Tag Archives: Democrats

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.

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.

What I Learned from the Debates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success meant different things in each category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socialism: What’s in a word?

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

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

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

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

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

He listed these economic rights:

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

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

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

Other candidates were more critical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should “electable” mean?

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


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

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

We can’t let that happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Legislative Agenda for House Democrats

Come January, Democrats will control the House of Representatives. Now what?

The obvious answer, of course, is investigate. There is no lack of stuff that needs looking into, beginning with the ways that Trump and his family have used his presidency to make money and continuing through a variety of abuses in the cabinet. Congressional hearings on climate change or on the bungled federal response to Hurricane Maria could bring important facts to the public’s attention. And I think it would be great if the public became aware of all the places American troops are stationed and the low-level conflicts they’re involved in. (When four soldiers died in Niger last year, we shouldn’t have all been scratching our heads about what they’d been doing there.) Unlike the Republican Congress under Obama, Democrats won’t need to manufacture conspiracy theories in order to keep their investigators and subcommittees busy.

But what about legislation? Obviously, the new Democratic House can’t make new laws on its own, but that shouldn’t stop it from passing bills that put an agenda in front of the public. The Republican House did this during the Obama years: It couldn’t repeal ObamaCare by itself, but it passed a series of ObamaCare-repeal bills to put itself on record, and to get repealing ObamaCare into the public debate.

The question is: What kind of agenda? One school of thought says to go big: Medicare for all, $15 minimum wage, and maybe a basic income guarantee. But I wouldn’t start there, for two reasons. First, Republicans would easily unite against those proposals, and enough red-state Democrats might blanch that they wouldn’t pass. I want to hear news reports about Democrats trying to do something in the public interest and Republicans blocking them, not about Democrats arguing with each other over how radical to be. And second, the public still needs to be convinced on those programs. (I know, there are polls saying people like Medicare for All at the slogan level. But an actual bill would have to raise the money to pay for it, and I’m not convinced its popularity would hold once it was coupled with tax increases.)

Instead of trying to sell the public on a progressive agenda, I would suggest gaining the public’s trust by passing bills the public already supports, ones Speaker Ryan and the Republican committee chairs have been blocking. Let’s not start by trying to convince the public to get on our side; let’s start by showing the public we’re on their side. If we do that — particularly if we propose things Trump or congressional Republicans have already paid lip service to — Republican senators will constantly be forced to explain why they aren’t getting on board.

So far that may sound too timid. But it actually leaves room for a fairly broad agenda.

A voting rights bill. As I’ll describe more fully in the next post, the Georgia governor’s election was a sad commentary on the state of American democracy. If Stacey Abrams does indeed lose, as seems likely at this point, there is a very good case that the governorship was stolen by Secretary of State Kemp, who had oversight over his own election and used it to his advantage.

Living in a mostly white, largely professional-class suburb of Boston, I was able to vote in ten minutes. My door-to-door time, including driving to and from the polling place, was about half an hour. But if you are poor or live in a neighborhood that is mostly non-white — especially if you find yourself in a state governed by Republicans — you probably had a very different experience.

Even Americans with partisan leanings usually retain a sense of fair play. (Republican officials like Brian Kemp don’t, but that’s a different issue.) It would be hard to explain opposition to a bill that put limits on voter purges, enforced standards about the number and distribution of polling places, and penalized states where people had to wait hours to vote. The Supreme Court threw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that forced historically racist states to pre-clear election-law changes with the Justice Department. But Chief Justice Roberts’ objections don’t apply if that penalty arises from current rather than historical behavior.

A campaign finance bill. Given how unlikely it is that the Senate would pass anything that limited the political power of the rich, you can argue that it’s silly to worry too much about how the Supreme Court would react to a campaign finance bill. Even so, the bill would have more credibility with the public if it took recent Court decisions into account. If it were obviously doomed in the courts, Mitch McConnell could label the whole effort “political theater” and feel justified in ignoring it.

Two provisions stand out as feasible: first, the DISCLOSE Act, a sunshine bill that would force PACs to reveal the source of their funds and corporations to disclose their political spending, ending the whole “dark money” phenomenon. The Supreme Court already anticipated this in the Citizens United decision. Justice Kennedy wrote:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “in the pocket” of so-called moneyed interests. The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Republicans in Congress, though, have blocked such bills in the past.

Second, a tax break to encourage small donations and discourage candidates from accepting big ones. Larry Lessig has proposed

a voucher system, where taxpayers would get a $50 tax refund and use it to donate to congressional candidates who agreed to opt in to the program: If they accepted the vouchers, the only other funds they could take would be individual contributions of $100 or less.

Because Lessig’s plan doesn’t stop rich individuals from donating, it should pass muster even among the money-is-speech justices. Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes has proposed the Government By the People Act to implement a small-donor matching system.

The DREAM Act. A broad majority of the public sympathizes with undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, grew up here, and know no other country. President Obama exempted them from deportation and allowed them work permits in his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, but Trump reversed that order in September, 2017. Courts have temporarily prevented the administration from ending DACA, but its ultimate fate depends on Congress.

The possible deportation of the DREAMers has been a political football ever since. Trump has essentially been holding them hostage, offering them legal status (usually without a path to citizenship) in exchange for Democrats giving in on the rest of his immigration agenda. Because Democrats have refused to pay this ransom, Trump blames them for whatever happens, as extortionists typically do. (“Nice family you got there. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”)

Passing a version of the DREAM Act (which has been kicking around since 2001 and was passed by the House in 2010) would lay things out clearly: Democrats want to do right by the Dreamers and Republicans don’t.

A government ethics bill. The most popular promise Trump has reneged on is to “drain the Swamp”. Quite the opposite, the Trump administration is the most overtly corrupt since … well, maybe the Grant administration. (Though President Grant himself seems to have been relatively honest and died almost penniless. He wrote his memoirs while dying of cancer in hopes of leaving his family enough to live on.)

Back in September, House Democratic #2 Steny Hoyer suggested what might be in such a bill:

To better police the ethics of elected officials, Hoyer said, Congress should require the president and vice president to make public their most five recent tax returns, ban House members from serving on corporate boards and require House members to link to their personal financial disclosure statements on their House websites. Hoyer also called for giving subpoena power to the Office of Government Ethics, which polices executive branch personnel.

I think it’s also important to slow down the “revolving door” between government and regulated industries. Formulating exact rules here is tricky, because people who leave either Congress or some executive-branch office need to be able to continue their careers somehow. But it’s unseemly for an individual to have power over an industry and then take a high-paying job inside it. (Both sides do this. When Eric Holder stopped being Obama’s attorney general, he went back to his previous law firm, which represents “many of the large banks Holder declined to prosecute for their alleged role in the financial crisis”.) Even when everyone involved has good intentions, the appearance of corruption undermines public confidence in government.

The Chris Collins case shows how low the bar currently is. Rep. Collins, a New York Republican who was re-elected Tuesday while under indictment, became the largest investor in Innate Immunotherapies, a company whose activities fell within the scope of a committee he served on, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. While continuing to serve on that subcommittee, he joined the company’s board of directors, and encouraged members of his family and other congressmen to buy its stock. All that was legal. He didn’t get into trouble until he used the inside information he got as a board member to warn his relatives to sell before certain bad news became public.

A health care bill. Health care was the main issue Democrats ran on. To a large extent, they pledged just to prevent bad things from happening: They’d block Republicans from cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and from further sabotaging ObamaCare.

But if that’s all they do, the public will have a right to feel disappointed. They should also do at least two positive things: pass a bill that would allow Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and lower health insurance premiums for millions of Americans by shoring up ObamaCare.

Trump campaigned on the drug-price-negotiation issue, and before taking office he accused pharmaceutical companies of “getting away with murder“. But while it would be false to say he had done nothing on this issue, his limited steps in this direction (which haven’t taken effect yet) mainly just mean that the companies will get away with fewer murders.

That’s not entirely his fault. When the Bush administration added prescription drug coverage to Medicare, the bill included a provision preventing the government from negotiating drug prices. Everything the current administration has done has to fit within that law. But Trump never pushed the Republican Congress to change that law, and it hasn’t.

If Democrats did repeal that provision, it would put both Trump and many Senate Republicans on the spot: You said you were for this, and here it is. Will you support it?

There’s also broad public agreement that ObamaCare subsidies aren’t big enough and taper off too quickly. For people just above the income cut-off for subsidies, the policies are still pretty expensive. Trump’s solution to this problem has been to re-introduce junk insurance: short-term policies aimed at healthy people. In the long run, these plans create more problems than they solve: If people on temporary insurance do turn up expensive long-term health problems, they’ll quickly find themselves in trouble. And draining healthy people out of the ObamaCare system raises premiums for those who have to stay.

But rejecting Trump’s solution doesn’t mean that Democrats should ignore the problem that makes many lower-middle-class people like the junk-insurance option. A Democratic health care bill should expand the ObamaCare subsidies to put the “affordable” back in the Affordable Care Act.

Where should the money come from? How about helping Trump implement another one of the campaign promises he seems to have forgotten: cutting tax loopholes that only the very rich can take advantage of. The poster child of plutocratic tax breaks is the carried interest loophole, which allows hedge fund managers to treat ordinary income like capital gains. Trump campaigned against it, but his big tax bill did nothing to change it.

That’s a pattern. The tax code is more riddled than ever with breaks for the very wealthy. Democrats should target a bunch of them and say: “This is how we can afford to lower health insurance premiums.”

A gun control bill. A fairly short and simple bill could collect proposals that are already popular with the public and have been implemented already in some states: universal background checks, an assault weapon ban, and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

LGBTQ rights. Nancy Pelosi has already promised a high priority to the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics in existing federal civil rights legislation. The Religious Right is already huffing and puffing about this, but I don’t think they represent a majority of the public.

An infrastructure bill. Another unfulfilled Trump campaign promise was a trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by rebuilding the nation’s public infrastructure, which everyone agrees could use the upgrade. After considerable delay, what he finally proposed was largely smoke and mirrors: a “framework” whose details were never filled in. He crowed that it would lead to $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, but it contained only $200 billion in federal money, spread over ten years; the rest was supposed to come from state/local governments and the private sector.

There were two immediate problems:

Democrats were skeptical of what the public/private partnerships might give away: Do we really want our public infrastructure winding up in the hands of private corporations? (Picture the interstate highway system working like cable TV.) The framework’s proposal to “streamline” and “shorten” the permitting process by removing “regulatory barriers” might simply be a way to gut federal environmental protections.

In short, the idea that there’s a deal to be made here seems naive. Yes, Trump and the Democrats both want new infrastructure, but as soon as you add any details at all, there’s not much overlap in their visions.

So House Democrats should act as if Trump’s framework never existed, and should propose a plan of direct federal spending on infrastructure. Where should the money come from? If the Senate has already shelved the ObamaCare plan mentioned above, Democrats could re-use the plutocratic tax breaks I talked about then.

But there is a bolder plan that also makes sense (even if it does violate some of the principles I discussed at the top): tie infrastructure spending to a carbon tax.

 

In short, while bolder initiatives are always possible, there is low-hanging fruit that can be picked first. The stump speeches of conservative politicians like Sarah Palin often invoke the phrase “common sense solutions”. Passing the proposals I’ve listed, I think, would do a lot to take that phrase back.

Why I’m Voting Straight Democratic

I’m definitely voting. But if you’re willing to run under the banner of today’s Republican Party, I can’t vote for you.


I didn’t used to be like this.

Only a few years ago, I was a meticulous voter. I’d examine each race and think hard about the individual candidates, looking for the best combination of personal character and positions on the important issues. There was a time when if I didn’t know anything about the candidates for some down-ballot office, I might leave that line blank, figuring that better-informed people should make the choice.

I don’t do that any more. Tomorrow I’m going to vote a straight Democratic ticket, including voting for and against candidates I’ve never heard of. If not for the ballot questions — I’m still meticulous about them — I’d be in and out of the voting booth in seconds.

It’s not that I think the Democratic Party is perfect. I expect that most of the Democrats I vote for will be good public servants, and will mostly promote policies I agree with. But some of the rest, I’m sure, will simply be the lesser evil. I’ve made my peace with that. I just know that they are the best hope to defeat Republicans, and Republicans need to be defeated. I can’t vote for Republicans any more.

That wasn’t always true. In my first presidential election, 1976, voting for Jerry Ford over Jimmy Carter was a real option, because I expected the country to be in decent hands no matter who won. (I dithered between the two before eventually picking a third party candidate.) Decades ago, when I was living in Massachusetts the first time, I voted for Bill Weld to be governor. He seemed like a straightforward, honest, intelligent guy. Eventually I even developed the rule-of-thumb that I would default to the Republican if I didn’t know who to vote for, figuring that only a really good Republican could win in my liberal district. When I moved to more conservative New Hampshire, I flipped that reasoning and defaulted to Democrats.

But now that I’m back in liberal Massachusetts, I’m not voting Republican for any office, no matter how trivial. In any state in the Union, I would do the same.

Have I changed? Not nearly so much as the Republican Party has. Today’s Republicans are not like the Republicans of the past, even the recent past. Today, the GOP is the party of climate change denial, discrimination against gays, gerrymandering, and baseless conspiracy theories. It’s the party that opposes the minimum wage, the party that cuts rich people’s taxes and then goes after middle-class Medicare when their tax cut creates an artificial budget crisis. (The middle-class tax cut Trump promised last week is vaporware: There is no such proposal, and once the election is over you will never hear about it again, except possibly as a cover story for another handout to the rich.)

Even worse, today’s Republican Party is a comfortable home for white supremacist fellow travelers like Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Open racists like David Duke or Richard Spencer endorse Republicans. White supremacist groups campaign for Republicans. If you want to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, you go to the networks and web sites that Republicans frequent. If you’re an abuser of women, Democrats will probably throw you out, but Republicans will circle the wagons around you. If you favor something as offensive to human compassion as the death penalty for gays, Republicans will embrace you.

If you are happy carrying that party’s banner, I can’t vote for you.

And then there’s Trump. (I covered in detail what I think of Trump last week.) Back in 1990, They Might Be Giants recorded a song that starts like this:

This is where the party ends.
I can’t stand here listening to you
And your racist friend.

To me, racist is a stand-in for all sorts of bigoted positions: anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and just generally anti-everybody-who’s-not-a-white-straight-Evangelical-Christian. For every Republican candidate in the country, Trump is the bigoted friend that they can tolerate, but I can’t. For me, that’s where the party ends.

Your local Republican candidate might sound fairly reasonable from time to time. Lots of Republicans do: Paul Ryan occasionally tut-tuts when Trump says something particularly ridiculous or odious. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have spoken up now and then. (And both retired from the Senate when they realized that even their minimal criticisms had excommunicated them from the Trump personality cult the GOP has turned into. As Flake put it: “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”)

But in practical terms, what has any Republican official done to stand in Trump’s way? 538 models how often you’d expect a senator to vote with Trump, given Trump’s electoral margin in his or her state. Flake was actually considerably more likely to vote with Trump than the model predicted, and Susan Collins even moreso. What have any of them done to fight back, and reclaim their party for reasonable conservatism?

When push comes to shove, elected Republicans have all gotten in line behind Trump. Sometimes they’ve made a big public show of how hard the decision was (like Susan Collins supporting Trump’s tax cut, or Collins and Flake voting to elevate Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court), but they’ve gotten in line. They’ve blocked congressional investigations of collusion with Russia or any other administration wrongdoing, and they’ve harassed any Justice Department investigations that Trump found inconvenient. Cabinet-level malefactors like Ryan Zinke rest easy knowing that Republicans in both houses of Congress have their back.

Rather than stand up for the principles they used to claim, Republicans who ought to know better have drunk the Kool-Aid. Ted Cruz is now embracing the man who insulted his wife and accused his father of conspiring to assassinate JFK. Lindsey Graham once understood that Trump is a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot”. Now he’s the most rabid of Trumpists, frothing at the mouth to defend Brett Kavanaugh and offering unconstitutional legislation to back Trump’s plan to end birthright citizenship.

I’ll just sit here wondering how you
can stand by your racist friend.

The only conservatives who have consistently held their ground against Trump are writers rather than politicians: Michael Gerson, George Will, Max Boot. All of them have urged their readers to vote for Democrats this time around. Boot writes:

Some Republicans in suburban districts may claim they aren’t for Trump. Don’t believe them. Whatever their private qualms, no Republicans have consistently held Trump to account. They are too scared that doing so will hurt their chances of reelection.

Friday, Jennifer Rubin wrote:

The midterm elections have therefore become all about Trump, about whether he’s “winning” or “paying a price” for his descent into rancor, racism and misogyny. Suddenly the real “values voters” are those who care deeply about values such as kindness, democracy, rationality and respect. If they show up and vote their values, Republicans are in big trouble.

Finally, you can see the difference between the parties in the closing arguments they are making as the election approaches: Democrats are talking about making your health insurance more secure, particularly if you’re on Medicare or have a pre-existing condition. They’re talking about student debt, climate change, voting rights, and protecting the civil rights of those whose rights are actually in question: women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ community.

Republicans, by contrast, are closing with an issue that is almost entirely imaginary: the “threat” posed by several thousand migrants fleeing the violence of Honduras. Many of the caravaners are women and children, and the Pentagon believes most of them will never get here. Far from an “invasion”, the expressed intention of the much-hyped caravan is to surrender to US officials and ask for the asylum hearings that both international and American law promise them. (Instead, Trump is offering them a glittering symbol of the new MAGA Republic: “Barbed wire used properly,” he assures his cultists, “can be a beautiful sight.”)

There is no military issue whatsoever, so Trump’s dispatch of 5,000 (or is it 15,000?) troops to the border is pure theater — theater that will waste soldiers’ time and could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The conspiracy theories that Trump is using to justify this stunt have already inspired domestic terrorists like the MAGA mail bomber and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

If that’s what you like — imaginary crises, conspiracy theories, money flowing from the middle class to the rich, race-baiting, voter suppression, abuse of women, and an ever more vigorous and violent white-supremacist movement — then vote Republican. You’re sure to get more of it.

But if that’s not what you want out of government, then the Republican Party as it stands today must fall. Voters need to reject it root and branch.

The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats

A recount is probably still coming, but it sure looks like Democrat Conor Lamb won a narrow victory in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump carried by 19% in 2016, and where Democrats had not even fielded a candidate in 2014 and 2016.

The victory kept alive the expectation of a Democratic wave in this fall’s nationwide elections. Cook Political Report says:

there are 118 Republican-held districts less friendly to the GOP than PA’s 18th CD (R+11), including 17 where the GOP incumbent isn’t running in the fall and an additional vacancy in Ohio’s 12th CD that will be settled by an August 7 special election that could become problematic for Republicans.

Democrats need to flip only 24 seats to gain control of the House. Cook says “of course not” to the theory that Dems could gain 118 seats. (As with Doug Jones in Alabama, part of the victory is due to Democrats just running a better candidate. That won’t happen everywhere.) But their analysis of the entire run of special elections indicates that Democrats are running 9 points (not 11) better than previous results would lead you to expect. If that holds up, it still gives them a huge win in November.

The battle to interpret the race began almost immediately. Republicans, who previously had described Lamb as “far left“, claimed that Lamb had won by looking like a Republican: He criticized Nancy Pelosi, didn’t rail at Trump, didn’t back gun control, supported Trump’s tariffs, and said that his personal beliefs were pro-life. This was a fairly bogus argument, though: Lamb ran against Trump’s tax cut, which was the only major piece of legislation Republicans passed this year; on abortion he says “we defend the law as it is“; the NRA spent money to defeat him; he wants to fix ObamaCare rather than repeal it; and he was more aggressively pro-union than most Democratic candidates.

Progressive and centrist Democrats both began spinning the race as well. Centrists are arguing that Democrats should nominate moderate candidates who can appeal to Republicans fed up with Trump. Progressives are arguing that Lamb’s victory depended on getting a high turnout from the Democratic base, so Democrats need to stand for policies that will energize that base.

It would be nice to have exit polls to help us sort these claims out, but there weren’t any. So both the convince-swing-voters and the turn-out-the-base theories are plausible. We don’t know for sure whether Trump voters changed their minds and voted Democratic, or Clinton voters (or even some who thought Clinton wasn’t liberal enough to vote for) came out to vote while Trump voters stayed home.

In some sense it doesn’t matter, because Lamb’s policy choices play well under both theories: Maybe he got votes from moderate Republicans (like college educated women in Pittsburgh suburbs). Or maybe marginal Republican voters stayed home because Lamb wasn’t scary enough to motivate them to vote against him.

My take on all this shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read what I wrote about Alaska last month and Montana last week: Democrats should run candidates who match their districts. I’m against nationalizing the election around a progressive agenda, like Medicare-for-all or impeachment or banning assault rifles or a $15 minimum wage. But I’m for candidates running against the Democratic establishment in places where the Democratic establishment is unpopular, and I think we need to challenge Democrats who are more conservative than their voters. Just because I like a Conor Lamb in PA-18 doesn’t mean I oppose a progressive challenge to Diane Feinstein. California is a different electorate.

As for what the Democratic Party should stand for, I think it should stand for principles rather than specific pieces of legislation. (OurFuture.org derides this approach as “a list of desirable goals, rather than explicit pledges”. Yes, that’s exactly what I want from the national party. Let local candidates craft their own explicit pledges.) Here’s what I mean: We want more and more people to have health insurance, with universal coverage as the ultimate goal. We want to shift the tax burden back towards the rich and corporations. We want to protect the safety net, fight climate change, invest in education, welcome immigrants and refugees, make our guns laws less crazy, keep government out of Americans’ sexual and reproductive decisions, protect minority rights, and end mass incarceration.

That’s far from “not standing for anything”, and it makes a stark contrast with Republicans, but it also gives local candidates room to adapt to their voters. It makes room for Bernie-ish candidates in liberal districts, but also for candidates like Conor Lamb and Doug Jones. Candidates in Chicago or San Francisco can run on Medicare for All, while candidates in Alabama or rural Pennsylvania can defend Medicaid and ObamaCare.

Beyond that, I draw some more tactical lessons:

  • Democrats in districts that Trump carried don’t have to run against Trump, because Trump is already on everybody’s mind anyway. Anti-Trump resistance voters are going to come out and vote, whether you whip them up or not. Meanwhile, some Trump voters might stay home if you don’t insult or goad them. Best of all is when Trump himself makes the race about Trump, as he did in PA-18: The Democrat focuses on local lunch-pail issues, while Trump talks about himself.
  • The racist/populist vote is probably lost to Democrats (and good riddance), but there’s also a non-racist/populist vote they can get. Lamb’s optics helped him there: He’s a young fresh face who represents you, not an ideology or his party’s establishment.
  • Not everybody needs to have been a captain in the Marines, but new candidates need a non-political backstory. They shouldn’t be poli-sci majors whose resume is a series of congressional-staff jobs.
  • Unions may be a fading force in American politics, but there are places where they still matter. In the same way that Republicans can’t really run away from Trump, I don’t think Democrats can run away from unions. The anti-union vote is going to go against you anyway, so you might as well give pro-union voters some reason to support you.

Alaska as a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model

Hillary Clinton got less than 40% of the vote and Trump won by nearly 15%, but once-solid-red Alaska now has a moderate-independent governor, and one house of its legislature is controlled by a Democrat/Independent alliance. Both the Bernie and Hillary factions in the Democratic Party have something to learn here.


Now that Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress, and a sizeable majority of governorships and state legislatures, one of the most contentious arguments in politics concerns how Democrats should try to turn things around. That argument is particularly bitter, because to a large extent it carries over from the Bernie/Hillary contest in the 2016 primaries. Each faction has its own vision of how to win back the country, and sees the other’s vision as a recipe for disaster.

Berners think the problem is voter apathy and the solution is a national progressive agenda for radical change: Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, free college, and a massive jobs/infrastructure program. The Democratic Party needs to stand for something, and the something it needs to stand for is the very specific legislative agenda Bernie Sanders ran on. In addition, Democrats need a new, younger image. (Bernie himself may not be young, but his fans are.) We can’t just trot the old war-horses out with a new focus-group-tested message and expect cynical millennials to buy it.

Clintonites look at the independents and moderate Republicans who have been alienated by Trump and see a chance for a broad non-ideological coalition, if Democrats don’t alienate centrist voters by pushing radical progressive policies in districts that historically haven’t supported them. Professional-class white women, for example, have traditionally trended Republican, but they’ve seen the GOP rally around a serial abuser who makes common cause with white supremacists, they believe what the scientists say about climate change, they worry about how their children are going to replicate their success, and they might be ready to say “Enough is enough.” However, that doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly become converts to Denmark-style socialism. Candidates who are too far left might turn them off and leave us stuck with Trump-like conservatives.

Both sides can argue that recent results support them: Berners say that the Clintonite approach has been tried and failed; shifting rightward to occupy an ever-receding center is how we got into this sad position in the first place. Clintonites can ask where the Berner approach has ever worked. Sure, it hasn’t been tried often, but where has it succeeded, other than in places (like Vermont) where Democrats would win anyway? Berner idealism sounds airy to the nuts-and-bolts politicos of the Clintonite establishment: State-by-state, district-by-district, look at the demographics and show me which voters we’re going to turn around.

Recent results. The post-2016 special elections provide fodder for both sides. In general, the elections were held in strongly Republican areas and Democrats did significantly better than in previous cycles. But how and why?

For example, the biggest headline has been Doug Jones’ upset of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race: Alabama, one of the reddest states in the nation, now has one senator from each party. Granted, all sorts of special circumstances (i.e., a Republican opponent who started out controversial, and then got credibly accused of sexually pursuing underage girls) had to work in Jones’ favor, but you can spin the final results either way. Jones’ margin came from overcoming voter apathy and rallying the Democratic base in the black neighborhoods of cities like Selma. But the defection of moderate Republicans from Moore was also an important factor, and Jones himself did not run a progressive campaign. On health care, for example, he defended ObamaCare and said abstractly that “healthcare is a right, not a privilege limited to the wealthy“, but he never endorsed Medicare for All. His gun control position was fairly tepid. Economically, he talked about an unspecified “living wage”, but also about “streamlining regulations” for businesses. Some progressives even argued against voting for him.

Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia’s 6th congressional district was similarly spun both ways: Ossoff wasn’t progressive enough, so he lost because “he didn’t stand for anything“. But Georgia-6 is a classic suburban-Republican stronghold that Tom Price had won by 23 points just months before. Narrowing that loss to five points was a huge accomplishment that a Bernie-style progressive, centrists argued, couldn’t have equaled.

Virginia’s state elections were similarly ambiguous. New Governor Ralph Northam ran a centrist nice-guy campaign and won handily (after beating Bernie-endorsed Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary). But downballot elections demonstrated a liberal appeal that was surprising for Virginia, like trangender woman Danica Roem beating a religious conservative who authored a “bathroom bill” targeted at transgender people. Democrats didn’t just pick off competitive swing districts, they won in places where they hadn’t even run candidates in previous elections.

Northern exposure. Now let’s talk about Alaska. If you think about Alaskan politics at all, you probably think it’s dominated by conservative Republicans. Republican Don Young has held the state’s lone House seat since 1973. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are both Republicans. (However, Murkowski won as a write-in candidate in 2010 after losing the Republican primary to a more conservative candidate. She won as a Republican again in 2016.) In presidential politics, Alaska is a reliable red state. Democratic candidates rarely even go there, and none has won its 3 electoral votes since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton 51%-37%. Nationally, Alaska’s most famous politician is Sarah Palin.

But then there’s this: In 2014, Republican Governor Sean Parnell lost his re-election bid when two other candidates joined forces: Republican-turned-independent Bill Walker ran on a bipartisan ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott as his lieutenant governor. Something similar has happened in the 40-seat Alaska House: 17 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 3 moderate Republicans have formed a majority coalition that made Democrat Bryce Edgmon the Speaker.

More is changing than just party labels. Politico reports:

In the past four years, Alaska has raised its minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana and passed the strongest universal voter registration bill in the country. Governor Bill Walker—an ex-Republican who has the support of organized labor and most liberals—and the House majority coalition are publicly advocating the introduction of a statewide income tax, a move long thought impossible in Alaska’s notoriously libertarian political climate. [links added]

The gerrymandered Alaska Senate is still solidly Republican, so those changes in the law had to come by referendum. But those referendum victories say something about where the voters are. Trump may have beaten Clinton handily, but at lower levels of politics the state is looking more purple all the time.

How did that happen? Politico credits three young men with engineering the turnaround over the last six years: Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (also profiled by Ozy), Forrest Dunbar, and John-Henry Heckendorn. Their strategy doesn’t follow either the Berner or the Clintonite model, though it contains pieces of both. Here are the key elements, as I glean them from several articles.

  • Run everywhere. The typical approach of the Democratic establishment has been to identify key swing districts and focus resources on them, rather than shotgun their efforts all over the map. The exception was Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, which arguably played a role in the big Democratic wins of 2006 and 2008. (In 2004, Kreiss-Tomkins was a teen-age Deaniac.) Focusing on key districts overestimates the predictability of politics. (No sensible Democrat would have wasted his effort by running for the Senate in Alabama, but Doug Jones did and now he’s a senator.) What’s more, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for long-term failure: Every time you fail to run a serious campaign, it becomes harder to argue that the district is winnable in the next election.
  • Think locally. The other half of running everywhere is that you can’t manufacture cookie-cutter candidates in your state (or national) headquarters and expect them to win everywhere. Local candidates need to be able to shape their own messages around the party’s deeper values rather than sell a cast-in-stone national agenda to a district that doesn’t want it. A gun-control candidate, for example, is not going to win in rural Alaska, where almost everybody hunts. (That doesn’t mean you give up on gun control as a party. But you can’t make gun control a litmus test for that district.) Other Democratic values, though, might be viable to those same voters: Alaskan outdoorsmen are in the perfect position to see the impact of climate change and the cost of letting oil companies do whatever they want. A district with few blacks may not care about Black Lives Matter, but the rights of native peoples might be a major issue.
  • Don’t settle for the people who want to run, find the people who ought to run. The biggest mistake of the Democratic establishment is to favor candidates with political experience. They’ve paid their dues and they know how the game is played, but they may not be who the voters are looking for. Kreiss-Tomkins, Dunbar, and Heckendorn put a huge amount of effort into examining individual districts, finding people who are locally admired, and convincing them to run.
  • Where Democrats can’t win, support independents. In some districts, the Democratic brand is so toxic that putting a (D) next to a candidate’s name makes him or her unelectable. In those districts, you want to get the Democrat out of the race and rally around a candidate who can credibly run as an independent. (In Alaska, the AFL-CIO signed on to this strategy, and the Democratic Party ultimately came around.) If the person who would best represent this district used to be a moderate Republican, so be it. Better a candidate who will vote with you on half the issues than far-right candidate who will be against you on everything.
  • Make the nuts-and-bolts of politics as easy as you can for neophyte candidates. There’s a lot to know about running for office that has nothing to do with governing: raising money, getting media attention, organizing events, dealing with election-law paperwork. You can’t recruit new-face candidates unless you can help them leap those hurdles. Ideally, this is what the state and national party organizations would do, but it rarely works out that way. In Alaska, Heckendorn set up a political consulting firm whose mission was to “franchise” a statewide model of how a person without political experience could run for office.

One more thing. I didn’t find any example of Kreiss-Tompkins, Dunbar, or Heckendorn saying exactly this, but to me it fits right in with what they’re doing: Focus on goals, not techniques.

To explain what I mean by that, let’s talk about health care. I happen to support a Medicare-for-All model, but that’s not my primary position. What I care about primarily is the goal, not the technique: When Americans get sick, they should get the medical care they need, and they shouldn’t go bankrupt paying for it.

I support Medicare-for-All because to me it looks like the most effective technique for achieving that goal. But in truth, I don’t really care how it happens, and I don’t think voters do either. The RomneyCare/ObamaCare approach was to build on the existing crazy-quilt of coverage — employer-based insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, government-subsidized exchanges, CHIP, the VA, and so on — and keep expanding it until everybody is covered. If that gets us to the goal, I’m happy. The British approach is essentially the-VA-for-All, with the government running hospitals and hiring doctors. That could work too. When conservatives talk about market-based approaches, I’m skeptical, and I wonder if they’re entering the discussion in good faith. But if they are, I’m listening. If there really is some way the free market can play a role in getting everybody the care they need without forcing people into bankruptcy, I’m open to it.

Summing up. In order to turn things around, the Alaska model says that Democratic Party needs to focus on providing services to people who can win, not on electing its own insiders. It needs to recruit new faces who have their own accomplishments and stories to tell, not run the same people who have lost before. It needs to run everywhere, even in districts that look hopeless, and give local candidates the freedom to shape a message that best represents their districts — even if that message leaves out the word “Democrat”. It needs to project national values and goals, but not tie every candidate to specific pieces of legislation that local voters might hate.

Both Berners and Clintonites will find things to like and things not to like about that strategy. In some races, it will lead to progressive candidates winning by raising millennial fervor. In others, centrist candidates will win by converting former Republicans, like suburban Christian Moms and gun-toting environmentalists. What both factions ought to like about this strategy, though, is that there’s a glimmering example of how it can work.

What Did Virginia Teach Us?

For weeks on this blog, I’d been fretting about the Virginia governor’s race. If we were really in the midst of a Democratic surge that might turn 2018 into a wave election, Virginia shouldn’t have been this tense. Hillary had won there last year (by 5%, aided by a Virginian VP) and Democrats already held the governorship (thanks to Terry McAuliffe’s 2.6% win in 2013). Maybe that didn’t point to a landslide, but surely we couldn’t lose.

Or maybe we could, or at least it looked that way for a while. Polls were averaging out to a 3% Northam advantage, with some showing Gillespie ahead. And Gillespie had been closing with a disturbingly Trumpish message: Northam was going to let Hispanic criminal gangs run wild in Virginia, while Gillespie would protect the monuments celebrating all those heroic Confederate defenders of slavery. And kneeling athletes were relevant somehow.

If he pulled off the upset, Gillespie’s campaign seemed likely to become a model for Republican candidates to keep on Trumping in 2018: Count on fear and race-baiting to bring the base out to vote, and hope Democrats stay home.

It didn’t work out that way. Northam won by 9%. That’s a big enough win to keep the 2018-wave narrative intact: Northam didn’t just repeat Hillary’s showing, he nearly doubled her margin, and more than tripled McAuliffe’s.

But beyond the horse-race aspect, what did we learn?

White identity politics isn’t enough. The clearest lesson is for Republicans: In 2016, Trumpism had two pieces, not just one. Yes, white Christian identity politics was a big chunk of it, but economic populism was another big chunk.

It wasn’t all just building a wall and banning Muslims and winking at the alt-Right. Trump was also going to bring factory and mining jobs back to America’s small towns. He had a healthcare plan that was going to “take care of everybody … the government’s going to pay for it”. He was going to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He would get tough with China and Mexico — not because the Chinese and Mexicans aren’t white, but because they had perpetrated “the greatest jobs theft in the history of the world“.

Trump voters who were attracted to his white Christian identity politics should still be happy with him. He put Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, he’s got ICE out terrorizing Hispanic immigrants, and he never misses a chance to stand up to ungrateful blacks, defend the Confederacy, or blame Muslims or immigrants (or best of all, Muslim immigrants) for America’s problems.

But the economic-populist side of Trumpism hasn’t been seen since the election.

Health care bills he endorsed would cut billions in Medicaid funding over the years, his tax plan is a bonanza for the wealthy, the budget the GOP passed to facilitate that tax plan cuts Medicare by billions, and Trump’s own budget proposal included billions in Social Security cuts.

Buy American, hire American” has proven to be an empty slogan, and the executive order that supposedly implements it has no real substance. (Not even Trump’s own companies live by it.) Tough on China? Not so much. In April he broke his promise to label China a currency manipulator, and when he went there this week.

Mr. Trump projected an air of deference to China that was almost unheard-of for a visiting American president. Far from attacking Mr. Xi on trade, Mr. Trump saluted him for leading a country that he said had left the United States “so far behind.” He said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy.

This is, in part, a consequence of his saber-rattling against North Korea: He needs China’s cooperation there, so he’ll have to give in to them on trade.

And Mexico? Let’s just say that they’re not paying for the Wall. Renegotiating NAFTA is proving to be a lot more difficult than just “getting tough” and making bigger demands. If the agreement winds up getting scrapped, the big loser will be American farmers and precisely those rural communities that were counting on Trump for help.

Given that Trump himself has abandoned economic populism, the only “Trumpism” left for Gillespie to adopt was the white Christian identity part. And while that stuff is really powerful for some Americans, those people aren’t a majority. Not in Virginia and not in America as a whole.

I’m not sure how Republicans running in 2018 can deal with this problem. What the Republican majority in Congress has been all about (with Trump’s blessing, for the most part) is traditional Republican trickle-down economics. 2016 Trumpism was unified by an I’m-going-to-protect-you theme, protecting his voters on the one hand from a future where white Christians are a minority, and on the other from a convergence of foreign competition, corporations who have no loyalty to their workers, and economic trends moving against them. A 2018 of message of “I protected you from Mexicans and Muslims and transgender people in your bathroom, but I tried to take away your health insurance and gave your boss a big tax cut” doesn’t hang together nearly as well.

Unity, calmness, confidence. On the Democratic side, the lesson is fuzzier, but I think there’s still something to learn.

The progressive/centrist split in the national party tried to project itself onto the primary, but it never really took. Superficially, the Bernie-backed progressive (Tom Perrillo) lost to the establishment candidate (Northam), but the divide between them was never that large, and Perrillo supported Northam in the general election seemingly without reservations. Northam, in turn, endorsed a number of progressive causes: $15 minimum wage, free community college, restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time, and Medicaid expansion.

Northam took advantage of his comforting image as a pediatrician, and talked calmly about jobs, healthcare, and education. He appealed to traditional Virginia gentility, saying of Trump “We’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”, and (on just about every issue) talking about all Virginians working together to find solutions. That, of course, is a traditional political bromide, but it contrasts nicely with scare-mongering about immigrants.

In part, Northam did that because he had to — it’s hard to picture him shouting and rabble-rousing. But I wonder if that isn’t the right approach: progressive positions on issues, expressed calmly in terms of traditional American values like justice and fairness, rather than in a way that makes them sound radical. Northam’s manner projected confidence that our problems are solvable if we work together — and not solvable if we let people take advantage of our worst instincts and turn us against each other.

Whatever approach Democratic candidates take in 2018, it needs to take advantage of the hole in the Republican message: The vague economic populism of 2016 was a mirage. Republicans have been telling white Christians who to blame for their problems, but not offering viable solutions.

Where it shows up, and where it doesn’t. The exit polls can be sliced and diced all sorts of ways, but here’s what jumped out at me: Gillespie slightly exceeded Trump’s totals among low-income households (under $50K annually) and high-income households (over $100K), but Northam clobbered him among middle-income households. In the $50-$100K bracket, Trump edged Clinton 49%-47% in 2016, but Northam beat Gillespie 57%-41% Tuesday. That’s what turned an overall 5% Clinton margin into a 9% Northam margin.

So I went back and looked at the 2013 exit polls: The Republican candidate won the $50K-$99K households 51%-43%, almost the exact mirror image of the 2017 result. So maybe this is a trend.

I could imagine a lot of reasons: Maybe the middle-income people who changed their minds have health insurance, but aren’t sure they can keep it. They value education, but have to depend on the public schools. They plan to send their kids to college, but aren’t sure they’ll be able afford it. They’re not angry and looking for someone to blame, but they are worried and looking for a reason to hope.

I don’t have a good explanation for why the low-income households haven’t shifted. Clinton carried them 53%-41%, and Northam’s margin was about the same: 56%-43%. Maybe a more dramatic message would have helped Northam here; I don’t know.

RCP’s Ross Baird found another interesting way to look at the results: He examined Virginia’s five “pivot counties”, counties that went Obama-Obama-Trump in the last three presidential elections: They were dead heats Tuesday. What most pivot counties have in common, he says, is that “more businesses have died there than have been born … despite a net increase in entrepreneurial activity across the country since the end of the Great Recession.”

That suggests that Democrats still haven’t completed the sale. Trump may have lost his shine, but there are still Obama voters Democrats aren’t reaching.