Tag Archives: Elizabeth Warren

Make It About the Economy, Stupid

It’s the economy, stupid. — James Carville, 1992, advising the campaign of presidential aspirant Bill Clinton. 

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Tuesday’s Democratic debacle was devastating. But, bad as the results were, they point a way forward for the party’s candidates to win in the 2022 midterms: Make it about the economy.

President Joe Biden knows the truth of this maxim. “I think we should produce for the American people,” Biden said the day after the election. The president was explaining the need to enact his agenda, which, he said, would improve the lives of millions of Americans. He would not say that failure to pass the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act hurt Democrats, particularly Terry McAuliffe’s campaign in Virginia to regain the governorship, but Democratic squabbling in Washington certainly left the impression of incompetence (thank you Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia!). 

Before Democrats go into full panic mode, they should take stock. Tuesday was awful, but not cataclysmic. Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey won reelection, albeit narrowly, in a reliably blue state. A progressive candidate, Michelle Wu, easily won the Boston mayoral race. Wu is a protégé of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat. Eric Adams, a Democrat, won, becoming New York City’s second Black mayor. And, while McAuliffe lost in a state Biden carried by 10 points a year ago, Virginia almost always elects as governor a candidate from the opposite party of the president who won the previous year. 

Virginia was, of course, the big disappointment because the state has been trending blue. It may well be true that Virginia really is a purple state that looked blue only out of antipathy in recent years to former President Donald Trump. Certainly, the successful Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, managed the delicate balancing act of keeping Trump out of the state while sounding enough Trumpian themes to avoid angering the thin-skinned former president and Trump’s loyal base. Trump behaved, saying nice things about Youngkin and staying out of Virginia. Youngkin’s strategy frustrated McAuliffe, who tried unsuccessfully to argue that a vote for his opponent was a vote for the former president. 

But, will Youngkin’s strategy of keeping Trump at arm’s length work for other Republicans running for office in 2022? Probably not, because it is difficult to imagine that Trump will sit idly by in his lair at Mar-a-Lago while Republican congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates distance themselves from him. He managed the trick this time around with Youngkin, but I would not bet the ranch on him doing it again next year.

Youngkin’s handling of the disgraced former president is the first lesson Republican politicians and political pundits claim to have learned from the Virginia results. The second lesson is — supposedly — that cultural issues work to drive the base. Youngkin made education the centerpiece of his campaign, focusing on critical race theory and book banning. Those issues resonated to such an extent that Republicans think education should be at the forefront of issues next year.

The ever spineless Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, quickly got on board. “If the Virginia results showed us anything, it is that parents are demanding more control and accountability in the classroom,” McCarthy wrote in an election-night letter to his caucus. And, J.D. Vance, running in the Republican primary in Ohio for the Senate, channeled former President Richard Nixon, saying: “The professors are the enemy.” Parenthetical note: Vance has a law degree from Yale University. 

Will concerns over how race is taught in public schools work next year? Youngkin succeeded in using the teaching about the history of race relations in the United States as a dog whistle for fears surrounding White identity, but education does not travel well from the local arena to the national. For one thing, education is — and always has been — a local issue. Parents control education through local school boards, making public education perhaps the most democratic aspect of American society. And, historically, education is not a Republican issue. Voters usually trust Democrats to handle it better than Republicans. 

More importantly, there were educational concerns in the Virginia gubernatorial race that are particular to one state and one year. In addition to the highly publicized fears over race in the classroom, parents in Virginia were angry over last year’s closing of schools because of COVID-19 and riled about mask-wearing mandates. Those concerns may be ancient history by November 2022. Asian parents had worries over access to programs for gifted students, and Black parents were upset over teachers’ unions’ opposition to charter schools.  

I am not at all certain that Youngkin’s campaign provides a template for Republican candidates running for national office in 2022. I am certain, however, that Democratic success at the polls hinges on first producing results for the American people and then convincing voters of the value of those results while painting the Republicans as the “do-nothing” party. Let Republicans stick to the war on culture in lieu of economic policies that substantively improve voters’ lives.

People are nervous about the economy, which has recovered unevenly from its disruption during the depths of the pandemic. Gas prices are up, inflation fears loom, and breaks in the supply chain are a worry as the holiday shopping season begins. To allay anxiety, Democrats must quickly pass the Build Back Better Act, and then waste no time explaining its benefits to the public: Universal free preschool, child care for working parents, tax credits to families with children, expanded care for seniors, assistance to cash-strapped consumers shifting to clean energy, relief from the high cost of prescription drugs, improvements to the Affordable Care Act, and on and on. 

These are real benefits for working, middle-class Americans. It is a platform for Democrats to run on in 2022, contrasting Democratic-passed reforms with the do-nothing Republicans whose major accomplishment when Trump was president was a whopping tax cut for the very wealthy. And, part of next year’s campaign should be this: Elect more Democrats who will build on and strengthen these accomplishments.

Make it about the economy, stupid!

Posted November 5, 2021

Time to Consider a Wealth Tax

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

A bipartisan group of senators has been discussing an infrastructure proposal to spend more than a trillion dollars to fix the nation’s bridges, highways, tunnels, and rail lines — without raising taxes. 

The possible deal has something for many Democrats and Republicans. It would spend a great deal to repair our crumbling infrastructure, and with the support of 11 Republicans, it would satisfy President Joe Biden’s (and West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s) quest for bipartisanship. The proposed agreement would not raise taxes, which appeals to Republicans who want to protect the 2017 tax cuts. Left out of the possible bipartisan plan would be other pieces of Biden’s original proposal on combatting climate change by emphasizing cleaner energy sources and funding for improving drinking water, retraining workers, and providing home care for older and disabled Americans.

Also left out is the wish of progressives to use funding for the more ambitious Biden infrastructure proposal as well as trillions more for tackling climate change and improving the social safety net as a way to recalibrate the nation’s tax system. A price tag of six trillion dollars or more has been placed on all of the ambitious Biden agenda. Democrats want to fund that spending by raising the corporate tax rate and raising income taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year. 

And, some progressive Democrats want to do more. The need to fix crumbling infrastructure coupled with improving the nation’s inadequate social services —  America trails the rest of the industrial world in providing universal healthcare, child care, college education, and family leave — offers an opportunity to address wealth inequality by introducing a wealth tax. The stock market has boomed in recent years, but until someone sells stock and has to pay capital gains, all that wealth is not taxed on an annual basis.  

During the 2020 Democratic primaries, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont flirted with a wealth tax. Both offered ambitious proposals to improve the quality of life through federally financed programs and both saw a wealth tax as a tool to close the rapidly growing disparity between the richest and poorest Americans. 

The gap between rich and poor has been well documented in recent years. According to the Federal Reserve, the top one percent of Americans holds one-third of U.S. household wealth, while the bottom 50 percent less than two percent. Other sources show even greater disparities, as in Thomas Piketty’s comprehensive work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And, the gap is fated to increase because wealth generates wealth — people make money off their wealth — by increasing stock prices and making advantageous purchases and getting good returns on other investments. Moreover, the racial wealth divide is even worse, with the typical White family holding nearly ten times the wealth of a typical Black family. 

The federal government taxes income (among other things), and local governments tax property. Wealth is not taxed, but many on the left are coming to understand that the best way to raise trillions of dollars to fund a just society and close the gap in financial resources between the rich and poor is to tax wealth, that is, to tax an individual’s or family’s net wealth — their assets minus their debts. This would be a tax on all assets, not just stocks.

A wealth tax polls well. A 2019 poll showed more than six in ten Americans supported a wealth tax of two percent on households worth over $50 million dollars. Such a tax received the backing of 77 percent of Democrats and, interestingly, 57 percent of Republicans. 

How much money would a wealth tax raise? That depends on whose proposal is considered. Sanders would tax people with wealth over $32 million, Warren would begin hers at $50 million. Sanders’ tax would affect about 180,000 taxpayers, Warren’s about 70,000. Sanders has eight brackets in his proposal, beginning with a one percent tax on wealth over $32 million and growing to eight percent on wealth over $10 billion. Warren has two brackets, two percent for people with $50 million in assets, going up to six percent on wealth over one billion dollars. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman estimate that the Sanders wealth tax would bring in $4.35 trillion over a decade, while Warren’s tax would raise about $2.75 trillion in the same time frame.

Some critics say a wealth tax would be unconstitutional.  Warren says she has consulted tax experts who claim it would be constitutional. No one knows how the courts would rule on such a proposal. A constitutional amendment was required to impose the income tax over a century ago, and another amendment might be needed now. A bigger problem is knowing precisely how much wealth there is in the country. The data are not perfect on wealth accumulation, and the IRS might find it difficult to determine the assets of individuals. As John Koskinen, a former commissioner of the IRS, told NPR, “The thing to remember is the really wealthy people don’t hold all their assets in easy-to-value areas like stocks and bonds. A lot of them have artwork that’s worth a lot of money. A lot of them have investments in privately held corporations or in investment vehicles that do not give regular valuations.”

A wealth tax is uncharted territory. But, it is a proposal worth considering for it would go far in reducing the terrible and growing gap between the rich and the poor. And, no matter where the levels of taxation are set, a wealth tax would buy a lot of well-paved roads and well-constructed bridges while reining in the national debt.

Posted June 22, 2021

The Right Person for the Job

President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him. 

Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency with seven states out of the union and civil war imminent. But, even Lincoln did not face the array of problems confronting Biden: A pandemic worsened by his predecessor’s incompetence and malevolence; an economy in crisis because of COVID-19; the repercussions of four centuries of systemic racism; growing right-wing extremism; and a country in which a large minority of the population, fed lies by many of its leaders, does not believe Biden was elected fairly. And, if all that were not enough, the new president leads a party divided into progressives who want bold actions to right wrongs and moderates who desire only an updated version of old-time Democratic politics. Biden must juggle all these problems while governing with the slimmest of congressional majorities.

Biden was not my first choice — nor second, nor third — as the Democratic nominee, but I have come to believe he is the right leader for our times. Some men — they have all been men so far, after all — grow into the presidency. Lincoln is a case in point. He became president after a rather undistinguished political career, and he was treated with scorn by many of the Republican Party’s more distinguished and prominent leaders. But, Lincoln soon demonstrated the compassion, intelligence, and moral steeliness that made him the man who led the nation through the Civil War and set the moral tone that led to the abolition of slavery.

Joe Biden is different. He has grown into a better version of himself. Gone is the young man in a hurry, the politician who tried to please everyone and who spoke too much about just about everything. Biden actually assumed the presidency weeks before he took the oath, setting the tone for combatting the virus while denouncing the insurrection of January 6 as an “unprecedented assault… [that] borders on sedition.” His predecessor, Donald Trump, spent the interregnum after his electoral defeat holed up in the Oval Office, ignoring the pandemic while raging about non-existent electoral fraud, giving Biden the chance to act presidential before becoming president. 

Biden and the Democrats have an opportunity to accomplish much by going bold, by passing as soon as possible a nearly two-trillion-dollar COVID relief package, then tackling systemic racism, economic inequality, climate change, the high cost of a college education, and healthcare. It will not be easy, given the party’s slender majorities in Congress and the already evident Republican obstructionism. But, achieving even part of this ambitious agenda will help restore the nation’s faith in the efficacy of government. As Senator Bernie Sanders told Ezra Klein of The New York Times: “This is a fight not just for the future of the Democratic Party or good policy. It is literally a fight to restore faith in small-d democratic government.” A Democratic failure to deliver on the party’s promises would open the door for a candidate representing the faux populism of Donald Trump, only this time perhaps headed by an individual who is something Trump is not: Smart and not averse to work.

The new president has an immediate opportunity to convince the public of the efficacy of government for solving problems. If Biden can succeed on his promise of delivering 100-million coronavirus vaccine doses in his administration’s first 100 days, he and his team will demonstrate a level of competence not shown by the Trump administration. It is a doable goal since, in recent days, roughly a million doses a day have been administered. Indeed, Biden may be able to exceed his initial promise and deliver more vaccines more quickly.

Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s hectic first 100 days, incoming administrations have been judged by how much they can accomplish in that short period. Roosevelt, of course, had the urgency of the Great Depression and the backing of a weary and battered public that had soured on the inability of his predecessor to alleviate its suffering. Roosevelt also had huge majorities in the House and Senate, something that Biden does not possess. Still, an effective attack on the pandemic will boost Biden and convince many Americans that — like Roosevelt nearly a century earlier — he is governing on their behalf.

Biden has stressed unity and bipartisanship. The new president came to political prominence in a time in which Democrats and Republicans compromised to pass legislation that gave neither party all it wanted but often advanced the public good. He is steeped in the culture of bipartisan cooperation. But, that was then: In recent decades, obstruction has been the byword for a divided and gridlocked Congress. 

Already, Republicans appear to be recycling the obstructionism of the Obama years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown roadblocks into organizing the Senate, demanding Democrats promise not to eliminate the filibuster. Biden and his legislative allies cannot agree to that demand because the filibuster is part of the carrot and stick the party can dangle before Republicans. The carrot: Cooperate on the stimulus package and Democrats will share credit for its passage with Republicans. The stick: Obstruct the package, and Democrats will end the filibuster. 

Unity is certainly a worthwhile goal, but the urgency of the moment is more critical, especially since almost all Republicans are lining up in opposition to the economic stimulus package, Biden’s critical first piece of legislation. As Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said, “It’s important that Democrats deliver for America. If the best path to that [sic] is to do it in a way that can bring Republicans along, I’m all in favor of that. But if Republicans want to cut back to the point that we’re not delivering what needs to be done, then we need to be prepared to fight them. Our job is to deliver for the American people.” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland agreed, but he also stressed the need for quick action, saying Democrats cannot afford a “long drawn-out process” such as occurred when President Barack Obama worked to secure congressional approval for his economic stimulus package in 2009.

Looming over the quick passage of needed legislation and possible bipartisan cooperation is the coming Senate trial of former President Donald Trump, slated to begin in two weeks. It is possible that Trump’s trial might work to Biden’s favor. The constant drumbeat of revelations — both in Trump’s complicity in goading the insurrectionists and in his never-ending attempts up to January 20 to overturn the results of the election — might convince enough moderate and traditional Republicans to vote to convict. Democratic-Republican cooperation in the trial could spill over into the legislative arena, ushering in a new era of inter-party cooperation.

The odds are against that, but, after all, in early 2020, who thought Joe Biden would be president a year later? And, if anyone can unify Americans and their political leaders behind a common goal, it is Joe Biden, a decent man for the times.

Posted January 26, 2021

Reasonable Joe

The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable. — Andrew Yang, August 20, 2020, the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

In a well-planned, well-executed convention full of moving speeches and pointed remarks the sharpest insight came from Andrew Yang, entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential contender. Yang’s analysis describes what makes Joe Biden an effective candidate in 2020.

Yang pointed to the future and the looming battle against climate change. “If he [Biden] comes with an ambitious template to address climate change, all of a sudden, everyone is going to follow his lead.” Well, not everyone, but Biden’s support for a vigorous attack on carbon emissions will make selling such a program to Congress and the public much easier. If amiable, nice guy Joe likes something, what can be bad?

Yang is not just speculating about the effectiveness of President Biden. There is a precedent of Biden endorsing a significant change in public policy that then “becomes the new reasonable.” In early May 2012, Vice President Biden announced that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, “with men marrying men, women marrying women.” The vice president added that all married couples — same sex or heterosexual — “are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” Biden noted that he was ahead of his boss on this issue and that policy is set by the president, not the vice president. 

At that time, Biden was the highest-ranking White House official to embrace same-sex marriage, then legal only in six states and the District of Columbia. The Obama administration had endorsed civil unions, but not gay marriage. Some quibbled that Biden had not really gone all that far out on the limb, noting that he had not called for the federal government to recognize gay marriage. But, most saw the vice president’s remarks as a significant step toward full marriage equality, and many were no doubt reassured by the tone of Biden’s endorsement, which suggested that gay marriage threatened no one and was no different from heterosexual marriage in the way couples treat one another. Biden pointed out that he had just visited the home of a same-sex California couple raising young children. “And, I said, ‘I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys,’” Biden said. “‘And, they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.’” A few days later, President Barack Obama, in the middle of a re-election campaign, followed Biden’s lead, and three years later the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.

Reasonable Joe, the comforting candidate for a time of tumult!  Biden may not be the candidate progressives wanted, but, for many Americans, he seems the safer choice next to Trumpian chaos, mismanagement of the pandemic, high unemployment numbers, and attacks on long-standing, revered institutions such as the postal service. The public’s sense that Biden offers a steady hand at the helm was buttressed during the long primary campaign in which his familiar face and reputation as a moderate stood in stark contrast to candidates to his left. Because the public, for the most part, sees Biden as a moderate, Trump’s effort to paint the Democratic nominee as a “Trojan horse” for leftists such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has not gained traction. Trump’s attempts to belittle Biden — “Sleepy Joe” and “Slow Joe” among them — have failed because “Joe” is just so likable.

But, the Democratic Party — like the nation — is moving to the left, and Biden’s perceived moderation is far more progressive than the programs pursued by Obama in his eight years in office and Hillary Clinton in her failed presidential bid in 2016. Biden’s image as a nice guy, amiable and reasonable, makes him non-threatening and perhaps the best candidate the Democratic Party could have nominated to push a progressive program against Trump.

Make no mistake about it, Biden is running on a progressive platform. As I noted in an earlier post, Biden favors expanding health insurance through a generous public option and lowering the enrollment age for Medicare to 60. He would make college far more affordable for many and significantly reform immigration policy. Biden backs many of the proposals of the Green New Deal, including floating a climate plan to decarbonize the American economy by 2035.

Some on the left may be tempted to sit out this election, just as they sat out the last one. The argument among some progressives is that Biden is a moderate, the party ignored its true representatives in overlooking Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the Obama-Biden administration temporized and did nothing to combat growing income inequality. All true, but all irrelevant for this moment.

Sanders effectively countered this argument, rightfully calling Trump an existential threat to the United States. “Under this administration,” the Vermont Independent said, “authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency, and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.” 

What Sanders did not say, but what is also true is this: Biden may not be the most progressive Democrat around, and, in a Biden presidency, progressives may only get half a loaf, if that. But, if Biden wins in November, progressives can live to fight another day. If Trump wins, the nation that permits dissent and allows all to dream of what might be will disappear. There will no longer be a fight to fight.

Besides, Joe is a nice guy, and that counts for a lot after Trump. Anyone who saw 13-year-old Brayden Harrington’s touching tribute to Biden knows the former vice president is not only reasonable, but also decent and humane.

Posted August 25, 2020

The Face of America

In choosing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden demonstrated character traits missing in President Donald Trump: A generosity of spirit and an ability to put aside petty grievances in the interest of a greater good. Just as former President Barack Obama overlooked Biden calling him “clean” and “articulate” in choosing the Delaware senator as his vice presidential choice, Biden ignored Harris’s skewering of him on race during the presidential nominating debates last year. Biden’s selection contrasts neatly with Trump’s pettiness.

Wednesday, the two tickets exhibited very different images of America. Biden and Harris, making their first public appearance as running mates, look like America, as it is and as it will become. Harris, a woman and the biracial child of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who is in an interracial marriage, is the face of a diverse nation. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” means, of course, Make America White Again, and the president displayed his racist and backward views in two tweets. In one, he congratulated “future Republican Star Marjorie Taylor Greene on a big Congressional primary win in Georgia.” Greene is a devotee of the QAnon conspiracy theory that believes Trump is waging war on “deep state” saboteurs who worship Satan and traffic children for sex. She is infamous for racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic comments. Since her district is heavily Republican, Greene virtually is assured of a seat in the new Congress next January. Prepare for the QAnon caucus within the Republican conference.

Trump’s other offensive tweet repeated his theme of “them” versus “us”: “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me. They want [sic] safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey [sic] Booker in charge!” Not only is Trump’s subtext obvious, but his image of “suburban housewife” is mired in a suburbia that probably never existed but certainly does not now. (And, what does Trump know about Biden’s potential Cabinet picks that no one else does?)

Harris was always an obvious choice for Biden. She is smart, capable, and qualified to become president on day one. Biden vowed to choose a woman, and his final list of potential nominees was filled with superbly able women. An African American woman was also indicated since Black women are the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency and Black voters lifted Biden to victory in the primaries. A Californian, Harris is also the first Democratic nominee from west of the Rocky Mountains, and her selection recognizes the importance of the West in American and Democratic politics.

Biden knows he is a transitional candidate — an older white male who heads a coalition that depends on women, people of color, and the young. Biden is among the last of the leaders of the Democratic Party who came of age in the immediate years after World War II and inherited the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Biden’s Democratic Party is rooted in the blue-collar Whites among whom he grew up, and his presidential appeal always has centered on the argument that he can win those voters back to the party. Harris represents the ethnic, racial, and gender diversity of the Democratic Party of the future. While not as young as other possible choices, Harris’s evident youthful vigor will play well on the campaign trail. She hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, a multiracial and multiethnic globalized hub of the emerging information economy.

Harris does not come from the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Many on the left would have been happier with Senator Elizabeth Warren as Biden’s running mate. (Warren would make an excellent Secretary of the Treasury, but, unfortunately, the governor of Massachusetts is a Republican, complicating Democratic hopes of gaining a majority in the Senate if Warren were to take the post.) Harris has a complicated record in law enforcement. As California’s attorney general, she declined to investigate shootings by police officers and did not support reforms to hold police accountable for violent actions. Her waffling on Medicare-for-All during her abortive presidential campaign indicated a politician unsure of herself and lacking in truly progressive ideals. 

Still, progressives do not seem overly disappointed with Harris’s selection. Acceptance of Harris by the Democratic leftwing stems partly from a recognition of the obvious forward-looking nature of her choice and also from a realization that Harris does have some claims to progressivism. She has one of the most liberal voting records of any sitting senator and has worked with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on climate legislation. “She’s not Warren… in terms of her background, but I don’t think it makes sense for us to criticize the reality,” says Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, a group with ties to Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Cohen describes Harris as “extremely competent.”

It will be an ugly next few months. Already, Trump has trotted out a Harris-is-a-nasty-woman accusation with all its racist and sexist overtones. Trump also touchingly came to Biden’s defense when he accused Harris not only of being nasty to Trump appointees but to Biden during the Democratic debates. The president and his supporters also engaged in a completely erroneous claim that Harris is not eligible to run for high office because her parents were immigrants. Trump and his surrogates are just getting started, and the attacks on Biden and Harris will only intensify. When it comes to nasty, Trump is a master.

Nothing is ever assured in politics, but the Biden-Harris ticket is in a strong position. Of course, Team Trump is doing all it can to suppress the vote and potentially steal the election. The Democratic nominees not only have to convince enough Americans to vote for them, but Biden and Harris also have to insure that their supporters get to vote and that those votes are counted. 

In the end, competence, combined with Biden’s steadiness of purpose, sure looks good after the mayhem and chaos of the Trump presidency.

Posted August 14, 2020

Biden Goes Left — Sort of

Vice President Joe Biden is running a canny race. Yes, he is taking a little too long to choose his vice presidential running mate, but, in the end, getting it right trumps doing it quickly, and no one will remember that he missed self-imposed deadlines. In all other respects, Biden has been adept. He is respecting the dangers of coronavirus, which allows him to limit his public appearances. Aside from avoiding the pitfalls of verbal gaffes, for which Biden is notorious, fewer campaign appearances by Biden permit President Donald Trump to hog the limelight. And, when it comes to gaffes, Trump is much more prone than Biden.

Trump has found Biden an elusive target. The president has tried to pin various derogatory labels on Biden — “Sleepy Joe” being the most notorious — but none has stuck. Among the reasons may be public weariness at Trump’s insults, Biden’s under-the-radar campaign, and the latter’s success at avoiding specific policy proposals that Republicans find easy to attack. 

All this has allowed Biden to appear more centrist and moderate than his current policy proposals. True, Biden has been a moderate Democrat throughout his long political life, and he is hardly the candidate Democratic progressives wanted. But, during the current campaign, Biden has managed to move to the left and to promise change on the order of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal without causing a damaging political backlash.

There is much evidence today that the nation is moving to the left politically. Still, Americans traditionally vote for candidates closer to the ideological center. When compared to Trump’s erratic behavior and often extreme positions, Biden’s perceived moderation is comforting. Also, Biden has a reputation as a pragmatist who gets things done, a valuable perception given Trump’s inability and unwillingness to tackle effectively the pandemic and economic collapse. Finally, Biden appears moderate to voters when compared to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent. While Clinton was hardly a wild-eyed radical, Americans generally find male candidates less threatening. Sexist misconceptions led many to view Clinton as a more extreme choice than Trump, an advantage not available to the incumbent this time around. (Sexism probably convinced many that Clinton’s email fiasco was more serious than Trump’s myriad ethical and moral lapses.)

Despite adopting, on issue after issue, progressive policies, Biden has convinced voters he is a moderate, up to a point. On most issues, Biden has moved to the left, closer to the policies of his primary challengers such as Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and to the left of the former vice president’s positions during the primaries. For example, on criminal justice reform, a critical matter following the brutal police murder of George Floyd, Biden has proposed abolishing mandatory minimum sentences. He also favors creating a national roster of police officers who abuse their authority. These are all polices far to the left of the 2016 Democratic platform.  But, to Trump’s chagrin — as demonstrated in his July 19 interview with Chris Wallace of Fox NewsBiden is against defunding the police.

On college education, Biden now favors free college for students from families earning less than $125,000, but he does not support making college free for everyone — a position endorsed by Sanders during the primaries. Biden has called for tripling federal assistance to schools that educate children from poverty-stricken homes, and he is more skeptical of standardized testing and charter schools than the Obama administration, of which he was part. 

Other issues fit the same pattern. On healthcare, Biden backs a more generous public option — including making many prescription drugs available without co-pays — than he did during the primaries, and he wants to permit Americans to enroll in Medicare at the age of 60. But, he shies way from Sanders’ Medicare-for-All, a position to which the Democratic Party is moving but which does not poll well. However, government-supported health insurance is becoming more popular, even in Red States, as shown by this week’s vote by Missouri voters to expand access to Medicaid. 

Biden supports many of the vigorous proposals of the Green New Deal and his unity task force on climate change is chaired by the proposal’s co-author, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Biden calls for making all new buildings carbon neutral by the end of this decade and ending the use of fossil fuels to create electricity by 2035. But, his website does not include the words “Green New Deal.”

Finally on immigration, Biden would admit more refugees, and, unlike President Barack Obama, Biden supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Crucially, Biden does not link this proposal to tougher border enforcement. But, at the same time, Biden has not endorsed abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and decriminalizing illegal border crossings. Those two policies were floated by some of the candidates during the Democratic primaries, but polls show most Americans are skeptical.  

It is a shrewd move by Biden to move to the left — close to the policies of the Democratic Party’s most progressive bloc — without antagonizing centrist voters. Biden has achieved this by leaning on his reputation as a moderate, by contrasting himself to the extremism of his opponent, and by stopping just short of the more progressive parts of the left’s agenda. Biden is, to be sure, less progressive than Sanders and Warren, but, according to Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a group that has backed left-wing challenges to incumbent congressional Democrats, Biden’s platform is “the most progressive… of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party.”

Posted August 7, 2020


Democratic Brawl

Aw, c’mon, you didn’t think this would be easy, did you? They’re Democrats after all, and Democrats love a brawl, either with the opposition or among themselves. So, getting to the end result always was going to be a donnybrook, as the saying goes.

Right now, Bernie Sanders’s apparent march to the nomination is causing angst among Democratic Party regulars, who fear a socialist cannot beat President Donald Trump in November. “I’m a democratic socialist,” Sanders says, a reference that allows opponents to tar him with the evils of a planned economy and state ownership of the means of production. It may be smarmy, but expect Republicans to link Sanders with the old Soviet Union, a slur that resonates with older voters.

But, is the independent senator from Vermont really a socialist? In 1990, Sanders said, “To me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership.… [I]t means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.” Four years earlier, Sanders placed great emphasis on the democratic part of democratic socialism: “All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small ‘d.’ I believe in democracy, and by democracy I mean that, to as great an extent as possible, human beings have the right to control their own lives.”

Sanders may claim to be a democratic socialist, but he is, more accurately, a social democrat. What is the difference? A democratic socialist seeks socialism through the ballot box. A democratic socialist would nationalize major industries and utilities and replace markets with some form of centralized planning. Nowhere has Sanders suggested that model is his goal. His ideal is Denmark, a social democracy with cradle-to-grave security, which many think a nice place to live and freer than the United States. Sanders’s ability — if elected president — to turn America into Denmark is doubtful, but Trump is turning the United States into a white nationalist, kleptocratic autocracy like Russia. Where would you prefer to live: Denmark or Russia?

Recent polls show Sanders doing as well, if not better, than other Democratic contenders in head-to-head matchups against Trump. Of course, Sanders has not been bloodied yet in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. That will come, and no one should underestimate Trump’s ability to get into the gutter against Sanders (or any other Democrat), but I am not convinced that a Sanders candidacy means a Trump second term. Sanders has tremendous appeal among young voters, who historically vote in low numbers, and he is better positioned than other Democrats to recapture voters who supported Barack Obama but then voted for Trump. Sanders likely would, more than other Democrats, bring new voters out. Another plus for Sanders: The Trump administration quietly is proposing cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. These are programs important to many Trump voters. Sanders strongly supports and would expand these key elements of the social safety net. 

There is also concern among Democrats that Sanders would hurt down-ballot nominees for the Senate and the House. It is true that Democrats recaptured the House in 2018 by electing many moderates to the lower chamber, many of them from districts Trump carried two years earlier. But, Sanders is, as I said above, the candidate who best expands the Democratic electorate, so how large a detriment his candidacy poses is not clear. 

Finally, moderate Democrats point out that a President Sanders would not get his more radical proposals through Congress. Certainly, Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, and free college for everyone who wants to attend will not be enacted in his first term. But, the history of American reform suggests that the road to substantive change is long and windy; a start has to be made. By raising these matters now, Sanders is pointing the way to the eventual adoption of the issues he champions. And, as president, he would have the power of the bully pulpit to influence public opinion and the ability to sign executive orders to bring about a degree of significant reform.

The gulf between Sanders and the other Democratic presidential candidates is not as wide as sometimes imagined. All Democrats in the race will raise taxes on the rich, try to combat income inequality, and raise the minimum wage. All favor expanding access to healthcare and education, and all will take steps to combat climate change. Some favor more incremental change, but an indication of how far to the left the Democratic has moved in recent years is the widespread agreement among all Democrats on fundamentals.

Sanders is beating all the so-called moderates now because all of them are attacking each other, for the most part, rather than the front-runner. No doubt the “moderate” cause would be helped if candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer dropped out, but Sanders beats all the other candidates in hypothetical head-to-head matchups. 

The fear of Sanders as the nominee has led many Democrats to turn to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a potential savior from the imagined debacle of a “socialist” nominee for president. Bloomberg’s greatest strength — his money — is also his greatest liability. It is a strength because Bloomberg’s bottomless stash of cash allows him to finance his candidacy for as long as possible. It is a liability because the presidency should not be for sale. Bloomberg has other liabilities: His racist “stop-and-frisk” policy as mayor of New York City and his misogyny make him perhaps a slightly less toxic nominee than Trump. The Democrats should not enter the general election with the slogan, “Our racist, misogynistic plutocrat is slightly less obnoxious than your racist, misogynistic (perhaps) plutocrat.”

Bloomberg’s fortune means he can stay in the race to the bitter end, either until Sanders (or someone else) locks up a majority of the delegates or until a contested convention this summer. The race promises to be contentious between now and the end, but, then, you never thought this would be easy, did you? It is the Democratic Party, after all. As Will Rogers famously said, “I’m not member of any organized political party — I’m a Democrat.”

Posted February 25, 2020

Trump’s Campaign Strategy: The Big Smear

President Donald Trump is fixed in his beliefs and prejudices, incapable of learning anything new. The two major events of this week — his acquittal by pusillanimous Republican senators (Utah’s Mitt Romney excluded) and the Iowa caucuses — only reinforce his preconceived political modus operandi.  

What does that mean? On the one hand, the failure of the Senate to demonstrate spine and oust the rapscallion from office confirms Trump’s lifelong conviction that the rules do not apply to him and he can engage in further lawless behavior. On the other, Trump will interpret the results of the Iowa caucus as confirmation that sliming opponents works. 

This is the nexus of Trump’s Ukrainian escapade and the 2020 presidential election — scandal meeting campaign. They are the linked outcomes of Trump’s amoral approach to politics. Trump has no ideas; he is incapable of articulating a political thought beyond shibboleths taught him by his handlers and slogans tested at his cult-like rallies. The words “Trump” and “thought” do not belong in the same sentence. But, attacks and insults come naturally to him. The veracity of those attacks and insults is irrelevant.

Trump knows most people view him as ethically challenged. He understands that stink follows him from his business career and personal life. He hides as much as he can (remember those promised tax returns?), but what we know combined with what he keeps from us makes us justifiably suspicious. That goes for his followers as well as his opponents. His core strategy is not to appear ethical, certainly not to suggest he is more ethical than his adversaries. No, the Trumpian approach is to make his rivals appear no better than he. If voters conclude that both candidates — Trump and whomever the Democrats nominate — are scandal-ridden, then voters well throw up their hands and vote for the candidate who entertains them. And, for many voters, Trump is entertaining. (Note: His Tuesday night State of the Union was pure theater, from having First Lady Melania Trump hang a medal on controversial talk radio host Rush Limbaugh to reuniting a military family in the gallery.)

So far, the strategy works. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and I am sure he believes he wounded Joe Biden in Monday’s Iowa caucus. It is irrelevant that Trump’s accusations against his opponents are either downright erroneous or highly exaggerated. What matters is that he — and his sycophantic surrogates — repeat the accusations frequently and loudly. The attacks gain currency through frequent repetition in the media, and as totalitarian leaders such as Hitler and Stalin demonstrated, a lie told often enough becomes accepted “truth.”

Every day of the 2016 campaign seemingly brought a new Trump scandal, yet he succeeded in deflecting his ethical challenges by aggressively pushing the Clinton email story. Clinton was certainly sloppy in caring for her emails, but any suggestion of equivalence between her purported “scandal” and Trump’s many scandals was absurd. Still, chants of “lock her up” certainly did damage.

I am not suggesting that Clinton lost because Trump attacked her. She ran a bad campaign, former FBI Director Jim Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into her emails wounded her as did Russian interference. But, I am suggesting that Trump believes his attacks worked, just as he probably believes sliming Joe Biden contributed to the former vice president’s disappointing apparent fourth-place finish in the muddled Iowa caucuses. 

Trump launched the Ukraine scandal because he believed Biden was his most dangerous opponent. Even though a whistleblower exposed the scandal and the House impeached the president, Trump, his congressional allies, and rightwing media outlets have been hammering the accusation that Biden is corrupt — or, at least as corrupt as Trump. 

He will use the same approach on other Democratic candidates. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will be attacked as a socialist bordering on communist, and Trump will not shy away from mentioning Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union, insinuating Sanders engaged in treasonous activities. Trump’s friends in the Russian government may help in this campaign. 

Critics rightly accuse Trump of racism and corruption, but if Pete Buttigieg is the Democratic nominee, Trump will deflect charges of his racial insensitivity with allegations of racism against Buttigieg stemming from his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. As for Trump’s overt corruption? What about Buttigieg’s consulting work at McKinsey? 

If Trump cannot conjure a scandal, he will engage in ad hominem attacks on his opponents, calling Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” or referring to “Mini” Mike Bloomberg. Trump’s ability to engage in critiques of other people’s physical appearance is mystifying. But, it entertains his followers and works as a substitute for serious discussion of issues.  

How should Democrats pondering who best to nominate against Trump respond? That is a relevant question considering the Democratic side’s emphasis on which candidate is most “electable.” Certainly if electability means a candidate free of scandal, that is an irrelevant criterion. All of the Democratic candidates are, as far as I know, clean. That will not stop Trump from smearing each and every one. But, Trump’s big smear ought not to influence how Democrats choose their nominee.

Posted February 7, 2020

The Tail Has Wagged

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren believes President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani for a domestic U.S. political reason: To distract the American public and Congress from his trial in the Senate. “We know that Donald Trump is very upset about this upcoming impeachment trial,” Warren said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But look what he’s doing now. He is taking us to the edge of war.” 

Warren was accusing Trump of employing a “wag the dog” tactic: Launching a military strike to divert attention from impeachment. The phrase comes from the title of a 1997 film satire starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. The same accusation was leveled against President Bill Clinton in 1998 when he ordered strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in the midst of the scandal that led to his impeachment. 

Warren said it was “reasonable” to ask questions about Trump’s motivation because “the administration, immediately after having taken this decision, offers a bunch of contradictory explanations for what’s going on. There was a reason that he chose this moment, not a month ago, not a month from now, not a less aggressive, less dangerous response.”  Trump claims he ordered Suleimani’s death to “stop a war,” but many Democrats find — in the words of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer — the evidence for an “imminent” Iranian attack “very unsatisfying.” Schumer added, ”We don’t know the reasons that it had to be done now. They don’t seem very clear.”

Reading the president’s mind — to ascertain his motives — is a tricky proposition, but two points should be obvious. First, Trump is a pathological liar, so believing anything he says about anything is next to impossible. And, second, no one should ever doubt that Trump will do anything if he thinks his actions benefit him, which is — after all — what his impeachment is all about: The withholding of aid to Ukraine in exchange for that country smearing Trump’s political rival. Trump simply has no filters — and no scruples or morals — when it comes to self-interest. 

This is a serious problem, and one of the president’s own making. By lying continually and by demonstrating his willingness to act in his interest rather than the nation’s, Trump automatically makes his motives suspect. He cannot be believed when he states a purported reason for an action — any action — and it is reasonable to assume he acted to further his own political success. Suleimani was a “bad guy” who may have deserved to die, but questions will always linger.

Trump was not impeached by the House for acting like a king, but he surely is behaving as one in his handling of the current Iranian crisis. Witness the bizarre way Trump believes he has notified Congress regarding his Iranian policy. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress…. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!” posted the tweeter-in-chief. Actually, as in so many other matters, the president is wrong. The War Powers Act of 1973 requires formal notification to Congress within 48 hours of the onset of hostilities. 

Like many monarchs of old, Trump is impetuous. In the chaotic events leading to the attack on Suleimani, military officials presented Trump with a menu of options to punish Iran for the attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad. The menu included the most extreme option — killing the Iranian general — on the assumption that the president would reject the improbable choice in favor of a more palatable possibility. It is a strategy used by the Pentagon since 9/11 — one that worked with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom rejected targeting Suleimani. But, Trump is not like his predecessors. To the surprise, and perhaps chagrin, of his advisers, Trump chose the extreme option. 

And, like despots of olden and modern times, Trump acts with little input from others. The president faces the prospect of war hamstrung by a lack of trusted and experienced advisers. His constant disparaging of American intelligence agencies has taken its toll. The president’s national security team is short-staffed, depleted by scores of departures. His closest White House aides are consumed by the impeachment process, and Trump hardly can turn to America’s traditional European allies for assistance and advice since he has bullied and alienated most of them from the beginning of his tenure in office.

An impetuous president lacking an experienced team of advisers — who he probably would not heed in any event — is ill-equipped for the coming game of tit-for-tat with the Iranian theocrats. Trump’s rashness caused this escalating crisis in the first place. He tore up the nuclear deal with Iran because of its fatal flaw: It was negotiated by Obama. He did that without considering a Plan B, and now he has to confront the Iranians without any apparent long-range strategy.

The ayatollahs in Tehran are prepared for the long haul, which is why Suleimani was in Baghdad when he was killed. As Dexter Filkins points out in his superb New Yorker 2013 profile of Suleimani, the Iranian leaders learned a lesson in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The carnage of that war — and its indecisive outcome — convinced the leadership of the futility of traditional combat. Instead, the Iranians decided to wage asymmetrical warfare — attacking stronger powers by using proxies, first in Lebanon, then in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Suleimani’s Quds Force (Quds means Jerusalem, which Tehran promises to “liberate” from the Israelis) was key to this strategy.

The reliance on this kind of combat means the Iranians are unlikely to launch a direct attack on U.S. interests. The mullahs surely will thunder from their pulpits about the “Great Satan” in Washington, but their response may rely on unleashing Hezbollah in Lebanon to strike Israel or a cyber attack of some kind on the United States. A cyber attack of unknown origins already hit a U.S government facility, and while it cannot be attributed directly to Tehran, it shows the perils of Trump’s actions. 

Whatever the Iranians do, Trump will not care. His goal was distraction, after all. He will not succeed if the American public is able to view Iran through a different lens than impeachment and sever any linkage between the two. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, now says he is willing to testify before the Senate if subpoenaed, keeping impeachment at the forefront regardless of the next steps in the Iranian crisis or how much tail wagging Trump does.

Let the Senate trial begin!

Posted January 7, 2020

Democrats Follow the Voters to the Left

This past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine sought 32 perspectives to the question, “The Democrats are moving left. Will America follow?” But, is that the right question? Perhaps, as historian and activist Rebecca Solnit writes, the proposition should be inverted: “America is far to the left of its political representation, and if we’re lucky the Democrats will catch up with the rest of us.”

There is much evidence to support this assertion. Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election but one. Democrats have been very successful in state and local elections since Donald Trump became president. Most importantly, American citizens of voting age are far more progressive on such issues as gun control, climate change, human and civil rights, social services, and economic fairness than those who actually vote.

Why is that? Because, as I have argued before, Republicans made a decision several decades ago to ignore the diversification of America — the increasing percentage of minorities in the electorate — and the power of the youth vote by appealing only to older, white — and increasingly male — voters. Understanding the destiny of demography, party leaders made a conscious decision to adopt means geared to preventing minorities and the young from voting. Republican state legislatures have adopted laws — stringent voter ID requirements, for example — that limit voting from Democratic-leaning constituencies and either refused to pass or revoked measures — such as same-day voter registration — that make it easier for many to vote. Some states closed polls in areas where poor people of color lived, forcing them to travel great distances to vote. Millions with felony convictions have been denied the right to vote. In Florida, that meant one-in-five African Americans could not vote before the laws were changed last year, though Republicans still are trying to deny the vote to felons who served their time. Egregious wielding of the gerrymander also guaranteed Republicans disproportionate representation in state legislatures and Congress.

The result of the domination of American politics by an older, white, wealthier — and disproportionately male — electorate has been the enactment of conservative policies that ignore the majority’s wishes. Had voting been truly fair, without barriers preventing minorities and the young from exercising their rights, and had one-person, one-vote been the norm everywhere in the United States, then more progressive candidates would have won elections in the past and America might already be tackling the ravages of climate change, moving toward insuring the millions who lack healthcare coverage, and closing the obscenely increasing gap in wealth between the very few who are super-wealthy and everyone else. 

Despite the obstacles, Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and 2012 brought millions to the polls who either had not voted before or had to overcome serious impediments to cast their ballots. While Trump managed to attract millions of Obama voters in 2016, a more important factor in Trump’s victory was the underperformance at the ballot box of Hillary Clinton, an uninspiring presidential candidate with a lackluster campaign. There is abundant evidence that a more progressive and charismatic candidate might have lifted a Democrat to victory in 2016, despite the advantage Republicans have in the Electoral College.

The above argues for the candidacy of the two most progressive Democrats running — Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. But, as a number of contributors to the Post’s smorgasbord of essayists note, America has moved to the left, and all of the candidates in the Democratic primaries are more progressive than past Democratic presidential candidates. Pollsters have found widespread support among the electorate for dramatic increases in the minimum wage, expansion of Social Security, higher taxes on the wealthy, and universal healthcare coverage.

No matter who becomes the 2020 Democratic nominee, he or she will be to the left of where the party was just a few years ago. Several factors, however, complicate any possible progressive victory: The impediments that prevent left-leaning voters from actually voting, a likely vicious campaign from Trump and his fellow Republicans, the long slog of the Democratic primaries in which so many candidates tear each other down, and the unpredictability of the impeachment process currently underway in Washington. 

Six of the candidates —  including Warren and Sanders, the two most progressive in the field — are senators who will be parked in Washington for weeks, if not months, as jurors in the trial of President Trump, if the House, as it almost certainly will, votes out articles of impeachment. Warren potentially will be most affected by being derailed from the campaign trail. She has proven to be an adept campaigner, and her appearances in the retail states of Iowa and New Hampshire — whose small electorate permits much personal contact between candidates and voters — theoretically might enable her to attract enough voters to defeat Sanders and claim the progressive mantle, but only if she is on the ground.

Former Vice President Joe Biden might be harmed by a long trial because Republicans — who are a majority in the Senate and, therefore, control the rules — will use their power to put Biden’s son Hunter, and his dealings with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, in the forefront. There is no evidence of serious wrongdoing by the Bidens, but the constant harping on Hunter Biden’s poor judgment and ethical lapses in obviously trading on his father’s fame is not what the Biden campaign wants on the table.

Despite the unpredictability of impeachment, the Democratic nominee and the party’s platform will be progressive. For those on the left, the preferred candidate would be either Warren or Sanders, but the rest of the field is not exactly on the right in American politics. In the end, the Democratic Party will follow where the voters lead.

Posted November 19, 2019