Tag Archives: 2020 election

What I Learned from the Debates

This week, 20 Democratic presidential candidates participated in nationally televised debates in Miami: ten on Wednesday and ten on Thursday. In all, the candidates were on stage for four hours. Watch/read for yourself: Night 1 video, Night 1 transcript, Night 2 video, Night 2 transcript.

The Democratic Party was the real winner. Ratings were excellent. With occasional exceptions, the candidates were all well-spoken and their remarks had substance [1], though they did talk over each other too much on Thursday. They also all stayed within shouting distance of the truth. The AP fact-checking column on the first night sounds like quibbling: Beto O’Rourke, for example, said the Trump tax cut will cost $2 trillion, when the official estimate is only $1.5 trillion. The checker admitted that the debate featured “a smattering of missteps … but no whoppers”. CNN’s fact-check of the second night covered just about all the claims that sounded suspicious; a great many of them produced the comment “This is true.”

By contrast, any five minutes of a Trump speech will include several whoppers.

Some pundits criticized the candidates for not going after Trump more (especially on the first night), but I liked that. Trump tries to paint Democrats as just Trump-haters, rather than as thoughtful people with a different (i.e. morally defensible) vision of what America is and where it should go. The first round of debates didn’t fit inside that frame. Trump tweeted “BORING!” during the first night, probably because the conversation was about America rather than about him.

What I was looking for. Pollsters like to raise the question: “Which is more important, finding a candidate who agrees with you or one who can beat Trump?” To me, at this point, that seems like a false choice, because we don’t know who can beat Trump yet.

The conventional wisdom says that Trump has abandoned a lot of traditional Republican values, so there should be a large bucket of moderate Republican and Independent voters who Democrats could flip with the right candidate and policies. (David Brooks claims to be one.) The 2018 results seemed to confirm that, as moderate Democratic candidates flipped House seats in a lot of suburban districts. (538 calls these the Romney/Clinton districts.) Presumably they got votes from educated professionals (often women) who used to consider themselves Republicans.

On the other hand, consider this point Pete Buttigieg made to CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday:

If we were sitting here in 2007 saying let’s find somebody so electable, so palatable, so easy for swing voters to get comfortable with that he can carry Indiana for Democrats. I’m not sure people would have said Obama.

But Obama did carry Indiana, which Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton never managed to do. So I think it’s easy to imagine that we know more than we actually do about how 2020 will play out. People will tell you that Democrats are surrendering Ohio or Iowa or somesuch state if they nominate a progressive like Warren or a non-white like Harris or Castro. But who really knows?

There are polls, of course. One recent poll had Biden beating Trump by 13 points, Sanders winning by 9, Harris 8, Warren 7, and Buttigieg 5. But all that could change really fast. (Just a month before the election, Hillary was ahead of Trump by 14 points in one head-to-head poll.) Most Americans have never thought seriously about a Buttigieg/Trump or Harris/Trump match-up, so why should we believe that the opinions they express now mean anything?

That’s why I watched the debates thinking about more than just who I agree with. I was also trying to figure out who is good at this game. Who can handle the back-and-forth of debating? Which candidates can make people listen to them and take them seriously? Who has a vision that, if people do listen to it, they’ll find compelling?

Nothing in Obama’s 2007 resume picked him out as the guy who could carry Indiana or come within a whisker of taking North Carolina. But if you saw him speak to a crowd or debate his rivals, it was obvious that he could play this game.

What the candidates needed to do. Going into the debates, candidates fell into three general categories:

  1. ones you know well: Biden, Sanders, and (to a lesser extent) Warren
  2. ones you’ve heard of if you’ve been paying attention: Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and maybe a few others
  3. ones whose names you might recognize in print (maybe), but you probably couldn’t come up with if you saw their pictures.

Success meant different things in each category.

  • Category 3 candidates just needed to get on the map. They’re racing to become relevant before their seed money runs out. If they said something that made you google them, they succeeded.
  • Category 2 candidates needed to prove they belong on stage with the well-known candidates. A category-2 candidate can play a somewhat longer game than a category-3 candidate. If you came away thinking “I could see that person as President”, that was a successful performance.
  • Category 1 candidates had a chance to complete the sale. If you were already leaning towards one of them, a good performance could cement your support, and possibly upgrade you from a silent supporter to a donor or volunteer. They needed to reinforce your prior ideas about their virtues, avoid a major gaffe, and put your doubts to rest.

Several candidates “won”. When you look at things that way, you realize that it was possible for many people to “win” the debate simultaneously. [2] My impression was that among the category-3 candidates, the big winner was Julián Castro. People were definitely not talking about him before the debate, and afterward they were. I think Tulsi Gabbard made her rep by taking out Tim Ryan on Afghanistan. [3] (I think Ryan is toast.) I thought Eric Swalwell’s pass-the-torch theme fell flat. (As Marco Rubio discovered in 2016, you don’t get credit for your youth if you don’t have any new ideas. And “We need new ideas” is not a new idea.) None the moderate candidates really broke out, but some (Bennet, say) might have positioned themselves to claim the center lane if Biden collapses.

In category 2, Kamala Harris was the big winner, with Cory Booker also having a good night. On Thursday, Kamala went toe-to-toe with front-runner Joe Biden and scored. The night before, Booker looked generally solid and impressive.

I feel like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg lived to fight another day. Neither was a star, but both looked like substantial candidates. (Buttigieg had an issue to face — the police shooting in South Bend — and he did it forthrightly.) Beto O’Rourke, on the other hand, amplified people’s doubts rather than quelling them.

I hesitate to comment at all on Kirsten Gillibrand, because watching her evokes a sexist response that I can’t seem to turn off. She may be saying something perfectly presidential, but she always looks and sounds like a lightweight to me. I don’t know if it’s the dumb-blond stereotype or what, but I have to keep reminding myself to listen to her and judge her fairly. (None of the other female candidates strike me this way, and I have no idea whether other men share this reaction to Gillibrand.)

In category 1, Biden had to have lost ground. He avoided any fatal gaffes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still the leader in the next round of polls (which should appear in a few days), but if you had doubts about him before, you have more doubts now. Meanwhile, Bernie was Bernie. If you liked him before, you still like him now, but I doubt he convinced many new people.

Elizabeth Warren hadn’t been seen on this kind of stage before, so she had the most to prove; and I think she did. She still needs to learn some debate-craft (like look at the camera — not the moderator — when the question is being read). But she was poised and well-spoken. Her signature virtues of commitment and authenticity came through well. If you went in thinking “I like Warren’s ideas, but I don’t know … ” she might have made a believer out of you.

Here’s some snap-polling from 538 and Morning Consult. The interviews were done immediately after the debate, so I don’t think they captured the full effect, which doesn’t hit until people start comparing notes with each other.

Black candidates and black voters. A similar dynamic is playing out for both Harris and Booker, who are the black candidates in the race. One of the big questions is where the black electorate — which makes up a substantial portion of the Democratic primary electorate, and is an actual majority of Democrats in most southern states — is going to settle.

Historically, blacks have been “conservative” voters in the sense that they are slow to change their loyalties. If they feel that they have a relationship with a candidate, they tend to stick by him or her rather than go for the fresh face making big promises. (Unsurprisingly, Mayor Pete has essentially zero black support so far.) Everyone remembers how much black support Barack Obama eventually had, but forgets that most of those supporters arrived fairly late — mainly after his Iowa victory proved that white people would vote for him.

At this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton was getting a lot of black support in the polls, just as Joe Biden is now. Bernie Sanders couldn’t pry that support away from her, and blacks in South Carolina and the subsequent southern primaries saved Clinton’s candidacy after Sanders’ early win in New Hampshire.

Prior to this week’s debates, an Economist/YouGov poll (Question 46) had Biden with 39% of the black vote, compared to Harris with 5% and Booker with 4%. Clearly, black voters weren’t just looking to see if there was a black candidate in the race. I suspect they are paying special attention to Harris and Booker, but they’ll have to be convinced to move away from Biden.

I’ll be watching the next set of polls to see if the debate convinced them. In particular, Harris’ jab — that Biden was opposing busing at a time when Harris herself was being bused — looked very effective. (Of course, I’m a white guy judging this from the outside.) Biden’s response — that he only opposed busing imposed by the federal government, not community-generated plans like the one Harris benefited from — was unconvincing to anybody who knows the history. Federal intervention was necessary precisely because so many communities resisted school integration. Many communities integrated “voluntarily” only out of fear that the federal government might take the decision out of their hands.

Who can play this game? Which of these people can I picture doing well in a campaign against Trump? [4] The candidates that impressed me in those terms were Harris [5] and Warren. I think either one would look good next to Trump: Warren is a truth-teller where Trump is a bullshitter. Harris is a bulldog prosecutor who will make her points and won’t be distracted. Both of them have an authentic toughness that will show up Trump’s phony bluster.

In a purely physical sense, I think Cory Booker would look good against Trump. At 6’2″, Booker is shorter than Trump’s claimed height (6’3″) but taller than Trump is in reality. (I see something symbolic in that.) Booker is younger and fitter than Trump, and makes a more imposing physical presence. (Trump would not stalk Booker on the debate stage the way he stalked Clinton, lest Booker turn and face him. It’s a simian thing.) He also radiates a dignity that would contrast well with Trump’s sleaziness.

That said, everyone should remember that it’s still early. Recall the 2012 Republican race: Mitt Romney was the early front-runner, but a series of candidates-of-the-week had their moments and briefly passed him: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. But Romney ultimately was nominated. The same thing could happen with Biden this year.


[1] Author Marianne Williamson stood out as the least “presidential” in the field, making a number of statements that sounded more New-Agey than Democratic. Like this from her closing statement:

So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me please. You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So, I sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field and, sir, love will win.

But even she had some important things to say about policy. For example, she identified one reason why Americans spend so much on health care: the unhealthy diet pushed on us by Big Agriculture and subsidized by the US government.

What we need to talk about is why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses so many more compared to other countries and that gets back into not just the big Pharma, not just health insurance companies, it has to do with chemical policies, it has to do with environmental policies, it has to do with food policies, it has to do with drug policies.

If you want that message in more traditional academic terms, check out this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

[2] Friday, Rachel Maddow made the case that each of the 20 candidates had some particular moment they could point to with pride and build on going forward. Not sure I would go that far.

[3] During the debate I kept asking myself: “Wait. Why don’t I like Tulsi Gabbard?” Then I did some googling and remembered: She’s Putin’s favorite Democrat, probably because she likes to downplay the significance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Since Gabbard announced her intention to run on Jan. 11, there have been at least 20 Gabbard stories on three major Moscow-based English-language websites affiliated with or supportive of the Russian government: RT, the Russian-owned TV outlet; Sputnik News, a radio outlet; and Russia Insider, a blog that experts say closely follows the Kremlin line. The CIA has called RT and Sputnik part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” …

Coverage of other Democratic presidential hopefuls in pro-Kremlin media has been for the most part perfunctory, limited to candidates’ announcements or summaries of their relative prospects.

A Truthdig article defending her against the Putin’s-favorite charge included this paragraph:

Gabbard’s run for president invites any number of legitimate criticisms. Her past jeremiads against “radical Islam” have reportedly earned the praise of Steve Bannon, and she has professed a curious admiration for India’s Hindu right; the LGBT community remains leery of her candidacy despite her support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; meanwhile, her anti-interventionism can appear “shot through with a pernicious nationalism,” as Branko Marcetic observes in Jacobin. 

[4] People are way too quick to jump to the question: “How will he or she do in a debate against Trump?” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Trump decided not to debate. He’d have some BS reason for chickening out — like his reasons for not talking to Bob Mueller (even though he claimed he wanted to) — and his followers would take whatever-it-was as The Truth.

[5] Prior to the debate, I hadn’t been impressed with Harris, despite all the political insiders who seemed very impressed. In her CNN town hall in April, she seemed tentative. Way too many questions got a non-commital answer like “We need to have that conversation.” At the time, she didn’t look like the right candidate to rally the country against Trump.

This week she did look like that candidate. We’ll see if that transformation holds.

Socialism: What’s in a word?

The word socialism has become a little like the word God: something we can almost all believe in as long as we get to define it our own way. Depending on the speaker, socialism can mean Denmark or Venezuela or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even the National Socialism of Hitler’s Germany. In FDR’s day Social Security was denounced as “socialism” and in JFK’s day Medicare was. Now those programs enjoy almost universal popularity. So are we all socialists now?

If socialism means buying things collectively through the government, then your local fire department is socialist, and so are the national parks and the interstate highways. Who doesn’t like them? On the other hand, if socialism means buying everything collectively, so that we eat in big government cafeterias rather than in our own kitchens and dining rooms, that would be a lot less popular. So which is it?

And if we can’t decide which it is, why are we talking about it at all?

What Bernie said. Bernie Sanders wants to have that discussion, and I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates do. Wednesday, he gave a major speech (video, transcript) embracing socialism and attempting to define it his own way.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

He listed these economic rights:

  • The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
  • The right to quality health care
  • The right to a complete education
  • The right to affordable housing
  • The right to a clean environment
  • The right to a secure retirement

How others responded. Among this cycle’s Democratic candidates, none of those rights seems terribly radical. True, not every candidate would agree with all of them. The more moderate ones would see them as goals to work toward rather than rights that need to be delivered immediately. (Let’s extend quality health care to more people, even if we can’t get a universal program passed.) Each candidate would have a different interpretation of those rights (what jobs are “decent”? when is an education “complete”?), of the kinds of programs necessary to ensure them, and how to pay for those programs. But nothing on that list should inspire shocked pointing and cries of “infidel!”

All the same, nobody joined Bernie in endorsing socialism by name. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate whose policy proposals are probably closest to Sanders’, noncommittally said, “I’ll have to hear his speech.” But Warren has kept the word capitalism in her proposals (as in the Accountable Capitalism Act). She styles her program as a reform of capitalism, not a revolution that replaces it with socialism.

Other candidates were more critical.

Of the two dozen Democrats running for president, some are ready to sign on to ideas Sanders has pioneered, such as Medicare for All, but none agree with democratic socialism as a way to govern, or as a pitch that will defeat President Donald Trump. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was booed for condemning socialism two weeks ago in a speech before the California Democratic Party, laughed at the title of Sanders’s speech when I read it to him. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado let out an exasperated chuckle. “I don’t think the American people even know what that means,” he told me. “Nobody in my town halls talks about democratic socialism versus oligarchy and authoritarianism.” When I read the title of the speech [“How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism”] to Senator Kamala Harris of California on Monday after an event in Dubuque, she responded with a simple “Huh.”

Republicans, on the other hand, love to talk about socialism, and to label Democratic proposals “socialist”. One favorite technique is to dismiss a Democratic proposal as “socialist” without identifying any specific flaws, as if socialism were a plague that can only be fought by quarantine. Before he officially became a politician, Ronald Reagan attacked a proposal similar to Medicare like this:

I know how I’d feel, if you, my fellow citizens, decided that to be an actor, I had to become a government employee and work in a national theater. Take it into your own occupation or that of your husband. All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, from here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism — to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.

So sure, the idea that Grandma can go to the hospital after she falls sounds good, but it’s socialism. Before long we’ll all be living in government dormitories.

My own view of capitalism and socialism in America. Debating socialism and capitalism, as if they were two distinct roads and we could only choose one, seems misguided to me.

When I look at America, I see capitalist and socialist economies existing side-by-side. We commonly go back and forth between them without thinking about it. Your driveway is part of the capitalist economy; the street is in the socialist realm. When your kids play in the front yard, they’re under the aegis of capitalism. If they go down to the park, they’ve crossed into socialism.

(In Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber also posits an underlying communist system, which we instinctively revert to in emergencies. When the flood hits, you rescue your neighbors in your boat — without going through either a market or a government office — because you have a boat and they need rescuing. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.)

What we’re mainly arguing about when we talk about socialism is where the boundary between the two realms will be. Should our kids be educated in public schools (socialism) or private schools (capitalism)? If we raise taxes to improve the library (socialism), maybe I won’t be able to afford to buy as many books (capitalism).

In my view, the balance has shifted too far in the capitalist direction, and needs to shift back. Market forces are doing a really bad job of organizing our health care (as I see in my own life). Pro-capitalist Republicans deny climate change because capitalism has no answer for it.

So while I have no desire to destroy the capitalist system root and branch, I want to move the boundary to shrink the portion of the economy it commands. I don’t think we need public dormitories and cafeterias, but I also don’t think we want capitalists manipulating the insulin market.

What’s in a word? Whatever politicians say in their speeches, only a few libertarian radicals want to get rid of socialism entirely, and only a few communist radicals want to get rid of capitalism entirely. We’re going to continue living in a mixed economy and arguing about what activities belong in each realm. So the idea that we’re going to accept or reject socialism once and for all is unrelated to the world we actually live in.

But we keep trying to have that conversation, and it seems that every politician but Sanders (Republican and Democrat alike) has come to the same conclusion: Democrats are better off talking about their specific policies — universal health care, free college, sustainable energy, etc. — than having an abstract argument about capitalism vs. socialism.

So why does Bernie want to have that argument? I think the word socialism symbolizes a point he wants to make, something that’s key to his political identity. The argument about socialism has become a metaphor for a more nebulous question: How screwed up are things, what caused it, and how big a change is necessary to set the country on the right track again?

Joe Biden’s message is that Trump screwed things up. The country was more-or-less on the right track under Obama, and we just need to get back there. Trump’s extremism has shown Republicans what their flirting with white supremacy and subverting democratic norms leads to, and once he’s gone they’ll be more reasonable. So there’s no need to change America’s underlying system, we just need a new president — preferably one with a majority in both houses of Congress, like Obama had for his first two years.

Elizabeth Warren’s message is that the turn towards unfettered capitalism is the problem and it began around the time of the Reagan administration. She uses her personal story to say: We used to have opportunity. You could buy a house on one income. You could work your way through college and graduate without a mountain of debt. Now, irresponsible banks throw the world economy into a near-depression, and they get bailed out. CEO pay is out of control. More and more chunks of the economy are monopolies or oligopolies.

So Warren’s message is one of reform: We need to get capitalism back under control, so that it works for the many again instead of just the few.

But Sanders’ message is that America is screwed up at a much deeper level, and it was never really on the right track. In his speech, he points to FDR’s New Deal not as a time when things were going right, but as a time when people had a vision of a better system. In his speech he said:

Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

Unlike Trump, Bernie doesn’t think America can be made great again, because it was never really great. For a while we had a vision of greatness, but we left it unfinished. We don’t need reform, or the mere updating of old values to new circumstances. We need transformation and even revolution.

And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.

And that, I think, is why Sanders embraces the label socialist, while other Democrats shrink away from it. To him, the word symbolizes a whole new system, a revolutionary transformation.

In short, Bernie is appealing to a level of discontent that no other candidate (except maybe Trump, who represents a vision of authoritarian revolution; I would compare him not so much with Hitler as with Franco) sees. Sanders sees a country, a political system, and an economic system that is too far gone to be reformed. Rather than build on what has come before, he prefers a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. Rather than make deals with some collection of the current power brokers, he wants a peaceful popular uprising to blow them away.

So the argument about socialism is really an argument about that extremity of discontent: How many people feel that way? Some, definitely. But are there enough of them to win a nomination and presidency?

Bernie thinks there are. Other candidates disagree — and I guess I do too. But that’s what campaigns are for: We’re going to find out.

What should “electable” mean?

I want to beat Trump as much as anybody does, but figuring out which candidate has the best chance isn’t as simple as many make it sound.


Democrats and other liberals may be splitting their loyalties among more than 20 candidates at the moment, but nearly all of us agree on one thing: It’s vital that we beat Donald Trump next year.

If Trump has four more years to assault the norms of democratic government, the rule of law, and the separation of powers, by 2024 the country will be virtually unrecognizable. For four more years, the US would be fighting for climate change rather than against it. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court would rise from 5-4 to 6-3 or 7-2 — locking in for decades the advantages corporations have over workers and consumers, upholding all the tools of minority rule, and constantly inventing new rights for conservative white Christians. Executive-branch corruption would become even more blatant, with Congress unable even to investigate it, much less do anything about it.

We can’t let that happen.

Searching for the anti-Trump. So there’s very good reason why a large chunk of the Democratic primary electorate lists “somebody who can beat Donald Trump” as their top criterion when looking for a candidate to support. Polls on this question are volatile and depend significantly on how the question is phrased, but all of them show electability as a huge factor. One poll in February found 56% of Democrats preferring “a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues, but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump” to “someone who agrees with you on most issues, but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump”. Only 33% made the opposite choice. A more recent poll phrased  the question differently [“What’s more important to you – that Democrats nominate the presidential candidate whose positions on the issues come closest to yours, or the candidate who seems most likely to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020?”] and showed smaller but still sizeable emphasis on winning [47% for “closer on the issues” vs. 40% for “more likely to win”].

Admittedly, it’s easy to overstate those results, because poll respondents undoubtedly assume that any Democrat will share certain core positions. Democratic candidates may, for example, disagree about whether universal health care is an immediate priority or a long-term goal, but none oppose it in principle. They may have more ambitious or less ambitious plans for dealing with climate change, but none argue — as Trump has — that Obama was already doing too much. Within these bounds, though, a large number of Democrats are willing to sacrifice ideological purity for someone they think will win.

But there’s a problem. Electability is not an objective quality. Without much argument, we can sort candidates into bins like male and female, white and non-white, gay and straight, young and old, and perhaps even progressive and moderate. But who is electable and who isn’t?

The economist John Maynard Keynes once compared investing in the stock market to gambling on a beauty pageant: You win not by betting on the most beautiful contestant, but by identifying the one that other people will find beautiful. That’s what we’re trying to do when we search for an electable candidate. It’s not enough to find the one who would be the best president by your own lights; you need to pick out the one that other people will vote for. The New Republic’s Alex Pareene doubts that anyone can do that:

While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for.

WaPo’s Dan Balz examines past failures to predict electability, starting with Donald Trump in 2016, and going back from there to Barack Obama in 2008, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. All started their campaigns by outcompeting candidates that the consensus said were more electable, and then proved their own electability by getting elected.

I confess to feeling conflicted about all this. I recognize what critics are saying, but I really, really want to beat Trump in 2020. So I want electability to mean something. But how should I look for it?

False notions of electability. Polls only help up to a point. Several polls have Joe Biden beating Trump by the widest margin, while one recent poll had Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats’ best bet. But do polls now tell us much about who the voters will support 18 months from now, after a long (and presumably dirty) campaign? Biden’s candidacy already seems a bit dull; by Election Day will marginal voters be too bored with him to show up? Beto is more exciting, but also less well known. I expect the Trump campaign to have limitless resources to devote to smearing his opponent. Will the mud more easily slide off of a candidate we already know well? Or does a long career just provide more targets?

I had similar qualms in 2016. Leading up to the primaries, polls consistently showed both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton beating Trump, but Sanders by a wider margin. (Hillary ultimately did beat Trump by 3%, which wasn’t quite enough to counter his Electoral College advantage.) But Republicans had been smearing Hillary for decades, and had not yet begun to go after Bernie. So I tried to imagine how they would in a pre-New-Hampshire-primary post. How durable, I wondered, would Sanders’ poll lead over Trump be once he had his own invented scandal, like Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary’s role (whatever it was supposed to have been) in Benghazi? (This time around, Republicans are already working to create a scandal for Biden.)

Another thing electable shouldn’t mean is white straight Christian male. A black man and a white woman have won the popular vote in the last three presidential elections. Nancy Pelosi was supposed to doom Democrats’ chance of taking the House in 2018, but she didn’t. Women like Amy Klobuchar have won Senate seats by wide margins in the kinds of states Democrats need to win in 2020 (Minnesota). Kirsten Gillibrand’s first seat in Congress came from a red district in upstate New York. Pete Buttigieg may be the first major gay contender, but I want to see what actual voters have to say before I eliminate him.

I’m also suspicious of ideological definitions of electability. The centrist version says that Trump has abandoned the educated suburban Republicans, whose votes might be available to a Democrat moderate enough not to scare them away. 2018 seemed to bear this out; the gains that allowed Democrats to retake the House came mostly in suburban districts that had formerly elected Republicans. But the long-term record of this idea is poor; Republicans have been constantly shifting to the right since Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, and yet somehow the abandoned center never provides enough votes to sweep Democrats into uncontested power. Instead, Democrats’ refusal to defend their left flank has pushed ambitious liberal ideas out of the national conversation entirely, and (until recently) has caused the center to move steadily to the right at the Republicans’ pace.

So electable can’t just mean moderate. It also can’t just mean progressive. The left-wing theory of electability is that in a polarized country, elections depend on turnout, so the candidate who best excites the base is most electable. Since turnout tends to be lowest among the poor, non-whites, and young people, candidates who appeal to these groups — generally more progressive candidates — should do better than moderates.

As sensible as that may sound in theory, evidence of it actually working is pretty thin. I’m still waiting for the progressive version of Marco Rubio: In 2010, he ran as a Tea Partier, won the Republican primary against an establishment candidate, and then went on to capture a Senate seat in a purple state. Stacey Abrams almost pulled off an even more impressive feat last year in the Georgia governor’s race, but fell short (with some voting irregularities that may have made the difference). So far, successful progressive stars have come areas that Democrats would hold in any case, like Vermont (Bernie Sanders), Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren), and Queens (AOC). They’re winning blue districts by matching the people who already vote, not by stimulating new turnout that flips red districts.

Both sides try to claim Barack Obama as an example of their theory working, because Obama’s 2008 landslide did everything right: He inspired new turnout and he held the center. In the most impressive Democratic victory of recent years — Doug Jones winning a Senate race in Alabama — Jones won as a moderate alternative to the far-right Roy Moore, not as a progressive. But he got a big turnout from black voters anyway.

How the 2020 campaign shapes up. Trump won in 2016 with only 46% of the vote, and many his voters did not have a particularly high opinion of him. (In an exit poll, only 41% of Trump voters said they strongly favored Trump, while 50% cited dislike of his opponent as their motivation.) According to 538’s weighted average of approval polls, he had a brief honeymoon period shortly after the inauguration, when his approval was higher than his disapproval, but still not over 50%. (Obama’s approval during his honeymoon period was in the high 60s.) More recently, he’s been stuck in a narrow 39%-43% approval range. No jobs report can bring that number up; no gaffe or evidence of corruption can bring it down.

In short, it is inconceivable that Trump will be re-elected because a majority of voters actually like him or want him to continue as president. The number of people who say they will definitely not vote for Trump in 2020 has been running in the 55%-58% range.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t win; just that he only has one route to victory: Some chunk of the electorate — just enough to let Trump sneak through the door — needs to conclude that the Democrat is even worse. So Trump needs to sow dissension among Democrats, as he (and the Russians) did in 2016.

To a certain extent he’ll run by raising support: He’ll take credit for the economy (assuming that it’s still good) and for a few other (mostly fake) accomplishments like the denuclearization of North Korea. He’ll remind Evangelicals how he came through for them with judicial appointments. He’ll tell nativists about the invasion of Hispanics he’s prevented. He’ll wink and nod at white supremacists, while distancing himself from the terrorists he clearly inspires. He’ll claim to have helped farmers, even though he hasn’t. He’ll conjure up another fantasy about the fantastic healthcare plan he’ll reveal someday, the one that covers everybody and costs less and doesn’t require any new taxes.

But a lot of the positive hopes he inspired in 2016 aren’t credible any more. We all know he isn’t going to fill his administration with “the best people” or make “great deals” to end the trade deficit. He’s not going to make other countries respect America. His tax cut isn’t going to pay for itself and isn’t going to provide any serious relief to working people. His infrastructure plan is always going to be vapor. He isn’t going to settle down and become more presidential someday.

In short, that 39%-43% isn’t going to grow, because he’s really not even talking to anyone else. His famous “What have you got to lose?” message to black voters in 2016 is paradigmatic: It wasn’t delivered to blacks at all. He was speaking about blacks in Detroit, but to whites in a suburb of Lansing. The point of that speech was to convince his base that he has a message for blacks. That’s all.

Without growing his base, how will he get up to the 46%-or-so that he needs to let the Electoral College work its dark magic? He’ll need to smear the Democratic candidate enough that dissident Republicans will get behind him and marginal Democrats will decide not to vote. That’s the only path to victory, so that’s what he’ll do.

How do we cope with that? The #1 thing Democrats need to avoid is framing the 2020 primary campaign as a death struggle between rival factions, one of which will lose and probably still feel disaffected in November. If Bernie-ites see beating Biden as revenge on the establishment for his loss to Hillary in 2016, or if centrists who are still angry with Bernie for pushing his 2016 campaign long past the point of hopelessness pull out all the stops to deny Bernie again, then we’re in trouble. There’s going to be conflict in the primaries, but it needs to be a fight between siblings, not enemies.

Each campaign talks about “vetting” its rivals, but there’s a difference between raising difficult issues and laying the groundwork for a Trump smear. So, for example, it’s fine to question Sanders or Warren about how they plan to pass and pay for their ambitious plans, but it’s out of bounds to make them answer for “socialism” in Venezuela. It’s fine to point out that Klobuchar and Booker are not supporters of Medicare for All, and that each has benefited from pharmaceutical-industry contributions in past campaigns. But it’s out of bounds to declare, as if it were a proven fact, that either is “bought and paid for”. And so on.

Admittedly, my Facebook news feed is probably not the most representative window into American opinion. But there’s one pattern among progressives that has me worried: a tendency to inflate Bernie’s support (the one recent poll that had him ahead of Biden got an amazing amount of attention on my feed, and the other recent poll that had him far behind got dissed on bogus grounds) combined with a persecution narrative about all the dark forces that are working behind the scenes to ruin his chances. (MSNBC is supposedly in the tank for Biden because it’s owned by Comcast, even though I’ve seen no evidence that Comcast is either rooting for Biden or interfering with MSNBC’s editorial decisions.) It’s obvious how that could play out disastrously: If Bernie’s support turns out to be less than his supporters have convinced themselves it is, the conspiracy-theory explanation of that shortfall will be ready, and Trump will be ready to exploit it to divide his opposition.

I think that all candidates currently in the race deserve a presumption of good will. No matter now much I may disagree with some position one of them takes, I’m going to listen to their justification and consider the possibility that they really believe it. I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that they must be either crazy or corrupt, as Trump is bound to claim.

Who is electable? When I judge electability, I’m not looking for a demographic profile or a particular set of policies. Instead, I’m looking for someone who will make a good spokesperson for Democratic values, who has the skills to perform well in a debate with Trump, who thinks well on his or her feet, and who demonstrates an ability to appeal to people of all races and classes and religions and genders. I’m looking for someone who can deliver an anti-Trump critique without sounding like the pot criticizing the kettle.

I’m looking for someone mud won’t stick to, who can deflect criticism with humor, and who can deliver a sting without sounding nasty. I want a candidate who can stand up to hostile questioning without getting flustered or testy or evasive. I want someone who can get specific on policy details, but never loses sight of the millions of Americans who aren’t political wonks.

Most of all, I’m looking for someone who uses the Light Side of the Political Force, someone who can raise enthusiasm without resorting to fear or anger. Fear and anger live on Trump’s home turf; going there plays into his hand, and will motivate his voters more than ours. But our candidate also can’t be dull. If none of the people who pay attention to politics this early can get excited about a candidate, how are we going to convince the apathetic to come out and vote?

As I hope you can tell, I haven’t determined yet who the most electable candidate is. I think establishing who does or doesn’t have these qualities is what this part of the campaign is for. At this point, I’m rooting for all 20+ of them. I hope one of them surprises me.

Buttigieg vs. Pence

Liberals have been yielding the high ground on religion for far too long. Maybe that’s going to stop.


There are two ways to seek people’s political support: You can lay out policy proposals to address the problems that concern them — like Medicare for All or a plan to cancel student debt — or you can show them that you’re on their side by taking on the people that threaten or intimidate them.

It’s not an either/or, of course. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has no trouble taking on the bankers who illegally foreclosed on your house while at the same time laying out policies that would stop them from foreclosing on someone else. Ultimately, a politician’s willingness to fight for you in the public square will come to nothing if he or she doesn’t also enact substantive changes after taking office.

But if you doubt the power of a pure I’ll-stand-up-to-your-enemies message, you need look no farther back than 2016. Candidate Trump’s policy proposals were often an incoherent mess. He said he’d replace ObamaCare something “fantastic” and “wonderful” that would take care of everybody. The government would pay for it, but it would neither raise your taxes or impinge on your freedom. (That’s not a synopsis of his program; that’s the whole program.) His foreign policy was both bellicose and promised an end to the endless wars. He was in favor of both LGBT rights and the religious right. He would simultaneously cut taxes, increase defense spending, and repay the national debt. He promised to build a wall, while his supporters argued among themselves about whether the wall would be literal or metaphorical.

But whatever he might propose, and however he might contradict that proposal the next time he opened his mouth, one part of Trump’s message was clear, and remains clear today: If you feel threatened by immigrants of color, by people who don’t speak English, by scientists who think they’re smarter than you, or by advocates of “political correctness” who tell you that you can’t say this or do that any more, then Trump has your back. If you’re sick of liberals calling you “racist” or “sexist”, well, Trump glories in being called those names, and strikes back at the accusers twice as hard.

A week ago yesterday, in his own soft-spoken way, Pete Buttigieg did something similar: At the annual champagne brunch of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, he took on Vice President Mike Pence by name, and challenged the religious right not just politically, but morally and religiously. When his words got national attention and Pence answered (dishonestly), Buttigieg did not back down.

The message was clear: He’s not intimidated by Mike Pence, so you don’t need to be either. And if the “Mike Pences of this world” think that they own religion or Christianity or words like morality and freedom, then Pete Buttigieg has news for them.

The speech. His 19-minute speech is worth listening to in its entirety, if you have the time. He is talking to a friendly audience of those who fight for LGBTQ rights, so it may not be as immediately courageous as, say, Catholic JFK’s speech to the protestant ministers of Houston. But in an era when everything is recorded, everything gets out, and your words live on forever in hard drives all over the world, it is quite striking.

We often hear the term “gay pride”. Buttigieg’s speech is a clear and simple assertion of gay pride. He’s not claiming to be better than straight people, but he’s also not apologizing for his sexuality or hoping that critics will ignore it. He is proud of his life, proud of his marriage, and proud of the spouse he married. He will not keep Chasten hidden and hope that his opponents will be gracious enough not to bring him up. Instead, Buttigieg talks about meeting Chasten, and adds:

One of the best things about these last couple months has been watching America meet him too, and start to fall for Chasten just like I did.

But he then goes on to talk about his struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallways in school or the dining halls in college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war would have been settled on the terms that I would have wished for when I was 15, or 20, or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water.

It is a hard thing to think about. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.

The room is completely silent at this point. What he is presenting is the religious right’s fantasy: that homosexuality is curable, and that 15-year-olds like Buttigieg could be offered the chance to sign up for some kind of conversion therapy (which is now illegal in 16 states, partly because it doesn’t work, and partly because forcing a child into such therapy is believed to increase the risk of suicide). The fantasy says that these men will be grateful later, when they look back on a life that includes wives and naturally-conceived children. But Buttigieg represents the polar opposite of that fantasy: Looking back on his life, he is grateful that he didn’t get that choice.

The real reason it’s so hard to think about is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten. The best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. … How dark the thought, that the man that I admire and care about, and love sharing with the rest of the country, and even more importantly, can’t wait to share one day with raising children, might not have been part of my life at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.

And “thank God” is not just figure of speech. It segues Buttigieg into religion, and into the moral issue of marriage equality.

It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being, because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.

He explains exactly what “closer to God” means to him.

You may be religious and you may not. But if you are, and you are also queer, and you have come through the other side of a period of wishing that you weren’t, then you know that that message, this idea that there’s something wrong with you, is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your Maker.

And speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.

The response. This is a story and an argument that many straight Americans have never heard: Accepting your sexual orientation or gender identity or some other aspect of yourself (that you didn’t choose and can’t un-choose) can be part of a journey of coming to terms with God.

The religious right will tell you that accepting homosexuality means rejecting God. (In a Fox News piece responding to Buttigieg, Log Cabin Republican Rob Smith says precisely that: “those on the left … have been very successful at convincing a generation of young gays and lesbians to reject God in favor of their cult of intersectionality and identity politics.”) It will tell you that gays want to tear down Christianity, and that the point of same-sex marriage is to undermine marriage in general. But Buttigieg is saying the exact opposite: Accepting how you were made is part of accepting God’s creation.

Buttigieg is challenging not the politics of the religious right, but its morality and its theology. This isn’t just about the Constitution or the law, it’s about what it means to be in right relation with God.

You can tell how threatening Buttigieg’s message is to the Mike Pences of the world by how hard they try not to hear it, and to pretend that Buttigieg said something else. Pence himself responded with this non sequitur:

I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the President as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.

But Buttigieg didn’t “attack” anybody’s Christian faith. He challenged Pence’s interpretation of it. In particular, there was no attack on Pence’s “religious freedom”. No one, least of all Buttigieg, is preventing Pence from believing whatever he wants, from trying to convince others to agree with him, or from living his faith. [1]

But you know what prominent conservatives did next? They attacked Buttigieg’s Christian faith. Erick Erickson, for example, described progressive Christianity as “hypocritical farce”  and “corrupt and flawed”. The Episcopal Church that Buttigieg belongs to “is no longer a Christian institution“.

Buttigieg did not back down to Pence, saying:

I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people. … I’m not interested in feuding with the Vice President. But if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say that he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are.

Some very old arguments. Buttigieg’s challenge brings up several longstanding theological issues that conservative Christians would prefer to sweep under the rug. Though different, they all revolve around the notion that (in spite of the purported changelessness of Christian doctrine) the image of God that was taught centuries ago is something most people just can’t believe in today. [2]

One of those issues is predestination, the idea that God’s omniscience included knowledge of the destiny of the souls He was creating. [3] From the beginning of time, a few souls were predestined for Heaven and the vast majority for Hell. This belief turns God into a monster, because He created most of humanity for no other purpose than to torture them for all eternity.

Current religious-right teachings about gender and sexuality contain echoes of this monstrosity. If LGBTQ people in their many varieties are not choosing a lifestyle, but in fact are discovering an inner nature that has been theirs from birth, and if that nature either damns them to eternal torment or permanently cuts them off from sex, children, and the kind of deep relationship that Buttigieg describes making with Chasten, then something very similar to predestination is happening. [4]

An even larger and older issue goes back to the reformulations of the Axial Age, which never quite completed its mission: Is religion fundamentally about a list of rules and the rewards and punishments that enforce those rules? Or is it about becoming (in Buttigieg’s words) “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent”. If it is about rules, do those rules have to make sense, or is their very arbitrariness a measure of God’s majesty? [5] In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.

And finally, there is the issue that religion itself can become a kind of idol: Rather than worshiping God, you can find yourself worshiping a scripture or a church or a set or rituals.

It’s not surprising that the religious right doesn’t want to talk about any of this.

We’re not supposed to challenge them. Conservative Christians have gotten used to being able to define the playing field. When they involve themselves in political discussions, we are all supposed to accept as given that they are good, decent people who are just trying to live according to their faith. We are supposed to accept the moral and theological premises they offer, and yield to them all the powerful vocabulary and imagery of Christianity.

But they don’t deserve that kind of consideration. They are offering us a God who is monstrous, and a religion that justifies discrimination and bigotry. They need to be called on that, not just because it’s bad law and bad politics, but because it’s bad religion.

I’m still waiting for a detailed set of policies from Buttigieg, and who knows whether I’ll like it when I see it. But this part of the message he’s gotten right.


[1] I won’t go into this in detail today, because I already have here and here. What masquerades as “religious freedom” for conservative Christians is actually a demand for special rights. They want a special exemption from discrimination laws, because they’re Christians. As the cartoon below demonstrates, it’s laughable to imagine the rights that conservative Christians claim being applied generally, to issues other than their hobby horses of homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.

[2] I mean can’t in a literal sense. If you can picture such a being at all, you will feel revulsion, not awe or wonder. If this is God, then maybe Lucifer was right to rebel.

[3] I’m describing God as “He” here, because in the theologies I’m describing, God is male. That’s not something I do when I describe my own beliefs.

[4] In contrast to Buttigieg’s coming closer to God, Chris Steadman describes (in the book Faitheist) going through a period of rage at a God who created him gay and then condemned gays to Hell.

In Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel Held Evans, whose path of spiritual growth has taken her out of Evangelicalism and into the Episcopal religion that Erickson finds so objectionable, recounts one of the first cracks in her childhood faith: Going on a mission trip to China, looking out a bus window, and realizing that a billion people out there were going to Hell. What kind of God would set the world up like that?

[5] Occasionally you’ll hear the conundrum expressed like this: Do we worship God because He is good, or because He is God? In an earlier era, this question made sense, but today we are more inclined to ask: Why would we worship a God who is not good?

Before We Even Think about Candidates for 2020

We already know how Trump is planning to beat us. Let’s go into that battle with open eyes.


President 46%. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 46% of the vote, beating a Democrat who got 48%. As he was being inaugurated, he briefly benefited from the wave of hope and goodwill that greets all presidents, and for about two weeks his approval/disproval rating was positive.

He quickly dissipated all that goodwill: He gave his scary “American carnage” inaugural address. We saw the flock of shady billionaires, fossil-fuel industry puppets, and alt-right provocateurs he had appointed to high office. Sean Spicer angrily told us that we didn’t really see all that empty space on the National Mall during Trump’s inauguration, and Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts“. Then Mike Flynn resigned under a cloud that had something to do with lies about Russia, the Trump family kept openly profiting from his presidency, and by April his approval was below 40%. It has fluctuated in a 37%-43% range ever since.

Whatever he says or does, or how well or badly things are going, that’s how much support he has. The unemployment rate hits record lows and the stock market record highs, but he can’t get over 43%. He all but kneels to Vladimir Putin, refers to Nazis as “very fine people”, puts kids in cages, and is identified in as a conspirator in a crime Michael Cohen has already been sentenced to prison for, but he doesn’t go under 37%.

There’s a good reason for that narrow range: Unlike all previous presidents (at least since World War II; I’m kind of hazy on the presidents before FDR), Trump continues to serve up the rhetoric his base wants to hear, and doesn’t even try to speak to the nation as a whole. Most of the things he says are easily recognized as false or nonsensical as soon as you leave the Fox News bubble. (The Washington Post fact-checker estimates that during 2018 Trump averaged 15 false or misleading statements per day.) But inside that bubble, he is a prophet; he says the (untrue) things that no other president has ever had the courage to say. Every bad claim people amke about him originates from a conspiracy between the Deep State and the Fake News Media, who are “enemies of the American people“.

Unlike, say, Bill Clinton reforming welfare, George W. Bush working with Ted Kennedy on education policy, or Barack Obama offering a “grand bargain” on the federal deficit to John Boehner, Trump has never given Democratic leaders the slightest reason to hope that they might achieve their goals by working with him. Every gesture towards compromise — like the DACA-for-Wall deal Trump said he wanted or the job-creating infrastructure bill he promised — turns out to be a mirage that evaporates in the light of day. Fundamentally, Trump doesn’t accept the premise of a win/win outcome; in order for him to believe he has won, his opponents have to lose.

Even worse, he seems to take joy in trolling groups that oppose him. He never misses an opportunity to smear Latino immigrants. He makes up derogatory nicknames (like “Pocahontas” or “Cryin’ Chuck”) for U.S. senators. Whenever he needs to rile up the racists in his base, he picks a fight with some black celebrity like LeBron James or Spike Lee. (Try to remember any previous president of either party trading insults with a celebrity outside of politics, no matter what opinions they expressed.) He refers to black-majority nations as “shithole countries“, and contrasts them with countries he’d like more immigrants from, like Norway. He encourages police to be more violent with suspects.

So how does Trump plan to win? That kind of behavior raises an obvious question: How does Trump think he’s going to get re-elected? Something like a third of the country may worship him. (Literally. It’s not uncommon to run across people saying that Trump was chosen by God to be president.) They may indeed be so devoted that they don’t care if he stands “in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoots someone”, much less if he violates campaign finance laws or commits bank fraud or is a ventriloquist’s dummy for Putin.

But how do you win an election if you don’t do anything to grow a base that’s barely more than a third of the country?

Answer — the same way he did in 2016. Eezy-peezy: Rile up your third of the country so that they’re sure to vote (and depress the rest of it so that they’re not), making them maybe 40% of the electorate. Get another 6% to hold their nose and vote for you because they’re scared of your opponent. Encourage (maybe with some social-media help from Russia) 5% or so to vote for third-party candidates who have no chance to take any of your states. (Howard Schultz has already volunteered for that role.) Then count on the Electoral College to install you in office even though your opponent has more votes.

That would sound like one of the Brain’s plans to take over the world, if we hadn’t just seen it work.

Let’s not get fooled again. If you know the trap your enemy is setting, the obvious counter-strategy is to refuse to walk into it. Since the trap is two-pronged (motivate his voters, depress and split ours) we should look for two things in a potential Democratic challenger:

  • Someone who raises progressive enthusiasm, so that marginal Democratic voters (especially non-whites and young people) are drawn to the polls.
  • Someone who doesn’t scare Republican voters outside Trump’s base (especially educated suburbanites and moderates) into supporting him.

The problem: While those two are not directly contradictory, they do generally point in opposite directions. A candidate with sweeping progressive proposals (like Bernie Sanders) tends to scare the Right, while a “safer” candidate (like Joe Biden) may leave low-motivation voters wondering why they should bother.

Moving either way increases the third-party threat. In 2016, Jill Stein got votes from people who would have voted Democratic if Bernie had been the nominee. But Schultz has openly said that his motivation to run as a “centrist” arises from fear of Democrats nominating a progressive like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Trumpists are preparing for either possibility. You can bet that any moderate candidate will face the same kinds of attacks “Crooked Hillary” did: He or she is a tool of the powerful special interests that are threatened by Trump’s attack on the Deep State. But CPAC (over the weekend) was a testing ground for attacks on progressives: They want to turn the US into Venezuela and even take away your hamburgers. The Green New Deal, Trump summed up, means “No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric.”

Any Trump challenger will face personal attacks that make him or her seem uniquely horrible. (“I mean, I don’t like him either, but couldn’t the Democrats have picked somebody else?”) It doesn’t really matter that the charges be true, only that they take time to refute. We’ve already seen this with Warren and the Native American issue. (Lots of people are convinced she made up her native ancestor in order to take advantage of affirmative action. There is zero evidence for this, but the issue never goes away.)

I think progressives underestimate the effectiveness of this kind of stuff, largely because Bernie never had to face it in 2016. (Republicans were counting on him to wound Hillary, so they mostly laid off of him, portraying him as a good guy with some wacky notions. Trump would occasionally cry some crocodile tears about the raw deal Bernie was getting.) It’s a mistake to draw the conclusion that Bernie was shielded by his fine moral character. Anyone can be lied about, and it’s usually not that hard to find some factual foundation to build a lie on. In a sufficiently large cloud of lies, the many absurd charges (think Pizzagate) can seem to support each other. (“I don’t know. It just seems like there’s something wrong there.”)

Don’t help him. The most important thing Democrats can do is to avoid slandering their front-runners. We need to make sure that candidates have answers for any serious questions that are bound to come up eventually, but attacks on a candidate’s fundamental honesty and decency shouldn’t be tossed around lightly.

So it’s fine to ask why Amy Klobuchar doesn’t support Medicare-for-All, but not to jump to the conclusion that she’s a tool of the insurance companies (unless you really know something). It’s fine to wonder how Bernie will pay for his proposals, but not to accuse him of trying to turn the US into Cuba.

And I don’t want to hear about how Kamala Harris isn’t black enough, or that Kirsten Gillibrand doesn’t know how to eat chicken. We’ll get enough of that kind of BS in the general-election campaign. We don’t need to start it now.

Can anybody thread the needle? The most successful Democratic campaigns of the Trump era have somehow managed to split the difference. Doug Jones won an unlikely senate seat in Alabama by avoiding progressive positions like Medicare-for-All, but the very thought of a Democrat beating Roy Moore inspired high turnout in Alabama’s black neighborhoods. Beto O’Rourke ran a surprisingly close race in Texas by creating an exciting progressive image without taking many progressive stands on the issues. That is also the path Obama took in his 2008 landslide. Obama himself was the excitement, not a revolutionary platform.

Texas and Alabama are both in the South, where a Democratic presidential nominee will only win as part of a national landslide. So I don’t think those races should define the limits of acceptable positions. But I think each issue needs to be weighed on the inspiration/fright scale. Reparations for slavery, for example, is a trap issue for Democrats. No one really believes the next president can get a reparations bill passed — and I don’t even know of a plausible reparations proposal — so I doubt the issue will inspire new support. But it will scare a lot of white people and lend itself to exaggerated charges.

At the moment, things look relatively good. The latest poll has Trump trailing a generic Democrat by 48%-41%. But of course, many polls showed even larger leads for Clinton at some point or another. That 7-point lead comes before the actual nominee either raises enthusiasm or gets torn down. It also comes before the Mueller report appears, and before investigations in the House nail down charges that Trump supporters have been able to wave away so far. There’s a strong chance of a recession beginning before the election, and who can guess what foreign crises will erupt between then and now?

The idea that 41% of the public might be able to look at the last two years and say, “I want more of that” is both scary and mind-boggling. But that’s the world we live in. Trump has about that much support and always has. He’s going to try to win again without building that base, and we know exactly how he’s going to try to do it. No matter what happens in the internal dynamics of our own process, we can’t ever lose sight of that.

Are powerful women likable?

OK, a lot of people found Hillary Clinton hard to like. But three more women gained the spotlight this week, and guess what? They’re unlikable too. Maybe there’s a problem here we need to look at.


Maybe there really was some unique I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it thing about Hillary Clinton that put people off. Sure, she was whip-smart, had a boatload of executive and legislative experience, could stand up to 11 hours of hostile questioning, and had put forward an impressive collection of policies she wanted to implement if she got elected, but … you know. There was just something about her that made voters uncomfortable.

Maybe it was her voice, or her hair, or the way she dressed. She was just too … something. If that many people had said that many bad things about her over the years, there must have been some fire under all that smoke, right? And behind closed doors, she was supposed to have a temper. I know, John McCain’s temper was part of his charm — he was fiery and passionate sometimes, you know — but Hillary’s temper was so … we can’t say bitchy any more, can we? But you know what I mean. It was different.

OK, let’s give people a mulligan for Hillary. And let’s give another mulligan to the people who couldn’t possibly be racist, but some ineffable something about Barack Obama just felt wrong to them. He just wasn’t like the rest of us — not because he was black, of course. Lots of people are black. But … you know. And if he claimed to be an American-born Christian, didn’t that seem kind of fishy somehow? How could we trust somebody like … well, like that, whatever “that” means.

Honestly, I’m starting to get my own ideas about what sounds fishy here, but let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s talk about now. Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three of them have been making news lately, and they’ve all been running into unusual levels of hostility. Each of them, in her own way, has some indescribable quality that raises a lot of people’s ire.

What could it possibly be?

It’s not incompetence. Nancy Pelosi is the most talented legislator of our time. She has no real competition for that title.

When she was Speaker before, the House got stuff done. Appropriations bills got passed on time. She not only saved ObamaCare, but passed a bunch of Obama’s other progressive proposals (most of which died in the Senate).

As soon as the Democrats lost their majority in the House, everybody suddenly realized that the Speakership is a hard job. Even if you lead a partisan majority, holding it together well enough to pass an agenda takes real skill. John Boehner couldn’t do it. Paul Ryan couldn’t go it. Again and again, they would fail to get a proposal to the floor, or miscount votes and see a bill fail unexpectedly. (To this day, a Republican healthcare bill with positive content hasn’t even been drafted, much less voted on or passed.) Deals they thought they had negotiated fell apart at the last minute. Boehner just barely avoided pushing the United States into a self-inflicted financial disaster.

The Speakership is hard, unless you do it backwards and in heels like Pelosi does. Then it looks easy.

When LBJ and Sam Rayburn were the masters of Congress, their skills were appreciated even by many who disagreed with their goals. Phrases like “wheeler-dealer” and “arm-twister” got used with a certain amount of admiration. But it’s hard to imagine applying descriptors like that to a woman. Instead, she (and not Chuck Schumer) was the villain of GOP campaign ads across the country. Her own party seriously discussed not letting her be Speaker again if they regained the majority. (Schumer, meanwhile, lost seats in the Senate and was not challenged.)

It’s not inauthenticity. One complaint about Hillary Clinton was that she just wanted to be president and didn’t stand for anything. But Elizabeth Warren’s political career has a definite theme: Capitalism needs to be regulated to keep big corporations from running over ordinary people.

After the crash of 2008, Warren left a cushy position at Harvard Law School and entered public life because she wanted to protect consumers from the predations of the big banks. She ran for the Senate in 2012 because Republican opposition in the Senate made it impossible to get the job she had wanted: head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (whose creation she had overseen). In the Senate, she has been a leading voice against the concentration of corporate power.

She has the working-class biography to back up her sympathies with ordinary people. Rather than being tracked for high positions early in life (like, say, Brett Kavanaugh), she came from a working-class family and her career developed slowly: She left college to get married, then followed her husband as his career took him to Houston and New Jersey. She finished a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and  taught public-school children with learning disabilities. She interrupted that career to be an at-home mother, then later went back to school in law. She started out doing legal services from her home, then started teaching, and rose in academic ranks as an expert in laws related to bankruptcy. Eventually she got to the top of the academic heap: tenure at Harvard.

When Clinton, a centrist woman, seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there was a groundswell among progressives for Warren to challenge her. Only after she refused to run did Bernie Sanders get into the race and lead progressive Democrats.

So announcing her presidential candidacy for the 2020 nomination raises one obvious question of substance: Just how much regulation does capitalism need? If you’d rather talk politics, you still have a number of interesting questions to choose from: Can she recover the support of the progressives who turned to Sanders in 2016? Can the Sanders/Warren wing of the party win this time? Can she get more support from blacks and centrists than Bernie got in 2016? And so on.

Instead, Politico raised this question:

How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Politically, it’s hard to see much resemblance between Warren and Clinton, except for this: Both of them are women who saw their unfavorability ratings spike when they started to look like serious candidates. Clinton herself explained it this way:

It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up.

It’s not a lack of passion and vitality. Another criticism of Clinton (which sometimes also gets said about Warren, though I don’t understand why) was that she seemed cold. But if you want a politician who is the opposite of cold, I’ve got one for you: new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But strangely, she also has been a target of public ire.

Since upsetting a member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary and then winning his seat in the general election, Ocasio-Cortez has been targeted both for being too poor and for not being as poor as she’s supposed to be. Predictably, the too-rich criticism was based on her clothes: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

When Paul Ryan came to Congress, he was a “young gun”; his youth was evidence of how extraordinary he must be, to get so far so fast. But AOC’s youth just points to her being a lightweight, because there’s no female equivalent of a “young gun”.

This week, we learned of a new AOC outrage: She and her friends made a dance video in college. Unlike, say, Melania Trump or Scott Brown, she kept her clothes on, but still the video is supposed to be embarrassing for some reason. My main reaction is that this video is a trivial thing that shouldn’t evoke anything more than a trivial response; mine is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with (assuming away the time-travel problem). But you can judge for yourself.

Somehow, though, conservatives looked at that video and saw something scandalous. I think this tells us more about them than about AOC. As Paul Krugman put it: “The mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad.”

If just being young and nonwhite were the problem, that would be one thing. But in the context of Clinton, Pelosi, and Warren, we see that being older and white doesn’t protect a woman either. The specifics of a woman’s life and character may shape how she gets disparaged, but her unique characteristics are not why she gets disparaged.

People are starting to notice. Robby Mook may have exaggerated a little about the reaction to Warren’s announcement video, but he wasn’t exactly making this up, either.

Last 24 hours shows Trump’s 2020 path to victory:
-Dem candidate releases video that explains her background, values, vision and policies
-it never mentions Trump;
-Trump responds with childish insult;
-Media only covers insult.
All process, all on Trump’s terms. No Dem message.

Maybe Trump and the press will do that with every Democratic candidate. But I also think it works better, and the media is more complicit, against women.

Peter Beinart, I think, has this right: The facts that an article cites about Warren may be true, but still contribute to a false narrative.

Mentioning the right’s attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her “very liberal record” and the controversy surrounding her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her, and many Americans don’t like her very much. But that equation is misleading. …

There’s nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate. The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender’s role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren’s unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them.

… Journalists shouldn’t ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren’s comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than they judge their male competitors. Unless journalists name that unfairness, they risk perpetuating it.

“I would have voted for the woman who isn’t running.” As the 2020 campaign proceeds, other women are likely to emerge as serious candidates. (Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, perhaps.) We can hope that the sheer multiplicity of targets will disperse the misogynistic fire. But here’s a wild guess on my part: Whichever one is polling last will get the most favorable coverage. In 2004, when she wasn’t running, many voices pined for Hillary Clinton, only to turn against her in 2008 and 2016, when she was actually on the ballot. Likewise in 2016, people who were voting against Clinton often claimed they could have supported Warren, if only she had run. But where are they now?

The Republican Party has a similar dynamic around blacks. At some point in the process, there’s a boomlet for a black candidate like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, or Ben Carson. But these waves always fade before any votes get cast. Having given cover to people who will never actually vote for a black, the candidacies have served their purpose.

We can’t let that happen in 2020. “I would have voted for a woman” isn’t an excuse any more. Do or don’t, but what you would have done in some alternate reality doesn’t matter.

For the most part, this kind of prejudice is structural and unconscious. “Woman politician” has become a category in people’s heads; it seems natural to treat them differently than male politicians, as if a political office changes when a woman holds it. (There has been a similar phenomenon in sports: For a long time “black quarterback” seemed to be a category of its own. Any new black quarterback would invariably draw comparisons to previous black quarterbacks, and be judged accordingly. Cam Newton came into the NFL as a tall, strong quarterback with speed and a powerful arm, but somehow John Elway was never the comparison that popped into commentators’ minds.)

As Pelosi’s speakership, Ocasio-Cortez’ congressional service, and the 2020 campaign continue, we’re going to have to monitor this constantly, both in the media and in our own minds.

Elizabeth Warren stakes out her message

Two of Warren’s recent proposals could shift the public debate in a positive direction — but only if she’s willing to push them with a presidential campaign.


I have been one of the people predicting that Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t run for president in 2020, or ever. It seemed to me that the door was wide open for her to challenge Hillary from the left in 2016, and that Bernie Sanders only entered the race after realizing that she wouldn’t. Since then, I have believed her claims that she’s happy being a senator and isn’t interested in seeking a promotion.

I’m going to stop doing that.

In the last two weeks she has put forward two major pieces of legislation that won’t go anywhere in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, but which lay out clear themes for a national run. You don’t have to be a presidential candidate to take a big-picture view and lay out your best visions for the country, and actually I wish more senators would. But these two proposals really look to me like a foundation on which to build a presidential platform, so I’m going to stop denying that Warren is interested in the White House.

The proposals are the Accountable Capitalism Act and the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act. Together, they point to a different strategy for reaching those voters who feel that economic growth has passed them by.

The Great Divergence. The reasons Americans might feel discouraged about economic growth are well known, and I’ve covered them in this blog many times. Between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, wages and productivity increased together; as technology and capital formation led to more efficient ways of producing goods and services, the workers who produced those goods and services benefited. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” the adage went.

But since then, wages and productivity have diverged. Productivity kept increasing while wages stayed flat. The economy kept growing, but the people who made stuff didn’t wind up with more. Instead, just about all the new wealth accumulated at the very top. It went to the people who own companies rather than the people who work at them.

The difference that trend makes from one year to the next doesn’t amount to much compared to the fluctuations of the business cycle; whether or not you can find a job counts for much more than whether or not wages in general are increasing. But over the course of a generation it makes a huge difference. My parents’ generation (born in the 1920s) lived like kings compared to their parents. What had been luxuries when they were young — cars, houses with more rooms than people, meals at restaurants — became commonplace in middle age.

For my generation (born in the 1950s) it’s been more hit-and-miss. If you moved up the educational ladder and got into a more lucrative profession than your parents, you did better than they had. But if you stayed on the same level — say if you tried to follow your Dad into the factories or mines — you did much worse.

The generation born in the 1990s may eventually come out well, but right now things look hard: Unless they were born into at least the upper middle class, a college degree leaves them deep in debt, while not getting a degree leaves them with many fewer options than I would have had. Either way, they enter adulthood with more headaches than my generation had.

Political responses. The Republican message ignores the Great Divergence, and claims that more GDP growth will solve everybody’s problems, as if the rising tide still lifted all boats. But it doesn’t any more. More economic growth might just mean that Jeff Bezos is worth $200 billion instead of $100 billion. In the expanding part of the business cycle (like now) ordinary people may find it easier to get jobs. But they still may not find it easier to get jobs that pay more than their parents made at the same age. A full generation’s worth of growth in the national economy may not have touched them at all.

The Democratic message has mostly been that people need help from government. Depending on where you are on the economic scale, you may need help paying for food and housing, or for health care, or for education. And so there are proposals like Medicare for All, free college, or even a basic income.

But redistributive proposals — taxing the rich and spending the money on everybody else — just mitigate the effects of stagnant wages. They make it easier to live in an economy that channels all of its productivity increases to the rich, but they don’t fundamentally change that economy.

Redistribution of power. Something the Trump campaign understood and took advantage of in 2016 was that Americans are frustrated by something deeper than just the fact that they aren’t winning the game financially. They’re angry about playing a game that they feel is rigged against them. “Make America Great Again” did have all sorts of racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic (in a single word, deplorable) implications, but it also evoked a well-deserved nostalgia for that pre-Divergence world, when the game felt winnable (at least for straight white men).

Just redistributing money doesn’t fix that. If you run a race with weights around your ankles, and somebody who doesn’t carry those weights gets a big head start, giving everybody a participation trophy at the end won’t make you feel much better about losing. No, to really fix the problem we need to redistribute power.

Promoting unions would help some, for reasons Trae Crowder explains in this video.

In this country, you’re not paid for the skills you have. If that were true the Kardashians wouldn’t have a fleet of Maseratis. No, in America you’re paid based on what you can bargain for.

Those factory-and-mining jobs that Trump keeps claiming (mostly falsely) that he’s bringing back — it’s not that they’re inherently good jobs. (In the 19th century they were terrible jobs. They paid starvation wages and you stood a good chance of getting killed.) It’s that unionized miners and factory workers had the power to force the owners to give them a fair share of the industry’s profits.

Warren’s insight is that we don’t just need to give workers better tools to channel power. We also need to weaken the corporations and wealthy individuals that they bargain against.

The corporate/government power loop. In this era of corporate personhood, we take for granted that corporations are immortal sociopaths. As I noted in 2010:

Diagnostic criteria for sociopathy include symptoms like: persistent lying or stealing, apparent lack of remorse or empathy, cruelty to animals, recurring difficulties with the law, disregard for right and wrong, tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others, irresponsible work behavior, and disregard for safety. [1]

Any of that sound familiar?

We take for granted that (within the law and occasionally outside of it) corporations will do whatever they can to increase their profits. We fault a poor person for taking advantage of a loophole in the Food Stamp program, and Trump rails against desperate immigrants who take advantage of our asylum laws. But if a corporation takes a subsidy or tax cut that was supposed to encourage it to create jobs, and then it destroys jobs instead … well, that’s just how they are; it was our own fault for not negotiating a tighter agreement. If a corporation moves its headquarters to the Cayman Islands to escape taxes, what did you expect? Corporations aren’t patriotic. If a health insurance company finds a loophole that lets it kick sick people to the curb, it’s just doing a good job for its stockholders.

We forget that corporations were not always this way. In the era of the Founders, corporations were rare and were chartered for specific purposes like building a canal or running a college. The Founders themselves recalled the British East India Company as a bad example they didn’t want to recreate.

Corporations are not a natural species that we have discovered and integrated into our society. They are created by law, and they should be what we need them to be. Maybe it doesn’t serve our purposes to give enormous economic and political power to immortal sociopaths. [2]

The obvious answer is to regulate them tightly. President Grover Cleveland — how often does his name come up? — said in his 1888 State of the Union that corporations “should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people” but that they “are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

Already in Cleveland’s day, the problem was that corporations corrupt the regulating process. Not only do they have the time and money to find the weak points in whatever system we construct, but they also influence how those systems are set up in the first place. Often the laws regulating corporations are written by corporate lobbyists, and then applied by bureaucrats who hope to make a lot of money as corporate lobbyists in the future. And now that the Supreme Court has given the go-ahead to unlimited corporate political spending, a lot of politicians are either afraid to oppose them or unable to beat them.

So there’s a power loop: corporations control the government that is supposed to protect us from corporations. It’s no wonder ordinary people can’t win.

Vox looks back at the seminal Milton Friedman article “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits” from 1970.

Friedman allows that executives are obligated to follow the law — an important caveat — establishing a conceptual framework in which policy goals should be pursued by the government, while businesses pursue the prime business directive of profitability.

One important real-world complication that Friedman’s article largely neglects is that business lobbying does a great deal to determine what the laws are. It’s all well and good, in other words, to say that businesses should follow the rules and leave worrying about environmental externalities up to the regulators. But in reality, polluting companies invest heavily in making sure that regulators underregulate — and it seems to follow from the doctrine of shareholder supremacy that if lobbying to create bad laws is profitable for shareholders, corporate executives are required to do it.

Warren’s proposals. Taken together, Warren’s two proposals are aimed at attacking that corporate/government power loop from both sides. The Accountable Capitalism Act focuses on the corporate side. Vox explains:

Warren wants to create an Office of United States Corporations inside the Department of Commerce and require any corporation with revenue over $1 billion — only a few thousand companies, but a large share of overall employment and economic activity — to obtain a federal charter of corporate citizenship.

The charter tells company directors to consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders — shareholders, but also customers, employees, and the communities in which the company operates — when making decisions. That could concretely shift the outcome of some shareholder lawsuits but is aimed more broadly at shifting American business culture out of its current shareholders-first framework and back toward something more like the broad ethic of social responsibility that took hold during WWII and continued for several decades.

That sounds kind of idealistic, but there are some very practical enforcement mechanisms: Workers would elect 40% of the corporate board of directors: not enough to give the workers control, but more than enough to settle any internal disputes among the stockholders. And then, the bill would “require corporate political activity to be authorized specifically by both 75 percent of shareholders and 75 percent of board members”.

Think about what that means: The board members elected by the workers could veto any corporate political contributions or lobbying efforts. So if corporate management wants something out of the government that benefits the whole company, it could still fund that. But if it wants government help breaking its union or killing government healthcare programs or generally tilting the economy in a pro-business direction, that’s probably not going to go through.

This is a way to limit corporate political spending that gets around John Roberts’ corporations-have-free-speech notions. They still have free speech, but the process by which they decide what to say has been fuzzed up a little.

The Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act hits the government side of the power loop. A different Vox article:

The bill would institute a lifetime ban on the president, vice president, Cabinet members, and congressional lawmakers becoming lobbyists after they leave office. It would give other federal workers restrictions — albeit less severe — on entering lobbying firms. The act would also bar federal judges from owning individual stocks or accepting gifts or payments that could potentially influence the outcome of their rulings.

Warren’s bill would also mandate presidential and vice presidential candidates to, by law, disclose eight years’ worth of tax returns and place any assets that could present a conflict of interest into a blind trust to be sold off (neither of which President Donald Trump has done). Members of Congress would have to do the same with two years of tax returns.

Critics say this law would make it hard to recruit people into government jobs, but it looks to me like it would just weed out people who want government jobs for the wrong reasons. If you want to work for the FDA because you care about public health, you’ll still want to work for the FDA. But if you want to work for the FDA because you hope for a big payday from the drug industry after you leave government, you won’t.

Where this goes. Immediately, it goes nowhere. Mitch McConnell controls what bills come up for a vote, and the GOP has the votes to kill anything its corporate masters don’t like. I don’t even know how many Democratic senators would line up behind this.

What Warren has done, though, is drive a stake into the ground, and say “We need to build something here.” I haven’t read either bill in its entirety, and I suspect there will be considerable room for debate about the details. She may not have them right.

But she has the big picture right. We do need to regulate corporate activity more tightly, especially in the ways that it incestuously influences its own regulation. We need to restrain the power of corporate money in our elections. We need to make it less tempting for politicians and bureaucrats to sell out the public interest.

In the near term, the significance of these proposals is that they can shift a stagnant public debate. The right forum for that debate to get started, though, is the 2020 presidential campaign. Unless some major presidential candidate picks these ideas up and carries them into the televised debates, they’ll fade into the background.

So what do you think, Senator Warren? Will some major candidate pick these ideas up?


[1] Several of those links had rotted in the last 8 years, so I updated them.

[2] I often wonder if all the vampires who show up in our novels, TV shows, and movies are some kind of collective unconscious response to the immortal sociopaths we have to deal with every day. Don’t you ever feel like your cable or credit-card company would like to suck your blood?