The Biden Administration’s poor public approval ratings ultimately derives from the fact that Biden and his team cannot escape the dilemma that sound policy and politics is at odds with the “Progressive” fundamentalism that controls the Democratic Party today. At nearly every turn, however, Progressive dogma wins out.
Two recent decisions make this problem evident. First is the decision to appeal U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s ruling striking down the federal mask mandate. By all accounts the Biden White House debated about whether to appeal the ruling, sending mixed signals that they might let the ruling stand. At length the administration decided to appeal the ruling, though it did so behind the skirts of the Centers for Disease Control, pretending that they have an obligation to uphold the legal prerogatives of the CDC.
The only surprise is that the White House debated at all, and it is significant that the Justice Department isn’t taking the typical step of requesting a stay of Judge Mizelle’s ruling pending an appeals court hearing, which would cause the mask mandate to snap back into place immediately. The White House surely took in the spontaneous scenes of celebration on airplanes and elsewhere at the liberation from masks, which have become the MAGA hat for Progressives. Democratic campaign strategists have been warning for months that the lockdown-uber-alles policy of the Branch-Covidians is increasingly unpopular with core Democratic constituencies, especially suburban moms.
So why did the White House not take the convenient offramp that Judge Mizelle provided? Answer: the imperatives of the Administrative State took precedence. It is crucial that the legal authority to impose mandates and other controls through the CDC be preserved, even if the White House decides that we can let the mask mandate lapse.
It could turn out worse. Cynical operatives in the White House might welcome an appeals ruling that upholds Judge Mizelle because it will allow Democrats to demand from Congress what I have been expecting from the beginning of Covid—the establishment of a new cabinet-level agency, a Department of Pandemic Planning and Prevention, with broad new regulatory powers beyond the CDC’s wildest imagination. The model here is the Department of Homeland Security, the bureaucratic mistake the Bush Administration foolishly embraced in 2002. In other words, the White House decision to appeal the ruling might not be as politically dumb as it seems.
The second significant White House decision was rolling back President Trump’s long-overdue reforms of the review process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This is the statute that anchors the environmental review and litigation process that the Left has used for decades to slow or block development of all kinds. NEPA and similar state-level laws are a major reason infrastructure projects of all kinds in the U.S. are way more expensive to build—if they are built at all—than in any other major industrialized nation.
The surprise is that it took the Biden White House 15 months to rescind Trump’s changes. You’d have thought Biden would have done this on January 20 of last year, with the same pen he used to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. One reason for the hesitation is that smarter environmentalists (I know, that’s an oxymoron in most cases) have come to understand that while the longstanding environmental review process has been an essential tool to block domestic energy development and infrastructure, it has become an impediment to many of the infrastructure needs of their “green” energy dreams. In many cases local environmental NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists have abused the NEPA process to block new wind and solar power projects, as well as the transmission lines necessary to make these green projects feasible at all.
Ezra Klein noted this problem in the New York Times last month: “They are, too often, powerful allies of an intolerable status quo, rendering government plodding and ineffectual and making it almost impossible to build green infrastructure at the speed we need. . . Too many of the tactics and strategies and statutes are designed to stop transformational or even incremental projects from happening.” Even Jerry Brown came to recognize this problem in California, calling on the state legislature in his last term in office to reform California’s version of NEPA known as CEQA. Naturally the state legislature, which was considerably to the left of Jerry Brown if you can imagine, declined to do so.
The Biden White House did deliver one surprise, however. Its new budget proposal earmarks $6 billion to keep open several nuclear power plants currently scheduled to shut down soon. Someone seems awake enough to understand that if you seriously want to decarbonize our energy supply, you need to keep nuclear power prominently in the mix. Better than a fresh round of subsidies, however, it would be better to remove existing mandates and subsidies for wind and solar power that make nuclear power unprofitable in the marketplace.
This move will not sit well with environmental fundamentalists who refuse to accept nuclear power, no matter how panicked they are about climate change. There are rumors that Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA under Obama and now Biden’s principal “climate adviser,” may resign from her post out of unhappiness at Biden’s purported backsliding on climate, even though Biden’s announcements of support for more domestic oil and natural gas production are mostly hollow rhetoric. Biden’s incoherence on energy simply cannot be masked.