This Will Not Pass is a blockbuster. Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns deliver 473 pages of essential reading. The two New York Times reporters depict an enraged Republican party, besotted by and beholden to Donald Trump. They portray a Democratic party led by Joe Biden as, in equal measure, inept and out of touch.
Martin and Burns make their case with breezy prose, interviews and plenty of receipts. After Kevin McCarthy denied having talked smack about Trump and the January 6 insurrection, Martin appeared on MSNBC with tapes to show the House Republican leader lied.
In Burns and Martin’s pages, Trump attributes McCarthy’s cravenness to an “inferiority complex”. The would-be speaker’s spinelessness and obsequiousness are recurring themes, along with the Democrats’ political vertigo.
On election day 2020, the country simply sought to restore a modicum of normalcy. Nothing else. Even as Biden racked up a 7m-vote plurality, Republicans gained 16 House seats. There was no mandate. Think checks, balances and plenty of fear.
Biden owes his job to suburban moms and dads, not the woke. As the liberal Brookings Institution put it in a post-election report, “Biden’s victory came from the suburbs”.
Said differently, the label of socialism, the reality of rising crime, a clamor for open borders and demands for defunding the police almost cost Democrats the presidency. As a senator, Biden knew culture mattered. Whether his party has internalized any lessons, though, is doubtful.
On election day 2021, the party lost the Virginia governor’s mansion. Republican attacks over critical race theory and Covid-driven school closures and Democrats’ wariness over parental involvement in education did them in. This year, the midterms offer few encouraging signs.
This Will Not Pass portrays Biden as dedicated to his belief his presidency ought to be transformational. In competition with the legacy of Barack Obama, he yearns for comparison to FDR.
“I am confident that Barack is not happy with the coverage of this administration as more transformative than his,” Biden reportedly told one adviser.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, is more blunt: “Obama is jealous of Biden.”
Then again, Hunter Biden is not the Obamas’ son. Michelle and Barack can’t be too jealous.
A telephone conversation between Biden and Abigail Spanberger, a moderate congresswoman from Virginia, captures the president’s self-perception. “This is President Roosevelt,” he begins, following up by thanking Spanberger for her sense of humor.
She replies: “I’m glad you have a sense of humor, Mr President.”
Spanberger represents a swing district, is a former member of the intelligence community and was a driving force in both Trump impeachments.
This Will Not Pass also amplifies the disdain senior Democrats hold for the “Squad”, those members of the Democratic left wing who cluster round Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Martin and Burns quote Steve Ricchetti, a Biden counselor: “The problem with the left … is that they don’t understand that they lost.”
Cedric Richmond, a senior Biden adviser and former dean of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), is less diplomatic. He describes the squad as “fucking idiots”. Richmond also takes exception to AOC pushing back at the vice-president, Kamala Harris, for telling undocumented migrants “do not come.”
“AOC’s hit on Kamala was despicable,” Richmond says. “What it did for me is show a clear misunderstanding of what’s going on in the world.”
Meanwhile, Cori Bush, a Squad member, has picked a fight with the CBC and led the charge against domestic terror legislation.
Burns and Martin deliver vivid portraits of DC suck-ups and screw-ups. They capture Lindsey Graham, the oleaginous senior senator from South Carolina, in all his self-abasing glory.
During the authors’ interview with Trump, Graham called the former president. After initially declining to pick up, Trump answered. “Hello, Lindsey.” He then placed Graham on speaker, without letting him know reporters were seated nearby.
Groveling began instantly. Graham praised the power of Trump’s endorsements and the potency of his golf game. Stormy Daniels would not have been impressed. The senator, Burns and Martin write, sounded like “nothing more than an actor in a diet-fad commercial who tells his credulous viewer that he had been skeptical of the glorious product – until he tried it”.
This Will Not Pass also attempts to do justice to Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona senator and “former Green party activist who reinvented herself as Fortune 500-loving moderate”. In addition to helping block Biden’s domestic agenda, Sinema has a knack for performative behavior and close ties to Republicans.
Like Sarah Palin, she is fond of her own physique. The senator “boasted knowingly to colleagues and aides that her cleavage had an extraordinary persuasive effect on the uptight men of the GOP”.
Palin is running to represent Alaska in Congress. Truly, we are blessed.
Subtitled Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future, Burns and Martin’s book closes with a meditation on the state of US democracy. The authors are anxious. Trump has not left the stage. Republican leadership has bent the knee. Mitch McConnell wants to be Senate majority leader again. He knows what the base is thinking and saying. Marjorie Taylor Greene is far from a one-person minority.
Martin and Burns quote Malcolm Turnbull, a former prime minister of Australia: “You know that great line that you hear all the time: ‘This is not us. This is not America.’ You know what? It is, actually.”
The Republicans are ahead on the generic ballot, poised to regain House and Senate. Biden’s favorability is under water. Pitted against Trump, he struggles to stay even. His handling of Russia’s war on Ukraine has not moved the needle.
Inflation dominates the concerns of most Americans. For the first time in two years, the economy contracts. It is a long time to November 2024. Things can always get worse.
This Will Not Pass is published in the US by Simon & Schuster