For all the cold calculations of politics, for all the partisan loyalties and vote-trading and brand management, it often comes down to outsized personalities.
Whether heroic or stubborn, whether principled or reckless, politicians at the highest level sometimes feed their considerable egos by going rogue.
What, for instance, is Nancy Pelosi doing visiting Taiwan, which has now essentially been confirmed for Wednesday? She has defied the president of her own party – which makes Joe Biden look weak – and triggered what could be a military confrontation.
Even granting that the House speaker is a longtime defender of Taiwan, what will this confrontational tactic accomplish other than putting her at the center of the global stage?
We already have Beijing, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, saying it will treat Pelosi’s attempt to land in a military jet as an invasion that must be repelled. The Chinese communists are moving to stage military exercises opposite Taiwan. It is nothing short of a major diplomatic confrontation, all for a symbolic visit that accomplishes nothing. But there is something in Pelosi’s personality that is compelling her to shrug off the criticism, despite some praise on the right, and seek a dramatic landing to meet the island’s president in Taipei.
The same could be said of Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat who has been vilified for months for refusing to budge on Biden’s $3.5-trillion Build Back Better plan or to wave the filibuster to get some version of it through. You’ve got to have a thick hide to resist that kind of pressure from your president and your party to single-handedly block the agenda that your people insist was transformational.
The West Virginia senator said no so many times that journalists and everyone else gave up. But Manchin knows his leverage as deputy president vanishes on Election Day, when he turns into a pumpkin, as wanted to be remembered for a sweeping compromise. So, with a personality that has driven everyone nuts, he greenlighted a $700-billion bill on climate change, raising corporate taxes and supposedly reducing inflation.
But there is another Democrat with a contrarian personality who drives her party to distraction, and that’s Kyrsten Sinema. She has clung to the filibuster even though it decimated any chance of codifying Roe v. Wade. The Arizona senator is the one person who could blow up the Manchin deal, and she is stretching out the drama while signaling concerns about one corporate loophole.
Sinema also knows her superpower vanishes in November – does she have the guts to gut the bill that Biden is already celebrating as a victory?
Another obvious candidate for overpowering personality is Donald Trump. Throughout his presidency, advisers and confidantes would tell him you can’t do that: Meet with Kim Jong Un with no deal, fire Cabinet members by tweet, buy Greenland, call media outlets the enemy of the people. And he would keep on doing it.
But that same pugnacious approach has not always served him well. In refusing to accept the 2020 election results, in refusing to intervene in the Capitol riot for 187 minutes, in continuing to pound away at an unproven “stolen election,” Trump is disregarding the urging of his former aides and current inner circle. At the same time, he has convinced a significant number of Republicans that Biden is an illegitimate president, and his base loves his fighting spirit, even when the facts show he is wrong.
You could even say that Joe Biden’s low-key personality – rooted in a simpler, slower time when bipartisan cooperation was not considered a sin – makes him the only president who would have had the patience to ultimately get a deal with Manchin. The president doesn’t push back much, is dishwater dull on Twitter, but it’s hard to imagine Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders achieving this outcome – if in fact Sinema doesn’t pull the plug.
On paper, politics often seems simple and straightforward. But it is the powerhouse personalities – who are convinced of their own self-righteousness – that for better or worse change history.