said.

“President Trump has always respected Gov. Abbott and maintained a strong relationship. He was always inclined to support his re-election, but it was Abbott’s leadership on securing the border that sealed the deal,” the adviser said. “Trump loves Texas and loves fighters — Abbott is definitely a fighter for Texas.”

As for Democrats, they so far lack a well-known challenger, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close race against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign, a top recruiting target.

“If Abbott were weak,” Mackowiak said, “we’d have a Democratic candidate for governor already.”

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