In politics, corruption is often presumed to be so much of a tradition and so pervasive that at times we become inured to it. As my father is wont to say, “They’re all crooks,” before summarily ending all seeing of, hearing about, and speaking about politics until further notice like the three wise monkeys of lore.
As it frequently manifests itself, the political response to alleged malfeasance on the part of one or more public figures involves members of the opposing party decrying these heinous acts and demanding accountability. The hubris! The outrage! This is unacceptable! That is, until one of the party’s own is caught with his or her proverbial hand in the cookie jar. Then, as the saying goes, all bets are off.
In my home state of New Jersey, meanwhile, even with understanding of a tradition of backroom deals and other less-than-transparent arrangements, one set of circumstances involving misuse of the state’s economic resources is shocking if only because of the breadth of the scandal. Moreover, the resulting war between factions of the same party is striking for its rancor.
At issue are millions of dollars in tax incentives included as part of more than $11 billion facilitated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority under Gov. Chris Christie. An audit of the EDA by the state comptroller published earlier this year found that “New Jersey’s lavish corporate subsidy programs operate with little oversight and no evidence of spurring economic growth.” Of particular issue, especially as the news has grabbed headlines from local outlets and even national publications like Politico, are the findings that businesses and individuals linked to insurance executive and Democratic Party boss George Norcross benefited disproportionately from the tax breaks authorized by the NJEDA.
As this opinion piece from the New York Daily News editorial board explains, Norcross is South Jersey, “controlling just about everything in and out of sight. One of his brothers is a congressman; another is managing partner at a big law firm. A solid bloc of loyal state senators are always ready to bend the family’s way.” In other words, Norcross has connections—to put it mildly.
That he would leverage his influence to steer economic benefits to those personal connects is, while again not terribly surprising, nonetheless remarkable for its brazenness and its magnitude. An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that of the $1.6 billion in tax incentives greenlit for capital investment in Camden, Norcross’s hometown, $1.1 billion went to Norcross’s insurance brokerage, his affiliated businesses and charities, and clients of his brother Philip’s law and lobbying firms. Camden also received better than four times as many tax breaks as the combined benefits provided to other designated “growth zones.”
With all due respect to the city of Camden, New Jersey’s poster child for the ravages of income and wealth inequality and thus a city in legitimate need of investment, this reaping of the lion’s share of the EDA’s incentives seems excessive with respect to the way in which it was achieved. It’s especially egregious when considering claims by activists and community developers that the employees coming to work in Camden from the suburbs aren’t really contributing to the local economy. They’re not living there. They’re not spending there. They’re out by five each day, effectively rendering downtown Camden a ghost town. This does not appear to be what the NJEDA’s designs are all about.
In response to findings of abuse of its programs, Gov. Phil Murphy, Christie’s successor, created a special task force to investigate the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. This prompted George Norcross, the good Democrat that he is, to do the logical thing: sue. That’s right—Norcross alleges in a suit that Murphy “unlawfully empowered the task force with powers he did not possess and authorized the retention and payment of New York lawyers who proceeded to commence and conduct an investigation in violation of multiple provisions of New Jersey law.”
To the degree Norcross’s case has any merit is beyond me. From the outside looking in, the aspect of the task force’s lawyers allegedly not being able to practice law in the state of New Jersey could be problematic. There are also questions about what the task force is able to legally do (according to Norcross’s legal team, it can’t issue or enforce subpoenas) and who it can investigate (Norcross and Co. claim that because he isn’t a public official, he is out of bounds). In addition, the plaintiffs in the case have stated they have “made an enormous investment in the revitalization of Camden” and have been “falsely” accused of misconduct.
Norcross’s and his cronies’ purported innocence notwithstanding, their protestations strike one as weak sauce. Realistically, their arguments against Murphy’s task force involve technicalities such as legal standing, not a resounding repudiation of their guilt. And if Norcross’s motives seem petty or suspicious related to this lawsuit, what do we say about fellow Democratic politician Stephen Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate since 2010 and someone backed by Norcross?
And this is before we get to other criticism of Sweeney for his steering of the state Democratic Party as one of its leaders. Doing a 180 from his position during Christie’s tenure as New Jersey governor, Sweeney has backed off his support of a millionaires tax now that Murphy is in the governor’s seat, echoing Republican talking points. To boot, his proposed “Path to Progress” initiatives have been slammed by public workers who stand to see cuts in their health care and pensions to pay for them while the pensions of other public workers (notably firefighters, law enforcement, and judicial employees) are evidently sacrosanct. That Sweeney has few qualms about bypassing Gov. Murphy to achieve these goals would only seem to speak volumes about dysfunction among New Jersey Democrats.
In all, these events paint New Jersey politics, already murky in its expression, in a harsh light, not to mention they cast a pall over a key victory for Democrats in the Trump era in Gov. Murphy’s triumph over Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. On top of this, they underscore a more global tension between establishment politicians and progressives who are new to the political process or otherwise can be characterized as “outsiders,” a divide which tends to get played up for effect by news media to generate sales and clicks but one that does exist and which shines a spotlight on the roadblocks leftists face from actors on both sides of the political fence in advancing their ideals.
It’s a conflict worth fighting, though everyday voters are still caught in the middle, chiefly poorer New Jerseyans, women, and people of color, distinctions which recognizably aren’t mutually exclusive of one another. If we’re assigning blame, however, the best place to start might be with the persons of George Norcross and Steve Sweeney. After all, they’ve been playing this game for a longer period of time.
It admittedly feels strange to talk about Phil Murphy as the “progressive” politician of the bunch here given that his track record leading up to becoming an elected official wasn’t exactly a grassroots organizer’s dream. Murphy, a Goldman Sachs alum, bought his ticket to the gubernatorial general election by opening his personal checkbook and donating generously to the various county wings of the Democratic Party in New Jersey.
Before that, as a prominent Democratic Party donor, his finances were also key to his securing an ambassadorship to Germany under Barack Obama, a tenure that saw him have to weather a diplomatic storm after his negative comments about Angela Merkel and other German officials were made public as part of WikiLeaks’s U.S. diplomatic cables leak. With the memory of Jon Corzine, another ex-Goldman Sachs who ended his run as governor at a mere 33% approval rating, fresh in the minds of New Jerseyans, there was every reason to be wary of Murphy. Especially when his campaign strategy appeared to be little more than running against Donald Trump, not his actual competitor in the gubernatorial race, and his ads involved repeated promises that he “doesn’t owe the insiders anything” and that he’s “got our back”—all delivered with a cheesy smile.
Heretofore, though, the results have been better than perhaps many would’ve expected. Murphy signed a bill banning offshore drilling in state waters. He has also signed into law legislation to automatically register voters at Motor Vehicle Commission offices and other agencies, to close the gender pay gap, and to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024, among others, and his Cabinet has been the most diverse in the state’s history.
As with any administration, there has been room for criticism. Murphy has taken a lot of heat from environmentalists for his failure to more strongly oppose the construction of a proposed natural gas power plant in the Meadowlands amid a push for a more robust commitment to renewable energy sources. In addition, Murphy’s administration met with scandal after Al Alvarez, one-time chief of staff of the Schools Development Authority, was accused of rape by fellow Murphy campaign staffer Katie Brennan (now chief of staff of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency) but officials couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say who had hired him or how he was allowed to remain on the payroll for months after the accusations. Not a highlight of Murphy’s tenure, to be sure.
By and large, however, Gov. Murphy has been a marked improvement over Gov. Christie, who, like Gov. Corzine, ended his governorship in ignominy. Going back to the New York Daily News‘s editorial on his spat with George Norcross, too, if their opinion is any indication, it’s the latter who is the fly in the ointment. From the piece:
Phil Murphy is the elected governor of New Jersey and he’s asking crucial questions about who got what in tax breaks from the state Economic Development Authority.
Norcross doesn’t like it one bit, but he can go suck an egg, because the people’s money demands an honest accounting.
That’s really the crux of the matter. Murphy is an elected official accountable to taxpayers. Norcross is not and has materially benefited from the public’s contributions. This is a serious subject deserving more than Norcross’s legal team’s attempts at an end-around and warnings by Camden mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran that Murphy is not welcome in the city until he stops “attacking” it. Think about that. He’s the governor of New Jersey and you’re telling him to stay out. That’s quite a show of chutzpah from South Jersey Democrats toward a member of their own party.
Ditto for Steve Sweeney. He has protected himself better in terms of public opinion relative to Norcross, but as progressives might argue, he’s playing hardball with the budget and advocating for cuts for certain public sector employees in the name of “responsibility” when significant approval exists for raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and legalizing marijuana, potentially viable sources of revenue. Sweeney is making a power play here, seeking to take advantage of Murphy’s rising disapproval from moderate voters. But he is out of step with public opinion on these issues and risks overplaying his hand in advance of a possible state government shutdown this summer, particularly when considering his past support for such a tax during the Christie era.
Political figures should be held accountable regardless of experience and party affiliation. This applies to Phil Murphy, at the top of the New Jersey hierarchy, but equally so to “power brokers” like George Norcross, Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. In an age in which people-powered solutions to political dilemmas are in increasing demand, we don’t need a political machine dominated by a few to dictate our future.
Though you probably don’t need a reminder, in 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Despite getting fewer votes than Hillary Clinton overall, Trump won enough states—and the right states, at that—to secure victory under the current system. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s lack of experience in public office, his moral failings, and his platform predicated on demonization of “the other” were negligible next to their dislike of Hillary Clinton and her perceived corruption.
Pundits and average voters alike (rightly) have criticized this viewpoint in the endless postmortem dissection of the election to follow. But the notion remains that Americans, jaded about the country’s politics and/or susceptible to political rhetoric, viewed these candidates on par with one another. This, despite Clinton’s obviously superior comprehension of D.C.’s workings and her message—however genuine—that “love trumps hate.” Trump’s triumph seemed to be a clear signal to establishment politicians that voters are fed up with the status quo and are willing to roll the dice on an unpolished outsider, even if it risks further damaging the institutions they regard as broken.
It’s 2018 now and the midterms are fast approaching. As evidenced by the race for Bob Menendez’s seat in the Senate, though, little has changed in the Democrats’ approach to winning elections. At a time when winning back the House and/or Senate is a priority for the Democratic Party, it bears wondering whether history will repeat itself and the Dems will find themselves on the losing end once more, even with apparent momentum.
First, a little background re Menendez. Back in June, in a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about how Menendez was set to garner the Democratic Party nomination for New Jersey’s Senate seat up for grabs this November, and how his nomination serves as a symbol of how “calcified” the party really is. For Greenwald and numerous New Jerseyans, the issue with Menendez, who is seeking a third term in the Senate and is a veteran of Congress of 26 years, is his—how shall I put this?—questionable attention to ethics.
As Greenwald details, the public integrity unit of the Obama administration’s Justice Department began prosecution of Sen. Menendez in 2015, bringing him up on a dozen federal corruption and bribery charges. Allegedly, Menendez accepted lavish gifts and donations from friend and supporter Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist, in exchange for helping Melgen resolve disputes with federal health agencies, secure contracts, and obtain visas for three of his female “associates.”
Ultimately, the case against Menendez was dismissed because of a hung jury, but as Greenwald characterizes this situation, the New Jersey senator benefited from federal bribery statutes diluted “to the point of virtual impotence” by the Supreme Court over the years. Without the presence of a “smoking gun,” as several jurors in the case cited in their refusal to convict, convictions of public officials are “close to impossible to obtain.” The Trump DOJ, as apparently litigious and vindictive as it is, opted not to re-try Menendez. All of this occurred amid Menendez receiving a public admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting and failing to disclose gifts, effectually bringing discredit to a legislative body that hasn’t been all too credible of late, especially in the minds of everyday Americans.
And yet, as Greenwald explains, Menendez’s fellow Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, then-governor-elect Phil Murphy, state senate president Steve Sweeney, then-incoming State Assembly president Craig Coughlin, and influential party leader George Norcross, were quick to rally around him. Thus, with an advantage in party support and finances, any primary challenge was all but a non-starter.
It bears highlighting that Greenwald criticizes more than just Menendez’s ability to skirt convictions owing to lax bribery statutes, and that his fault-finding is indicative of larger reservations about the Democratic Party on a national level. For one, as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Menendez is an influential and outspoken Iran hawk, and during George W. Bush’s tenure, he voted with Republicans to authorize the Bush-Cheney Military Commissions Act, which later would be deemed unconstitutional. Menendez also has been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and for his trouble, has received donations from AIPAC supporters and officials, including significant sums for the costs of his legal defense.
Greenwald sums up his case against Menendez thusly:
This is how calcified the Democratic Party is: They even unite behind an incumbent who is drowning in sleaze and corruption, who was just “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose legal defense was funded by far-right figures, and who has used his senior leadership role to repeatedly join with the Bush-Cheney and right-wing GOP factions against his own party’s supposed positions. Not only do they unite behind him, but they ensure that no primary challenge can even happen — they deny their own voters the right to decide if they want Menendez — by making it impossible for any such challengers to raise money from funders who rely on the largesse of Democratic officeholders and who thus, do not want to run afoul of their decreed preferences.
Whether New Jerseyans outside the progressive vanguard are fully aware of Bob Menendez’s profile as a U.S. senator is a matter of debate. His very public corruption charges, on the other hand, are fresh in the minds of voters, and likely explain why Menendez performed relatively poorly against Lisa McCormick, a virtual unknown, in the Democratic Party primary. It also likely explains to a large extent why a recent Stockton University (GO OSPREYS!) poll has the race between Menendez and his Republican opponent Bob Hugin essentially in a dead heat.
So, who is Bob Hugin? Hugin grew up in Union City, NJ, and attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, later earning an MBA from University of Virginia. He also served as an active duty infantry officer in the 70s and 80s, and a reserve officer after that. In terms of his professional life, Hugin has worked at J.P. Morgan, and most recently, spent close to two decades with Celgene Corporation, a biotechnology company which manufactures drugs for cancer and other chronic illnesses.
As for Hugin’s positions on the issues, among other things, he supports the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, increased domestic production of oil and natural gas, opposing “sanctuary cities” and securing our borders, enhancing our vetting process for immigrants, increased military spending, school choice, extraditing Assata Shakur/Joanne Chesimard as part of relations with Cuba, and accountability for North Korea given any denuclearization agreements. Much of Hugin’s platform, meanwhile, lacks specificity, particularly when, say, addressing New Jersey’s finances or the state’s health care. While he may appear more socially moderate than someone like Donald Trump, his stances are, on the whole, generic conservative Republican.
Moreover, Hugin is not without unsavory elements in his past. At Princeton, he fought antidiscrimination protection for gays, and later opposed making an all-male eating club co-ed, describing a lawsuit at the time to overturn the gender exclusivity policy as “politically correct fascism.” Hugin says his views have “evolved” since then. Additionally, as CEO of Celgene, Hugin oversaw significant price increases in cancer drugs. Hugin and the company have defended these increases as necessary to offset expenses, but consumer advocates have accused them of “gaming the system” to prevent generics from reaching the market and artificially keeping revenues high. In an era when executive behavior is under increasing scrutiny, this is not a good look.
For all Bob Hugin’s baggage, however, given how ethically compromised Bob Menendez is perceived to be, it’s hard for him to connect in his attacks on Hugin’s character in a meaningful way. How can one point fingers about the other’s greed when he himself was accused of accepting lavish gifts? Even the indignation about the excesses of Big Pharma seems misplaced considering Menendez has received over $900,000 from the pharmaceutical industry over the course of his legislative career. These monies include 2012 donations from Celgene employees; Menendez was third-highest in Congress in donations from Celgene employees that election cycle. Bob, meet Bob. Pot, meet kettle.
It is no surprise that nearly all of the content of the political ads between Hugin and Menendez has been negative, attack-oriented fare rather than substantive reasons to vote for either candidate. As it concerns the latter individual, the strategy seems to be a shrug and a “take me as I am” attitude, much as it was with Hillary Clinton and the outrage about her E-mails and other scandals, however disproportionately they may have figured into the 2016 election. For most Democratic voters this election cycle, it means biting the proverbial bullet and casting their ballot for Menendez or staying home and risking losing a Senate seat to the Republicans. Electorally speaking, it’s the equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place.
In making allusions to Clinton vs. Trump, I recognize that different factors were in play than with Menendez vs. Hugin. Though Hillary and her supporters might’ve been quick to accuse her critics of sexism, gender bias almost certainly had an impact on the race. There also hasn’t been anything close to the magnitude of what happened with James Comey and his fateful letter to Congress—though it’s still early, mind you. Plus, there’s the obvious contrast in the levels of the races being run; Clinton/Trump was a national race for the presidency, while Menendez/Hugin is a state race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. For what it’s worth, Bob Hugin (thankfully) isn’t Donald Trump, to boot.
Differences aside, the essence of the conflict for potential Democratic voters is the same: as with Clinton and Trump, an experienced Democratic Party politician may lose to a Republican with no history of holding public office who touts his ability to create jobs (which he had to do as a function of running a business) as a crowning achievement. In Bob Menendez’s case, it’s particularly bad given a) New Jersey tends to vote “blue,” b) the president, a Republican, is largely unpopular, and c) the state just lived through two terms of Republican Governor Chris Christie, also largely unpopular.
I’m not suggesting it should be a walk-over for Menendez necessarily, and you may well dispute the predictive accuracy of the Stockton University poll or any similar poll. As some observers might argue, however, Menendez and his campaign waited a while to get into the fray with political advertisements, allowing Bob Hugin to strike first. In a blue state like New Jersey, Bob Menendez would be expected to have a lead, even if slight. An effective tie is vaguely embarrassing, and is downright disturbing to those leaning left with visions of “flipping” the House and Senate.
I’m also not suggesting Democrats, independents, and others with qualms about Menendez should necessarily choose otherwise or just stay home either. While I might strongly suggest that my fellow New Jerseyans not vote for Hugin, their vote is their business. Should Hugin end up as the victor, though, blame should be placed primarily on the shoulders of Bob Menendez and his campaign, not his constituents. The onus should be on the candidate to make the case to voters why they should choose him or her, rather than accusing or shaming voters for their choices. Sure, greater turnout should be encouraged. Pointing the finger at average voters who have to work and/or may not have much concern for politics seems like a poor tack to take, meanwhile, notably when both parties are yet more unpopular than individual politicians.
At any rate, voters in New Jersey and other states deserve better than to feel forced to cast their ballots for candidates they feel hard-pressed to endorse without meaningful and robust primary challenges and without room for serious debate. And they shouldn’t have to worry they are giving their implicit consent and reinforcing the bad political strategy of the major political parties with their vote. In the grand scheme of things, Bob Menendez is just one candidate in one race. But his situation is representative of a larger dysfunction within American party politics that beckons substantive reform.
I get it: Phil Murphy is probably going to win the Democratic Party primary in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race. As Graham Vyse, writing for New Republic tells it, “A Former Goldman Sachs Executive Is Running Away With This Year’s Most Important Race for Democrats.” Citing Quinnipiac poll data, he notes that Murphy was 17 points ahead of John Wisniewski, his closest competitor, as of last month, and even with more than half of voters polled identifying as undecided, that’s a significant margin given the primary election is now less than a month away. Indeed, the consensus opinion from experts seems to be that the race for the Democratic Party nomination is Murphy’s race to lose, and as Vyse muses, there is as much to say for him as there is to say against his rivals.
Though candidates like Wisniewski and Jim Johnson are painting themselves as progressive alternatives, the article tells of Phil Murphy as someone who agrees at least in principle with progressives on a number of issues, including a $15 minimum wage, improved environmental protections, a more progressive tax system, more responsible banking, and stronger gun control regulations. Aside from his stated policy stances, reference is even made to his personality and his willingness to shake hands and take selfies with everyone in a given venue. Moreover, with Democrats in control of both the State Assembly and State Senate, and with party members nationally struggling to win races at the gubernatorial level of late, it is argued that for the Democrats, as “desperate” as they are, and with Murphy being a “sufficiently progressive” candidate, “maybe it’s just as well” that the kind of progressive spirit that won Bernie Sanders such popularity among young voters hasn’t quite taken hold in New Jersey and that being a former Goldman Sachs doesn’t disqualify him from winning the race. A win is a win, right?
Maybe I’m being a bit naïve here, but what exactly does it mean to be “sufficiently progressive?” Does that mean you, say, support only the decriminalization of marijuana as opposed to its legalization? Are you against fracking only on weekends and holidays? Do you think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad but consider NAFTA in its current form “a’ight?” The notion of a candidate being sufficiently progressive is quite a distinction for Graham Vyse and others to be making, not least of which because it is a subjective assessment. By this token, the idea of sufficient progressivism would appear to be dependent, to a large extent, on one’s circumstances and where he or she fares in the polls. During the 2016, Hillary Clinton repeatedly tried to distinguish herself from her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders by referring to herself as a “progressive who gets things done.” In this context, “sufficiently progressive” would appear to mean progressive enough that she can draw enough support from Sanders supporters and independents without alienating prominent donors or losing her the race. Well, um, it was a nice idea while it lasted.
While not of the magnitude as a presidential election, once again, with the New Jersey gubernatorial election, we have a situation where the Democratic Party nomination is all but assured (in this case, for Phil Murphy), and projections indicate Democrats should carry the day come November. Of course, the specifics are a little different with the race for New Jersey’s next governor, as rather than picking a successor to Barack Obama, a man who, through no conscious effort of his own, inspired feelings of division, New Jerseyans will be choosing someone to replace Chris Christie, whose approval ratings are in the dumps, whose legacy is tainted by Bridgegate, who failed badly in his bid to win the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination—spending a good bit of time away from the state of New Jersey in the process, mind you—and who has since become more or less a shill for Donald Trump, the President who evidently denigrates the office he holds at every turn. In addition, New Jersey tends to vote blue, as they did in this most recent presidential election, coming out for Hillary at a clip of around 55% to Trump’s 41%. There’s no chance that a GOP candidate can upset Murphy, right?
Pardon my cynicism, but wasn’t Clinton supposed to be a shoo-in with Trump’s campaign in disarray and with all the things he did and said leading up to the election that were supposed to disqualify him? Sure, FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress about re-opening the investigation into Hillary’s finances and revelations about the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were contributing factors in her electoral defeat. I mean, just ask her—she’ll tell you. Still, complacency from a campaign and its supporters alike can be a difference-maker for the associated candidate, and while Kim Guadagno, the presumptive front-runner on the GOP ticket in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, is not an odds-on favorite based primarily on her association with Christie as his lieutenant governor, to start coasting at this point can be dangerous. We saw the unexpected happen in the United Kingdom when Brexit referendum voters opted—narrowly, but still—to Leave the European Union. We may yet see it if Marine Le Pen manages to upend Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election. To reiterate, the New Jersey gubernatorial race is not of the same echelon as a national election, and the details are different, notably concerning the incumbents in each instance.
All this aside, and even if his primary victory is all but assured, to think that Phil Murphy is unassailable in the general election may be an ultimately specious mentality for Democrats to take in advance of November. Back in January, Alan J. Steinberg, writing for The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey-based newspaper, opined that Kim Guadagno isn’t such a dark horse candidatevis-à-vis Murphy. As Steinberg reasons, “conventional wisdom” dictates that Murphy should win based New Jersey’s history as a Democratic state and the guilty-by-association political albatross hanging around the neck of his likely Republican rival. However, this, Steinberg argues, underestimates the positive assets Guadagno brings to the table as a communicator, as a political candidate aware of the issues facing her state, as a problem-solver, as a professional, and as a public official. Not only this, but Guadagno contrasts on a number of key points with Phil Murphy—and in ways that may work to her benefit.
For one, while Kim Guadagno owns a distinguished record of public service, Phil Murphy does not. As Alan Steinberg profiles, Murphy served without significant achievement in the roles of chair of former governor Richard Codey’s New Jersey Benefit Task Force and as U.S. ambassador to Germany. Indeed, Murphy’s greatest contributions seem to be directly to the Democratic Party in terms of securing donations as DNC National Finance Chair from 2006 to 2009—a role which he began by tapping into his list of contacts at his Ivy League alma maters and Goldman Sachs—and as a personal donor to various Democratic Party committees. That’s not even remotely the same thing. Moreover, while Guadagno may be burdened by her association with Chris Christie, Phil Murphy’s ties to Goldman Sachs stand to hurt him in the arena of public opinion. I’ll let Steinberg explain in his own words:
Murphy’s career successes were achieved at Goldman Sachs, the ultimate symbol of American oligarchy. And it is this perception of “Murphy, the Oligarch” that constitutes his ultimate political albatross, especially when it pertains to lifestyle.
Guadagno, her husband, New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Michael Guadagno, and their three sons live a decidedly nonostentatious middle-class lifestyle. By contrast, Murphy, his wife Tammy and their children, during his tenure as ambassador to Germany, lived a lifestyle right out of the former Robin Leach television series, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” This lifestyle was vividly portrayed by Agustin C. Torres in articles in the Jersey Journal.
We are living in an era of a growing anti-oligarchical mood, as evidenced by the surprising showing of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Murphy is well aware of this. The oligarchy issue could result in a low turnout for Murphy among Sanders voters.
Rank-and-file voters tend not to like rich candidates who throw their money around—who would’ve thought? Certainly, in the eyes of New Jersey progressives, the subject of how Murphy has used his finances has been a bone of contention. Back in June of 2016—almost a year-and-a-half before the gubernatorial election—Murphy’s first television ad began airing in the Garden State. As Democratic rival for the nomination Jim Johnson has highlighted, Murphy has already spent upwards of $10 million on his campaign before even getting to the primary, raising questions about his professed desire to institute campaign finance reform and, by virtue of this, his commitment to progressive values. For those aforementioned Sanders voters, this smacks of a candidate buying the nomination, a sore subject after Hillary Clinton, big-ticket fundraiser in her own right, had a network of support from Democratic leaders and superdelegates at her disposal as the race was just beginning. Even if the charge against Murphy is arguably somewhat overblown given he and Clinton, or for that matter, fellow Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine, are obviously not the same person, can you blame Sanders voters and other progressives for having such a strong reaction when getting money out of politics is one of their top concerns?
As a Sanders voter in my own right, the amount of money injected into the New Jersey gubernatorial race by Phil Murphy for Phil Murphy is not exactly endearing, nor is his legacy as a Goldman Sachs executive. I suppose I feel roughly the same way about this aspect of his personal history in advance of June’s primary as I did Hillary Clinton’s own connections to Goldman Sachs as a paid speaker in advance of the Democratic Party primary last year— a very, very well paid speaker. In fact, I still wonder what was so potentially damning within the transcripts of those speeches that she refuses to release them, like Donald Trump clutching to his tax returns like a baby to its mother. Concerning Murphy specifically, I also find it suspicious that various political and non-political—well, at least not expressly political—organizations have apparently been lining up for months to shower him with their endorsements. As with Clinton, there never seems to be proof of a quid pro quo, and in Murphy’s case, I don’t know that he did or even would donate to these organizations from his personal wealth for the purpose of securing much-desired public support. If anything, perhaps this says more about the state’s political landscape than it does about Phil Murphy, though to be fair, it’s not like he seems intent on bucking the trend.
And yet, over and over again, I keep hearing about how Phil Murphy is a good guy. In a November 2016 New York Times profile on Murphy written by David W. Chen and cited by Graham Vyse in his own article, he is depicted as a candidate who “oozes affability, remembers the tiniest details about people he has met and quickly owns up to his missteps.” He also has been engaging as a participant in town-hall-style political forums, actively involved in his campaign’s canvassing efforts across New Jersey, and the kind of guy who will shake hands with as many people as possible before walking out the door. He’s punctual. He worked his way up from a low household income. He has the backing of both Cory Booker and Robert Menendez. Maybe I’m wrong about Murphy. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Democratic groups in the state of New Jersey have so enthusiastically and so rapidly coalesced in backing him. Maybe I’m just being cynical for the sake of being cynical.
And yet. Irrespective of his finances, his history with Goldman Sachs, or his outward personality, I still have reservations about Phil Murphy as a candidate, and I’ll (finally) tell you why. Much as I’ve wondered how much national Democratic Party leadership “gets it” when it comes to owning up to strategic miscues (see also “Hillary Clinton, 2016 presidential campaign”) and forging a path forward for the party structurally (see also “Debbie Wasserman Schultz on grassroots candidates”), I wonder whether Murphy truly appreciates the unique challenges that face the state of New Jersey, and with this, whether he’s even running in a way that acknowledges he is campaigning for the seat of governor, and not something larger as his would-be predecessor Chris Christie did.
From that very first TV spot which aired back in June 2016, entitled “Honor,” Phil Murphy’s flair for the dramatic shines through. Standing in a small room full of people of different backgrounds, he talks about living paycheck to paycheck before putting himself through college, building a career, and learning how economies grow and create jobs. So he is running for governor of the state of New Jersey to reward the hard work of its constituents with better jobs, a higher minimum wage, and equal pay for equal work. And before proclaiming that he will have your back as New Jersey’s governor, he firmly boasts that he doesn’t owe the insiders anything. That’s Phil Murphy, progressive champion and political outsider for you. Please, please—all this applause is embarrassing!
Since then, though, the ads have continued, but with all the same fanfare and stock footage of smiling, industrious people, and yet few specifics on what he would accomplish beyond the platitudes he has already espoused. Special interest politics has failed our state. We’re going to grow the middle class. We need an economy that works for all of us. Make millionaires pay their fair share. Stop hedge fund managers from ripping us off. Affordable college. This is all great, but how? Beyond the formation of a public bank in the state of New Jersey, very little is said about what particular policies Murphy would effect if he were governor of the Garden State. The only thing I’m certain of is that Phil Murphy doesn’t owe the insiders anything, and that he’ll have our back—and that’s only because it has been drilled into my head with every commercial.
When he’s not not giving specifics, meanwhile, Phil Murphy is spending advertising money not to denounce his biggest Republican rival or even his biggest Democratic rival, but Donald Trump. Now, don’t get me wrong—I enjoy a good Trump-bashing as much as anyone; in fact, I do it pretty regularly on this blog. Still, I’m not running for governor—Phil Murphy is. As such, I feel like he should be speaking to Chris Christie’s failed leadership more than anyone else’s, if he indeed references anyone’s record outside his own. Here’s Exhibit B, a spot titled “Betrayed.” Yes, Donald Trump’s ramped-up immigration enforcement is a blight on our nation. Yes, “alternative facts” are stupid. Yes, deep down, I believe we are “better than this.” Unless we are ardent Trump supporters, however, we already know and subscribe to these ideas. Murphy isn’t telling us anything new, nor is he describing anything any other Democratic governor wouldn’t have to deal with. And he’s not talking enough about certain issues that are particularly relevant to New Jersey voters, including the serious pension shortfall facing the state, concerns about our transportation infrastructure, funding for schools and higher education alongside debates about school choice and testing, and the ever-present preoccupation with property taxes, consistently the highest in the nation. So, while Phil Murphy is busy defending us from the machinations of Donald Trump, who’s actually going to be fixing the problems he inherits from the Christie administration? The office of governor is a full-time job, in case you are unaware, Mr. Murphy, sir.
See—this is where not having a more competitive primary is potentially very dangerous, and beckons genuine reform. Democratic leaders in New Jersey, as they did for Hillary Clinton in the general election, view the quick consolidation of support across the state as an asset, as it shows a sign of strength for the party. For a significant portion of New Jerseyans, however, this is evidence of a political “machine” and of a “rigged” system, and this threatens to turn off these valuable voters for this election, if not longer. In turn, if Democrats and independents don’t come out in force for Murphy come November, and the supposed wide margin between him and Kim Guadagno or another GOP candidate doesn’t turn out to be the blowout many experts anticipate it will be, this “coasting until after the primaries” strategy could backfire. At any rate, it risks the prospect of starting to undo the havoc wrought by Chris Christie. You know, assuming there is a legitimate plan to do this beyond not owing the outsiders anything and having our back.
To bring this to a close, and to repeat, Phil Murphy may be more than the sum of his wealth and his experience in the financial sector, and may have a legitimate plan to deal with the various crises facing the state of New Jersey. In spite of what Graham Vyse and like-minded individuals may insist about him being “sufficiently progressive,” though, and as much as the Democrats could use a win at the state level, victory isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all when the wrong policies may not only be detrimental to voters, but may cost the party in the months and years to come. Jon Corzine’s tenure as governor ended in ignominy and scandal, paving the way for loudmouth Chris Christie to swagger his way to the head of New Jersey’s government. Chris Christie, given his obsequious loyalty to Donald Trump and the sheer brazenness behind the bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, is likewise carrying out the end of his term under a dark cloud of disgrace, and a bigger cloud at that. Eventually, Murphy is going to have show us something beyond rehearsed lines from his commercials and that cheesy smile he forces from time to time. If he doesn’t, he may find it hard to govern—if he even it makes it that far.
I consider my father to be an intelligent individual. Before recently retiring, he worked for several decades as an accountant, and toward the end of his gainful employment, he also served as a human resources director of sorts, absorbing most of the functions that a full-time, HR-exclusive professional would for a small business. He is quick-witted, has a good sense of humor, and continually tries to improve himself by challenging himself physically and mentally. With respect to politics, however, I feel his judgment lately is somewhat suspect, especially as it errs on the side of the conservative. My parents are both lifelong Democrats, and at one point, Dad even joked that he would vote for an ax murderer if he were a Democrat rather than a Republican. (My father does not deny outright that he said this, but he does not admit it either, and legitimately or not, claims not to remember this statement.)
With this personal political history in mind, it caused the rest of the family great concern earlier in the 2016 presidential campaign when Dad said he was considering voting for Donald Trump. For someone on the Republican ticket, Trump’s legacy as a conservative was notably lacking, so the idea that the family patriarch would be considering a vote for a GOP candidate was not immediately so alarming. His apparent support for Trump, a grade-A asshole, meanwhile, was. Mom, an avowed believer in Hillary Clinton, if for no other reason than wanting to see a woman become President, belabored the point whenever the election or politics came up. Dad responded by saying that he liked Trump because he was straightforward and “not a politician.” On this note, I agreed that politicians and politics as usual had justifiably driven resistance to “establishment” or “mainstream” figures within both parties, and thereby had helped fuel the billionaire’s appeal. But electing Donald Trump as President of the United States, I argued, was like, because you didn’t enjoy Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, burning down the whole library in protest. Even as a symbolic gesture, a vote for Trump was a vote for hate and a vote against reason and, you know, actually being qualified for one’s intended office.
Eventually, my father began to sour on Donald Trump, not so much because of his intended policies—or lack thereof—but mostly with respect to his denigration of women. As good as any reason not to cast a vote for the man, as far as I was concerned. To wit, I don’t know who Dad voted for this past November. All I know is that since the election and in the months since, every time a discussion of a remotely political nature has threatened to rear its head in our house, he has sought to put the kibosh on it, plaintively asking, “Do we have to talk about politics?” Accordingly, it is pretty rare that my father makes any political commentary unsolicited. (His social commentary is more regular, though no less disturbing, particularly as it concerns anti-feminist attitudes or criticisms of appeals to diversity and political correctness.)
One area where Dad has been notably vocal, though, and a point on which I patently disagree with him, is the subject of unions and other professional organizations. Whether it is because of his experience in the human resources realm or in spite of it, or even related to my mother’s dealings with union representation (Mom is a registered nurse), I can’t say for sure, but suffice it to say, Pops believes unions are “ruining this country.” Harsh words, but Dad is certainly not alone in his antipathy to these organizations. In 2013, Al Lewis, now-business editor of The Houston Chronicle and then-Dow Jones Newswires reporter, Wall Street Journal columnist, and writer for MarketWatch, explored America’s distaste for unions alongside their apparent acceptance or tacit compliance of many with standard operating procedure for corporations and the executives who manage them. Lewis describes the psychology of anti-union sentiment:
Unions…could counter many of the economic injustices that plague America. Unfortunately, unions have lost their power to do so. Union membership in the private sector is down to 6.6 percent of all workers, [a] Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed. In the public sector, 35.9 percent of all employees remain unionized.
This is why, as Americans, we often view unions as a cause of higher taxes. We also are still wondering where the mob buried former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. We sense a more subtle form of institutional corruption in the unions’ alignment with mostly Democratic politicians. We detest the extra layer of bureaucracy unions add to any workplace. And we suspect that it can kill business.
The pension liabilities some companies have amassed in past union negotiations simply blow our minds. And we are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers. So by now, most Americans have decided they don’t want to be in a union, even if the decline of unions correlates to the decline of the middle class.
The perception of union leaders as not merely working with political leaders, but for them or in cahoots with them, certainly would seem to work against acceptance of the abstract concept of unions in the United States, as does the image of the union leader earning a comparatively exorbitant salary next to the members of the organization he or she represents, or unions lobbying for their pensions even with many states and municipalities in a state of financial turmoil. More than mere politics or even morality, however, Al Lewis speaks to implicitly-held theories of leadership and who or what types of individuals are capable of leading groups of workers. “We are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers.”
Right there, we have a sense of the larger and more pervasive attitude toward those at the top of the hierarchy and those forming the base of the pyramid. Those at the top are presumed to have superior management and leadership skills, not to mention acumen in their given field. Those at the bottom are presumed to be deficient in such skills, drones born to follow rather than lead. Especially as it concerns trade professionals, there exists a stereotype of the blue-collar worker as fat, lazy, stupid, or all three. You know the idea—the plumber crouched over his work, his rear-end barely concealed by his briefs and sagging jeans. There is undoubtedly a perception gap when it comes to these two groups, a phenomenon further expounded upon by Lewis to conclude his piece:
Americans hate organized labor, but somehow they do not hate organized management. As the labor unions have declined, professional corporate managers have formed increasingly powerful guilds of their own. They belong to elite groups, such as the Business Roundtable or the Trilateral Commission, to name a couple. Many are even having a little cabal in Davos, Switzerland this week. What? You thought that was about improving the world? This is how they end up on each other’s boards, approving each others’ compensation packages.
In this subtle way, CEOs have built the most successful union in all of history. You ask a company why it pays its CEO so much, and the answer is always because it is what all the other CEOs get paid. All the other CEOs who sit on each others’ boards, that is.
It is the greatest spin job in all of economics and politics. When someone making $943 a week tries to organize, and fend for their own economic interests, Americans have been conditioned to call it socialism. But when someone making several hundred thousand dollars a week does it, they call it free enterprise.
The many, in other words, look up to the few, and as part of this aspirational model, look down upon their present station, or simply down upon those who they believe exist at a lower echelon than them. In the context of unions, when workers organize and try to buck the paradigm of the survival of the fittest paradigm, we have been conditioned to view it as a violation and an aberration rather than the way things should work. As Mr. Lewis intimates, somehow we have been led to associate the activities of professional organizations with greed and excess, or even asking for something undeserved, when executive compensation packages continue to reach obscene levels, even in the face of scandal. Simply put, the American people, by and large, seem to have it backwards when it comes to how they regard the balance of power in our society.
So, yes, likewise simply put, public support for unions has been on the decline, as has participation from workers in those professions who might stand to become or remain members. As of the date of publication of Al Lewis’s article, union membership was down to 11.3% of all workers, a level the author notes is the lowest the United States of America has seen since the Great Depression. Rarely are comparisons to the Great Depression ever a good thing for trends involving employment and labor. This historical perspective alongside current negative feelings about organized labor forms the backdrop for the much-politicized battle over the responsibilities and rights of workers in relation to unions, often correlating with party affiliation. Journalist and academic Thomas Edsall, in an op-ed appearing in The New York Times back in 2014, phrased this succinctly with the very title of his essay, “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions.” Edsall elaborates on the depth of the GOP’s war on unions as fueled by stronger conservatives within its ranks:
Republicans are willing to go to great lengths to weaken the union movement, especially at the state level. Even as the strength of organized labor as a whole declines, conservatives view unions that represent public sector employees, in particular, as anathema. They are desperate to gut the power of the 7.2 million organized government workers — who range from teachers, to clerks in the Department of Motor Vehicles, to social workers, public hospital employees, meat and poultry inspectors, road workers, property tax auditors and civil servants in general. These are the employees who populate the extensive bureaucracies that the right loathes.
Those familiar with the evolution of the Republican Party over the past few decades should not see this reality as much of a surprise. The GOP has become unflinchingly pro-business in its adoption of fiscally and socially conservative positions, to a fault and to the extent that they have sought to undermine regulations on corporations, other businesses, and whole industries (e.g. banking and finance) because they view them as bad for business. Unions, seen as a constraint of a different sort and emblematic of the type of bureaucracy conservatives always claim to want to bypass, are therefore a prime target for Republican lawmakers and state leaders. Three Republican governors in particular are cited for their anti-labor hostility and posturing in Edsall’s op-ed. The first is Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and early 2016 presidential race dropout. The second is Rick Snyder, Michigan governor, who we now know was a key player in the lead-filled dumpster fire that is Flint’s water crisis. The last is my personal favorite, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose administration engineered Bridgegate and who has gone after the teachers’ union with fetishistic fury. Many people, myself included, would characterize actions taken by all three during their tenures, especially those leading to the crisis in Flint, as reprehensible. Does this necessarily mean that their positions on unions are therefore wrong? Well, no. But let me tell you—it doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence either.
Again, the Republican resistance to union participation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Democrats’ failure to meet this war on organized labor in kind, however, is vaguely disappointing, though perhaps not altogether surprising either, if you understand the schism within the Democratic Party between its establishment wing replete with big-money donors, and its progressive wing predicated on grassroots funding and organizing, as well as advocacy for a $15 minimum wage, among other things. Thomas Edsall puts the nature of the Democrats’ weak defense of unions in blunt terms: “If Republicans and conservatives place a top priority on eviscerating labor unions, what is the Democratic Party doing to protect this core constituency? Not much.” In saying as much, Edsall points to the Obama administration’s undermining “of the bargaining power of the most successful unions by imposing a 40% excise tax, which takes effect in 2018, on health insurance premiums in excess of $10,200 annually for individuals, and $27,500 for families, in order to finance Obamacare.” These so-called “Cadillac plans,” Edsall continues, intended as a luxury tax of sorts, are seen by labor leaders as threats to health insurance benefits that various unions have had to fight for with executive management of companies. As one labor leader quoted within the piece opines, non-union and union workers alike will be hurt by these plans, with non-union workers in particular at risk of having their benefits slashed and their deductibles skyrocket. To put this in different terms, and as far as labor groups are concerned, with “friends” like the 40% tax, who needs enemies?
It should be stressed that this Thomas Edsall piece was published in 2014, before the rise of Donald Trump. Even then, the Democratic Party was being lectured by Edsall and others to “neglect the union movement at their own peril.” Accordingly, Edsall’s closing paragraphs seem duly ominous, if not presaging the disaster of a Trump presidency outright:
Even when the party had full control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2009, Democrats gave a less than halfhearted effort to pass labor’s top priority: legislation that would make elections for union representation easier. Democratic strategists looking toward the future are focused on “the rising American electorate” — single women, minorities and the young, with no reference to labor.
At the same time, many voters in the Republican electorate are themselves middle and low income. In 2014, 67 percent of those who cast Republican ballots earned less than $100,000 in household income; 30.4 percent made less than $50,000. Republicans face their own problems remaining competitive in presidential elections, which will only worsen if they do not strengthen their support among these less affluent voters.
But even with labor unions no longer the force they were — and in fact in part because of their decline — the pressure will fall on both parties to more effectively represent the interests and rights of economically struggling voters, who at some point will refuse to tolerate their eroding income and lack of opportunity.
Translation: people are going to get pissed, and will vote accordingly. In acknowledging this effect, I, in the same breath, acknowledge that there was—as crazy as might seem at first glance—a slice of the American electorate that went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to turning out for Trump in 2016. Their numbers are not insignificant, but as Sean McElwee argues, focusing on this relatively small subset of 2016 election voters obscures the real trend that should be garnering Democrats’ attention, particularly those more entrenched members of the establishment. Where Donald Trump and his campaign succeeded, and where Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and Democrats including Obama have failed to manage, is mobilizing those who should be among their base to the polls. McElwee attributes a large part of this failure of the Dems to their reluctance to make voting rights a priority for various groups, a problem exacerbated by Republicans’ efforts to nullify any inherent advantages with these blocs. He explains:
When Republicans take power, their first priorities are voter suppression and right-to-work, their second is to destroy the capacity of government to aid working families and their third is to turn the government into a patronage machine for wealthy whites. Democrats have failed to understand that in order to win, they must do the opposite. Voting rights must be a priority, and policies should strengthen the ability of working people to organize and mobilize.
“Working people.” Sean McElwee highlights them above any other segment of the Democratic Party’s core supporters, at least traditionally speaking, and references to their “organizing” clearly invokes the importance of unions. From there, or perhaps even concurrently, Democratic leadership must invite workers and sympathetic activist/progressive groups to the table. As McElwee sees the matter, this is the only path forward for a successful Democratic Party, or to quote him directly, “Party elites will have to cede some power to make this happen.” If recent party history is any indication for the Democrats, this is easier said than done.
In terms of the first priorities of the GOP underscored by McElwee in his piece and quoted above, the voter suppression angle probably isn’t that hard to understand. Numerous articles have been written about the “real” voting scandal of 2016: not the closeness of the vote in certain swing states begging a recount, not even the possible hacking of voting machines and other Russian interference in the presidential election, but voter suppression at the hands of Republicans determined to try to widen their advantage over Democrats at the polls, including by limiting opportunities of people of color to vote and creating unnecessary hurdles for them to cast their ballots. (Together with gerrymandering, these are issues of considerable importance that do not get nearly the attention they should.) Right-to-work, meanwhile, is a concept that is likely unfamiliar to the average voter, especially one from a state that does not have such a law on the books. The term “right-to-work” sounds pretty benign in it of itself. Should people have a right to work? Sure, why not? Let’s rubber stamp the bill along and call it a day, shall we?
Not so fast. It would be bad enough if “right-to-work” was a form of euphemistic language—you know, in the way “civil asset forfeiture” is another way of saying “the police gets to take your shit if you’re at all implicated in a crime and without proof of wrongdoing or even being charged.” But it’s more than that—it’s a complete misnomer. Right-to-work has nothing to go with the right to work. The University of Missouri–Kansas City recently featured a profile on right-to-work legislation in the University News, UMKC’s independent student newspaper. First, the editorial defines the term and gives context to the political debate surrounding it:
Right to work legislation prohibits unions from requiring that dues or fees be paid by all employees that it represents. This usually has the effect of weakening labor organization, as unions will have less financial power to fight for higher wages or benefits such as health care. Additionally, so-called “free riders” can take advantage of the workplace protections and benefits without contributing to the unions that acquire them. Conversely, proponents say that job growth increases because businesses prefer to operate in states with right to work laws.
Data can usually be spun by either side to support or reject the claims of the other. There is no firm consensus by economists or statisticians on the effects of right to work, as it cannot be easily isolated from other factors such as variable standards of living or the economic recovery following the recession. In general it increases job growth and in general it decreases wages, all usually in tandem with other pro-business and anti-labor policies. This is a subject where hard, unbiased data is scarce and so the debate devolves into opposing ideological and political arguments. Therefore, right to work legislation probably makes less impact as an economic policy than it does as a political call-to-arms.
This University News profile, whether to be merely diplomatic about the matter, or because it legitimately wants to be cautious because of the purported lack of “hard, unbiased data” on right-to-work legislation, describes its economic impact with an air of neutrality. Still, certain elements of this synopsis scream out to the liberal and progressive reading it and suggest a negative connotation. “Has the effect of weakening labor organization.” “‘Free riders’ can take advantage…without contributing.” “Decreases wages.” “Anti-labor.” Sure, job growth may occur, but seemingly chiefly because companies prefer to operate in climates that are favorable to business and let them take advantage of workers in their own right; job number increases, after all, would mean little when the quality of the positions being added is suspect. However you slice it, that businesses would lobby and Republican politicians would craft policy in favor of right-to-work doesn’t appear to be an accident, especially not in light of the aforementioned war on unions perpetrated by the Republican Party.
This same profile, on the other hand, invokes visions of “danger” as well as cites some guy named Martin Luther King, Jr. in capturing the antipathy held by labor leaders and others toward right-to-work policy. The danger, as the UMKC student staff behind the article have identified, is “in inciting political will to elect those with an interest in supporting big business,” and that it “also attracts those businesses’ donations.” As for MLK, he was downright foreboding about the concept in the abstract. As quoted within the feature:
In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.
Leave it to a man assassinated, presumably for his views on matters of not only racial inequality, but income and wealth inequality, to put things in perspective and give the matter its due weight. Even then, King and others saw the importance of protecting labor from the machinations of big business and the politicians who aid and abet corporate attempts to shrink union representation. Sure, they may not have been statisticians with “hard, unbiased data” at their disposal—but perhaps they didn’t need to crunch numbers to see the writing on the wall.
For those who have crunched the numbers, meanwhile, the evidence for why right-to-work legislation is problematic for rank-and-file workers regardless of political or union affiliation is that much more compelling. In 2011, Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz authored a report for the Economic Policy Institute on the “compensation penalty” of right-to-work laws, finding that wages, the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance, and employer-sponsored pensions were all significantly lower in states that had these laws on the books. Sure, this is just one study, and the EPI does lean more to the left, but the comprehensiveness of the report alone suggests Gould and Shierholz might be on to something.
The historical implications of right-to-work legislation only magnify its problematic nature. Michael Pierce, associate professor at the University of Arkansas, directly ties right-to-work to the South’s prejudicial past (and sometimes present) and deliberate attempts to disenfranchise Jews and people of color. From his January 2017 essay:
As Kentucky legislators pass a measure outlawing the union shop and Missouri’s General Assembly contemplates doing the same, it is worth remembering that so-called Right-to-Work laws originated as means to maintain Jim Crow labor relations and to beat back what was seen as a Jewish cabal to foment a revolution. No one was more important in placing Right-to-Work on the conservatives’ political agenda than Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a larger-than-life Texan whose own grandson described him as “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.”
OK, you’re thinking, Vance Muse was just one man from one Christian organization. That doesn’t necessarily mean much. No, but when it inspires whole states, their governors, and their legislators to pursue right-to-work legislation specifically to marginalize unions and their members, this is more than just the trivial misdeeds of one man. Pierce closes his piece with these thoughts:
The Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allied industrialists were so pleased with the Christian American Association’s success in passing the anti-strike measure that they agreed to underwrite a campaign in 1944 to secure a Right-to-Work amendment for the Arkansas constitution. This placed Arkansas alongside Florida and California as the first states where voters could cast ballots for Right-to-Work laws. While Muse and the Christian Americans consulted with the campaigns in California and Florida, they led the one in Arkansas.
During the Arkansas campaign, the Christian Americans insisted that right-to-work was essential for the maintenance of the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor’s threat to Jim Crow. It accused the CIO of “trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white.”
In November 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first states to enact Right-to-Work laws (California voters rejected the measure). In both states, few blacks could cast free ballots, election fraud was rampant, and political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite. Right-to-Work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines. The current push for Right-to-Work in Kentucky and Missouri (along with the fueling of nativism) does something similar—it is an attempt to persuade white working people that unions and racialized others are more responsible for their plight than the choices made by capital.
Two things jump out here. The first is that there is a pronounced racist component to right-to-work—even if modern-day conservatives and Republicans downplay that factor. This may be a case of guilty by association, but Rep. Steve King, now-infamous white nationalist, loves right-to-work. Loves it. King loves it so much that he re-introduced legislation in the House to institute a National Right to Work Act. Where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire, and when there’s bad policy with the specter of racism looming, there tends to be Steve King. Just saying. The second is the mentality that connects to the earlier consideration of Americans “hating unions more than CEOs.” Anti-labor, anti-immigrant—it’s all part of the same classist soup that corporations and the wealthy use to depress the working class by turning them on themselves. Divide and conquer—a page straight out of the GOP playbook.
Given the efforts of Republican Party and industry leaders to weaken the rights of labor, in accordance with any number of factors that lend themselves to lower union enrollment numbers and fewer dues being paid, it would seem that the Democratic Party, a party which preaches inclusiveness and fighting for “the little guy,” would exhibit a more robust, if not more cohesive, challenge to the erosion of the bargaining power of the working class amid the erosion of manufacturing jobs. Owing largely to its own moneyed interests, however, the Democrats are currently primarily a fundraising operation, and only secondarily a defender and mobilizer of organized labor, allowing Republicans to undercut them in individual elections such as the 2016 presidential election, as well as threaten their political support from unions by taking labor group endorsements all but for granted. To reiterate the words of Thomas Edsall, however, they do so at their own peril. As Edsall notes, the Democratic percentage among union voters has consistently stayed in the 60% range for the past two decades, Not only is organized labor making up a smaller and smaller part of the general electorate, though, but Republicans continue to win local, state and federal offices despite changing demographics which should favor the Dems. If Democrats can’t even get into office, let alone do something about the strength of unions and their ability to organize, it paints a pretty grim picture for the working class in the United States.
Right-to-work: it has nothing to do with the right to work, nor is it right for workers, union or not. And if nothing is done to form a coalition to resist attempts to disempower unions and those workers who would join their ranks, we could be on our way back to the days and ways of the robber barons sooner than we think—if we aren’t there already.
When someone blows up a physical embodiment of the year “2016” and encourages people to tell that year to go f**k itself, you know it’s been an abnormally bad one. John Oliver took the opportunity to give 2016 this proper send-off (a report on this event was equally properly filed under the category “F**K 2016” by Aimée Lutkin and Jezebel), and that HBO agreed to afford Oliver the chance to explode something of that magnitude likewise speaks to the horror that was this past 366 days. That’s right—in case you had forgotten, 2016 was a leap year, so all-too-appropriately, we were given one extra day to protract the misery. The Julian and Gregorian calendars can eat a collective dick on that front.
I only started this blog in the middle of June of this year, so I missed the chance to comment on some things that happened earlier in 2016. With over 50 posts under my belt on United States of Joe, however, there’s still enough topics to revisit to make reflecting on the year that was worthwhile. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. And since, despite my overall belief in fair and democratic principles, this blog is not a democracy but a Joe-ocracy, that’s the agenda for this session. You’re welcome. So, kick back. Get plenty of champagne ready—noting how awful the past year has been, it may take quite a bit of alcohol to get into the spirit. And get ready to count down to 2017. It’s time to give our own send-off to 2016, middle fingers in the air and all.
Well, before we take the plunge into the abjectly negative, let’s go back to the app-based sensation that was Pokémon Go. Since its initial breakthrough success which had critics saying the smartphone game had ushered in a new era of augmented reality and had fundamentally changed the way we look at mobile gaming, downloads and use of the title have understandably cooled. In light of the downward trend, members of the media are now looking at Pokémon Go altogether as a disappointment, especially in light of some updates which failed to impress. You need to walk 3 KM just for one stinking Charmander candy? I’m never going to get that Charizard! NEVER, I SAY!
Now that I’m done being dramatic, not only do I find these charges against the game and its maker Niantic overblown (although, seriously, those Buddy System ratios are pretty shitty), but expectations, buttressed by the app’s initial success, were probably always too high. Though Niantic did its part to make the game palatable to people of all ages and ability levels by making gameplay largely based around throwing Poké Balls and by simplifying battles, the players who are most likely to find the experience rewarding are fans of the original game, who are used to grinding for experience, completing the game as completely as possible, and overall, staying in it for the long haul. It’s not Angry Birds. It’s not Candy Crush Saga. It’s not Fruit freaking Ninja. You have to walk and work for your rewards. You know, when you can’t pay money for some of them. Either way, you still have to walk!
When Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in July and formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, it admittedly felt like a punch to the gut. For all the mental preparation made, when the moment actually arrived, it still hurt. What made Sanders’ decision and the associated feelings yet worse, though, was the reception his standing behind Clinton received and the accusations that got hurled around in the wake of the announcement. Con-man. Sell-out. Traitor. Looking at Bernie’s endorsement in a purely ideological vacuum, it is easy to assess this move as a betrayal of his principles and what he stands for. In this instance, however, context is everything, and with Donald Trump having sewn up the Republican Party nomination, Sanders saw greater merit in trying to unite Democrats and other prospective voters in an effort to defeat Trump. Ultimately, the orange one shocked the world and scored an electoral victory, but Bernie Sanders did his best to avoid this eventuality. That not enough Americans either came out to vote or otherwise didn’t buy what Hillary was selling is largely on her, not Bernie.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the remaining candidates looked to capitalize. Even with the bulk of Sanders supporters presumed to be going over to Hillary Clinton’s camp, Donald Trump himself made an instantaneous pitch to those “feeling the Bern,” trying to tap into their fervent and justifiable anger at the political establishment. Third-party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, too, though, made a play for these suddenly available votes, rationalizing that there was no better time than now than to tell the two major parties to shove it. In endorsing Clinton, Bernie repeatedly tried to communicate the danger and inadequacies of Trump as a presidential candidate first and foremost, even though he may have largely been preaching to the choir, as younger voters by and large detested “the Donald.” He also, meanwhile, cautioned against a “protest vote” for someone like Johnson, Stein, or even Harambe (and yes, he would’ve loved to follow this election), realizing, as did all these newfound suitors for Bernie backers’ affections, that the votes of his faithful could swing the election by helping to decide key swing states. To reiterate, it didn’t work all that well, but the effort on Sanders’ part was there.
Ultimately, as Bernie Sanders himself will insist, his run for President, while important, was always more concerned with starting a revolution and getting more Americans, especially younger voters and working-class individuals, involved with the political process, even at the local level. Whether the energy behind his campaign and the urge for progressive grass-roots activism is sustainable in the United States is yet to be seen, but either way, there is yet room for optimism that people will want to keep active and informed as a means of exerting greater control over their own destiny. Thus, you may call Bernie any name you want, but I choose to label him an inspiration, and I feel history will bear out this sentiment as well.
As we Bernie Sanders supporters worked our way through the Five Stages of Grief and Loss, eventually, we had to come to accept that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to be our next President. In fact, even the non-Berners were forced to do the same, in all likelihood ensuring many who were on the fence—that is, on whether or not they would vote at all—would choose the latter option and just stay home. In my piece referenced in the title of this section, I mused about the notion that maybe we, as a collective electorate, did not deserve better than these choices that a significant portion of said electorate neither trusted nor cared for much. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader was accused of costing Al Gore the election (even though Gore lost that shit on his own, with an admitted probable helping from electoral shenanigans down in Florida), Americans have been highly critical of parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, with the usual refrain being some combination of “they could play spoiler to a legitimate candidate” or “you’re throwing away your vote” if you opt for one of them.
However, to invoke the words of Mr. Nader himself, not only is this attitude politically bigoted, as it negates the will of the individual to make an informed choice in accordance with his or her conscience, but it nullifies our bargaining power with the two major parties. After all, if we blindly vote either Democratic or Republican, beyond losing the election, what motivation does either party have to institute reform that better reflects the needs and wants of the voting public? Especially for members of the working class, both Democrats and Republicans have seemed to take them for granted, which at least partially explains why the Dems lost this election and why Trump and Sanders achieved the levels of popularity they did this election cycle.
In the end, though, despite the increased visibility of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the lead-up to the election, most Americans who voted (and there was a good portion of the country who could’ve voted which didn’t) cast their ballots for either Hillary or Donald. As historically unfavorable as these two candidates were, and for all their flaws—Trump as an idiot and professional con-man stoking the flames of fear and hatred, Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist with a penchant for pandering and expensive Giorgio Armani jackets—better than nine-tenths of voters decided they had to pick one of the two, if for no other reason than to block the other candidate they liked even less. Which is pretty shitty, if you ask me. Personally, even with the knowledge that she wouldn’t win, I voted for Jill Stein, as I felt neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had earned my vote. That relative few other Americans opted out of the two-party paradigm, however, signals to me that we, as a nation, are not ready to demand political change as strongly as we should. It’s either red and blue in these United States, and if you don’t like either color, the present message, unfortunately, is to get the f**k out.
Holy f**k, indeed. In retrospect, I’m not sure why the pollsters were so surprised that Donald Trump scored the “upset” victory, or why we were so easily convinced that Hillary Clinton was such a strong favorite to win the presidency, when their models were consistently wrong or failed to predict the magnitudes of certain results throughout the primary season. At any rate, as must be reiterated for anyone who sees Trump’s win as a mandate, the man who considers himself a master of “The Art of the Deal” won the presidency on the strength of electoral votes, not because he had a resounding victory in the popular vote (in fact, he lost by more than 2 million votes, and it apparently tears him up inside)—and certainly not because he ran a stellar campaign.
So, how did Trump win? Looking at the exit poll data, certain trends do tend to stick out. Regionally, Donald Trump fared much better in the Midwest and the South, and of course, he carried key swing states, notably those in the Rust Belt (e.g. Ohio, Wisconsin). In terms of demographic data, Trump had an easy advantage among male voters and voters 45 and above, not to mention he held an appeal among less educated individuals and the wealthiest earners (a seeming paradox, though as evidenced by how they spend their money, rich people aren’t necessarily all that smart—look at Trump himself!), as well as evangelicals and married people, but perhaps most notable of all, whites voted at almost a 60% clip for Donald Trump, while close to three of four non-whites went for Hillary Clinton. CNN commentator Van Jones referred to this aspect of the results as a “white-lash”, as in “white backlash” after eight years of a black president the Republicans have characterized as a cause of America’s problems and someone with a secret Muslim agenda, and it’s hard to argue otherwise, really. When the former head of the Ku Klux Klan is cheering you on and citing you as an inspiration, you know white supremacist beliefs, racism and xenophobia helped you to victory.
On a somewhat related note, the thematic reasons why Trump voters chose the way did are also significant. Speaking of racism and xenophobia, supporters of Donald Trump rated immigration trends and terrorism the most important issues facing the United States. Screw the economy and foreign relations—let’s worry some more about brown people. As for the quality that best drew voters to Trump, it wasn’t whether the candidate cares about them, exhibits good judgment, or has the right experience—those voters tended to go for Clinton—but whether he or she could bring about “change.” Whatever the heck that means.
In a nutshell, that’s why Donald Trump is set to be our next President. As for who we can blame for this, besides the obvious in Trump himself and his supporters, there are three core enablers for the man’s political success. Certainly, the Republican Party let him waltz right in and secure the nomination after a barrage of similarly weak candidates failed to stand in his way, and after the GOP at large sowed the seeds of fear and hate he exploited. The media, too, acted irresponsibly and selfishly, chasing ratings while failing to challenge Trump on his lack of defined policy, his factual inaccuracies, his reckless language, or even his refusal to publish his tax returns. In addition, the Democratic Party, in its own right bears some responsibility. Among its most damning sins are its failure to stand up for the working class, its inability to protect jobs and wages, its support for disastrous trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, its complicity with corporations and wealthy donors, and its allowing antitrust laws to lapse or otherwise become weaker, thereby consolidating power into fewer and fewer hands. The failure to stop Donald Trump is a collective one, and though it probably won’t happen, these enablers should do some serious soul-searching for fear of endangering their long-term prospects.
Should anything happen to Donald Trump, whether in terms of his health (not that I’m wishing for the man to pull a William Henry Harrison or anything) or impeachment, the next man in line may not be all that much of an improvement. Mike Pence, who has been governing the proud state of Indiana, has arguably made a number of shitty choices during his tenure. He vetoed a refund of a tax overcharge on the basis it would have cost too much to administer. Before he got too much (warranted) negative feedback, he proposed JustIN, a state-run news service some likened to Pravda in the Soviet era. He rejected Medicaid expansion in his state under the Affordable Care Act on principle, to the detriment of his constituents. He insisted on a ban against a needle exchange program that was effective in limiting the spread of HIV related to a particular drug injection, and later reversed his position, but refused to use state funding to provide for such exchanges. Perhaps most notably, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which allowed for discrimination against the LGBT community and cost Indiana some $60 million in revenue before its reversal. An opponent of gay marriage and women controlling their own reproductive rights, Mike Pence is one of a seemingly increasingly long line of conservative Republican leaders who puts evangelical beliefs ahead of his state’s and the nation’s best interests. He’s not Trump, but he’s no rose either.
In terms of what damage he may do in terms of signing legislation into law and what damage he likely already is doing in his appointees for key positions (Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy—are you f**king serious?), that Donald Trump has been thrust into a position of immense power is bad enough, but his association with the far-right and his inspiration to the likes of David Duke makes for some shitty ripple effects just the same, let me tell you. I said earlier that Trump’s electoral victory should not be seen as a mandate given how he lost the popular vote and in light of how divided we are as a nation. And yet, the Breitbart crowd and members of the so-called “alt-right” have taken it as such, viewing themselves as fighters in a culture war they are winning, standing against political correctness and other liberal “absurdities.” They also apparently like boycotting companies who don’t stand for their white supremacist agenda. You know, even though they probably don’t use their products anyway. But boycott it is! TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP!
When Hillary Clinton formally acknowledged the alt-right in a speech during the campaign, though I feel it needed to be said, it further legitimized this loosely-constructed movement that coincides with the likes of Gamergate’s sexist perpetuators. That Stephen Bannon has been given a prominent advisory role in Trump’s administration, though, should concern us more conscientious Americans. Donald Trump is not normal, and those who sanction his misdeeds and try to normalize his objectionable behavior are standing in the way of progress. Furthermore, the gang mentality with which many of them operate, encouraging online attacks on and/or death threats against individuals whose values clash with theirs, is troubling, as is the unwillingness of social media services to more aggressively pursue those accounts which violate their terms of service for fear of losing traffic. In short, the alt-right has arrived, as much as many of us might not like to dignify them with a response, and it is incumbent upon those of us who have respect for others—not just respect for white males who refuse to admit to their privilege—to speak out against their behavior and words as dangerous and wrong.
Before Donald Trump swooped in to save the day and stop the threat of taco trucks on every corner in the United States, the United Kingdom gave us a teaser trailer for the U.S. presidential election with a referendum vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union. As with the election in the States, the experts predicted voters would do the sensible thing; if this were an analogy in the vein of the old SATs: UNITED STATES: ELECT HILLARY CLINTON :: UNITED KINGDOM: VOTE REMAIN. And, as with the election in the States, voters did the exact opposite.
The parallels are uncanny. The decision to leave the EU was, as it was in the United States, mediated by a greater incidence of older voters opting to do the wrong thing. Like with Trump’s anti-immigrant appeals and vague notions of “making America great again,” Leave voters were swayed by visions of “securing the nation’s borders” and “taking back control” of the country’s economy, not to mention equally empty promises of the UK Independence Party. Additionally, voters seemed to be making choices that were a direct rejection of existing politics. Barack Obama, David Cameron—either way you slice it, the public clamored for change, no matter who would bring it or what it would entail. The fallout from both votes is still being assessed, but the discontentment of the working-class voter and upward trends in outspokenness among white nationalists worldwide suggest the U.S. and UK votes are not isolated incidents, and in turn, that the risk of other Brexit-like events occurring in the future in other countries is all-too-real. The winds of change are blowing, and one can only hope our houses don’t get knocked over when the gusts have subsided.
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, black people don’t enjoy getting mowed down by police at routine traffic stops. While police shootings may not have been any more numerous in 2016 than in years past, through the advent of cellphones and other camera-based technologies, violence involving police certainly has become more visible. Whatever the precise rates of deaths related to encounters between civilians and police, it would seem as though we have a lot of progress to make regarding recognition of the disparity of treatment people of color receive at the hands of police and that which is received by whites, regardless of whether the person accosted by one or more officers has a gun or not.
A perfect illustration of the failure of much of white America to confront its privilege in this regard comes in arguments about the very name and nature of black activism in the United States which exists in large part due to documented police brutality. In response to hearing the moniker Black Lives Matter, or merely even the phrase “black lives matter,” some people are too quick to “correct” the original speaker with the phrase “all lives matter,” or counter with their own version (i.e. “blue lives matter”) that serves to negate the critical recognition of blackness inherent in the initial figure of speech. To me, however, this falls prey to a fairly obvious logical trap: if all lives matter, then black lives, as a subset of all lives, should matter too, and there should be no problem accepting that terminology. “Black lives matter” does not mean black lives should matter more than other lives, but simply that they should matter as much as white lives, blue lives, or any other color lives of which one can think. Clearly, though, they don’t, or else there wouldn’t be a need for organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
The need to scrutinize adherence by individual officers to specified protocol when engaging possible suspects, as well as the systems which serve to shield “rogue” cops from criticism and/or prosecution, is undermined by two key strategies of those who react to protests with knee-jerk defenses of our uniformed police. The first is to question the integrity of the victim—yes, victim—who, because he or she is labeled a “thug” or has a history with the law, evidently deserves to be effectively lynched by the police who intercede him or her. The second is to de-legitimize efforts of black activists wholesale, conflating them unfairly with those who loot and otherwise take advantage of violence and associated protests for their own gain, likening them to terrorists, or wrongly insisting they are advocating for the slaughter of police. In both cases, this is counterproductive, regressive thinking.
As some have argued, those cops who are too nervous not to shoot someone at a routine encounter shouldn’t be placed in such a highly leveraged situation, and either way, good police—which comprise the majority of forces around the nation, let’s be clear—should be appreciative of efforts to root out bad actors from their ranks. As for the protests against police brutality, this doesn’t equate to disrespect for the police, nor does kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem constitute an affront to our military, as Colin Kaepernick’s example reminds us. Black Lives Matter et al. don’t want to see law and order dissolved. They just want to see police officers and officials who wear the badge held accountable when they do wrong, and at a very basic level, not to be utterly afraid they might die when getting pulled over by a squad car. It’s 2016. We need to do better as a country in addressing racial inequality, especially within the purview of criminal justice.
There have been too many mass shootings in the United States of late, but the Orlando nightclub shooting, in particular, was particularly devastating for many of us. Not only was it a tremendous loss of life, but that the LGBT community was apparently the specific target of the violence made this brutality that much worse for a population that regularly faces hatred and persecution. Speaking for myself, it is difficult to comprehend how someone could harbor such hate for themselves and others that they would wish to walk into a building and start firing indiscriminately. Perhaps this idea gets the tiniest bit easier to understand when we understand this hate works both ways. As jihadists would seek to inspire terror in the West through bombings and mass shootings, white nationalism encountered in Austria, France, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other nations, has created an environment that has often proved hostile to Muslims, and has made the prospect of accepting more refugees from war-torn countries like Syria decidedly poor. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a platform of which one of the key tenets was a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for all Muslims. It’s incredible, and incredibly shameful, at that.
Never mind the idea that all this bluster about “bombing the shit out of ISIS” may actually be good for the Islamic State’s ability to recruit and strengthening its resolve. The jingoists among us would have everyone believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of the United States, that it is a “cancer” to be snuffed out, and that American Muslims who don’t do enough to help discover would-be terrorists in their midst (which, evidently, is quite easy) are guilty in their own right, and regardless, likely merit surveillance of their homes/places of worship and tests administered to gauge their love for and commitment to the U-S-of-A. This conflation of Islam, a religion which preaches peace at its core, and the bastardized religion ISIS and other jihadists/”radical Islamists” practice, is a patently false equivalency.
For the sake of an analogy—one for which I can’t take credit, let me stress—ISIS is to everyday Muslims what the Ku Klux Klan is to white people who aren’t unabashed racists. In both cases, the majority disavows the hate and violence these groups perpetuate. This is by no means saying we shouldn’t be vigilant against individuals who would wish to do us harm. As bad as the Orlando massacre was, though, and as unforgivable as the actions of an organization like ISIS/ISIL have proven, our responses and the negative feelings that accompany some of these reactions reveal an ugly side to our patriotism as well. In the demonization and the pursuit of “the other,” we run the clear risk of losing ourselves.
I didn’t originally write about it, but the Chicago Cubs actually won the World Series. To wit, I have neither observed nor heard any stories about swarms of locusts descending on fields or rivers of blood forming, but I’m not ruling them out just yet. The apocalypse takes time to develop, you know?
Wells Fargo was forced to fire thousands of mid-level managers for directing employees to create fake accounts and sign up customers for services without their knowledge, essentially making them scapegoats for the company’s aggressive sales model. The company eventually apologized—sort of—and John Stumpf was eventually removed from the role of CEO, but the big bank largely closed the book on this sordid chapter of its history without really admitting wrongdoing, and Stumpf had a nice golden parachute on which to drift to security. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo has apparently learned absolutely nothing from this fiasco, as new CEO Tim Sloan has expressed the belief that the company and the banking industry as a whole could actually do with less regulation. Evidently, it’s all fun and games when you get to play with other people’s money.
FBI director James Comey, despite finding that Hillary Clinton and her aides were extremely careless in their handling of E-mail while Clinton was Secretary of State, that Clinton should’ve known certain E-mails were classified and didn’t belong on an unsecured server in the first place, that the State Department was generally lacking in security protocol for classified E-mails, and that Hillary used multiple unsecured devices in locations where American adversaries could have exploited this vulnerability, held a press conference to announce he was not recommending charges be filed against the Democratic Party nominee. Then, a week before the general election, he announced that the Bureau was looking anew into Clinton’s E-mails, which she and her campaign cite as a factor in why she lost. So, nice going, Director Comey! You’ve undermined confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and perhaps swayed the election! Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard!
Chris Christie not only failed to capture the Republican Party nomination, but he was overlooked by Donald Trump for vice president despite being, more or less, his manservant. Oh, and Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, two key figures in “Bridge-gate,” were found guilty on all counts in a trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and a separate criminal trial is set to take place for Christie himself. Congratulations, Chris. You played yourself.
Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, a result fueled by a combination of fiscal and economic factors, including the repeal of tax breaks for businesses, the creation and sale of triple tax-exempt municipal bonds, the inability of the commonwealth to declare for bankruptcy, exempting wealthy investors and businesses from paying capital gains taxes, “vulture” hedge funds buying up bonds and demanding a full payday, and institutions like UBS selling risky bonds they themselves underwrote to unsuspecting customers. Today, Puerto Rico’s financial future is yet in peril with individuals who are alleged to have helped the island along the path to crisis serving on its appointed oversight board, and with Donald Trump being a crazy mofo. Also, the U.S. Virgin Islands may be on the way to its own debt crisis. Um, huzzah?
In some good news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership seems to be all but dead, being disliked on both sides of the political aisle. Also, the Dakota Access Pipeline is on indefinite hold, as the Army Corps of Engineers found more research needed to be done regarding the environmental effects of its intended route through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Of course, supporters of these canceled or postponed initiatives may yet redouble their efforts, so we concerned progressives can’t really relax. At least we can enjoy a short breather before the ball drops, eh?
In the title of this piece (remember back that far?), I reference the notion that 2017 has to be better than 2016. I’m not sure it amounts to much, though, beyond wishful thinking. If the best qualification for improvement which comes to mind is that we won’t be electing Donald Trump, it’s cold comfort in light of the fact he’ll already be President. Going back to his appointees, if they are any evidence, the country is set upon a bumpy path for the next four years, or until the man gets impeached—whichever comes first. His Defense and National Security Cabinet leaders view Islam as a threat to America. His Education Secretary is an opponent of public schools, despite never having attended one. His Energy Secretary infamously once forgot the name of the department he has been tapped to helm. His Health and Human Services director wants to privatize everything and largely gut social programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. His HUD Secretary knows nothing about housing administration.
Wait, I’m not done yet! His head of the Justice Department failed to be confirmed as a federal judge once upon a time because he was an out-and-out racist. His Labor Secretary opposes raising the minimum wage. His Secretary of State has likely financial ties to Vladimir Putin. His Transportation Secretary is married to Mitch McConnell—and that’s evidence enough of poor judgment. His Treasury Secretary oversaw 50,000 or so foreclosures from his position within OneWest Bank, an entity which was accused of unethical practices and discrimination against minorities. His EPA head is a climate change denier. His Small Business Administration director is former CEO of a fake wrestling empire. And his United Nations representative has no foreign policy experience. Irresponsible does not begin to describe these selections, and fingers are crossed that one or more of them fail to get confirmed by the Senate.
So, yeah, I’m not incredibly optimistic about the United States’ prospects right now. The silver lining, as I see it, is that more and more Americans are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that it doesn’t work for everyone, and with luck, that number will grow as the sheen wears off the shiny promises Trump has made and can’t hope to keep. I wouldn’t have wished for a Donald Trump presidency in a thousand years, but if this hastens the movement of the nation in a more progressive direction, so be it. For those of us who refuse to accept Trump and the America he has envisioned as normal, and who insist that we’ve come too far as a country to simply put the train in reverse, the resistance starts now. 2017, we look to you in strengthening our resolve. And 2016, once more, you can go f**k yourself.
It is not until November 7, 2017 when the state of New Jersey can officially vote on a successor to Chris Christie for the office of governor following his two-term maximum in this role. If you ask a number of New Jerseyans, including myself, however, this date could not come sooner, and in the event of an impeachment, it could actually, in theory, come to pass even earlier.
Before we begin singing the Ballad of Chris Christie, however, full disclosure: I voted for Christie in his bid for re-election as governor. I am not particularly proud of this chapter in my history at the polls, but I’ll admit it. I have no excuses for choosing as I did. I can only explain my thinking at the time, and my dominant thought at that moment was, “Who the heck is Barbara Buono anyway?” Buono, his Democratic challenger in 2013, before opting to run for the governorship, had served in the New Jersey General Assembly from the 18th District (the Fightin’ 18th!) from 1994 to 2002, and then in the New Jersey Senate from 2oo2 to 2014.
According to Wikipedia, among Barbara Buono’s notable stances and achievements during her tenure as a lawmaker were sponsoring legislation prohibiting predatory lending, voting for the legalization of medical marijuana (a measure staunchly opposed by Chris Christie), and perhaps all too appropriately given the disposition of her opposition in the gubernatorial election, authored the “Anti-Bullying Law” (more on that aspect of Christie’s character later). Since getting soundly defeated (or as Donald Trump would have it, “schlonged”) in 2013, Buono not only appears to have left politics, but the state altogether, moving to Portland, Oregon. Maybe it was the shame of losing so badly to a Republican in a state that traditionally tends to vote blue. Maybe she just wanted to get as far away from Chris Christie as possible. All I know is I hardly knew Barbara Buono then, and seem to know only marginally more about her now. Oh, well.
Chris Christie depicted himself as a no-nonsense, confrontational sort of governor early on in his tenure. I suppose this was something of a continuation from his time as Chief Federal Law Enforcement Officer in New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, wherein he pledged to make terrorism and public corruption his top priorities. Indeed, some 130 officials at various levels of government were either convicted or pleaded guilty as a result of the work of Christie’s office. Of course, Christie was not above scrutiny or controversy on his end. On the corporate dimension, Chris Christie negotiated a number of deferred prosecution agreements that allowed companies to avoid prosecution with limited or no admission of guilt, and obviously similar lack of public exposure.
Certainly, Christie is not the only prosecutor to make use of this procedure, as in recent years their employment has increased significantly, but it does reflect a nuanced willingness to more privately pursue fraud in the private sector while making a very public show of going after public officials. There were also murmurs about impropriety in his office’s decision to appoint the Ashcroft Group—owned by his former boss, John Ashcroft—as outside monitor in a DPA case against Zimmer Holdings, as well as a stipulation in a DPA deal with Bristol Myers to dedicate $5 million to a business ethics chair at Seton Hall University School of Law, where Christie just happened to go to school. As we’ve seen in the case of Eliot Spitzer, those who make it a point to target the misdeeds of others in an air of self-righteousness might not be without sin in their own right. The idea is worth noting, at least.
At any rate, Chris Christie, like a corruption-fighting white knight, rode his horse (presumably one which could support his weight) right into the Governor’s Office, defeating incumbent Jon Corzine, a man whose later financial dealings—especially those concerning MF Global, a multinational futures broker/bond dealer which went bankrupt and saw $1.2 billion of client account funds “go missing”—would prove to be decidedly and ironically suspicious. Not soon after getting sworn in, however, Christie succeeded in doing something which seems well-suited to his cantankerousness: pissing people off.
Fiscally speaking, Christie vowed not to raise taxes, even though reductions were made to the earned income credit, among other items, as well as nearly $1 billion in budget cuts in 2011, including spending that would otherwise have gone to areas like child care, higher education, Medicaid, museums, nursing homes, and urban aid. So, great—no new taxes, but if you were poor, you were essentially now told to get f**ked. Also part of Chris Christie’s legacy as governor of the Garden State? New Jersey’s credit rating being downgraded nine times during his tenure by Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and Standard & Poor. Nine times! Only Illinois has fared worse on this dimension during this span. But, hey, the man has delivered balanced budgets ever year, right? Yes, but he’s bound by the state constitution to do so, as any other governor would be. This is not an achievement on which to hang one’s proverbial hat.
Other policies and stances of Chris Christie’s, whether based on legitimately held beliefs or designed to burnish his conservative credentials, did not really endear him to those outside the traditional wealthy, white, male Republican base, and however you slice it, Christie has taken positions that at times seem frustratingly contradictory. He has repeatedly cut pensions for public workers, including firefighters and law enforcement, though he has compromised with Democrats when necessary to reform employee pensions and benefits or to pay the state pension fund. He has supported exploration of alternative energy production, yet has rejected permanent bans on fracking, has pulled New Jersey out of an initiative designed to cap and reduce carbon emissions, made it a priority to weaken the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, and settled with Exxon Mobil for environmental damages for less than 5% of the initial figure sought by state lawyers. He has repeatedly vetoed a state minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $8.50. He believes homosexuality is innate and not a “sin,” but has opposed gay marriage. He once was pro-choice, but now opposes abortion. He favors allowing the states to determine applicable gun laws, though he believes in upholding those in place in his state, among the strictest in the nation. On one hand, this all can be construed as Chris Christie possessing nuanced views on the various core issues facing New Jersey. On the other hand, the criticism may be equally, if not more, valid that Christie will express one stance to one audience and a conflicting position to another party. Accordingly, for all his tough talk about wanting to keep Hillary Clinton out of office, and her tendency to waver on positions, it’s a bit of a pot-kettle situation.
To the average New Jerseyan, however, Chris Christie may have been doing a fine job. Certainly, he seemed to be a capable leader in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a storm whose wrath was felt all the way up north in the Garden State and from which parts of the Jersey Shore are just beginning to truly recover. The response of his office, in large part, explained the upward trend in his prospects for re-election, which were more of a coin toss before that point, and come time for voters to choose between he and Barbara Buono, Christie was poised to hold the governor’s seat for a second term. In particular, his working with President Obama and welcoming him to New Jersey to survey Sandy’s damage so close to the election, and his verbal lashing of House Republicans for failing to more expediently approve a relief package for his state, helped boost his approval rating among his constituents.
Moreover, the identity he cultivated as an “outsider” and a no-holds-barred politician made people take notice on a national level, and the earliest musings about Chris Christie as a potential GOP presidential candidate began to manifest. Despite his, you know, lack of political experience and the notion he hadn’t really accomplished much during his tenure as governor of New Jersey. This is the Republican Party we’re taking about, though. As the litany of candidates who vied for the party nomination in advance of this presidential election have indicated, political experience, policy ideas, and general regard for human decency aren’t necessary to apply.
Ah, but there was still that critical second term to traverse, and as the results have borne out, there was plenty of room for Chris Christie’s approval ratings to fall. Christie had already exhibited a questionable decision-making ability in instances such as the 2010 cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core project, which would have created two new tunnels under the Hudson River and a new terminal in New York City for NJ Transit trains. The corpulent governor insisted concerns about cost overruns informed his decision to nix the planned expansion and renovation, but killing the ARC project also meant thousands of jobs were not created and those “tubes” underneath the Hudson, of which their estimated future useful life is only about 20 years, were left unimproved. And in terms of going forward, most of whatever ARC money available that didn’t have to be returned to the federal government has since been spent, and a discussed Gateway Project by Amtrak has yet to be funded. Chris Christie’s move to put the kibosh on the Access to the Region’s Core project was criticized at the time as one of the worst public policy decisions in New Jersey history, and some five years later, it’s hard to argue to the contrary.
But yes, about that second term. When ineptitude wasn’t a hallmark of a particular decision or bit of happenstance of Christie’s administration, as with New Jersey missing out on $400 million of Race to the Top federal education funding due to administrative mishandling of the application, it was political scandal characterized by Chris Christie’s desire to play favorites with those politicians who played ball with him. Though an investigation commissioned by the governor’s office purported to debunk her claims, Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer alleged that more Hurricane Sandy relief funds were offered in exchange for accepting a proposal by the Rockefeller Group to construct an office building in her city. When Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City, refused to endorse Christie in the 2013 election, according to Fulop, numerous scheduled meetings with state commissioners were quickly cancelled, and subsequent requests for meetings were rejected, as retaliation for not endorsing. Thus, whether it was incentive in the form of a quid pro quo, or punishment for not paying lip service, Chris Christie has seemed to operate under a conditional, transactional relationship model, which does little to take the public’s mind off the ugly side of politics.
All these considerations come to a head with the ongoing embroilment that Wikipedia refers to as the “Fort Lee lane closure scandal,” but known colloquially as “Bridgegate.” Let’s set the scene. As with Steven Fulop, Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, opted not to endorse Chris Christie in his bid for re-election. The apparent result? A plot to intentionally use lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as payback. On August 13, 2013, Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, E-mailed David Wildstein, the Port Authority’s director of interstate capital projects, with the simple message, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to which Wildstein replied succinctly, “Got it.” About a month later, on Monday, September 9, 2013, two of three dedicated toll lanes on the upper level of the bridge were closed to local traffic, causing massive congestion and delays. By September 10, Sokolich texted Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority and Christie appointee, about the need for help with the traffic situation, with no apparent response. By September 11, evidence suggests Bill Baroni, Chris Christie, David Samson (chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority and also a Christie appointee), and David Wildstein, together at a commemorative event for 9/11, discussed the deteriorating situation on the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge, but did so in a joking, deprecating fashion, suggesting they knew full well of that situation in advance of this chat. By September 12, John Ma, chief of staff to Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye, tipped off Bergen Record columnist John Cichowski to the idea the lane closures were politically motivated, a notion Cichowski passed on to the local media. It was not until September 13, four days after the initial closures, that Foye ordered the lanes reopened. Four days.
It would be one thing if Chris Christie’s office, his political appointees, and officials at the Port Authority conspired to, say, put cones on Mark Sokolich’s car for four days. It would’ve been pretty stupid revenge, mind you, but it wouldn’t have affected commuters and Fort Lee residents who rely on the George Washington Bridge for transportation. The lane closures were particularly egregious because of the collateral damage of Christie’s and his lackeys’ machination. At least one person died as a direct result of the congestion, with emergency medical services unable to get to an elderly person having a heart event because of the diverted traffic, and there were likely material financial costs from the delays as well. But what seems to be particularly galling to many in the aftermath of Bridgegate is the brazenness of the actors involved. Chris Christie and his partners in crime knew about the closures, laughed about them privately, didn’t tell Mayor Sokolich and others ahead of time about the planned operation, and showed no regard for the public’s safety. It’s a level of arrogance that exceeds even what we might imagine of politicians at their worst. What’s more, for all the goodwill earned by Christie in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in light of his response, with the all the revelations from the criminal investigation into Bridgegate’s central figures, that all has been thrown away. Add to this Christie’s obvious politically motivated backing of Donald Trump, a move that, if intended to curry favor with the Republican presidential nominee in hopes of earning him a vice presidential pick, didn’t succeed, and the plus-sized New Jersey governor has since all but destroyed his credibility as a serious political candidate on a national stage.
As of this writing, closing arguments have been made in the trial of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, each charged with nine counts including conspiracy, deprivation of civil rights, misapplying Port Authority property, and wire fraud. Yes, wire fraud. Of course, prosecution of Baroni and Kelly is important in its own right, but what about the biggest fish of them all? It’s possible that Chris Christie doesn’t get off scot-free in a separate investigation, an official misconduct case to be heard by the Bergen County prosecutor’s office in November of this year. Of course, it would be great if they throw the book at Christie, but more realistically, it would be all-too-appropriate if Christie, the former prosecutor who negotiated a number of deferred prosecution agreements, was forced to take a deal himself. The indignity of it all.
Looking back at Chris Christie’s tenure in its totality, a vote for his re-election seems particularly egregious now. Let my cautionary tale of woe and regret guide you in your decision-making then. Mere visibility alone should not be enough to earn a candidate your vote. In Christie’s case, because he is loud and confrontational, he is very visible. Besides, the guy is rather full-bodied. I mean, seriously—you can’t miss him. But does this make him a good leader? I submit no, especially when his modus operandi involves bullying and intimidation, as with a certain presidential nominee you may have heard of. The popular sentiment is that Chris Christie has tarnished his reputation to the extent he won’t be able to do more than wax political on Fox News or some Glenn Beck vehicle on the national stage. As a concerned New Jerseyan, meanwhile, I am convinced he was worn out his welcome not only across the country, but in his home state. So, though it may be another year until the Garden State chooses his successor, let me be one of the first to wish him well on his time after the governorship. Happy trails, Chris. You won’t be missed.
I’m reasonably sure you’re familiar with Ralph Nader. If you were eligible to vote in the 2000 election, then you’re definitely familiar with the man. Nader, who has made a career out of activism on behalf of consumer protection (his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, is considered influential on safety standards for motor vehicles, not to mention consumer advocacy as a whole), environmentalism, humanitarianism and principles of democratic government, has run for president several times—either as a write-in candidate on individual state ballots, or as an official nominee of the Green Party or Independent Party.
It was the 2000 presidential election, however, where Ralph Nader’s third-party bid became perhaps the most relevant, at least in terms of perceived influence on the outcome. As you may recall, in the swing state of Florida, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a margin of less than 1,000 votes, an amount Nader garnered more than 97 times over. The easy reading was that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election and left us with a man-child as the President of the United States. As Nader and others pointed out, however, and quite rightly, I might add, there were other factors at play. For one, there was a whole recount fiasco—hanging chads and all—that necessitated a controversial Supreme Court ruling and prompted critics to insist the Republicans stole the 2000 election. Also, it’s not as if there weren’t Democrats who voted for Dubya, aside from the notion that it’s not as if Ralph Nader intentionally set out to sabotage Gore. Moreover, Al Gore didn’t even win his home state of Tennessee in 2000. On those three counts, or three strikes as it may be, the “Nader as spoiler” theory swings and misses.
In this election in 2016, Ralph Nader will not have a bearing on the outcome—real, imagined or otherwise. With respect to third-party options, the names most likely to serve as flies in the proverbial ointment are Gary Johnson, representative for the Libertarian Party, and Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party nominee. Nonetheless, as a political commentator in an election cycle in which both major-party candidates are disliked by a significant portion of the potential pool of voters—and thus, choices outside the Republican-Democrat red-blue binary stand to have a real impact—Nader’s voice carries a certain amount of weight. When asked by Jorge Ramos for his thoughts on Bernie Sanders’ recent endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Ralph Nader expressed the belief that the move, in its enumeration of meritorious policy positions on Clinton’s part, was more politically calculated in his (Bernie’s) favor than others might read or spin it:
He set her up for political betrayal, which would allow him to enlarge his civic mobilization movement after the election and after she takes office. So I think it’s a very astute endorsement.
“Betrayal.” Not mincing words, are we, Mr. Nader? I’m not sure Bernie Sanders is being quite as scheming as Ralph Nader would give him credit for, as I believe Sanders’ top priorities are 1) beating Donald Trump, 2) promoting a truly progressive agenda for the Democratic Party, and 3) mobilizing support within the Democratic Party among workers and younger voters—as well as encouraging the Democrats to do their part for less wealthy Americans and the middle class. Then again, as a Sanders supporter throughout the primary, I might be naturally more inclined to believe Bernie threw his influence behind Hillary for the best reasons.
What intrigued me most, though, concerning Ralph Nader’s opinions put forth in the Ramos interview, was not his musings on Bernie Sanders’ political machinations, but rather what he thought about voting for someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. As is no huge surprise, Nader said he would most likely be voting for the Green Party or Libertarian Party candidate, but as regards what you should do with your vote, Nader is one of those dreadful sorts who believes in voting based on your conscience—for crying out loud! In Darth Nader’s own words:
I always believe, Jorge, in voting your conscience. Not tactical votes, not least-worst votes. If you do tactical, least-worst votes, you’ve lost your bargaining power over the candidates. They never look back when you basically say to them, “Well, I don’t like either candidate but you’re not as bad as the other one.”
This man can’t be serious, can he? After all, this is America! It’s Democrat or Republican! Blue or red, red or blue! We don’t need another party confusing things! Unless, God willing, that party is the Bull Moose Party! Loves me some Bull Moose. But, yes, Ralph Nader, we can’t afford to play games with this election! The stakes are too high! When will I stop yelling?!?
Before we so quickly dismiss Ralph Nader’s assertions as the ramblings of a crazy person, might there be some validity to what this madman is saying? Have we, by implicitly giving our consent to party politics and feeding the “lesser of two evils” trope over the years, paved the way to our own dissatisfaction now manifested in a likely two-horse race between Hillary “Never Met a War I Didn’t Like” Clinton and Donald “No Mexican Wall Is Too High” Trump? Isn’t now the perfect time as a people to vote third-party and give the Democratic and Republican Parties their due comeuppance?
On the heels of the Republican National Convention, let’s first address the elephant in the room—the state of the Grand Old Party. Given the four-day scope of the event this past week in Cleveland, I initially thought about doing a whole post recapping it—though you’ll soon see why I’m covering it in (somewhat) abbreviated fashion. Donald Trump and the way he’s conducted his campaign have put him at odds with a number of Republican leaders and figureheads—as well as non-politicians with half a brain in their head. In fact, the public figures who made it known they would be skipping the Convention reads like a “Who’s Who” of Republican leadership over the past 15 years or so, or more: George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney, Governors Matthew Mead and Brian Sandoval, of Wyoming and Nevada, respectively, and others.
In their absence, though, there were apparently enough B-list celebrities, crazy people and idiots to go around. Here are some of the highlights—if you can call them that:
Monday: “Make America Safe Again”
For some reason, Scott Baio was there. Yeah, you know, Charles in Charge, of our days and our nights, as well as our wrongs and our rights? He had some fairly generic comments to be made: it’s not about getting free stuff—it’s about sacrificing; Donald Trump is not the Messiah but a man who wants to “give back..to the country that gave him everything;” Hillary Clinton sucks. You know the deal. Nothing particularly illuminating. Thanks, Scott. You can go back to being all but irrelevant as an actor now.
Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame said something about both he and Trump having wives hotter than they are. How exactly does this “make America safe,” again?
Rudy Giuliani, touting his record on crime, actually addressed keeping American safe, albeit with a heaping helping of pointing out the dangers of “Islamic extremist terrorism.” His remarks were largely straight out of the GOP playbook: Obama made a shitty nuclear deal with Iran, Hillary Clinton sucks and had a shitty response to Benghazi, Syrian refugees are all potential terrorists in the making. Are you sensing a theme with respect to Hillary yet?
The speech of the night, however, belonged to Michelle Obama. I’m sorry, Melania Trump. It’s easy to get those two confused. Before I get to the story that Melania Trump’s speech became, let me first say that I find it highly odd, even for the ever-strange Trump campaign, to have a Slovenian immigrant born Melanija Knavs as the keynote speaker on a night devoted to keeping America safe from foreign influence. Just putting that out there. Now, let’s get to the speech itself. It soon became apparent that Melania’s address bore more than a passing resemblance to the one Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention eight years ago. I’m not sure what the standards are like at the University of Ljubljana—from which Melania dropped out but insists she received an architectural design degree—but at most universities, that’s the kind of thing that could get you kicked out for plagiarism. If Melania Trump was hoping to distinguish herself as more than just a pretty face through her speech, this controversy sure didn’t help matters.
Tuesday: “Make America Work Again”
Another day, another round of Trumps. Among the headliners on Day 2 were not one but two members of the Trump Tribe. Donald Trump, Jr. took to the podium, but in as similar vein as with Melania’s speech, discussion of its actual content was lost in the ensuing conversation about parts of his speech being hand-me-downs from a previously published article in American Conservative by F.H. Buckley. Even if sanctioned by Buckley himself, for Trump Jr. to deliver an address with borrowed material only a day after allegations of plagiarism with Melania Trump’s speech raises questions about the campaign as a whole. Tiffany Trump, whom I previously believed was only a myth, also made a rare appearance in support of her father. Tiffany, a recent graduate of Penn, made a speech that seemed like something you would hear out of a university commencement, and tried to make her dad seem, you know, human. People seemed to think it was a good speech, I guess, though being able to talk coherently for an extended period of time is a fairly solid achievement for that crowd. Also, it probably helps that she’s a cute young blonde. Whatever. As with a Slovenian waxing political on a night devoted to border security as an extension of foreign policy, there would seem to be a certain degree of irony inherent in two of Trump’s spawn—privileged descendants of a likewise fortunate heir of his father’s name and legacy—being centerpieces of a night devoted to getting the average American back to work. Then again, rarely do things make much logical sense in the political world of Donald J. Trump.
Checking in on Dr. Ben Carson—yup, still insane. His speech, in a stunning turn of Six Degrees of Separation, somehow tried to link Hillary Clinton to famous organizational guru Saul Alinsky to…Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer. In this respect, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee is not only connected to the Beast himself, but by a slender two degrees, at that. Dr. Carson, I’m not sure what you’re smoking, but whatever it is, I think I want some.
And then there was Chris Christie, who not only failed to win Donald Trump’s pick to be his running mate, but apparently failed to secure a spot among the Tuesday headliners. As he exhibited in the primaries, Christie committed to talking about the one political topic he can seem to discuss with conviction and regularity: just how much the Republicans in attendance hate Hillary. In particular, Chris Christie hearkened back to his experience as a prosecutor to submit evidence of Clinton’s guilt in various foreign policy dealings, as well as the unending well of criticism from which the GOP can draw attack material ad nauseum: the State Department E-mail scandal. Again, nothing to do with the economy or jobs. Just rehearsed, tired attack points against Hillary, which, even if legitimate, sound desperate coming from Christie, not to mention hypocritical noting his own history with investigations of impropriety. Chris Christie, sir, you are a heel.
Wednesday: “Make America First Again”
Also known as the Vice President and Also-Rans portion of the program. Because it wouldn’t be a day at the Republican National Convention without hearing from at least one Trump, on Wednesday, we heard from Eric Trump, who, guilty by association, has had to assert the notion he didn’t lift his speech from an existing document. Regardless of who wrote his words, Eric spared no shred of Republican rhetoric we’ve grown accustomed to absorbing: our current foreign policy is inept (*cough*, Obama, *cough*, Hillary, *cough*), the Second Amendment and Christmas are under attack, the national debt is too high because of Obama and high taxes (warning: may or may not be true), foreign countries are taking all our jobs, and so on and so forth. After that, Trump began the obligatory deification of his father, painting him as a man who has “revitalized run-down neighborhoods, shaped skylines across the country, and turned dreams into reality his entire career.” (Warning: may be seriously untrue.) Eric Trump finished by, among other things, extolling Donald Trump, Sr.’s record of giving to charities, which, as I’m sure you can guess by now, may or may not be true. Eric, I’m glad you’re so proud to be a Trump, but this does speech does nothing for me—or for the people who might actually believe it.
We also heard from Newt Gingrich, the man who almost was Trump’s VP pick, and Mike Pence, the man who, for whatever reasons, is that pick. Gingrich talked about keeping America safe, which he and the convention organizers apparently failed to realize was more appropriate for the first day of the Convention, but OK. He had a lot to say, but it basically boils down to these essentials: radical Islam wants to kill us all, Hillary Clinton is dishonest, we need a big military and a big wall, our police are great and so is Donald J. Trump. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before. As for Pence, whom Trump finally allowed to speak and who formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for Vice President, I’ll allow Katie McDonough of Fusion to put it succinctly: “Indiana Gov. Mike Pence accepted the Republican vice presidential nomination on Wednesday night with a speech designed to communicate one thing: He is boring.” ‘Nuff said.
Last but not least, we had the also-rans. Wisconsin’s shitty governor Scott Walker said some things, and presumably, made a point, but evidently is not worth the trouble it takes to find the transcript of his commentary. Marco Rubio was there in video form, and more than one observer said his delivery resembled, more than anything, a hostage being filmed. And then there was the show-stealer himself, Ted Cruz. Cruz, despite not being well liked by, well, most people and small children, will likely run again for President in the future. This may at least partially explain why he delivered a speech, but somewhat surprisingly, ended it not by endorsing Donald Trump, but rather asking the convention-goers to vote their conscience. A regular Ralph Nader, this guy! Whatever his reasons, this was my highlight of the Republican National Convention, in that it was so straight-up gangsta of him to not endorse Trump. Ted Cruz, you may have heard boos that night and may continue to catch grief from other Republicans from bucking the trend, but I, for one, give you mad props. Respect, Felito.
Thursday: “Make America One Again”
With Big Papa himself officially accepting the Republican Party nomination, could there be a better theme for the ultimate night of the Convention than “Make American One Again?” This coming from the ultimate uniter, Donald Trump. (Please, try to hold back your eye-rolls, smirks and snickers.) Before the main event, you did have your fair share of notable “undercard” speakers. Republic National Committee chair Reince Priebus, whose name sounds like it belongs in the Game of Thrones universe, made an appeal to unity for Republicans—you know, to beat that dadgum Hillary Clinton. Prince Rhombus, sorry, Ranch Prius, dammit, Reince Priebus had this to say about what separates Republicans from Democrats: “What separates Republicans from Democrats is our belief in better. We believe in better schools. A better health care system. A better economy which rewards hard work no matter where or when you punch the clock. And most of all, we believe in a better chance at the American Dream for everyone.” Because Democrats want everything to get worse? Whatever, Ponce Rebus. Sell what you need to sell.
Peter Thiel, German-born co-founder of PayPal, entrepreneur, hedge fund manager, and venture capitalist, also took to the mic. As a foreign-born homosexual man living and working in Silicon Valley, you’d think Thiel would be a weird choice for the closing night of the Republican National Convention. And um, you’d be right. Matt Rosoff, in a piece for Business Insider, notes how Peter Thiel made numerous points that seem to be at odds with mainstream Republican thinking, particularly on the subjects of investment in science and technology, and the invasion of Iraq. Otherwise, though, he’s unfortunately on board the Trump Train. And, for whatever reason, he’s got a real bugaboo about who uses what bathroom.
Ivanka Trump, apparently the member of the Trump Tribe with highest standing outside of “the Donald” himself, served as the lead-in to the man with top billing. I’m not going to dissect Ivanka’s eloquent and impassioned speech except to say that numerous critics said she sounded more like a Democrat (probably in an effort to woo independents and women voters) than anything. In addition, and as has been argued repeatedly, with Ivanka impressing as much as she did and does, um, it looks like the wrong Trump is running for President. I mean, I know she’s only 34, but she’ll be 35 come November. That works, right? Shit, if Canadian-born Ted Cruz can run for President, why can’t Ivanka Trump?
Finally, the event we were all waiting for—sort of. Donald Trump, ever the strongman, depicted himself as the law-and-order candidate. In doing so, he delivered an address that the media roundly characterized as “dark.” In his tone of doom and gloom, Trump argued that anyone who doesn’t recognize the dangers that exist for the United States (hmm, could that be someone like Hillary Clinton?) is unfit to lead it, and that the time for political correctness is over. He also rattled off a number of “facts” about what a shitty state the country is in. And then he went in on Hillary directly, describing her legacy as one of “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.” The rest was a mish-mosh of his familiar themes: putting “America first,” I am not a politician or a member of the establishment, Hillary this, Hillary that, the police are great, so is Mike Pence, say no to Obama and the Syrian refugees, sanctuary cities are bad, walls at the border are good, laws should be enforced, laws should be enforced, did I mention laws should be enforced?, we’re going to bring jobs back to America, we’re going to lower taxes, we’re going to repeal ObamaCare, we must protect freedom of religion and the Second Amendment, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! There. I just saved you more than an hour. You’re welcome.
This is where I’m supposed to warn you not to let the crazies get the keys to the asylum. This is where I’m supposed to tell you not to let bigots like Donald Trump, Steve King and David Duke think they’re right by openly running on platforms characterized by a belief in white supremacy. This is where I’m supposed to point out that “putting America first” is a red herring when, for all our griping about terrorist attacks in Orlando and shooting of cops in Baton Rouge and Dallas, we can kill 85 Syrian civilians in an air strike, call it an accident, and sweep it under the rug. This is where I’m supposed to plead with you to consider that Trump is a bully, a fraud, and someone who still won’t release his tax returns, even though the IRS literally has no problem with it.
So, yes, in short, there is every reason not to vote for Donald J. Trump, and likely a great deal of merit in voting strategically to keep him away from the White House. At the same time, however, if we are thinking in Naderian terms and voting based on our conscience, how many of us can say we’re all in on Hillary Clinton, and not just because she’s someone other than Donald Trump? Speaking purely for myself, I know that I can’t endorse Hillary on her merits alone. Moreover, even though I’m putting forth my personal views, I know I am not alone in this sentiment.
Even before Wikileaks’ latest “gift” to the world, I have had my reservations about voting Democratic on the basis of feeling as if the Democratic Party has done little to earn my vote and yours. But let me tell you—the DNC E-mail leaks just dropped on the world don’t help matters from my perspective, nor do they inspire a sense of confidence in Hillary or desire for party unity among fervent Bernie Sanders supporters and serial Clinton haters. Sanders supporters, I will concede you, have looked and will look for evidence of a conspiracy against their candidate of choice, and for months have alleged Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been less than impartial in her dealings with Clinton and Sanders, arguing that she (Wasserman Schultz) has been influential in tipping the proverbial scales in the former’s favor.
For all their talk of a “rigged” political system and claims of the Sanders campaign that they have had to fight an uphill battle against an entrenched Democratic, if the DNC leaks show one thing, it’s that the conspiracy theorists are, well, at least somewhat right on this point. With nearly 20,000 messages recovered from a hack of the DNC’s E-mail server(s), credited to the mysterious “Guccifer 2.0” and believed to be the product of Russian intelligence, I am not about to try to parse through the entire message dump. Besides, most of these messages feature rather uninteresting and benign details within DNC operations. A prized few, however, shoot through the idea that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other key figures within the Democratic National Committee were neutral in their private handling of Bernie’s and Hillary’s campaigns. Furthermore, their communications with the press—including figures such as CNN’s Jake Tapper, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, and Polirico’s Kenneth Vogel—suggest a favoritism toward Hillary Clinton, and worse, that the DNC may have worked to influence their content and undermine Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic Party nomination. In a piece for Heavy credited to Stephanie Dube Dwilson, a number of “the most damaging” E-mails are cited and highlighted. Among the revelations or potential revelations referenced in the article/slideshow:
The Democratic National Committee may have planned a joint fundraising party with The Washington Post.
Staffers, in talking about Rhode Island, a state that was reducing its primary polling locations and in which Bernie Sanders led in the polls at the time by a slight margin, derided the Sanders camp, suggesting they’d probably complain about the outcome regardless, and referred to the state’s governor, Gina Raimondo, as “one of ours.”
Mark Paustenbach, DNC staffer, suggested an anti-Bernie Sanders narrative to Luis Miranda, DNC communications director and the most-cited figure in the DNC leaks.
Miranda wrote simply, “lol,” to a report that Sanders welcomed an agreed-upon fourth debate in California in advance of the primary.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz E-mailed Chuck Todd, saying that MSNBC on-air personality Mika Brzezinski calling for her to resign was “outrageous” and that “this needs to stop.”
DWS, responding to Sanders campaign Jeff Weaver’s comments on the unrest at the Nevada Democratic Convention, called him a “liar.” (In a separate E-mail, Wasserman Schultz refers to Weaver as an “ass.”)
Kenneth Vogel allowed the DNC to review an article about Hillary Clinton’s fundraising prior to publication.
The DNC may have crafted fake Craigslist ads for employment with Donald Trump’s organization, referring to Trump’s oft-cited disparaging attitude toward women.
The DNC may have planned to attack Bernie Sanders on his faith, implying he is an atheist to hurt his support among more religious Democrats.
Wasserman Schultz, after a CNN story in which Bernie Sanders insisted he would try to remove her as committee chair should he get elected president, wrote, “This is a silly story. He isn’t going to be president.”
The Clinton campaign may have violated Federal Election Commission laws by making out donations checks to the DNC.
Donna Brazile, who had professed her neutrality on matters concerning the Democratic Party, said she would “not touch” a story on reservations held by the Sanders camp about adequate representation on the Democratic Party platform and in the Democratic National Convention, adding “because she would cuss them out.”
Luis Miranda referring to a New York Times piece by Nicholas Confessore as “good as we could hope for,” as the DNC “was able to keep him from including more on the JVF (the Joint Victory Fund).”
Paustenbach laughed when Sanders commented on state Democratic parties not having enough resources and the more undemocratic aspects of the primary process.
DNC staffers elected not to reference an MSNBC story talking about favorable unity within the Democratic Party among voters, as it was a “heavy Bernie piece.”
The DNC may have had people inside the Sanders organization as effective “plants” reporting information back to them.
Reportedly, Debbie Wasserman Schultz will resign from her post as Democratic National Committee chair following the Democratic National Convention, a move Bernie Sanders had called for following news of the DNC leak being made public, and one for which Sanders supporters had been clamoring for months. At the minimum, DWS’ removal as DNC chair needed to happen for general principles. That much was a given. The damage, meanwhile, in terms of perception, may be done, and this in turn feeds all sort of “Clinton-Lucifer” degrees of separation connections. OK, maybe that stretch is Ben Carson’s alone to make. But it does make one wonder whether or not all the Committee’s machinations made a difference in the race to the Democratic Party nomination, or if not, like Tom Brady and his deflated balls supposedly, why they needed to engage in chicanery in the first place.
Support for Hillary Clinton among Bernie Sanders supporters and progressives, theoretical or otherwise, has been an issue for the Clinton campaign and mainstream Dems for months now. On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, hopes for party unity have been seriously rattled by the one-two punch of the Wikileaks E-mail dump and the nomination of Tim Kaine for vice president. On the latter count—surprise, surprise—the mainstream media thought it was a great pick. “Clinton follows her heart!” “Clinton employs sound strategy!” “Kaine is able!” Lame last-name-related puns aside, as far as the rest of the potential voting pool is concerned, however, the choice of Tim Kaine as VP is either boring, infuriating, or infuriatingly boring. As comedian W. Kamau Bell reacted to the news on Twitter, “One glass ceiling at a time everybody. 🙂 — Hillary Clinton in a group text to Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren.” Progressives, too, are not very enamored with Kaine, and a lot of it stems from his perceived support for the big banks in his signing of multiple letters aimed at regulators to loosen regulations for community banks, as well as his past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and fast-tracking it through Congress. Add to this the notion Bernie Sanders delegates have had to argue and compromise with top Democratic leadership to try to reduce the influence of superdelegates, a much-hated hallmark of the primary voting system, and you wonder whether or the Convention in Philadelphia will be even more “messy” as Sanders himself predicted months ago.
In his most recent essay on the state of the election, economist Robert Reich asks the pertinent question, “Does Hillary get it?” Likewise a critic of the choice of Tim Kaine as running mate for Hillary Clinton, he opens his post thusly:
Does Hillary Clinton understand that the biggest divide in American politics is no longer between the right and the left, but between the anti-establishment and the establishment?
I worry she doesn’t – at least not yet.
A Democratic operative I’ve known since the Bill Clinton administration told me “now that she’s won the nomination, Hillary is moving to the middle. She’s going after moderate swing voters.”
Presumably that’s why she tapped Tim Kaine to be her vice president. Kaine is as vanilla middle as you can get.
In fairness, Hillary is only doing what she knows best. Moving to the putative center is what Bill Clinton did after the Democrats lost the House and Senate in 1994 – signing legislation on welfare reform, crime, trade, and financial deregulation that enabled him to win reelection in 1996 and declare “the era of big government” over.
In those days a general election was like a competition between two hot-dog vendors on a boardwalk extending from right to left. Each had to move to the middle to maximize sales. (If one strayed too far left or right, the other would move beside him and take all sales on rest of the boardwalk.)
But this view is outdated. Nowadays, it’s the boardwalk versus the private jets on their way to the Hamptons.
The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a system rigged by big corporations, Wall Street, and the super-wealthy.
If what Reich believes is correct, Clinton’s “safe” pick is not all that safe given the current state of the American electorate. And now, because I feel compelled, let’s bring Ralph Nader back into the mix, and return to our main point. If, regarding the Republicans, we are taking Nader’s and Ted Cruz’s advice, and voting our conscience, rather than simply voting against Hillary Clinton, then Donald Trump, a man who preys on voters’ fear and hate, should never appear with an X on one’s ballot. If you don’t understand this by now, brother or sister, you’re reading the wrong blog. As for the Democrats, though, if you’re voting strategically for Clinton to Trump, then there is concern that you’re implicitly sanctioning their own bad behavior, in the form of arrogance, tone-deafness, and an unwillingness to play by the rules, and thereby thinking they’re in the right, or worse, that this much simply doesn’t matter. Under this assumption, the Democrats, like the Republicans, can turn around after the election and say, “Well, you voted for us.” In this scenario, give the Nader his due—we, as voters, will have lost all leverage in convincing both parties to reform to better reflect the wishes of their constituents.
Ultimately, when it comes to my advice for your vote, I’ve already been very clear that voting for Donald Trump—are you hearing this, Ben Carson?—is really making a deal with the Devil. However, if you’re voting for Hillary Clinton, more and more I’m convinced the only reason to do so is to choose the lesser of two evils, and even that seems likes a poor justification when the Democratic Party has seemingly done everything they can to screw the pooch on this election, and again, little to earn your vote. So, if you’re planning to “throw your vote away,” as the saying goes, and come November, give Jill Stein or Gary Johnson your consideration, maybe you’re not wrong. Maybe this is your chance to tell the Democratic and Republican Parties to clean up their act or else stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, to send a message that we deserve better. Either way, you can fire back at your critics and say—however condescendingly—”Well, I didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump.” Besides, regardless, even if, like in 2000, the presidential race is as close as could be in 2016, when it comes to brass tacks, it won’t be Johnson or Stein which costs either side the election. It will be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton who loses.
With the Republican National Convention nearly upon us—the four-day celebration of conservative and Republican ideals, and potential shit-show that it is—it was about time that Donald Trump chose his running mate on the GOP ticket. “The Donald” had his pick of the litter when it came to white males. There was Chris Christie, governor of my home state of New Jersey (approved of by fewer than three in ten of its residents) and recent Trump manservant. There was Newt Gingrich, who is not only a politician, but also a semiaquatic amphibian of the family Salamandidrae. Which is good, I guess. Better a newt than another jackass—though many would have their doubts Gingrich doesn’t also qualify as the latter.
In the end, however, Donald Trump, according to reports, has selected Mike Pence for his vice presidential pick. Pence, like Christie, is a governor, in this case, the proud state of Indiana. He also is popular only with a minority of his constituents, in a better position than Chris Christie in this regard, but that’s not saying much. Mike Pence, unlike his apparent VP also-rans, does not possess perhaps the same Republican star power, but he makes sense as an assistant trainmaster on the “Trump Train,” if you will. In particular, Pence should help burnish the conservative credentials of the GOP ticket and appeal to the coveted evangelical vote. Sweet, sweet evangelical vote. So juicy and delicious.
Certainly, the Trump campaign vetted their running mate extensively. Which, I imagine, is standard practice now for GOP candidates after the Sarah Palin debacle. For our purposes, though, because of his relative anonymity outside of the Midwest, we might not be as familiar with the party pick. So, who is Mike Pence? And, if you’re like me, a registered Democrat with a general distrust of politicians, why might he be deserving of your scorn? The answer might surprise you. Actually, it probably won’t, but they always say that on the news. Listen, it sounded good at the time! OK, OK, without further ado, let’s vet Mr. Pence in our own right.
WHO IS MIKE PENCE?
Michael Richard Pence, 57 years old and a native son of Indiana from the city of Columbus, is the son of Edward J. Pence, Jr., an owner of a gas station chain, and Nancy Jane Cawley. Growing up in Columbus, Pence would graduate from Columbus North High School in 1977, and later would emerge from Hanover University with a Bachelor of Arts in History in 1981, and a J.D. from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in 1986. Prior to serving in public office, Mike Pence served as an admissions officer at Hanover; an attorney in private practice; president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a think tank with an emphasis on free-market economics and law; and a radio talk show host and political commentator who helmed The Mike Pence Show, which I’m sure was as exciting as it sounds.
After unsuccessful bids for Congress in 1988 and 1990 and his talk radio career in Indiana, Pence finally made it to the big show in 2000 as a Representative for the Hoosier State’s Second Congressional District, since renumbered as the Sixth District, and would serve five more terms in this capacity, holding the dubious distinction of introducing 90 bills or resolutions in the House in total, but having none of them pass. Not one.
From there, Mike Pence set his sights on Indiana’s gubernatorial seat. That’s a fun word to say. Gubernatorial. Huh, where was I? Oh, right! Mike Pence! In a tightly contested race for the governorship in 2012, Pence defeated Democratic challenger John Gregg and Libertarian challenger Rupert Boneham (heh, heh—Boneham) to become the state’s 50th Governor. During his tenure as governor of Indiana, Mike Pence had these beliefs and policies to his credit:
Tax cut: Phew! Now that he was out of Congress, Pence could actually cut loose and pass some things! True to his conservative principles, Mike Pence was instrumental in effecting an income tax cut—not as high as the 10% drop he had advocated, but still 5%—as well as an abolishment of the inheritance tax.
On the other hand, Pence’s veto of a tax “fix” in Jackson and Pulaski Counties, which retrospectively classified an effective overcharge of some $6 million all told because these county taxes were not lowered as they should have been, was overridden by the state legislature on the grounds the administration costs and other expenditures related to a refund would’ve cost taxpayers more than they what they stood to gain. Which to me sounds like a pretty shitty excuse—we screwed up, so you don’t get your money back—but that’s government for you. It’s interesting to note that mostly fellow Republicans voted against the veto, an idea which doesn’t necessarily mean that their choice was the wrong one. But it did work against average taxpayers. Just saying.
The needle exchange flip-flop: It’s always a gamble when evangelicals and science mix. In the case of an HIV outbreak in Indiana beginning late in 2014 related to injections of the painkiller Opana, Mike Pence was initially opposed to needle exchange programs that allow users to trade in used syringes for sterile ones, in spite of, you know, evidence they work. Pence later reversed his stance opposing needle exchange programs, but, of course, wouldn’t authorize lifting a ban on funding these programs. In doing so, Mike Pence contributed to what evidently is a new trend among conservative Republicans: not giving a shit about science, and keeping money away from those who do. Great job, Mike!
JustIN: A planned state-run, taxpayer-funded news service about events in Indiana called JustIN envisioned by Pence, about as quickly as word got out about it, was scrapped by the Indiana governor. Mike Pence had this to say about abandoning the idea: “However well-intentioned, after thorough review of the preliminary planning and careful consideration of the concerns expressed, I am writing you to inform you that I have made a decision to terminate development of the JustIN website immediately.”
Yeah, state-run news services are the kinds of things associated with places like China, Russia and Syria, countries known for abrogation of people’s civil rights and other hallmarks of authoritarian regimes. David A. Graham had this commentary to make in a piece for The Atlantic: “It would be even more pernicious if Indiana press outlets opted to run pre-written news stories alongside standard reportage, giving the state a chance to co-opt the free press’ authority.” I guess I’m glad Pence saw the light. Unless he just wanted to avoid the attention and negative publicity that came with such a stupid proposal. But that doesn’t sound like something a politician would do: deflecting blame. No, not at all.
Medicaid expansion: I’ll give Mike Pence some credit—like Chris Christie, John Kasich and other GOP governors with half a brain in their heads, he didn’t reject the expansion of Medicaid in the state of Indiana under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act. At least he doesn’t believe in letting principle get in the way of something that could potentially help his constituents.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act: And I take that credit back immediately. Mike Pence signed RFRA into law and has repeatedly defended this bit of policy, which allows businesses and people to use their “religious freedom” as a legal defense against doing something they don’t want to do in the course of business. Like, say, provide contraceptives to employees, because apparently pregnancy and the risk of sexually transmitted infections is a great alternative; or serve the LGBT community, because evidently they are not human beings. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been met with widespread criticism in Indiana and around the country. As it should be, if for no other reason than it led to boycotts from companies and other organizations, and reportedly cost Indiana some $60 million in lost revenue as a result.
Pence, about a week after passing RFRA, signed an amendment intended to guard against discrimination in business practices, saying in a statement the law had “become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy.” What misunderstanding? It allowed for discrimination, necessitating a fix. As with JustIN, that Mike Pence quickly reversed his decision is thankful, but that it even was considered is disheartening, not to mention Pence doesn’t seem to acknowledge the Act in its original form was an awful idea. This is one of the hallmarks of Mike Pence’s legacy as governor, and is likely a key reason why more Indianans disapprove of him than approve. For someone as widely disliked as Donald Trump, though, he somehow makes perfect sense.
Over the years as someone in the public eye or at least subject to public scrutiny, Mike Pence has put forth a number of opinions in line with present-day conservatism. Though it likely goes without saying, Pence opposes funding for Planned Parenthood. He also has been on the record in favor of a flat tax, the Iraq War, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants, birthright citizenship, gay marriage, Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and recognizing that climate change is, um, a thing. So, yeah, by and large, not very progressive stances. In the brief time that he has been recognized as Donald Trump’s running mate, meanwhile, Mike Pence has also backtracked on other professed viewpoints. Though he has opposed Syrian refugees settling in his state, Pence once stated that a ban on Muslims entering the United States would be “offensive and unconstitutional.” Now, as Trump’s VP pick? “I am very supportive of Donald Trump’s call to temporarily suspend immigration from countries where terrorist influence and impact represents a threat to the United States.” Sigh. Mr. Pence, you disappoint when expectations for you from me already are quite low.
Statistician supreme for FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, explained in a piece why Mike Pence was Donald Trump’s “least worst choice” for a running mate. As Silver himself acknowledges, this is faint praise, and there are other downsides to a ticket with Pence, such as the notions Indiana is already expected to go for Trump, the Hoosier State’s governorship could well go to someone like Democrat John Gregg with Pence having to forgo consideration as a vice presidential pick, and most of America likely had never heard of him before being announced as such. On that last count, however, now Mike Pence is in the national spotlight, and either way, he and his policies are fair game. As a liberal-minded fellow, I, to no great surprise of yours, find most of Pence’s views disagreeable, if not downright repugnant. What’s more, I am sure I am not alone in this thinking. In fairness, I wasn’t likely to approve of any individual who voluntarily would accompany Donald Trump on a presidential ticket, but be that as it may, from what I now know of Mike Pence, from a public policy standpoint, I’m not terribly impressed. Again, from a strategic standpoint, Pence is a fair option for the Trump campaign. But for America? I submit we are none the richer for his efforts.
There was a moment during the 11th Republican debate that particularly stuck in my craw after the fact. No, it wasn’t when Donald Trump, following earlier puerile comments by a desperate Marco Rubio about the size of his, shall we say, equipment, mentioned—in a presidential debate, let me stress—that his manhood was sufficiently large. In retrospect, that may have been the moment when the 2016 U.S. presidential race officially jumped the shark. Even if there were cogent discussion of policy to ensue within this forum, it would’ve been overshadowed by external chatter about Trump and his junk. I mean, Jesus, what were we talking about anymore anyhow?
For me, rather, what really unnerved me was the moment when the remaining field of four candidates—Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump—were asked if they would support the eventual Republican Party nominee, whomever it would be. After a slew of personal attacks and musings about the magnitudes of their members, these proud men couldn’t agree to make such a pledge, could they? Could they? From the Washington Posttranscript:
BRET BAIER: Gentlemen, this is the last question of the night. It has been a long time since our first debate, seven months ago in Cleveland. A lot has transpired since then, obviously, including an RNC pledge that all of you signed agreeing to support the party’s nominee and not to launch an independent run. Tonight, in 30 seconds, can you definitively say you will support the Republican nominee, even if that nominee is Donald J. Trump? Senator Rubio, yes or no?
MARCO RUBIO: I’ll support the Republican nominee.
BAIER: Mr. Trump? Yes or no?
RUBIO: I’ll support Donald if he’s the Republican nominee, and let me tell you why. Because the Democrats have two people left in the race. One of them is a socialist. America doesn’t want to be a socialist country. If you want to be a socialist country, then move to a socialist country. The other one is under FBI investigation. And not only is she under FBI investigation, she lied to the families of the victims of Benghazi, and anyone who lies to the families of victims who lost their lives in the service of our country can never be the commander- in-chief of the United States.
RUBIO: We must defeat Hillary Clinton.
BAIER: Senator Cruz, yes or no, you will support Donald Trump is he’s the nominee?
TED CRUZ: Yes, because I gave my word that I would. And what I have endeavored to do every day in the Senate is do what I said I would do. You know, just on Tuesday, we saw an overwhelming victory in the state of Texas where I won Texas by 17 percent. And I will say it was a powerful affirmation that the people who know me best, the people who I campaigned, who made promises that if you elect me, I’ll lead the fight against Obamacare, I’ll lead the fight against amnesty, I’ll lead the fight against our debt, and I will fight for the Bill of Rights and your rights every day, that the people of Texas said you have kept your word, and that’s what I’ll do as president.
BAIER: Governor Kasich, yes or no, would you support Donald Trump as the Republican nominee?
JOHN KASICH: Yeah. But — and I kind of think that, before it’s all said and done, I’ll be the nominee. But let me also say…
But let me also say, remember…
BAIER: But your answer is yes?
KASICH: But I’m the little engine that can. And, yeah, look, when you’re in the arena, and we’re in the arena. And the people out here watching — we’re in the arena, we’re traveling, we’re working, we spend time away from our family, when you’re in the arena, you enter a special circle. And you want to respect the people that you’re in the arena with. So if he ends up as the nominee — sometimes, he makes it a little bit hard — but, you know, I will support whoever is the Republican nominee for president.
CHRIS WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I’m going to ask you a version of the same question. As we saw today with Mitt Romney, the #NeverTrump movement is gaining steam. Some people are talking about contributing millions of dollars to try to stop you. Again today, you raised the possibility that you might run as an independent if you feel you’re treated unfairly by the Republican Party. So I’m going to phrase the question that the other three people on this stage just got. Can you definitively say tonight that you will definitely support the Republican nominee for president, even if it’s not you?
DONALD TRUMP: Even if it’s not me?
Let me just start off by saying…
WALLACE: Thirty seconds, sir.
TRUMP: … OK — that I’m very, very proud of — millions and millions of people have come to the Republican Party over the last little while. They’ve come to the Republican Party. And by the way, the Democrats are losing people. This is a trend that’s taking place. It’s the biggest thing happening in politics, and I’m very proud to be a part of it. And I’m going to give them some credit, too, even though they don’t deserve it. But the answer is: Yes, I will.
WALLACE: Yes, you will support the nominee of the party?
TRUMP: Yes, I will. Yes. I will.
Trump had nothing to lose by saying “yes.” By this point, the “Trump Train” was going full steam, and the other three candidates were all but tied to the tracks, waiting to be run over or praying for a derailment. But for Cruz, Kasich and Rubio, those damsels in distress hoping for a hero, they had everything to lose by saying they would support someone so dangerously unqualified for the presidency, someone they had just traded barbs with for over an hour. If they were going to show some backbone, some reason for Republican primary voters to seek them as an alternative to Small Hands McBaby-Dick, that was their moment to do so. Their last gasp of a campaign already on life support. For the love of God, guys, grow a pair and stand up for your principles!
But they didn’t. Following a disappointing showing in the primary of his own state, “Little” Marco Rubio bowed out of the race, and after a convincing win for Donald Trump in the Indiana primary, “Lyin'” Ted Cruz and John “I Wasn’t Relevant Enough for a Nickname” Kasich soon followed suit, paving the road forward to the nomination for Trump. For many sad supporters of the GOP—the party of Lincoln, as it is known to some—this was akin to its death knell. The Republican Party, as they knew it, was gone.
From the get-go, Republican leaders were notably lacking in their condemnation of Donald Trump. Maybe they thought he would flame out due to his lack of political credentials. Maybe they figured the presumed front-runners at the time would eventually rise above the fray and take command of the race. Following Trump’s announcement, however, the main concern of the Republican Party was seemingly the glut of candidates that would represent the GOP’s bevy of choices to take on Hillary Clinton. As Republican National Committee spokeswoman Allison Moore put it, “We have a neurosurgeon, major CEOs, accomplished governors and senators — all are highly talented people and capable of defeating Hillary Clinton.” This range of options, then, to the RNC, was a good thing, or at least was spun as such. After all, the Republican establishment had the likes of Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Ron Paul, and Marco Rubio in its back pocket. Surely, a betting man or woman would take the field, no?
Indeed, Donald Trump’s race for the Republican Party nomination—the race within the race—seemed unlikely to end in victory for the orange-faced business tycoon. Especially when his leading strategy was to insult the entire country of Mexico and insist on them paying for a wall despite the high improbability of that ever happening. Trump’s strategy, if it can even be called coherent enough to qualify as a strategy, was a bold one. And it worked. “The Donald” kept saying crazy shit, and it only fueled his rise in the polls among the pool of GOP hopefuls. Alongside Mexicans, Trump attacked/insulted the Clintons, disabled people, Iowans, Jeb Bush, Jeb Bush some more, John McCain, the media, Muslims, the Pope, Ted Cruz, and women (notably Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly), just to name a few. And yet, prior to Donald Trump securing the nomination, establishment Republicans only sparingly criticized his childishness, his racism, his sexism, and the violence and xenophobia he encourages. Maybe this was partially because they suffer from some of the same symptoms themselves, notably on the xenophobia front. A wag of the finger for you, in particular, Chris Christie, for suggesting that we should refuse all Syrian refugees, including five-year-old orphans. This coming from your potential GOP vice presidential pick, America.
Otherwise, maybe it was for fear of getting involved in a war of words with Donald Trump, or out of worry, as Trump gained traction, of alienating his more avid supporters. Whatever the reasons, Republican leadership only commented sparingly in defense of the targets of Trump’s more egregious verbal assaults. Certainly, the swipe he took at Sen. John McCain as a prisoner of war for getting captured was wont to provoke a response of condemnation from most of his running mates. (Not so much Ted Cruz, but then again, he really is a weasel.) More recently, Donald Trump earned himself widespread rebukes from his adopted party when he suggested that Gonzalo Curiel, the judge assigned to a lawsuit against Trump University, can’t be trusted to do his job impartially because he is of Mexican heritage. These instances of more responsible reactions to Trump’s inflammatory remarks, unfortunately, have been too far and few between. Apparently, the RNC’s desire to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House supersedes the majority of concerns about treating certain groups of people as human beings.
The Republican outcry against the presumptive party nominee’s racist insinuations about Curiel may be singularly curious to some. Ben Mathis-Lilley, in a piece for Slate, probes the possible range of factors which may conspire to induce Republicans in shaking their heads at Donald Trump in this instance:
“Trump is the nominee now.” While not going in very hard on Trump for his various insults prior to the close of the primary season, in envisioning any number of possible nominees and scenarios to wrest control of the party away from the billionaire, the GOP has long understood on some level what kind of damage his rhetoric could do to the party’s chances of reclaiming the White House and remaining in control of Congress.
“This is exactly what Trump’s allies have been saying he won’t do anymore.” Yes, so they’ve said, but how do you tell a septuagenarian man-baby with an ego the size of Texas how to behave? Donald Trump can’t act “presidential” any more than Mitch McConnell can not act like a total douchebag.
“Trump’s comments were very clearly insulting to a very large electoral group.” A.K.A. Latinos. After all this “wall at the Mexican border” business, it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump’s support among Hispanics/Latinos will be very auspicious for him come November. Still, the economy and national security are two issues which weigh on the hearts and minds of many Americans, and with the perception that Trump is strong on these issues (highly debatable), prospective voters of all ethnicities may be looking past his derisive comments in hopes of what he could do to the country. I’m sorry—that’s do for the country. Honest mistake.
“Curiel is a relatable and formidable foil.” Basically, Mathis-Lilley is saying that, as an experienced American-born judge who has had to be specially protected as a target of Mexican cartel violence, Gonzalo Curiel is an unusually sympathetic figure for Donald Trump to single out. Again, this might go as much if not more to #3’s point, but either way, voters are less likely to side with Trump on this one.
“Trump is human-whistling rather than dog-whistling.” Don’t get too caught up in trying to parse out the imagery here of who the human is and who the dog is here. The gist is this: Trump and the Republican Party desire to appeal to racist white people without losing too much of the non-racist white vote. It’s a fine line to walk, and Donald Trump, according to most, not only crossed it, but jumped over it from atop a trampoline.
With Donald Trump garnering enough pledged delegates to secure the Republican Party nomination outright, thus rendering any intended schemes of the GOP elite to wrest control away from Trump’s recklessness all but moot, the critical choice for party leaders, hearkening back to that fateful decision from the 11th debate, is whether or not to endorse the madman from Manhattan. Despite what may or may not have been pledged back in March, John Kasich, to his credit, has refused to endorse Donald Trump just yet, saying, “Why would I feel compelled to support someone whose positions I kind of fundamentally disagree with?” Ted Cruz has also seemingly backed off his stated stance from the debate, noting that he, “like many other voters am watching and listening what he says and what he does,” prior to any endorsement. And as for Marco Rubio? Sheesh, I don’t know what the man believes other than that he hates Hillary Clinton. Probably because he, like she, is a notorious flip-flopper, but I guess it comes with the territory as a Republican running for presidential office.
Other prominent Republican figures, on the other hand, haven’t shown nearly as much of a semblance of a spine. The worst offender in this regard, unsurprisingly, is Chris “Mr. Trump Would Like Fries with That” Christie. Whether you consider this a smart bit of political maneuvering on his part or a pathetic instance of debasing oneself and betraying one’s principles for the sake of job consideration (I personally favor the latter), Christie did not waste much time in throwing his support behind Donald Trump. According to reports, Chris Christie is set to head Donald Trump’s White House transition team should “Donnie with the Bad Hair” secure the presidency, but in the interim, as other accounts suggest, Christie has become a glorified “manservant” for Trump. Christie’s camp denies this assertion, but then again, they deny he had anything to do with the strategic closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, when others are not quite so confident in the veracity of this statement, for a number of reasons.
As referenced in the “other accounts” comment in the preceding paragraph, an article by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker outlines the delicate dance that so many Republican lawmakers must play—deciding whether or not to endorse Donald Trump with their own political futures (and dignities) to consider. The current climate of the GOP is, from a purely theoretical standpoint, very interestingly chaotic. On one hand, Paul Ryan and other establishment Republicans have been trying to a build a bridge to minority voters without alienating its, shall we say, more traditional constituency. On the other hand, Donald Trump and his supporters seem keen on burning that bridge, as well as a few crosses in the yards of those who don’t fit nicely into “their” America. Again, speaking purely theoretically, this is especially intriguing for those senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio who are soon up for re-election. Politics makes strange bedfellows sometimes, and someone like McCain supporting Trump after essentially being called less of a man despite Trump himself using medical deferments to effectively dodge being drafted, is simultaneously disappointing and enthralling.
Ultimately, for me, the decision of whether or not to endorse Donald Trump, for Republican politicians, lies in the strength of their conviction, alongside other character aspects. On one hand, not endorsing Trump might be viewed by Republican voters as lack of loyalty to the party. On the other hand, Trump is not your everyday Republican politician. The man repeatedly teased that he might run as an independent throughout the early primary season, and as far as core conservative values go, he differs from points of general consensus, in whole or in part, on key issues, including assault weapons bans, immigration policy, the role of the federal government in healthcare, taxing the wealthy, and women’s reproductive rights, not to mention, as someone who trumpets his personal wealth on the regular, he doesn’t seem to fit the traditional conservative mold. Besides, it’s not like Donald Trump is Mr. Popularity. I mean, if ever there were a candidate not to side with, it would be a jackass like “The Donald.” Thus, for those who choose to place party loyalty or personal political stature above notions of ethical and moral rectitude, at best, this speaks to their own sense of vanity, and at worst, to utter cowardice.
Additionally, allegiance to Trump is fraught with danger. Sure, as noted, there is risk in not endorsing him for fear of being seen as someone other than a team player, but by the same token, if Donald Trump—Heaven forbid—actually wins the general election, and turns out to be as awful a president as many of us think he would be, that public support for him could backfire for all those who express it. Regardless of the final outcome, for as many GOP leaders to fail to come out against Trump or to stand by him outright, they are effectively standing with hatred personified. Oh, they might insist they don’t share all of his beliefs, but you can’t just pick and choose when he talks about barring Muslims from entering the country or building a wall at the Mexican border. With Donald Trump, you can’t have it both ways.
It says something about your party’s candidate when one of its foremost thinkers and writers, George Will, says he’s leaving as a direct result of that candidate’s actions and beliefs. But I think it speaks volumes about those practicing GOP policymakers who have made that proverbial deal with the Devil, or continue to dodge and deflect on the issue. Say what you want about Donald Trump, but the Republican leaders who know better and choose to support him anyway are truly the most contemptible sort this election cycle. Shame on them.