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Biden's only primary challenger (so far) actually shows Biden's strength
Self-help author Marianne Williamson can barely articulate a policy reason for running.
By Noah Berlatsky
Self-help author Marianne Williamson is currently the only declared Democratic primary opposition to President Joe Biden. Her initial campaign interviews and statements have served mostly to underline her own lack of credibility. She has tried to present herself as a less-experienced Bernie Sanders populist, but it hasn’t been very convincing. She’s currently polling 73 points behind Biden. More, she’s had trouble drawing sharp lines between her own policy preferences and those of the president.
Biden has spent his whole career working to position himself in the center of the Democratic Party. That’s a strategy which, along with incumbency and his success in the 2022 midterms, makes him extremely difficult to dislodge, or even to criticize very effectively in a primary. Sure, there are a slew of Democratic politicians who would like to be president: the Washington Post lists Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and of course Vice President Kamala Harris as possible contenders. But there’s little chance any of them will challenge Biden.
That’s good news insofar as it means the Democrats are likely to be unified going into the 2024 election. The lack of competent opposition on the left, however, means Biden lacks a challenger who can raise legitimate issues with his policy choices.
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Williamson is trying to rebrand as Bernie Lite
Williamson is best known as a writer of spiritual/self-help/wellness books; in that capacity, she was a regular guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2020, she ran for the Democratic nomination on a platform that mixed left positions and New Age jeremiads. She vocally, and admirably, argued for reparations for slavery, distinguishing herself from most of the other Democratic candidates. But she also referred to Trump as “a dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” from which the nation required “healing.” And she dismissed detailed policy proposals as “wonkiness.”
For 2024, Williamson seems to be trying to rebrand herself with less woo and more populism. In a mildly adversarial interview on ABC and a friendly talk on Krystal Kyle & Friends Podcast, she carefully avoided any new age rhetoric about dark psychic forces. Instead she talked about the “ubiquitous economic despair and human devastation that is produced by this sociopathic economic system.” She also said that she now supports Medicare for All.
Williamson positioned herself as an outsider unbeholden to the “system that drove us into a ditch.” Dismissing questions about her lack of political background, she insisted, “My qualification is not that I know how to perpetuate that system; my qualification is that I know how to disrupt it.”
The disruptions she actually proposes, though, are fairly small-bore. For example, she promised to cancel all student debt — a major issue of policy contention in 2020. However, since then, Biden has cancelled large amounts of debt. He also paused payments throughout the pandemic and dramatically lowered monthly payments going forward. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to strike down the loan forgiveness plan, and it’s not clear how Williamson would prevent that.
Similarly, in the aforementioned podcast interview, Williamson struggled to distinguish herself from Biden on Ukraine. There’s a confused left position, embraced by figures like former Green Party candidate Jill Stein and left academic Noam Chomsky, which blames the US for the war. In this erroneous view, anti-imperialism means cosigning Russian imperialism.
Williamson (to her credit) seems to recognize that anti-anti-Putinism is moral and electoral poison. But that leaves her vaguely calling for negotiations if Putin can be brought to the table, which she acknowledges is unlikely.
Without strong policy differences, Williamson’s argument is mostly personal. She argues, not very persuasively, that she could beat Trump or DeSantis and that Biden (who after all has already beaten Trump once) cannot.
She also seems to believe she can overcome Republican obstruction through sheer force of will. That’s unsurprising given her self-help writing. Her books incessantly tout the power of positive thinking, arguing that people can heal themselves and the world if they just wish for it hard enough.
During the AIDS crisis, Williamson told gay men that they could cure themselves if they imagined themselves getting well. She has denied that postpartum depression exists, insisting that people suffering from the condition turn not to medicine or doctors, but to prayer and good vibes. She’s also argued that fat is “a repository of twisted, distorted thoughts and feelings,” and that fat people can lose weight by healing their supposed spiritual and attitudinal deficits “through the power of love.”
Williamson now claims to want to fight the “system.” But for much of her career, she’s argued that people’s troubles are caused not by systems of inequity, but by their own psychic failures.
Politicians often try to remake themselves. Williamson’s transformation from self-help individualist to populist is not that far removed from Mitt Romney’s flip from moderate reform Republican to crusading right-winger in his 2012 run. But it does make her uniquely unqualified to criticize Biden on issues where criticism might do some good.
Williamson is the wrong person on Covid
Biden’s record on Covid, for instance, is ripe for criticism. Hundreds of people are still dying every day from the disease. But the administration has struggled to get additional vaccine funding through Congress, and the public has largely neglected to get the latest booster shots.
Part of this is because of Republican opposition and public health misinformation. But Biden himself undercut efforts to fight the virus by claiming the pandemic is “over.” Administration officials have also largely stopped wearing masks in public — which may have contributed to Biden’s own bout of Covid last July.
There’s been little intra-party criticism of Biden’s Covid policy; Democrats are afraid of public backlash if they call for any additional mitigation measures. Again, though, hundreds of Americans are dying every day from the disease. A primary challenger, even a symbolic one, could do some real good by shining a light on the issue, and urging Biden (and Congress and the public) to do more to bring deaths down.
Williamson, though, is just about the worst possible person to try to challenge Biden on Covid policy. Again, her history of writing on health is drenched in New Age nonsense that is misinformed when it isn’t actively cruel. She also has a history of promoting anti-vax theories, both before and during her last presidential bid.
Williamson is aware that Democrats are not going to vote for an anti-vaxxer, and she’s tried to downplay her views. Interviewers didn’t ask about Covid policy in either interview last week, and she didn’t bring it up herself.
There are other issues where Biden could stand to be pushed. To cite just one that’s in the news now, last week he joined Republicans in promising to override the sovereignty of Washington DC city council members who had passed a less punitive criminal code. The president claims he cares about voting rights and wants to fight for the self-determination of Black people. But after a little right-wing law and order scaremongering, he rushed to betray his stated commitments and promises. Williamson could have talked about that, if she wanted to criticize Biden from the left. But she didn’t.
A symbolic nomination challenger could, perhaps, do some good by highlighting an issue that the press and politicians have been ignoring, like the need for continued Covid mitigation measures, or reparations. But Williamson seems content to run on her personal virtue and outsider status, rather than on policy.
That may help her sell more books. It’s unlikely to benefit the polity much — and also, to be fair, unlikely to do much harm. Based on what we’ve seen so far, her campaign seems carefully calibrated for irrelevance. If Biden does not have some sort of serious health problem, he will be the nominee. If he does, other candidates will enter the race. Either way, Marianne Williamson is not going to matter.
A note from Aaron
Whew. This week got off a scary start for my family, as my daughter Mia spent Monday night in the hospital. She wasn’t feeling well or eating or drinking much Sunday, but it was still a bit of a shock when what we expected to be a relatively routine doctor appointment escalated into a significant ordeal.
It turned out Mia, who will be three in a few months, had a double ear inflection and tonsillitis and was very dehydrated. Once she was in the hospital, nurses got her hooked up to an IV and drew some blood, which showed that her white blood cell count was elevated. That raised concerns about possible sepsis, but additional blood work indicated it was just her body fighting off the ear/tonsil infections.
Thankfully, after about 24 hours of treatment, Mia was well enough to come home last night. We’re all very grateful for the great doctors and nurses who worked with her and for the flood of well-wishes we received after I tweeted about her being in the hospital. We’ll be keeping a close eye on her over the next few days, but she seemed more like herself tonight and should be on the road to a full recovery.
As I write this late Tuesday I’m frankly too tired to put the last couple days in any sort of philosophical context. Tuesday ended up being a lost day for me work wise, and I still need to catch up on the latest bombshell documents in Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox News. But being temporarily behind the news cycle is a small price to pay for having healthy kiddos.
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Friday.