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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Biden beats Republicans at their own game — politics

Which political party is worse off? The one led by an 80-year-old intent on running for another term as president, or the one that got outmaneuvered by that same octogenarian on national television?

I marvel at conservatives who ridicule President Joe Biden for what they perceive to be his senility. For conservative radio host Ben Shapiro, Biden’s State of the Union address boiled down to “angry old man screams at Americans.”

How humiliating it must be to lose a wrestling match to someone you treat as a punchline. How feeble does that make you look?

Which brings us to the best moment of Biden’s speech, one that is most easily understood through the lens of the Prophet Omar.

It’s “all in the game,” says Omar Little, a sly thief and vicious gunman who rips off drug dealers in HBO’s “The Wire.”

Biden understands the game of politics better than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, whom biographer Robert Caro dubbed the “Master of the Senate.” He ought to. He’s been playing it for 50 years.

This doesn’t mean Biden is a good president. I’d give him a C.

But climb into the political ring with Biden at your peril, as congressional Republicans have now learned the hard way.

Part of the political game is what we might call the “nutty necklace.” If someone on your opponent’s team says or proposes something nutty, you can seize it and wrap it around your opponent’s neck like a necklace.

In the 2020 State of the Union, President Donald Trump seized on the nutty left-wing idea of “sanctuary cities” — the dozens of municipalities across the country where undocumented immigrants can supposedly go to live happily ever after as they ride unicorns and spend pots of gold that are found under rainbows.

“Tragically, there are many cities in America where radical politicians have chosen to provide sanctuary for these criminal illegal aliens,” Trump said.

That’s absurd. These laws are symbolic and mostly for show. Every day in these “sanctuary” cities, undocumented immigrants are arrested by federal immigration agents, put on buses and deported.

Still, what Trump did was fair game. Because when far-left activists misrepresented “sanctuary” as something nutty — i.e., a “Get Out of Jail Free” card — moderate Democrats who knew better lacked the courage to correct the record.

So they got to wear the necklace.

During this year’s State of the Union, Biden seized on Republican proposals to examine possible cuts to Social Security and Medicare, usually by trimming the rate at which benefits increase.

For the past 20 years, there has been a debate over whether increases in entitlements should be tied to inflation or to wages. Currently, cost-of-living adjustments ensure that benefits keep pace with inflation. Some fiscal conservatives have proposed tying increases in benefits to wages instead, because wages go up more slowly.

Conservatives have also suggested raising the retirement age and “means testing” entitlements so that the wealthy don’t collect. And President George W. Bush, a Republican, made partially privatizing Social Security the legislative priority of his second term. His plan failed.

All this might be news to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who chuckled and rolled his eyes when Biden mentioned entitlements. But that discussion within the GOP actually happened. And it continues.

So it was fair for Biden to bring up Republicans’ delicate relationship with Social Security and Medicare during his speech.

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” Biden said.

The opposition got defensive and howled in protest. Yet the president, a senior citizen, pressed on and stood up for his peeps.

“Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors,” he said. “Americans have to pay into them from the very first paycheck.”

Then Biden set the trap.

“So tonight, let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors,” he said. “Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security! We will not cut Medicare!”

Republican lawmakers, who were on the spot, had no choice but to applaud and go along. You could almost hear them: Of course, we would never dream of touching those beloved entitlement programs.

It’s all in the game. And, Republicans, you got played. Now, you whippersnappers, be grateful for the lesson and respect your elders.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.

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