Tag Archives: 2020 election

I’m Voting for Warren

Super Tuesday is tomorrow, and I’m voting in the Massachusetts primary. I’m going to vote for Elizabeth Warren.

Any who-I’m-voting-for article eventually turns into a here’s-who-you-should-vote-for article, so I might as well be up-front about that from the beginning. Here’s how I think you should go about deciding who to vote for.

In any primary, there are really just four votes that make sense:

  • Vote your heart. This is the most direct and simple vote: Who do you want to see become president? It doesn’t require any complicated analysis of polls or theories about how your party wins. Just listen to the candidates, research their positions on the issues you care about, and picture them as president.
  • Vote for the candidate most likely to lead your party to victory. This vote requires that you identify who the most electable candidate is, which is not as easy as a lot of people make it sound.
  • Unite around the front-runner. Long, drawn-out battles for the nomination risk dividing the party and raising negativity about the ultimate nominee. So if the leading candidate is someone you’re happy with (or happy enough), you can help end the nomination process quickly by voting for him or her.
  • Unite against the front-runner. If you look at the leading candidate and have a strong “Not that one!” reaction, either because the front-runner offends your heart or seems likely to lead to defeat in the fall, you can vote to block his or her path to the nomination. The most effective way to do that is to look at the polls and vote for the alternative candidate most likely to win in your state.

To make a long story short, my heart is with Warren, I’m not sure who the most electable candidate is, I’m not ready to unite behind current front-runner Bernie Sanders, and the candidate with the best chance to beat Bernie in Massachusetts is also Warren. So two factors unite around Warren in my case, which might make my decision easier than yours.

Why my heart is with Warren. I first noticed Elizabeth Warren during the financial crisis of 2008, when she was chairing a five-person commission to oversee the TARP bank bailout. Rachel Maddow interviewed her several times about how that was going, and in particular about Warren’s belief that the government shouldn’t just put the same people back in charge of the banking system so they could make the same mistakes. She struck me as someone smart and public-spirited who did her homework before making a decision. In these and many other ways, she’s the exact opposite of the president we have now.

After Obama was elected, she helped him create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When Republican senators torpedoed the idea that she be the first head of the CFPB, she decided to run for the Senate instead. She was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2018. When I lived in New Hampshire, I heard her several times when she came up to campaign for our senators and representatives. Now that I live in Massachusetts, she’s my senator.

I like Warren because she combines idealism with a wonkish streak. She knows exactly how the government works and where injustice gets baked into policies before they’re implemented. She has a good lawyer’s knack for seeing through another advocate’s spin. (You saw that on the debate stage in Las Vegas, when she listened to Mike Bloomberg justify his company’s treatment of women, and immediately responded with “I hope you heard what his defense was: ‘I’ve been nice to some women.’ That just doesn’t cut it.”)

Her campaign’s I-have-a-plan-for-that theme points to one of her key virtues: She has thought this stuff through and is ready to govern. When I look at the public health challenge the coronavirus is posing, and I ask myself “Who would I trust the most to follow the science and do the right thing?” my answer is Warren.

I agree with her general philosophy, which is that government needs to be creating opportunities for ordinary people to succeed, and not supporting systems designed to concentrate wealth. She springs from working-class roots in Oklahoma, taught kids with learning disabilities for a while, and then climbed her way through the legal profession until she became a Harvard professor. But she doesn’t cop an I-did-it-all-myself attitude. She never loses sight of all the ways that opportunities were made available to her — and how many of those avenues have since closed down. That’s why college-affordability and student-loan-forgiveness are so important to her.

She also sees the structural problems in the economy, which is what raised her original interest in the banking system and the ways it is abused to centralize wealth.

In short, I think her heart is in the right place. Her policies resonate with the life she’s lived, and so feel very authentic to me. She has a nuts-and-bolts view of how systems work that makes her likely to get things done. She lives by facts rather than by ideology, so if things don’t turn out the way she expected, she’ll come up with something new.

Who can win? I wish I knew. It’s not that there’s nothing worth saying on the topic, but it’s not as simple as a lot of pundits make it sound. I have expressed my ideas on the topic in another post.

I’m not ready to unite around Bernie Sanders. Like all the major Democratic candidates, Bernie is miles better than Donald Trump. If he’s the nominee, I will vote for him, and not in a hold-my-nose way. We could do a lot worse.

I’m not that far from Bernie on a number of issues (neither is Warren), but I wouldn’t have the same confidence in him as president. Bernie is an ideologue. If he found himself in a situation where his ideology was not working, I can’t picture him rethinking. I believe Warren would.

And getting back to who can win, I’m not impressed with the theory that says Bernie is our strongest candidate. I think there are Romney-Republicans and Bush-Republicans who would be happy to vote against Trump, but Sanders is too much to ask. Warren may be too much to ask too, but I’m not as sure of that.

Who can beat Bernie in Massachusetts? The best bet is Warren, who is the favorite-daughter candidate here. This is where your mileage may vary. In Texas, for example, polls show Biden with a better chance. In North Carolina, at least one poll says Bloomberg. I’m not telling you what you should do in those states.

So anyway, I’m in a situation where the candidate I want to vote for is also best positioned to block a front-runner I’m not wild about. That means I don’t have to make a more difficult decision where I weigh my favorite against more practical considerations.

Does Anybody Know Who’s Electable?

Like most Democrats I know, I wish someone could tell me who is electable. If I knew for a fact that one Democratic candidate would beat Trump in the fall, but that all the others would lose, I would absolutely vote for the “electable” one. Bloomberg is currently my least favorite Democrat, but if I were certain that it would come down to either him or Trump, I’d pick him. Bernie? Joe? Elizabeth? Amy? Doesn’t matter. If only one of them can win, sign me up.

And wouldn’t you know it? Lots of people claim they have that information. The problem is that they disagree.

Two theories. There are two basic theories of how Democrats can beat Trump in November:

  • Swing-voter theory. Elections are decided by moderates who swing from one party to the other, depending on who sounds the most reasonable to them.
  • Turnout theory. Non-voters lean Democratic, but they don’t vote because they don’t see politics making a difference in their lives. To get them to turn out, you need to offer bold ideas that clearly would make a difference.

Obama’s 2008 landslide came from doing both: inspiring new voters without scaring off moderates. Doug Jones’ surprising senate win in Alabama followed a similar formula. Jones was a moderate, but turnout was high anyway.

People arguing that Bernie Sanders isn’t electable usually apply swing-voter theory: He’s the most extreme candidate in the Democratic field, so he will alienate moderate voters who otherwise would be ready to vote against Trump. In particular, Trump’s know-nothing style of governing has alienated a lot of educated suburbanites who used to be loyal Republicans. Those votes are available to a centrist Democrat like Biden or Bloomberg, but not to Sanders.

Conversely, turnout theory says that Sanders is the most electable candidate.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, which were decided in 2016 by roughly 11,000 and 22,700 votes respectively, close to a million young people have since turned 18. Beyond the Midwestern trio of states, the demographic revolution has even more transformative potential. Mr. Trump won Arizona, for example, by 91,000 votes, and 160,000 Latinos have turned 18 in that state since then.

Getting those voters to the polls, the theory says, wins not just for Bernie, but for Democrats in general.

Giving voters too much credit. Neither theory is entirely crazy, but both, in my opinion, oversimplify things. Each in its own way gives some group of voters too much credit.

Like iconoclastic political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, I don’t believe in “this informed, engaged American population [of swing voters] that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment.” Similarly, I don’t buy the turnout-theory image of non-voters as disaffected socialists waiting for the clarion call of political revolution.

No doubt there are a few analytic middle-of-the-roaders judiciously weighing each candidates’ positions on the issues, and a few idealistic left-wing radicals who haven’t been voting because see little difference between Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan. But in my opinion, the vast majority of swing voters and non-voters are far less impressive examples of American citizenry: They have little interest in politics and little knowledge of it. They’re more likely to be turned off by Bernie Sanders’ hair than by his policies, or they voted for Obama and then Trump because “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again” were both good slogans.

These days, knowledgeable people who care about politics have well-defined opinions and show up to vote. Overwhelmingly, the swinging from one party to the other, or from voter to non-voter, is being done by uninformed folks for not terribly intelligent reasons. CNN’s Ron Brownstein observes:

An exhaustive study from the Knight Foundation that examined the roughly 100 million eligible Americans who did not vote in 2016 underscores [Ruy] Teixeira’s point [that non-voters don’t favor either party]. For the study, which was released last week, the foundation commissioned a survey of 12,000 nonvoters nationwide and in swing states, and held focus groups with Americans who habitually do not vote. The results found nonvoters united by their disconnection from the political process and disengagement from the news, but divided quite closely in their views of the two parties. …

[T]he geographic distribution of nonvoters creates challenges for a Democratic strategy centered on mobilizing them, especially in the Trump era. On a national basis, the best evidence suggests, the Americans who are eligible to vote but don’t split about equally between whites without college degrees, who lean Republican, on one side; and minorities and college-educated whites, who lean Democratic, on the other.

Bold liberal ideas are likely to motivate both groups, not just the one.

But the distribution looks very different in the Rust Belt states that tilted the 2016 election. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three states Trump dislodged from the “blue wall,” whites without college degrees represented a clear majority of the adults who were eligible to vote but did not, according to calculations from census data by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. The adults who have become newly eligible to vote in those states since 2016, mostly by turning 18, do lean more toward minorities, according to analysis by the States of Change project, which Teixeira directs. But even accounting for those young entrants into the electorate, many Democrats believe that Trump has a bigger universe of potential new voters available to harvest across the Rust Belt than the Democratic nominee does.

Polls. Whenever people argue about electability, they start comparing polls. A few months ago, moderates touted head-to-head polls that had Biden beating Trump by a larger margin than Bernie beat Trump. Lately, progressives have been pointing to polls that either say the opposite or indicate that there’s no real difference.

In either case, the problem is the same: Polls are pretty good at telling you how people will vote tomorrow, because the people they interview are pretty good at predicting their own short-term behavior, as long as nothing important happens between the interview and the election. But polls about what will happen eight months from now are not nearly so enlightening.

They’re especially useless in evaluating candidates most of the public hasn’t formed a firm opinion about yet. My personal intuition (which may not be worth much) is that the Democrat who would run the best race against Trump in the fall is Amy Klobuchar. I have no data to support that opinion, I just think she contrasts well against Trump: She’s sunny where he’s angry. She’s in the prime of life while he’s a fat old man. She’s sharp where he’s confused. She’s a woman while he’s the embodiment of toxic masculinity. And so on.

But whether that’s true or not, I wouldn’t expect to see it in the polls this far out, because most of the country has never really tried on the idea of President Klobuchar. Or President Buttigieg, for that matter. Either one of them (or Kamala Harris or Cory Booker or one of the other longshot candidates who has since dropped out) would look completely different in November than they do now. By November, Nominee Klobuchar would have been at the center of a successful primary campaign, would have given a convention acceptance speech, and stood toe-to-toe with Trump in the debates. What an election would say then just isn’t predictable from a poll taken now.

But OK, let’s consider the possibility that polls can tell us something about the electability of the two best-known Democrats: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. As of this morning, the RealClearPolitics average of head-to-head polls of Biden vs. Trump had Biden up 5.4%. The same number for Sanders vs. Trump had Sanders up 4.9%. (The outlier was Emerson, which had Sanders beating Trump by 2%, but Biden losing by 4%.)

That’s a difference of half a percent, with eight months of events still to be processed. And there are more factors to consider. Political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla point out that the Biden voters and Sanders voters are not the same people.

We found that nominating Sanders would drive many Americans who would otherwise vote for a moderate Democrat to vote for Trump, especially otherwise Trump-skeptical Republicans.

Republicans are more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated: Approximately 2 percent of Republicans choose Trump over Sanders but desert Trump when we pit him against a more moderate Democrat like Buttigieg, Biden, or Bloomberg.

Democrats and independents are also slightly more likely to say they would vote for Trump if Sanders is nominated. Swing voters may be rare — but their choices between candidates often determine elections, and many appear to favor Trump over Sanders but not over other Democrats. Despite losing these voters to Trump, Sanders appears in our survey data to be similarly electable to the moderates, at least at first blush. Why? Mainly because 11 percent of left-leaning young people say they are undecided, would support a third-party candidate, or, most often, just would not vote if a moderate were nominated — but say they would turn out and vote for Sanders if he were nominated. …

The case that Bernie Sanders is just as electable as the more moderate candidates thus appears to rest on a leap of faith: that youth voter turnout would surge in the general election by double digits if and only if Bernie Sanders is nominated, compensating for the voters his nomination pushes to Trump among the rest of the electorate.

(BTW: The Sanders campaign also believes it will bring Trump-leaning non-college whites back to the Democrats. The Broockman/Kalla data does not support this claim.)

So you can try to be as data-driven as you like, but in the end you come back to a “leap of faith”. Will that youth-voting surge really show up? Young people who say they will only vote if Bernie is on the ballot — might they change their minds?

How I wind up thinking about electability. Some pundits go so far as to say there’s nothing to know here, so you should just forget about the whole notion. Unfortunately, I find that impossible. November is so important, it’s hard not to form opinions about it.

Whatever conclusions you come to, though, you should hold them lightly. Use your notions of electability as a tie-breaker between candidates you like, not as your only criterion. Few political experiences are worse than to give up on someone you believe in so that you can win, and then not to win. Cast a vote you can live with.

For what it’s worth, my hunches about electability — and they’re really just hunches — come down on the moderate side rather than the progressive side. My confidence in a 2020 Democratic victory comes from the 2018 victory: Democratic candidates got 53.4% of the vote in congressional elections in 2018. If all the people willing to vote for a Democrat for Congress decide to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, it’s a landslide.

I see that win as mostly supporting the swing-voter model. Democrats flipped seats by running moderate candidates in suburban districts where educated professionals used to be reliably Republican.

Conversely, I have never seen the turnout model work. If some progressive candidate had won an unexpected victory in some red state senate or house race by using radical policy proposals to bring in vast numbers of new voters, then I could more easily imagine the same thing working on a national level. But I don’t know of any such example. The best-known progressives in Congress come from liberal bastions like Vermont (Sanders) and Queens (AOC). They don’t flip red states. Or at least they haven’t.

Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)

By focusing attention on comparatively minor policy differences, the debates are obscuring a broad Democratic consensus that voters need to hear about.


Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend when the Democratic candidate for Congress came through the nearly empty restaurant, shaking the few hands available. After she left, our young waitress came to the table, and I could tell that she had a question unrelated to food. I expected her to ask whether we knew anything about the candidate, but her actual question was much more basic: “Do you know anything about Congress? Is it, like, important?”

That encounter taught me a lesson I have not forgotten: People who pay attention to politics often talk about “low-information voters”, but most of us have no idea just how low-information they are.

Back in 2004, Chris Hayes learned similar lessons from the undecided voters he canvassed in Wisconsin.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn’t name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The “issue” is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It’s what makes up the subheadings on a candidate’s website, it’s what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it’s what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it’s what we always complain we don’t see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. … The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Year after year, elections come out they way they do because people like my waitress or Hayes’ undecideds vote one way or the other or stay home. Those decisions are made on a much simpler level than we usually imagine, and the arguments we find so convincing often miss their targets completely. If such voters are persuaded, it is more likely because of our earnestness or our tone or something we said in the first ten seconds. Or maybe we inadvertently convinced them to vote against our candidate for some similarly tangential reason.

That’s what I was thinking Tuesday as I watched the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus, which will happen February 3. Debates draw out differences, and when candidates share basic goals and values, their differences are often deep in the details of policy. Those policy distinctions — like Medicare for All vs. Medicare for All Who Want It vs. adding a Medicare-like public option to ObamaCare — mean nothing to most low-information voters.

Worse, the squabbling over programmatic details hides the candidates’ vast areas of agreement. The New York Times, justifying its decision to endorse both progressive Elizabeth Warren and moderate Amy Klobuchar this morning, wrote:

The Democratic primary contest is often portrayed as a tussle between moderates and progressives. To some extent that’s true. But when we spent significant time with the leading candidates, the similarity of their platforms on fundamental issues became striking.

I believe that those points of consensus should be the central message of the campaign against Trump. That consensus is the best definition of what it means to be a Democrat, and is a better predictor of what the next Democratic administration will accomplish than any particular candidate’s program — even the winner’s. (In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan had an insurance mandate and Barack Obama’s didn’t. But when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, it had a mandate. So if you voted for Obama over Clinton to avoid a mandate, you failed in your purpose.)

Political wonks are always tempted to dive down into the weeds of policy and argue why Candidate X’s plan is superior to Candidate Y’s. And I understand how those differences can seem terribly significant when you are in the throes of a primary campaign. But I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to be doing when we get rare moments of national attention, as we did Tuesday. What the public needs to hear are the principles that unify Democrats and set them against the current administration, not the fine details of policy that differentiate one Democrat from another.

Charles Blow made a similar point Wednesday morning:

Trump has laid out his vision for America: It is the racial Hunger Games. … The Democratic candidates, too, would be well warned to stick to a vision — a diametrically opposite and dynamically animating vision that will activate and energize the targets of Trump’s aggressions.

If I see Trump as a pestilence I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

Here’s where I stand: If Candidate A’s policies are analytically superior, but Candidate B is the more convincing proponent of the Democratic consensus, I want to vote for B. That’s the difference I’d like to see the debates showcase. That’s not “electability” as it is commonly discussed; it’s who we should want as our spokesperson.

What do I think is in the Democratic consensus? I thought you’d never ask.

1. If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.

If you showed this statement to the 20-odd candidates who have run for the Democratic nomination in this cycle, I firmly believe they would all agree with it.

Their differences are all about how to get there: What is the most efficient way to deliver that much healthcare? How would the country pay for it? What’s the most politically expedient path forward?

Bernie Sanders wants to get there in one fell swoop, with a government insurance plan that eliminates private insurance and is paid for by taxes. Most of the other candidates on the debate stage (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) don’t believe they could pass such a plan, so they want to take a smaller step in the same direction by building on ObamaCare. (Once the public sees how that works and develops confidence in it, take another step.) Elizabeth Warren is somewhere between, proposing a Bernie-like program with a phase-in period.

That’s what they’ve been arguing about. Trump, on the other hand, has sabotaged ObamaCare, tried to repeal it in Congress, and is still backing a lawsuit that would declare it unconstitutional. Despite a lot of rhetoric about “replacing” ObamaCare, he has never released a plan for doing so. The upshot is that if he succeeds in his aims, tens of millions of people will lose health coverage.

2. We can and should do much more to slow down climate change.

President Obama did a number of things to slow down climate change, but Trump has undone almost all of them: Obama joined the Paris Climate Accord; Trump withdrew from it. Obama substantially raised fuel economy standards for cars and trucks; Trump initially froze them at the old levels, then agreed to a minor increase. Trump reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from plants that generate electricity. Trump’s plan to roll back standards on methane emissions is too radical even for some oil companies.

All the Democratic candidates want to do more than Obama did, not less. They disagree about how much more and how fast it can happen.

None of the candidates denies or tries to minimize the significance of the scientific consensus on climate change: It is real. We already are seeing the effects. It is caused primarily by the carbon emissions that happen when we burn fossil fuels. It will reach catastrophic levels if the world does not substantially reduce its carbon emissions.

3. If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.

Trump has reason to crow about the unemployment rate, which is very low right now. (Whether low unemployment is due to any policy of his, or is just the continuation of trends that started under Obama — that’s another debate.) But a lot of the people who have jobs are still not making a wage they can live on.

The federal minimum wage is still $7.25, the same as it was in 2009. The purchasing power (after inflation) of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. (The value of 1968’s $1.60 wage is $12.00 today.) In none of the 50 states is a two-bedroom apartment affordable on a full-time minimum wage.

President Obama tried to raise minimum wage to $9, but couldn’t get Republicans in Congress to go along. All Democratic candidates want a much greater increase. Both Bernie Sanders (the most liberal Democratic candidate) and Joe Biden (one of the least liberal) are calling for $15.

Democrats across the board want to create jobs paying good wages by repairing our country’s roads and bridges, modernizing the electrical grid, and shifting to renewable energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change.

4. The burden of taxes should fall primarily on those best able to bear it.

The benefits of the Trump tax cut went almost entirely to large corporations and the very rich. Despite the promises he often made during the 2016 campaign and repeated early in his administration, the new tax rules particularly favor people like him. In fact, many of the tax breaks that the law preserves or extends seem to be targeted precisely at benefiting Trump himself or his family. (That’s one reason he doesn’t want you to see his tax returns.)

This is part of a long-term trend that has lowered the tax rates paid by the super-rich.

(Sometimes you’ll see an article claiming that the very rich carry more of the tax burden than they used to, but these claims are deceptive: The very rich have seen their incomes go up many times faster than the rest of us. They get a much bigger piece of the pie than they used to, but while their share of the tax burden has gone up somewhat, it has not gone up proportionately.)

Corporations are also carrying a much smaller tax burden than they did in decades past. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy lists 60 corporations that among them made nearly $80 billion in profits, but paid no taxes in 2018 under Trump’s new law.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit (which Republicans thought was an existential crisis when Obama was president, but have since forgotten about) has nearly doubled under Trump — from $665 billion in FY 2017 to a projected $1.1 trillion next year. This comes at a time in the economic cycle when the deficit ought to be going down, because it will rise even further when the next recession comes.

All the major Democratic candidates would reverse most of the Trump tax cuts, and all call for shifting more of the tax burden back to the rich. Elizabeth Warren is the most vocal about this, calling for a 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million. The rest don’t go quite that far, but all  agree that the rich should pay more.

5. If you want to develop your talents through education, money shouldn’t stand in your way.

States used to put big money into their university systems, but they no longer do. As a result, college of any kind has become unreasonably expensive — far more expensive than it was a generation ago. (Until 1970, the University of California charged California residents zero tuition.)

As a result, too many of our young people face a terrible choice: Give up on developing their talents after high school, or take on debts that they may never be able to pay off. Or their parents face the choice: See their children stuck in dead-end jobs, or take all the money they had hoped to retire on and hand it to a university.

Wasted talent isn’t just a personal tragedy, it’s a loss for all of us. If our young people don’t learn 21st-century skills, American businesses will have a harder time finding good people, foreign companies won’t want to open branches here, our economy as a whole will be less prosperous, and the professionals we have to deal with in our personal lives (doctors, accountants, dentists, teachers, etc.) won’t be the best people. There is also a more subtle cost: the loss of the American dream. When only the rich can afford to send their children to college, the upper classes become entrenched; where you are born is where you will stay.

Democratic candidates have a variety of plans to do something about this: Some want to make public colleges free for everyone, or maybe just free for people whose parents aren’t rich. Some want to forgive all student debt, or only part of it. As with healthcare, the difference isn’t in the general principle, it’s in how to bring it about and who will pay for it.

The Trump administration’s priorities are diametrically opposed: They are constantly looking for ways to cut back on student aid or student loans, or to make them harder to pay off. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has consistently shown more interest in for-profit colleges that rip students off than in the students being victimized.

6. America should be a positive example to the rest of the world. When international cooperation is necessary to solve global problems, our country should lead.

We’ve fallen a long way from the “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan used to brag about. These days, if you’re a third-world dictator and you want to torture people or channel government money into your own pocket or use your law enforcement agencies to investigate people who cross you or accuse the press of being “the enemy of the people” or claim a phony emergency to grab power from your legislature, you just point to the United States and quote its president. It’s fine. All the best countries are doing it.

We’re now a country none of the other countries trust, because our word means nothing. Imagine how shocked our loyal allies in Canada were when we raised tariffs because we considered Canada a risk to our national security. Or talk to the Kurds, if you can still find any.

Historically, America has been an idealistic nation. Since World War II, it has led the community of nations towards higher standards of human rights and a freer exchange of ideas and people. The US has been key in setting up regional alliances for mutual security, with NATO being the shining example.

Today, the world faces many problems that no nation can solve on its own; most significantly, climate change, but also terrorism, nuclear proliferation, floods of refugees fleeing wars or climate-change-related catastrophes, and several others. But the Trump administration has chosen to step back from world leadership with a go-it-alone policy. Given our military power and central role in the world economy, no other nation can take our place.

Democrats want the US to be a good citizen of the community of nations, and to rally the nations of the world to confront the unique challenges of this century.

7. Every American should be encouraged to vote, and all votes should count equally.

For the last decade or so, Republicans all over the country have been putting obstacles in the way of people who want to vote, particularly if they are poor, black, HIspanic, or in school. Even if such people do manage to vote, gerrymandering can concentrate them in a small number of districts so that they wind up with fewer representatives in Congress or state legislatures. You can see the result in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans maintain power no matter how the people vote. (In 2018, 54% of Wisconsinites voted for Democratic candidates for the state assembly, but those candidates won only 36% of the seats.)

The first bill Democrats passed when they got control of the House of Representatives last year was House Resolution 1 of 2019: The For the People Act. That law would end gerrymandering, extend voting rights, and set up a program to limit the power of large donors to political campaigns. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

Ultimately, Democrats would also like to get rid of the Electoral College — which allowed Donald Trump to become president even though Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes.

8. All Americans should be equal before the law, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, or any other characteristic that isn’t relevant to the purposes of the law. All citizens should be treated with equal respect by law enforcement.

“Liberty and justice for all” is a key part of our national identity, but we haven’t been doing a good job of delivering it. Race makes a difference at every level of our justice system: Black neighborhoods are more heavily policed, leading to more arrests. Arrested blacks are more likely to be charged with crimes; charged blacks are more likely to be convicted; convicted blacks on average get longer sentences. The result is that a substantial portion of the black male population is in jail. (Laws preventing felons from voting, even after they leave prison, are a major way that minorities are prevented from exercising political power proportionate to their numbers.)

Far too often, black men and women die in encounters with police without ever reaching the justice system.

These problems existed long before Donald Trump took office. But as with climate change, the Obama administration was trying to do something about them, and the Trump administration has undone all that progress. In particular, Trump’s Justice Department has all but stopped oversight of racism in local police departments. Trump himself has actively encouraged police to physically abuse suspects.

Any Democratic candidate for president would get back on the Obama/Holder track of trying to reduce the racism in law enforcement and the legal system.

9. As much as possible, politics should be insulated from the corrupting influence of concentrated wealth.

Briefly, controlling campaign finance looked like a bipartisan issue. Republican Senator John McCain made it a central plank of his first presidential campaign in 2000, and he teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to produce the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002.

But Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have subsequently declared unconstitutional just about any substantive limits on political spending. One of the few remaining options for controlling big-money politics is disclosure (i.e., letting the public know who is financing political ads, rather than letting big-money interests hide behind shell organizations with vacuous names like “Concerned Citizens Against …”), but the Republican Senate has blocked any such legislation.

This is one of the clearest differences between the parties: Republicans want big-money donors to have as much power as possible, while Democrats want to limit the power of money in general, and (to the extent that those limitations prove impractical) enhance the power of small donors.

10. The basic constitutional covenant is still necessary and should be respected: majority rule that respects minority rights, three branches of government that check and balance each other, and an appropriate balance between the public good and individual freedom.

For years, preserving or restoring the Constitution has played a major role in Republican rhetoric, but President Trump has made a mockery of all that. This is one of the major issues in his impeachment, and should be a major issue in the 2020 campaign as well.

The Constitution assigns Congress the “power of the purse”, which means that no money can be spent without Congress’ approval. But when Congress refused to fund Trump’s border wall last year, even after a lengthy government shutdown, he declared a phony “state of emergency” and seized the money from other programs. He also illegally held up money that Congress had appropriated to aid Ukraine.

Congress has a constitutional duty to keep oversight over the executive branch, but Trump has routinely refused to provide subpoenaed documents and witnesses, arguing in court that he has “absolute immunity” against any investigations whatsoever. His legal arguments are absurd, but will serve to delay things in the courts long enough to keep the public from finding out what he’s been doing until after the election.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but he committed an act of war against Iran without consulting Congress.

Again and again, Trump has shown that he admires dictators: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and many others. (The New Yorker’s satirical Borowitz Report says “Ayatollah Mystified That He is the Only Dictator Trump Dislikes“.) That’s because he wants to be one.

In spite of decades of Republican rhetoric, Democrats are now the party that stands for the Constitution.

Is It War Yet?

As conflict with Iran escalates, what a luxury a trustworthy president would be.


In the early morning hours Friday (local time), a US drone attack killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Soleimani was in a convoy leaving the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the body that oversees Iraq’s myriad militia factions, was also killed in the strike.

Escalating US/Iran conflict. Soleimani’s assassination takes place in the middle of a tangled mess: Iran/US relations have been in a state of increasing conflict since May, 2018, when President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement the Obama administration had negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program, replacing it with a campaign of “maximum pressure” to force more concessions from the Iranians. So far, those concessions have not materialized. Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on its nuclear programs. In the NYT’s words, the decision “re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago”.

More immediately, a rocket attack near Kirkuk by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia killed an American contractor a week ago; the US retaliated with an airstrike on a militia base that killed 25; and pro-Iranian protesters then mobbed the US embassy in Baghdad. So now we’ve killed a major figure in the Iranian military, together with an Iraqi militia leader.

Iraq. Iraq also has been in political turmoil: Massive protests that began in October have resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who nonetheless remains in office because Iraq’s political leaders haven’t been able to settle on a replacement. So while he retains the formal powers of his office, his ability to lead the country is questionable.

The protests against the Iraqi government (which are not related to the protests at the US embassy) had been seeking an end to corruption and foreign influence, including both Iranian and US influence. In response to Friday’s drone attack (which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “an outrageous breach to Iraqi sovereignty“), the Iraqi parliament passed a bill instructing the government to ask the United States to withdraw all military forces from Iraq. Time described this vote as “symbolic” because “it sets no timetable for withdrawal and is subject to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.”

The Washington Post points out that the legal basis for an American presence in Iraq is not that solid. Most deployments are defined by a formal Status of Forces agreement, but this one isn’t.

“The current U.S. military presence is based of an exchange of letters at the executive level,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the US Institute of Peace who previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

So the Prime Minister could revoke that agreement “with the stroke of a pen”.

President Trump sounded more like an occupier than an ally when he responded Sunday night.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters. … Mr Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to depart on an unfriendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It’s like he thinks he holds the mortgage on Iraq and is threatening to repossess.

Dubious justifications. The administration claims that Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces (almost certainly true) and that his death short-circuited those plans (highly unlikely). Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Soleimani’s death “saved American lives”.

The problem I have with that statement is that Trump and Pompeo have spent the last three years lying to us about more-or-less everything. This is a moment when Americans need to be able to trust their leaders, and we just can’t; these leaders have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

For example, Vice President Pence’s attempt to link Soleimani to 9/11 is just a lie. Some of the 9/11 perpetrators traveled through Iran on their way to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence Iran knew what they were up to, and nothing that connects their passage to Soleimani personally.

The Washington Post gives reasons to doubt Pompeo as well:

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.

Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, discounts claims that Soleimani’s death cripples Iran’s ability to strike US targets.

The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, indicates a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard. …

In my 10 years in Iran researching the Revolutionary Guards and their depiction in Iranian media, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership [developed during the Iran/Iraq War]: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.

Slighting Congress, insulting Democrats. And then there’s the US side of the mess: Unlike major military actions by previous administrations, this one happened without official notice to the Gang of Eight in Congress. (That’s the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, minority leaders of both houses, and the chair and ranking opposition member of the intelligence committees in both houses.) Apparently, some Republicans members of Congress knew about the attack in advance, but no Democrats.

Trump added insult to injury by retweeting Dinesh D’Souza: “Neither were the Iranians [given advance notice], and for pretty much the same reason.” Democrats in the Gang of Eight have done nothing to deserve such an accusation of disloyalty; there is no example of them leaking or otherwise misusing prior knowledge of an American strike.

The administration complied with the letter of the War Powers Act by officially notifying Congress on Saturday. Whatever justification the classified memo gave, Nancy Pelosi was not impressed:

This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran. The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.

Iranian reaction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh retaliation“, and The Atlantic lists a number of options:

all-out conflict by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world.

Others have suggested cyber attacks.

Whatever retaliation Iran chooses is likely to be very popular with the Iranians people. Huge and angry crowds showed up when Soleimani’s body was returned to Tehran.

Strategy? Members of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported the assassination by pointing out that Soleimani was undeniably a bad guy from the US point of view: He masterminded numerous operations that killed Americans.

So far I’ve mostly been summarizing facts, but now I’ll state an opinion: One thing we should have learned from the Bush administration’s War on Terror is that simply killing bad guys is not a viable strategy. Are we going to kill all the bad guys in the world? As Seth Moulton (coincidentally, my congressman) put it: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create.”

I don’t want to claim more expertise than I have, so I’m not making any predictions. (Some pundits even see this assassination as a possible prelude to negotiations. But the Brookings’ Institution’s Suzanne Maloney says “Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.”) What I want to emphasize, though, is the uncertainty: Trump has sharply escalated the simmering conflict with Iran. If Iran escalates further, what happens? How far is he prepared to go? [1]

I wish I believed that people who understand Iran far better than I do had thought all this through, and had a larger strategy. That strategy might eventually go to hell, as our plan for the Iraq invasion did, but at least it would have a chance. [2]

I don’t see how I can have even that amount of confidence, though. Trump himself is anything but a strategic thinker, and he seems to have stopped listening to anyone else. Chances are excellent that killing Soleimani just sounded good in the moment, and that he didn’t think more than a few hours ahead.

That’s certainly what the NYT’s account of the administration’s decision process implies:

In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. …

After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

It’s entirely possible that no one but Trump thought this was a good idea.

American law. Then there are the legal issues. At what point does action against Iran bring the War Powers Act into play? Whatever you might think of the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003, each was preceded by a thoughtful debate in Congress. So far there was been nothing of the sort regarding Iran. We seem headed towards a scenario where Congressional debate (if we have one at all) will take place while the war is ongoing.

Also: Assassinations of foreign leaders were banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1975 and revised by President Reagan in 1981. The 1981 order is unequivocal:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination

When the Obama administration was going after Osama bin Laden, it tried to make a distinction between assassinations and “targeted killings”. That distinction looked suspect at the time, and looks even worse now that it’s being applied to top officials of foreign governments. If killing Soleimani wasn’t an assassination, it’s hard to imagine what the assassination ban would cover.

Partisan politics. Finally, there’s the wag-the-dog interpretation: Maybe the attack was never intended to be an effective response to Iran; perhaps it’s entirely about distracting the public from Trump’s pending impeachment trial, and kicking off his 2020 campaign. The “othering” of congressional Democrats (treating them as equivalent to or sympathetic with the Iranians) fits that interpretation.

“This your first reelection campaign, kid?”

It would be nice to believe that the wag-the-dog hypothesis just stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals like me imagine the worst and then assign those motives to Trump, when in fact no American president would risk a major war just for domestic political advantage. But again, how can I have that confidence, given the behavior we’ve seen so far? Isn’t Trump’s willingness to sacrifice the public good for personal benefit exactly what he’s been impeached for? Can anyone give a countervailing example of Trump foregoing personal advantage to do the right thing for the nation?

Projection. One argument in favor of wag-the-dog is that Trump accused President Obama of planning to do it.

In order to get elected, will start a war with Iran.

As CNN’s John Avlon observed in September:

Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.

In other words, Trump regularly accuses his opponents of things that he does himself, or that he would do in their place. His most-repeated insults are ones that apply more accurately to himself than to his opponents:

The rest of the top five insults [after “fake”]? “Failed” (or “failing”), which he has applied on 205 occasions, mostly to the Times. “Dishonest” (or “dishonesty”), used 149 times. (Some observers will no doubt consider it ironic that Trump has referred to 35 other entities as dishonest.) Then “weak,” used 94 times, followed by “lying” or “liar,” which he has used 68 times.

So it’s not much of a stretch to reach this conclusion: If he thought wagging the dog in Iran made sense for Obama’s re-election in 2012, quite likely he has considered it for his own reelection in 2020. Maybe he sees it as a bonus for something he’d do anyway, or maybe it’s his prime motive.


[1] Saturday, Trump tweeted about a list of 52 Iranian targets “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” that the US could strike if Iran retaliates for Friday’s assassination. Those sites have not be identified (and, given Trump’s history, I have to wonder if the list even exists), but intentionally attacking cultural sites is a violation of international law.

Sunday night he doubled down on that threat, saying

They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

Contradicting the President, Secretary of State Pompeo said Sunday that “We’ll behave lawfully.” Who should we believe?

[2] The importance of strategy is illustrated by this quote from George Kennan’s 1951 classic American Diplomacy.

Both [world] wars were fought, really, with a view to changing Germany. … Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe … in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it’s pretty hard to discern.

A similar point could be made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the overthrow of the Shah, America saw a powerful Sunni Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran’s Shia theocracy. We have since fought two wars to remake Iraq, and ostensibly won them both. And now here we are, with no regional counterweight to Iran.

If we now fight a war with Iran, what objective will we be hoping to achieve? If we win, how will Americans of 2030 be better off?

He’s not going to stop on his own

If Democrats put off impeachment until Trump does something worse, he’ll do something worse.


This week’s biggest news story unfolded slowly, and we still don’t have it all.

Flouting the law. Early in the week, the story centered on yet another example of the Trump administration flouting the law: On August 12, a whistleblower in the intelligence community filed an official complaint, which the the IC’s inspector general (Trump appointee Michael Atkinson) found to be “a credible urgent concern” on August 26. Invoking that phrase legally requires the Director of National Intelligence (acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who got the job after Dan Coats was let go; on July 28 Trump tweeted that Coats would leave on August 15) to pass the complaint on to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. But he did not do so.

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff wrote to Maguire on September 10:

In an unprecedented departure from past practice, you have not transmitted the disclosure to the Committee, nor have you notified the Committee of the fact of the disclosure or your decision not to transmit it to the Committee. Instead, in a manner neither permitted nor contemplated under the statute, you have taken the extraordinary step of overruling the independent determination of the [Intelligence Community Inspector General] and preventing the disclosure from reaching the Committee.

He followed this up with a September 13 letter, which appears to be a response to the DNI’s refusal to produce the complaint. This letter accuses the DNI’s office of

a radical distortion of the statute that completely subverts the letter and spirit of the law, as well as arrogates to the Director of National Intelligence authority and discretion he does not possess.

The DNI’s action

raises grave concerns that your office, together with the Department of Justice and possibly the White House, are engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible “serious or flagrant” misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law.

The letter concludes with a subpoena to deliver the complaint by September 17, or to appear before the committee to explain why on September 19. Maguire refused to do either one.

Mr. Schiff told CBS that Mr. Maguire had told him he was not providing the complaint “because he is being instructed not to, that this involved a higher authority, someone above” the director of national intelligence, a cabinet position.

That “higher authority” can only be the President.

What the complaint is about. Up to that point, no one — including Schiff or any other members of Congress — knew anything about the substance of the complaint, or why it was worth breaking the law to suppress. But then details began to leak out.

Wednesday the Washington Post reported that the complaint involved a conversation Trump had with a foreign leader.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint

Naturally, pundits speculated about Vladimir Putin, but Thursday the New York Times reported that the complaint involved Ukraine, and included “other actions” beyond just a phone conversation.

Thursday night, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani let the cat out of the bag in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. It kind of has to be seen to be believed. Rudy claimed CNN won’t cover Obama/Biden scandals in Ukraine, but when Cuomo asked for the proof Giuliani says he’s assembled, he yelled, “I’m not going to give you proof!” Later in the interview he repeated that refusal and explained “You’re the enemy!” Giuliani kept on yelling:

You won’t cover it! But you want to cover some ridiculous charge that I urged the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption! Well I did, and I’m proud of it!

Just that fast, it goes from a “ridiculous charge” to something he’s proud to have done.

Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported

President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.

Yesterday, Trump admitted he talked to Zelensky about Biden and his son, but insisted there was nothing improper in the call. However, so far he has refused to release the transcript. (As he so often does when he’s trying to deflect criticism, he says he’s “considering” releasing it. He considers a lot of things that never happen — sitting down with Robert Mueller, for example.)

By now we seem to know this much: On July 25, Trump talked to new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pressuring him to investigate a story (largely unsupported by facts, as Chris Cuomo lays out) that as Vice President, Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who had investigated his son. [2]

On August 30, Trump was reported to be considering withholding $250 million in military aid that Congress had appropriated for the Ukraine (which badly needs the aid because it is under persistent attack from Russia, which has already taken Crimea from Ukraine). On September 1, Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Schiff’s letter demanding the whistleblower complaint is September 10, and aid to Ukraine is released on September 12.

We still don’t know what “other actions” the complaint talks about.

Now let’s connect the dots. Those are all just facts; now I start to speculate. It appears that Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into taking action that would help his re-election campaign.

This would be an unprecedented abuse of power. Constitutionally, presidents have sweeping power over American foreign policy, but using that power to extort partisan political favors from foreign countries is an enormous breach of trust.

However, this also would be entirely consistent with everything we know about Trump. One character trait that has been consistent all through his administration is that he can’t compartmentalize. He can’t keep his government trips separate from his campaign rallies. His people can’t keep their political campaigning separate from their taxpayer-supported jobs. He can’t separate his business from his administration, or his family from his government. He can’t keep from blurting out secrets when he talks to the Russian ambassador.

Each previous president has understood the distinction between his person and the office he held. Each has understood that the power of the presidency is a trust from the People of the United States, to be used for the benefit of the nation. Sometimes presidents have crossed that line — for example, by bringing a foreign issue to a head when they needed a distraction from a domestic issue that was going badly for them — but they all knew the line was there.

Trump simply doesn’t grasp this. He is the President, so the power of the presidency is his, to do with as he likes. Sometimes that might be for the benefit of the nation (as he understands it), but he may also use that power to enrich himself and his family, cover up his mistakes, reward his friends, or strike at his enemies. And if, as in this case, the opportunity to get a partisan advantage from a foreign power presented itself, I doubt he would see anything wrong with pursuing it. One purpose of foreign aid is to make other countries do what the president wants, and this president wants Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

What should be done? First, no one should give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this, because he’s the one withholding information. If the whistleblower complaint [1] is as laughable as he says, he could just instruct DNI Maguire to release it so we can all enjoy the joke. If his conversation with Zelensky is as “perfect” as he says, he can release the transcript for us all to admire.

But if he won’t reveal those pieces of evidence, it’s probably because they don’t support his version of events. We all know this from childhood: If somebody stole the candy, and there’s one boy who won’t take his hands out of his pockets, you can bet that those hands are chocolate-stained.

Second, Politico’s legal affairs columnist Renato Mariotti makes an excellent point: It’s important not to try to shoehorn this abuse of power into the definitions of more typical crimes.

If what Trump is accused of doing is true, it is a kind of corrupt conduct that the criminal system is not equipped to handle. Labeling his behavior with criminal terms such as bribery and extortion not only misunderstands the statutory language, it gives Trump and his supporters ammunition with which to defend themselves, making impeachment—the proper constitutional remedy for presidential corruption—harder to achieve.

We have seen this happen already with the Russia investigation: Criminal conspiracy became the standard of judgment, and when Mueller didn’t find proof beyond reasonable doubt of Trump’s participation in that conspiracy (perhaps because his obstruction of justice worked), Trump could crow about “no collusion”. What Mueller did establish — that Trump knew about and welcomed an attempt by an enemy nation to get him elected — would have sunk any previous administration. But because winking at a foreign dictator’s attack on our democracy is not an indictable crime, Trump could claim “total exoneration“.

Trump and his defenders are already trying to spin things the same way in this case, by claiming that no explicit quid-pro-quo came up in the Zelensky conversation. (Trump’s near-simultaneous blocking of military aid Ukraine desperately needs was just a coincidence.) Quid-pro-quo would be a key element of a bribery or extortion charge, but it misses the point here. Mariotti continues:

Labeling Trump’s alleged conduct as “bribery” or “extortion” cheapens what is alleged to have occurred and does not capture what makes it wrongful. It’s not a crime—it’s a breach of the president’s duty to not use the powers of the presidency to benefit himself.

That kind of breach is what impeachment is for, and “No one should expect law enforcement to act if our elected representatives are unwilling to do so.”

Impeachment politics. It’s important to recognize that this is just another in a long series of impeachable offenses. If the evidence turns out to be what as it seems now, this may be the most flagrant violation yet, but it’s far from the only one.

  • The Mueller Report collected evidence of seven instances of obstruction of justice. (It examined ten possible obstructions, but found that three of them failed to include all three elements in the definition of obstruction.) Mueller himself refused (because of DoJ policy) to conclude that the president had committed a crime, but literally hundreds of former federal prosecutors have signed a statement saying that the evidence in the Mueller Report would be enough to indict Trump if DoJ policy did not forbid indicting a sitting president.
  • Trump’s business relationships with foreign countries and foreign governments violate the Constitution’s Emolument Clause. (Again, the reason we don’t have more complete information about this is that Trump is withholding it. Until he releases his tax returns and other relevant documents, he doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt.) So far, Democrats have left this violation to the courts, but that is not the proper jurisdiction. Oversight of the Executive Branch is a fundamental congressional responsibility. The primary issue is abuse of power, which is a political judgment, not a legal one.
  • Trump’s self-dealing — using presidential power to channel public money into his businesses, as well as getting government entities to do PR for his properties — is another abuse of power.
  • His stonewalling of Congress’ legitimate oversight authority — claiming ridiculous privileges, refusing subpoenas, and flouting laws requiring the administration to turn over documents — threatens the constitutional separation of powers.
  • His declaration of a phony emergency and subsequent pilfering of money to build his wall threatens the constitutional separation of powers.

As I’ve explained before, impeachment is not just about crimes, it can also be Congress’ only way to defend our system of government and maintain its status as an equal branch, if the President refuses to respect that equality. We’re at that point now.

The objection to impeachment among House Democrats isn’t that there is no case, it’s that the politics are wrong: The majority of voters aren’t there yet; some purple-district Democratic congresspeople might lose their seats if they vote to impeach; bringing impeachment to a vote and failing might be worse than doing nothing; likewise, impeaching Trump only to see the Senate acquit him might be counter-productive.

Nate Silver sums up this point of view:

I don’t understand how impeachment serves as more effective deterrent against impeachable conduct when the opposition impeaches even when it would politically benefit the president to do so (& he’d remain in office). That actually incentivizes impeachable conduct, in fact.

But Elizabeth Warren sees it differently:

A president is sitting in the Oval Office, right now, who continues to commit crimes. He continues because he knows his Justice Department won’t act and believes Congress won’t either. Today’s news confirmed he thinks he’s above the law. If we do nothing, he’ll be right.

What tips me over to Warren’s point of view is that this is not going to stop. Trump will push until he finds the line that Congress will defend. If that line hasn’t been reached yet, then he’ll push further.

Up until now, I have argued against those who worry that he’ll lose the election and refuse to leave office. And if the election happened today, I still think the system would stand against that usurpation. But if standards are allowed to continue eroding, who can say where they will be by November 2020 or January 2021?

Even Nancy Pelosi seems to recognize the seriousness of this moment:

I am calling on Republicans to join us in insisting that the Acting DNI obey the law as we seek the truth to protect the American people and our Constitution.

This violation is about our national security. The Inspector General determined that the matter is “urgent” and therefore we face an emergency that must be addressed immediately.

If the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.

Republicans. Democrats hesitate to pursue impeachment because they expect Republicans to refuse to defend the Republic and the Constitution against a president of their own party.

So far, for example, Mitt Romney is the only Republican in Congress who has expressed even a slight concern about either the flouting of the whistleblower law or the abuse of power allegedly described by the suppressed complaint. And his mildly expressed tweet is unlikely to make the White House quiver in fear.

If the President asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme. Critical for the facts to come out.

My attention is focused on North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. DNI Maguire’s refusal to release the whistleblower complaint is snubbing Burr in the same way that it snubs House Intelligence Chair Schiff. Will he roll over and accept that diminishment of his authority? Up until now, the Senate committee has been less partisan than the House committee. His Democratic counterpart, Senator Warner of Virginia, seems to express bipartisan confidence:

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, said on Thursday that he and the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, also expected both the inspector general and acting director to brief them early next week and “clear this issue up.”

We’ll soon see if that confidence is justified. If Burr demands to see the complaint, then things get interesting.

But in any case, if the Democratic majority in the House won’t move forward with impeachment, Senate Republicans will never be put on the spot. It may be true that they will respond in a corrupt and cowardly way. But if the question is never put to them, they don’t have to expose their corruption and cowardice.

Above all, Democrats need to ask themselves: If the abuse doesn’t stop here, with Trump pressuring a foreign leader to dig up dirt on his major rival, where will it stop?


[1] One important point is often getting shuffled aside: When government officials leak information to the press, critics ask why they didn’t do things “the right way”, by going through the official whistleblowing process. By all accounts, this whistleblower has done everything according to the proper legal process, and so far it is not going well: The complaint has not reached Congress, and it appears that the DNI has not protected his identity. The Justice Department (which has no role in the official process) has been consulted, and quite possibly the White House as well.

People throughout the government are watching. What many of them are learning, I suspect, is that if they know about wrongdoing, their only effective choices are to keep quiet or go to the press. I’m sure the Washington Post would be doing a better job of getting the complaint heard while protecting the whistleblower’s identity.

[2] The short version of the context is that Biden was one of many people pressuring Ukraine to get rid of the corrupt prosecutor, for a variety of reasons unconnected to Biden’s son. The dismissed prosecutor also claims that his Biden investigation had already concluded (without charges) before he was fired.

The Democratic Healthcare Debate

The differences are less stark and less consequential than either the candidates or the pundits would have you believe.


If you listened to the opening segment of Thursday’s Democratic debate, or the media discussion of it that followed, you might imagine that the ten candidates are sharply divided on healthcare. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Democrats’ disagreements branch out from a fundamental agreement on two principles, both of which are wildly popular with the general public.

  • When Americans get sick, they should get the care they need.
  • Paying for needed care shouldn’t drive families into bankruptcy.

Republicans, by contrast, focus on cost rather than coverage, and plan to control costs by inducing money-conscious Americans to forego care. They envision a nation filled with people who over-use the healthcare system, and would do so even more if it weren’t so expensive (as if we all viewed a night in the ER as entertainment, and would happily schedule unnecessary colonoscopies just for kicks). And if those expenses result in hypertension patients trying to save money by doing without their prescriptions, or diabetics getting priced out of the insulin market … well, those are the sad-but-necessary results of keeping taxes low and profits high.

So the debate the Democrats are having, about how to achieve the twin goals of care without bankruptcy, just isn’t happening on the Republican side. [1] If you believe that sick Americans should get care that doesn’t bankrupt them, you should be a Democrat.

The debate. As you listen to the arguments among Democratic candidates, you need to bear that fundamental agreement in mind. The disagreements are all about how to achieve those goals: Go straight there with a massive expansion of Medicare to cover everyone, or move more gradually by adding a public option to ObamaCare? Replace the current private-insurance system (with its familiarity as well as its profiteering and inefficiency), or build on top of it?

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is backing a lawsuit that would declare ObamaCare unconstitutional and make all its provisions void. Insurance companies would once again be able drop coverage for people with preexisting conditions. [2]

Why the tax gotcha? One fundamental difference between Medicare-for-All and our current healthcare system is how it’s paid for: Many treatments that are currently paid for through premiums and co-pays would be paid by the government, i.e., through taxes. The taxes would be progressive, so the burden of payment would shift towards the wealthy.

I don’t fully understand why, but for some reason both the media and the candidates are treating this like a gotcha question: Interviewers are asking it in a challenging way and candidates are dodging it. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to say, “Payments you used to make through premiums and co-pays, you’ll now make through taxes, and unless you’re very rich you’ll probably pay a lot less.” If I were an MfA candidate, I’d back that up with a pledge: “By the time Congress has to vote on a package, independent analysts will have weighed in on the costs. And if it doesn’t save middle class households a substantial amount of money, we won’t do it.”

That said, there is one group of people who will pay more: Those who could afford to buy health insurance, but have been successfully betting that they won’t get sick. They’ll have to pay something in taxes rather than the nothing in premiums that they’re paying now.

How it will play out. The MfA vs. public-option debate comes down to two points.

  • The Medicare-for-All candidates (mainly Sanders and Warren) are right about efficiency. A universal healthcare system that covered everybody for everything would deliver better healthcare at a lower price than we’re paying now. That price would fall entirely on the government, so government spending would go up even as total healthcare spending went down.
  • The public-option candidates, who want to let the private health insurance industry keep running, but give people the option of a Medicare-like system, are right about the politics. Rightly or wrongly, large swathes of the public don’t trust the federal government enough to bet everything on a big government program with no alternatives.

Warren was right to point out that no one loves their insurance company. (Mine is Aetna right now, and no, I don’t love it.) But I think a lot of people like the idea of having another choice if MfA turns out not to be as great as advertised.

The problem is that some of the gains a universal MfA would produce depend on the universality: Doctors would only need to know one system. Public health programs with diffuse benefits could be instituted without worrying exactly who is going to pay what when. The public option would still be more efficient than private insurance, but not as good as it could be.

In the end, though, this debate is not going to make a difference, at least in the short run. Even if Sanders or Warren get elected, together with a Democratic House and Senate, the new president will still find that the votes aren’t there for Medicare for All. As we saw with ObamaCare, the program will be whatever it needs to be to get the last few votes. In other words, even with Democratic majorities and the elimination of the Senate filibuster, it is the 50th Democratic senator and the 220th Democratic representative who will call the tune. They will be moderates from swing districts.

So one way or the other, the program will get scaled back to a public option. If that program is allowed to go forward without sabotage (as Trump has been sabotaging ObamaCare), the public option will gradually gain public trust, setting up an eventual universal program that may well resemble Medicare for All.


[1] Given the wide popularity of the two fundamental Democratic points — sick people should get care without going bankrupt — Republicans generally avoid detailed discussions of healthcare. Block whatever the Democrats want to do and repeal ObamaCare, and then something will happen that solves everybody’s problems.

That came clear in the repeal-and-replace debate in 2017. The replace part was always vaporware whose details could only emerge after repeal.

That scam is still going on. WaPo’s Paige Winfield Cunningham reports that the White House has given up on the health care plan it said it was writing, to be released only after the 2020 election. “The Republican Party will become the Party of Great Healthcare!” Trump tweeted back in March. He promised “a really great HealthCare Plan with far lower premiums (cost) & deductibles than ObamaCare. In other words it will be far less expensive & much more usable than ObamaCare.”

Cunningham notes that there is no sign anyone is working on this. Groups that you’d expect to lead the charge for a Republican plan, like FreedomWorks, say they haven’t been told anything about it.

The problem is that there’s no Republican consensus for a plan to implement. RomneyCare was the only healthcare plan the GOP had, and their idea-pantry has been empty ever since Obama used Romney’s plan as the basis for his proposal.

The usual Republican answer, the free market, is a non-starter here. Private health insurance companies make money by insuring people who don’t get sick. Given its freedom, no company would insure sick people.

[2] Trump claims to want coverage for preexisting conditions, but has put forward no plan for how that would happen. BuzzFeed summarizes:

The GOP argument is that Obamacare disappearing would be so catastrophic — regulated markets would collapse, millions of low-income people would lose Medicaid, insurers could once again deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions — that Congress would have no choice but to set aside their differences and pass a replacement.

We saw something similar play out with the Budget Control Act of 2011. Supposedly, the automatic budget cuts (the “sequester”) that would set in if Congress couldn’t come to an agreement were so onerous that of course Congress would come to an agreement. We’ve been dealing with the sequester ever since.

In general, if somebody’s plan is so onerous that it can only be announced in the face of an emergency, I want no part of it.

Looking for President GoodClimate

Wednesday, CNN devoted its entire primetime schedule to letting voters question ten leading Democratic presidential candidates (the same ten who qualified for the debate this Thursday) about their plans for dealing with climate change. I didn’t spend the full seven hours sitting in front of my TV, but I did read all the transcripts, which you can find here.

I suppose it was naive of me to hope that these townhall Q&A sessions would settle which candidate would be the best president for the climate. You may come away with a different impression, but mine was that none of the candidates eliminated themselves and none stood head-and-shoulders above the others. All agreed that climate change is a serious problem that requires significant action, and that taking that action is going to be difficult. None put forward the fossil-fuel industry talking points that you would hear in a comparable Republican setting: climate change is a hoax, the climate is always changing, nothing can be done to stop the climate from changing, doing anything will be too expensive, or the US should wait for other nations to do something first.

The things they disagreed about were fairly technical: a carbon tax vs. a cap-and-trade system vs. direct government regulation; exactly how much should be budgeted for fighting climate change and where it should come from; whether nuclear power plays any role in our post-fossil-fuel future; how much sacrifice should be expected from the average person; how to mitigate the sacrifices asked of vulnerable populations; and so forth.

In short, any of the ten would contrast strongly with Trump’s positions on the issue. (To the extent that Trump has done anything about climate change, he has opted to make it worse: pulling out of the Paris Accords, trying to roll back Obama’s automobile-gas-mileage standards, rolling back limits on power plants burning coal, rolling back regulations on methane leaks, and so on.) But which of them would be the most effective president for fighting climate change?

Reading the transcripts told me less about the candidates that it did about myself and what I’m looking for. I think that President GoodClimate has to jump several very different hurdles. He or she needs to have:

  • a vision
  • a plan that carries out the vision
  • a message to rally the public behind the vision and the plan
  • the ability to leverage the vision, plan, and public support to push Congress to pass the needed legislation and appropriate the needed money
  • the ability to use the gravity of the crisis, the example of US action, and US soft power to push other nations into action.

Jumping each hurdle requires a different skill-set; we need a president who can jump them all.

The vision and the plan. The example everyone uses for this is President Kennedy setting the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy announced that vision in 1962, and it came to fruition right on schedule in 1969.

The reason this is a good parallel is that Kennedy himself had no idea how to land a man on the Moon, and in fact no one did at the time he set the goal. New techniques and technologies had to be invented for the project to succeed. At the same time, though, he managed to set a goal that was realistic. If he had announced that we would land a man on the Moon by Christmas, it wouldn’t have happened. And when Christmas came and went with no Moon landing, public enthusiasm for the whole project might have waned.

Those advances would not have happened, though, if Kennedy (and President Johnson after him) hadn’t put serious resources into making them happen. Also, the plan involved immediate action as well as speculative research. Project Mercury was already underway, and John Glenn had orbited the Earth earlier that year. When NASA had a serious setback (the cabin fire in 1967 that killed the crew of Apollo 1 during a ground exercise), the country had the tenacity and commitment to continue.

So what I’m looking for in a climate vision and plan aren’t just the most ambitious goals and the highest price tag. The vision and the plan have to ring true in some way that is hard to define. The plan needs to reach beyond what we know how to do right now. (For example: If we’re going to generate much, much more of our electricity from wind and solar, we’ll need better ways to store power on windy and sunny days.) But it can’t reach so far beyond that it loses credibility. And it has to start by ambitiously doing the things that we already know how to do; we can’t twiddle our thumbs and then depend on some magic invention appearing in the nick of time a decade from now.

An aside on cheeseburgers. It’s predictable what’s going to happen when the next president announces his or her X-trillion-dollar climate plan, which also puts limits on the fossil-fuel industry, raises the cost of certain environmentally costly consumer goods, and bans others entirely: Fossil-fuel companies (both in their own voices and by funding unofficial spokesmen behind the scenes) will become advocates for “freedom”, and there will be either a real or astro-turf uprising against this “government overreach”.

You could see this already in the questions in the CNN forum. Several candidates had to answer questions more-or-less like: “Am I still going to be able to eat cheeseburgers?” Plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs also came up. The-government-is-coming-for-your-cheeseburgers has been a very effective pro-carbon argument.

The right answer to this challenge is multi-faceted, and it’s hard to make all the points at once. Part of the answer is to invoke the seriousness of the problem and shame the triviality of the question: Do you really want to condemn your grandchildren to a Mad-Max hellscape so that you can keep eating cheeseburgers, burning inefficient lightbulbs, and using plastic straws? The World War II generation accepted gas-rationing and a number of other artificial hardships to save the world from fascism. Is there nothing you’re willing to give up for future generations?

The second facet is to bring the question back to reality. Yes, the carbon footprint of a cow is much greater than a comparable weight of chickens, or a potato patch. So yes, as a country we need to shift our eating habits so that we consume less beef and dairy. But that doesn’t mean we have to ban cheeseburgers. Maybe a cheeseburger becomes more expensive. Maybe it turns into an occasional treat rather than a staple of your diet. But the government is not coming for your cheeseburgers.

Third, the crimps on your personal lifestyle are going to be a small part of a much bigger change. You’re not going to have to bear the whole sacrifice. This is what Elizabeth Warren was getting at in her answer to the cheeseburger question:

This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about. … They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.

And finally, we’re going to try to be smart about this, so that changes will be as painless as possible. Lightbulbs are actually a good example in this regard. When the Bush administration decided to change the nation’s lightbulbs, it didn’t just ban incandescent bulbs overnight and make us light candles or sit in the dark. The wasteful bulbs are off the shelves now (at least until Trump finds a way to bring them back), but instead we have better bulbs: longer-lasting, cheaper to operate, and so on.

Beto O’Rourke, for example, expressed his confidence in the ingenuity of American farmers and ranchers to produce the same foods with a smaller carbon footprint. (I don’t doubt that he’s right about that, but I question whether it will be enough.) And yes, today’s paper straws aren’t as good as plastic straws. But is it truly beyond the limits of science to make an equally good straw out of paper or some other biodegradable material?

Or take cars. I drive a 100,000-miler hybrid Honda Accord. My current tank of gas is getting over 45 miles per gallon, and that’s not unusual. If government standards had insisted on 45 mpg decades ago, everyone would have been forced to drive underpowered subcompacts. But I don’t suffer from a lack of room or pep in this car. Similarly, today’s all-electric cars won’t take you as far in a day as most of us would like go on a long driving trip. But someday soon they will. A future of electric cars powered by wind and solar doesn’t mean we’ll have to give up on driving the family to Yellowstone.

Rallying support. So anyway, President GoodClimate is going to face well-funded resistance that will appeal to people’s fears and resentments. Combating that is going to require a lot of political skill, simultaneously shaming people out of their petty self-centeredness and inspiring them to take on the challenge of saving the world.

Who’s up to that? Who can create not just a vision and a plan, but a message that raises public enthusiasm around implementing the plan, even if it requires some sacrifice?

And suppose the public does support the plan. That doesn’t necessarily mean Congress will pass it. We see that now in gun control. Universal background checks (which might have stopped the recent Texas shooting) are ridiculously popular, with 97% support in one recent poll. They’ve been popular for years now, and yet somehow they don’t happen. In Congress, a small, intense, well-funded resistance can overcome broad but lukewarm popular support.

That points to a different kind of political skill, the ability to put together deals that make things happen. We tend to think in either/or terms about this: an inspirational progressive visionary like Sanders or Warren, versus a moderate deal-maker like Biden or Klobuchar. But the next president has to do both.

Tomorrow the world. In a Republican presidential debate in 2015, Marco Rubio said “America is not a planet.” He was making the defeatist point that no one country, not even one as important as the United States, can solve the climate problem by itself. Even if we do everything right, it won’t make any difference if no one else goes along.

This is a common conservative trope: Collective action is impossible and individual action inadequate, so we should just do nothing.

If we buy into that line of thought, though, we condemn the next generation to a world of rising seas, expanding deserts, mass migrations, and war. The tens of thousands of migrants who currently try to cross our borders every month will be nothing compared to the masses we’ll see when much of Bangladesh is underwater and new deserts have appeared in places that now support a booming population. Even within the US, how much hotter can places like Phoenix or Houston get and still be habitable?

Fortunately, the image Rubio evoked — of the US doing everything it can and the rest of the world dragging its feet — is the exact reverse of the truth. In reality, the US is the country holding the world back. Why should India stop burning coal if the US won’t? Europe is way ahead of us in adopting sustainable electric power. Today, the biggest challenge facing environmental activists around the world is how to make change happen without the United States.

So it would be a huge improvement if the next president just went along with what other nations are doing. (If only we could invest in mass transit like China and in solar and wind power like Germany.) But the world needs more than that. The US combination of economic, scientific, and military power makes us uniquely positioned to lead. Until Trump started tearing them up, we had meaningful alliances with most of the other major powers. It would make a huge difference if we could be the world’s good example rather than its bad example.

So even as the next president turns American climate-change policy around, he or she has to be working with the world to raise standards, and to establish trade policies that promote climate-positive action around the world, rather than allowing carbon-pollution to shift to the country with the lowest standards.

The next president can be a rallying figure internationally, as Kennedy was we he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, or Wilson was when he enunciated his 14 points for ending World War I. Who can do that? The next president also needs to be a negotiator like FDR and an alliance-builder like Truman or Eisenhower. Who can do that?

I don’t know, or at least I don’t know yet. The climate forums have just given me more questions . The answers I’m looking for are only partly contained in the programs the candidates outline on their web sites. They also require evaluating character and talents.

These are harder questions than I had thought, so it’s going to take a bit longer to make up my mind.

Republican Whataboutism Gets More Desperate

Trump has been promoting many of the same white-supremacist themes that are found in mass-shooter manifestos. That can’t be excused or explained, so his cultists need to divert your attention.


Whataboutism is the tactic of responding to criticism of a politician you like by asserting (often falsely [1]) some equivalent wrongdoing by someone on the other side. (Examples: responding to mention of one of Trump’s 10,000 lies with “What about when Obama said you could keep your health insurance?” or to Trump’s birtherism by claiming Hillary Clinton started it.) Whataboutism has long been a tactic favored by conservatives, but Trump has taken it to a new level: It’s hard to come up with an example of him addressing a criticism any other way. He never explains or apologizes, but instead launches some new accusation against someone else.

David Roberts points out the general moral immaturity of a whatabout response

One thing to note is the bizarre implicit assumption that if responsibility is equal on both sides, then … we’re fine. We’re even. Move on. In other words, it’s not the damage done, or the principle violated, that concerns [WaPo columnist Marc Thiessen], it’s *blame*. We need not strive to be good as long as we are no worse than the other side. It’s the moral reasoning of a [10-year-old], focused exclusively on avoiding responsibility or sanction.

Gonna be lots of right-wing whataboutism focused on antifa and environmental extremists in coming weeks. [Conservatives] need to head off the growing consensus that [right-wing] terrorism is a unique problem.

This week saw two prominent attempts at whataboutism, both aimed at diverting attention from Trump’s role in promoting the false claims that inspired the El Paso shooting and have inspired other acts of white-supremacist terrorism.

  • What about the liberal views of the Dayton shooter?
  • What about Rep. Joaquin Castro revealing the names of Trump donors in his district?

Dayton. Roberts was specifically responding to the Thiessen column “If Trump is Responsible for El Paso, Democrats are Responsible for Dayton“.

But if Democrats want to play politics with mass murder, it works both ways. Because the man who carried out another mass shooting 13 hours later in Dayton, Ohio, seems to have been a left-wing radical whose social media posts echoed Democrats’ hate-filled attacks on the president and U.S. immigration officials.

The difference between the two cases is pretty obvious: The El Paso shooter justified his rampage in a manifesto that used Trumpist rhetoric about the “invasion” of our southern border. [2] His massacre took place near that border, and targeted Hispanics under the assumption that they were the “invaders”. Similarly last October, the man who slaughtered 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh believed Jews were organizing the immigrant “invasion” caravans that Trump had been making the focus of his midterm-election messaging, and the MAGA bomber targeted people he saw as Trump’s enemies.

A window of the MAGA bomber’s van.

But so far no one has found any connection between the Dayton shooter’s left-wing views and his crimes. If the Dayton shooter had shot at “the president and immigration officials”, that would be comparable. In future, if someone follows up his retweets of Elizabeth Warren statements by, say, shooting some of the bankers or drug company CEOs Warren criticizes, that also would parallel the El Paso shooting (and we could expect Warren to issue a statement telling her supporters not to be violent). But the Dayton shooter did nothing of the kind.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Hispanics might legitimately fear further attacks from copycat killers; but fear of a copycat Dayton shooting afflicts anybody who goes out in public rather than some group criticized by Democrats.

Picturing what a comparable liberal shooting would look like just emphasizes the Trump connection to El Paso.

“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump lamented at a May rally in Panama City Beach, Fla. Someone in the crowd yelled back one idea: “Shoot them.” The audience of thousands cheered and Trump smiled. Shrugging off the suggestion, he quipped, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

Trump wasn’t horrified by the suggestion that someone might shoot Mexican border-crossers, and did not say it would be wrong. Instead he talked about what his followers could “get away with”, as if it’s natural to want to shoot Hispanics, but politically incorrect to say so out loud. If the El Paso shooter was listening to that exchange, it’s fair to assume that he was not discouraged from his plans.

“Hate has no place in our country!”

You have to go back to 2017 to find any kind of legitimate liberal parallel: the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise by someone who once volunteered for Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, who denounced the El Paso shooting in general terms (in one of his read-from-the-teleprompter statements that look as insincere as a hostage video) without acknowledging any connection to it, Sanders did the responsible thing:

I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign. I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.

Trump, on the other hand, undercut even his general denunciation of the shooting by implying that the shooter might have had a point: Limiting immigration should be part of the response. It’s as if Sanders had proposed that Republicans respond to the Scalise shooting by ending their attempts to repeal ObamaCare.

Trump also undercut his anti-white-supremacy statement by reverting to the both-sides rhetoric he used after Charlottesville: He’s against not just white supremacy, but “any other kind of supremacy“. (Both Trevor Noah and Seth Myers wondered what “other kind of supremacy” Trump might have had in mind. The Bourne Supremacy?) He’s also against “any group of hate”, and singled out the amorphous anti-fascist group Antifa, as if hating fascism is similar to hating Hispanics or Jews, and as if the Antifa body count (0) bears any comparison to the many dozens killed recently by white supremacists. Matt Bors makes the point with a cartoon.

Shaming Trump donors. The second whataboutist controversy started with a tweet on Monday: San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro listed the names of 44 San Antonians who had given the maximum allowable personal donation to Trump’s re-election campaign, and commented

Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’

He got the names from publicly available FEC records; you could have looked them up yourself had you been so inclined.  And he used those names for the purpose that the disclosure laws intended: So that the public knows who’s bankrolling a political campaign.

Castro was clearly trying to shame the people he listed, and you might imagine Castro’s Twitter followers, especially Hispanic ones, deciding not to do business with big Trump donors: If money I give these people might flow through to ads that threaten me, maybe I’ll deal with somebody else. (This logic is similar to why so many LGBTQ people are reluctant to eat at Chick-fil-A. It’s also why #CancelSoulCycle has been trending after word got out that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a multi-million-dollar Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons.)

But nothing in Castro’s tweet suggests violence against these donors, and in fact there is no established pattern of violence against Trump donors. But conservatives needed to divert public attention from the violence Trump incites by accusing some Democrat of inciting violence too — because, as David Roberts pointed out, that would make it all OK from their grade-school moral perspective — and Castro was what they had to work with.

So Donald Trump Jr. went on Fox & Friends to compare Castro’s list of Trump donors to a “hit list” that the Dayton shooter had kept in high school. (As far as I know, none of the people on that list were targeted in the Dayton shooting. So even if you buy the idea that there’s a comparison, we’re talking about a list of fantasy targets, not actual ones.) Ted Cruz accused Castro of “doxxing” his constituents. (Falsely. [3]) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted:

Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous.

And I suppose that is true if you assume that someone has been targeted and harassed, rather than just called out for sponsoring insults against their neighbors.

So the whatabout here is equating a direct connection to several real-world mass murders with a fantasy about what some Castro-follower might do, even though none of them have actually ever done such a thing, and there are no examples of similar crimes.

What does it mean? Whataboutism isn’t new, of course. (What about Hillary’s emails?) But new whatabouts point out where conservatives believe they’re vulnerable. And the less convincing the whatabouts are, the more desperate the need for them must be.

If you meet whataboutism in the wild — in face-to-face conversation or in social media — it’s important not to get distracted by it. [4] Call it out for what it is (that meme at the top of the page is kind of handy) and restate the point the whataboutist is trying to divert you from. In this case, that’s Trump’s role in promoting the rhetoric of white-supremacist terrorism.


[1] Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we’re rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn’t do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.

The assumption behind refuting the false whataboutism is that the Trumpist will be embarrassed to be caught saying something untrue, and so will stop repeating the false statement. But the essence of Trumpism is that shame is for losers, so refutation is pointless.

[2] A wrinkle in this argument is that the El Paso shooter seems to have worried that his actions might reflect badly on Trump. So he made sure to state that his views predated Trump’s candidacy.

the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news.

But his concern for Trump’s image belies his point, and whether or not his murderous rage against the Hispanic “invaders” predates Trump’s rhetoric is irrelevant. Nobody is saying that Trump invented white supremacy or anti-Hispanic racism. Rather, he (along with many, many conservative opinion-makers) has promoted and mainstreamed ideas that have been floating around in the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi underground for decades.

Trump’s rhetoric is a Nazi gateway drug. After you get used to the notions that Central American refugees are really “invaders”, that immigrants are spreading crime and disease, that white Christians are victims, that people of color who criticize America should “go back where they came from”, and that political correctness is a far more serious problem than racism — all core Trump points — then when you chase a link to the Daily Stormer or some other Nazi site, 90% of what you read sounds perfectly normal.

So, for example, if you marinate long enough in TrumpWorld, and then start to wonder how these illiterate Guatemalan peasants are organizing their invasion of the US, the neo-Nazi answer — Jews like George Soros are behind it all — jumps out at you like a revelation.

[3] True doxxing reveals personal contact information like a home address or personal phone number, and typically violates an assumed boundary (like when someone attaches a name, address, and phone number to someone else’s Twitter handle). But donors to political campaigns know that their names are being recorded for the public record. Suzanne Nossel explains:

It’s fair to question whether Mr. Castro’s tweet was prudent or decorous. But to refer to it as doxxing or online harassment is inaccurate, and sows confusion over what online abuse actually looks like.

CNN adds:

Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California at Irvine, said neither the boycott calls [against SoulCycle] nor Castro tweet appears to cross the line into the “unconstitutional harassment” of donors. “Being called a bad name on Twitter is not the kind of harassment the Supreme Court was talking about” in allowing exemptions [from disclosures] for people who face a real threat of harassment, he said.

Republicans can’t have it both ways here. They want to allow unlimited political donations because “money is speech”. But when you speak in the public square, people know who you are. At the very least, an ad whose donors you can’t track down should end with “The sponsors of this message have chosen to remain anonymous” so that we can assume the worst about them.

[4] Don’t do the kind of lengthy explanation I’ve done here; this was for educational purposes only. Having seen a couple of whataboutisms dissected in detail should make it easier for you to spot new ones.

Campaigning in a Traumatized Nation

Trump has damaged our country in ways too deep to fix with an executive order or an act of Congress. The campaign against him needs to reflect that somehow.

Two rounds of Democratic presidential debates are behind us now, and everyone I know was dissatisfied with them. We’re all casting about, looking for somewhere to assign blame. There are plenty of places to look.

  • Maybe it was the overcrowding. Spreading twenty candidates over two nights didn’t give any one of them a chance to put forward a coherent vision of what the country needs.
  • Maybe it was the moderators. Both CNN and MSNBC wanted to see conflict rather than thoughtful discussion, so questions often ignored the forest of beliefs all the candidates share, and focused instead on a few contentious trees of dubious significance.
  • Maybe it was the candidates, none of whom managed to overcome the format, the time limits, and the competing voices to deliver the clarion call we wanted to hear. The heavens did not part, and no ray of light illuminated the Chosen One.

All that is true, and yet I think my disappointment has another cause. Candidates standing behind lecterns, arguing about funding mechanisms and timelines and the meaning of whatever one or another of them did or didn’t do decades ago — it all seemed so ordinary. It’s exactly what Democrats would be doing if it were 1976 and we were hoping to replace Gerald Ford, a nice conscientious guy who happened to be wrong about a few things.

It’s not that I’m disappointed with the policy proposals of any particular candidate. But any set of policies seems inadequate as an answer to the Trump phenomenon.

My regular readers know that I think Trump has terrible policies. On climate change, for example, he seems to be working to bring on disaster as fast as possible. His trade wars are stupid. He loves all the world’s bad guys (Putin, Xi, Kim, MBS, Duterte, Bolsonaro …) and does his best to piss off all the good guys (Trudeau, Macron, Merkel …). His immigration/asylum policies are largely illegal, not to mention intentionally cruel. He’s been trying for years to take health care away from millions.

And yet, the real impact of Trump strikes much deeper than any of that. He both reflects and exacerbates something horribly wrong in our country. All forms of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism have become more acceptable on his watch. Lying has gone off the scale. All sense of fair play has vanished from our politics. Countless norms and practices that were supposed to protect us against corruption and tyranny have been scrapped. We used to worry about how lobbyists would influence government officials, but now we just appoint lobbyists to high office and eliminate the middlemen.

Raising the minimum wage or canceling student debt isn’t going to touch that.

I thought George W. Bush was a terrible president, certainly the worst of my lifetime up to that point. And yet, a change of policies seemed adequate to put him behind us. If Obama could have succeeded not just in avoiding the Depression Bush had set us up for, but also in ending Bush’s wars, closing Guantanamo, and reversing the tax cuts that had put our nation in such perilous fiscal shape, the negative legacy of the Bush years would have been almost entirely sealed off. Wrong-headed mismanagement had been the problem, and good management could fix it.

That’s not true this time. Something deep and dark is happening to our country. If we are fortunate enough to elect a Democrat in 2020, the new president will have to deal with a traumatized nation.

Bush told a few big lies, but Trump has damaged the very notion that we can find common truth. Any fact he doesn’t want to face is “fake news”. Any criticism is met with wave after wave of conspiracy theories against whomever has had the effrontery to call him to account. All inconvenient expertise is painted as corrupt, and countered with opinions “I heard” or “a lot of people are saying”, even if those opinions contradict each other.

Trump doesn’t just oppose anyone who looks into his actions, he dismisses their right to do so. Congress has no business overseeing his administration at all. The courts owe him deference that no other president has received. Investigating his misdeeds is “treason”.

America has always debated where the common good might be found, but Trump destroys the entire idea of the common good. He does not speak at all to the 54% of the electorate who voted for someone else. He stereotypes entire races, religions, and ethnicities, offering them as scapegoats for whatever afflicts his followers. If you are the wrong color or speak the wrong language, you can either support him or “go back where you came from”, even if you are a citizen, even if you were born here, even if the people of your district have overwhelmingly elected you to represent them in Congress.

And it’s not just him. He has a following. People don’t just like him or his policies, they like the fact that he insults and abuses other Americans. He has done little or nothing to help most of the people who voted for him, but they love how mean he is to the people they resent. The Republican Party as a whole now doesn’t even pretend to favor democracy. Elections are simply about winning, and it doesn’t matter whether you win via massive amounts of corporate cash, by making it hard for people to vote, by gerrymandering districts so that you retain power in spite of being opposed by a majority of voters, or even with help from foreign enemies.

If Democrats win in 2020, they can change a lot of those policies: restrain corporate political influence, end gerrymandering, guarantee the right to vote, and so on. But the Republican willingness to subvert democracy will still be there, as well as the belief that some people’s votes should count more than others, or that a loss is not really legitimate if it is based on votes from someone other than white Christians.

The crisis in this country goes way beyond the usual policy discussions, to the point that debating how fast to phase in universal health care or whether crossing the border without a visa should be a civil or criminal offense … it almost mocks the sense of trauma I feel, and that I think a lot of people share.

That’s why many of the most memorable lines of the Democratic debates have nothing to do with policy. When Kirsten Gillibrand said her first presidential act would be to “Clorox the Oval Office“, she was speaking to that sense of a deeper wrongness than can be fixed by an executive order. The White House needs an exorcism, not just a new resident.

But the candidate who most often points to the deeper trauma is the most unlikely candidate: Marianne Williamson. She has no qualifications for a high executive office and her policy agenda has a lot of holes, but she speaks the language of spiritual transformation rather than ordinary politics. In an otherwise critical article, Tara Isabella Burton sums her up like this:

Williamson, a self-help spiritualist (and sometime adviser to Oprah Winfrey), preaches a gospel of “love” and “oneness,” blending a chipper New Age sensibility with progressive politics. In the Democratic debate Tuesday, she condemned the “dark psychic force” of hatred that she said Trump has unleashed, saying it could be combated only by “something emotional and psychological” — which only she could bring forth — accompanied by a dose of “deep truth-telling” on the subject of race. She’s called for a “moral and spiritual awakening” in the United States.

NYT columnist David Brooks claims that she “knows how to beat Trump” via an “uprising of decency”.

Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.

He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.

We are all subtly corrupted while this guy is our leader. And throughout this campaign he will make himself and his values the center of conversation. Every day he will stage a little drama that is meant to redefine who we are, what values we lift up and who we hate.

The Democrats have not risen to the largeness of this moment.

I haven’t risen to the largeness of the moment either. But I sense the need, and I’m struggling to figure out what it would mean to address it.

Remember 1980, when conservatives were not just hurting politically, but felt that America was slipping away from them? Vietnam, Watergate, double-digit inflation, bankrupt cities, gas shortages, rising divorce rates … they also felt a sense of crisis that went beyond policy. From this remove, we tend to remember the policy agenda of the Reagan administration: low taxes, deregulation, strong defense, free trade. But 1980 was also the high point of the Moral Majority, which called the country back to the old-time religion of fundamentalist Christianity.

1980 wasn’t just about political change. It was about spiritual transformation. That’s how it changed the country in ways that we’re still dealing with today.

The Left also has an old-time religion, but it’s not the liberal Christianity Pete Buttigieg wants to invoke, or any form of institutional religion. It’s the hippie idealism whose wisdom found its way into countless songs: All you need is love. Everybody come together, try to love one another. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden. Give peace a chance.

There’s a power there, and I’m not sure how to tap it. But I hope somebody actually qualified to be president figures it out soon.

Don’t Panic

Trump is using the same tactics that failed so badly in 2018. It’s not some stroke of genius. It’s all he knows.


I know. I felt it too.

When that crowd in North Carolina started chanting “Send her back. Send her back.”, it was like watching the videos of the Nazi book-burnings, when the flames shot into the sky, and people kept tossing more books onto the pile with a look of revelry on their faces.

The world just goes crazy sometimes. And once it starts, why should it stop? Why won’t that wave of insanity just sweep away everything in its path, leaving behind a country forever changed into something dark and unrecognizable?

Don’t panic.

The news coverage didn’t help. Pundits of the left and right alike were telling us that Trump had seized control of the narrative, and so the 2020 election won’t be about health care or climate change or anything Democrats want to talk about. It will be Trump against “radical”, “socialist” women of color. You may want to discuss democracy and corruption and the rule of law, but the only response you will get is to be asked why you hate America so much.

Don’t panic.

This isn’t some masterstroke of political genius. It’s a one-trick pony performing his one trick.

It’s frustrating, because there’s no immediate way to prove to ourselves that this appeal to America’s darkest impulses won’t work. It’s tempting to want to lash back somehow, but the election won’t happen for another 16 months, and that’s the response that really matters.

There are immediate things we can do, of course: Write a check to candidates with a healthier vision for America, or to organizations that do good work on issues we care about, or to any group that makes us feel hopeful. Volunteer. Organize. March. We can show our courage in public. (My hat is off to the 150 or so constituents who greeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, the target of the chants, at the Minneapolis airport. “Welcome home,” they chanted.)

I grant you: None of that will strike the decisive blow immediately. But what we need isn’t to lash out. It’s to be determined. Figure out what kind of determined mindset you can hold for the next 16 months, and get there as soon as you can. Battles like this aren’t won with flashes of anger. They’re won with day-in, day-out effort.

And don’t panic. Laugh, if it helps. Here’s how Trevor Noah handled the racist tweets that led up to the North Carolina rally. I found it hilarious.

And don’t forget: We’ve seen this before and it didn’t work. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, Trump similarly seized control of the narrative. He turned the focus of the news towards immigrant caravans that were “invading” America, and painted the Democrats as the party of MS-13 and open borders. The result was the most decisive popular-vote total in a long time: Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats won 53%-45% nationwide. (Only gerrymandering stopped the Democrats from having the largest House majority in decades.)

2018 proved that Trump’s one trick could firm up his support among his base. That’s probably why Democrats lost Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana. But it’s also probably why they won in Arizona. Trump’s base is not a majority of the country. It’s not even the 46% who voted for him in 2016. Chants of “Send her back” won’t just bring Trump’s followers to the polls, it will bring the marginal voters Democrats need in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

We’ll get through this, as long as we don’t panic, don’t get intimidated, and don’t lash out. Channel your anger into determination.