If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is “no big deal,” why does she have so many critics on both the left and the right?
I ask this as one of the growing list of fans of AOC, but it’s an honest question. If she’s a flash in the pan, why bother talking about her at all? There are any number of reasons why Ocasio-Cortez has been derided by commentators. She’s uninformed. She’s too socialist. She’s too young. She doesn’t understand how the world works. The media is just latching onto her because she’s telegenic, “exotic” (a term used especially when you’re a person of color and white people don’t know what to call you), and because her upset primary win is still relatively fresh.
Those bits about her being little more than a pretty face or a stupid girl is the kind of keen observation and commentary (sarcasm intended) usually reserved for dissenters on the right, some of whom insist she should debate them so they can EXPOSE her and their devotees can sound off about how they DESTROYED her in circular discourse replete with strawman arguments.
Either way you slice it, the sexism abounds. Without wishing to get too high up on my high horse, I readily concede that I think AOC is good-looking, and that probably doesn’t hurt her appeal in my eyes. For the record, I don’t think shameless Republican Party defenders like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham are physically reprehensible either. The blackness of their souls is what truly makes them unattractive but that’s another matter entirely.
The point I’m trying to make here to address the rationalizations of conservative trolls, however, is that Ocasio-Cortez is more than a pretty face or a dumb millennial (I know, we millennials ruin everything). These lines of thinking are perhaps predictable coming from a crowd which prizes white cisgender males above all others and thus sees her as a threat. It’s the resistance she has encountered from members of her own party that has been perhaps more vocal and is nonetheless more aggravating.
For the kind of intraparty unrest to which I’m referring, look no further than this Politico piece from last week about “exasperated Democrats” trying to “rein in” Ocasio-Cortez. The article/hatchet job conveys a sense of Dems’ annoyance at her tendency to confront other Democrats via Twitter over policy objections as well as her liability to back primary challengers to moderate incumbents. You can’t go too far left in “swing districts.” She hasn’t earned a place in key committees yet. She’s too concerned with being a Twitter star/activist. She’s like Donald Trump with her use of social media, “snapping” at critics and colleagues alike.
On the Trump/AOC Twitter comparison, referring to notions of them taking to the app to “lash out” at people, let that be the only such parallel to be drawn between the two, especially since it’s a poor one. Ocasio-Cortez’s committee candidacy vis-à-vis her lack of legislative experience is also understandable, although at heart, it’s the member of Congress’s views that should be the driver of consideration, not necessarily his or her popularity or stature. That is, whether it’s someone’s first or fifth term, his or her commitment to the role and doing the right thing are what count.
The other criticisms, meanwhile, reflect a real schism within the Democratic Party, one that gets played up in the mainstream media to generate headlines but does encapsulate a genuine tension between the “old guard” of the party and its newer members and supporters. Do robust primary challenges make for stronger candidates and increase their visibility, or do they do harm by suggesting points of attack in a general election? Do progressive values translate across constituencies, or do platforms have to be tailored to the voting tendencies of each district? Should Democrats advance bold policy ideas regardless of perceptions of cost, or should they consider the practicality of their proposals and what is feasible in light of our surging national debt?
Judging by AOC’s popularity, for one, the answer in all cases favors the more progressive option and not the prevailing establishment Democrat logic. Speaking on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez specifically but with certain applicability to others who walk their progressive talk, Emma Vigeland, correspondent and producer for Rebel HQ, an offshoot of The Young Turks, slams the aforementioned Politico article in a video segment for the news outlet.
Highlighting references in the article about the first-year representative “making enemies” and the House Democratic Caucus striving to get her to “turn her fire on Republicans” with an effort that is “part carrot, part stick,” as well as the notion she faces a “lonely, ineffectual career in Congress” if she doesn’t play nicer, Vigeland has this to say about the condescending tone of the lawmakers cited within the Politico piece:
In what universe do these no-name Democratic lawmakers who have coasted by on corporate donations and meek opposition to the Republican Party have any standing to use a carrot-and-stick, scolding approach to the most exciting young politician that the party has seen in years, who has single-handedly galvanized the American people behind interesting new policy goals in the way that these incrementalist hacks could have never dreamed of?
Vigeland goes on to address the hypocrisy of her fellow Democrats calling out Ocasio-Cortez for attacking members of her own party—this is, in effect, the same thing they are doing to her. She also responds to the idea AOC “doesn’t understand” how things work in Washington, D.C.—even though she does and that’s why her primary campaign was so successful.
For Vigeland and others, that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost to “an orange, racist, cruel, historically dumb buffoon” signals something is broken within the party. The American people want real change, not just “business as usual.” It’s no wonder her stances on key issues poll well among supporters of both parties, and not just in her home district, but around the country.
Vigeland puts a bow on her presentation with these remarks:
We need a Democratic Party that will not stand in our way and if you don’t like it, get on board or get out. Because if you’re not backing proposals that will save our planet and raise wages and give people health care that already poll well above 50%, then you don’t belong in the new Democratic Party and you don’t belong in office. So stop crying about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and do some soul-searching about who you are there to represent and serve.
“‘People are afraid of her,’ said one senior Democratic aide.” Damn right.
These comments are a direct rebuttal to the hand-wringing the likes of Claire McCaskill and Joe Lieberman have done about Ocasio-Cortez being a symbol of where the Democratic Party is potentially headed. In line with Vigeland’s suggestion that these moderates do some soul-searching, they’ll undoubtedly have plenty of time for this while not serving as members of Congress.
Even as an admitted fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I do wonder sometimes whether or not so much exposure is a good thing. There have been well-publicized flubs on details of foreign policy as well as statistical inaccuracies when speaking on issues. Her contention so far has been that she’s learning and that the essence of her arguments is on point, to which I’d broadly agree, but then the question of how long her “grace period” as a newcomer pops up. Accountability is important, left-wing or right-wing.
The main reason I express doubt, though, is that I don’t want her stardom to overshadow the presence of a number of promising up-and-coming progressives (and not just the ones like Rashida Tlaib who vow to “impeach the motherf**ker”). Movements can’t thrive on individual figures here and there. Constituents have to exercise their power alongside their elected representatives.
In this respect, it’s oddly refreshing to hear Donald Trump of all people give a “Who cares?” about AOC when asked directly about the first-year representative calling him a “racist” in her interview for 60 Minutes and not seeming to shy away from this characterization after the fact. Of course, much of his conduct until now would lead you to believe that the proverbial shoe most definitely fits, but he arguably takes a better tack than FOX News, whose scaremongering about Ocasio-Cortez would have its viewers all but frothing at the mouth at the very sight of her. Sure, he might undermine that by refusing to disavow Steve “Why Is White Supremacy Such a Bad Thing?” King, but give the Devil his due on his AOC non-response, at least.
All this aside, if Ocasio-Cortez can use her stardom and social media following to bring progressive issues and stances to the forefront of political discourse (yes, please, let’s tax the rich more!), then I’m with her. To reiterate and as Emma Vigeland would insist, establishment Democrats would be wise to get on board with younger, more progressive members of Congress/party supporters or simply get out of the way. There’s too much at stake and too much work we have to do.
I was not a huge fan of Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate, and throughout her apparent postmortem attempts to deflect blame about losing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to someone she arguably should’ve handily beaten in Donald Trump—I know she won the popular vote, but this is beside the point, not to mention largely inconsequential given that a straight popular vote does not decide presidential elections (though it probably should)—my reaction has been one of irritated refusal to indulge Clinton in her finger-pointing after the fact. Not that she likely needed it, but Hill-Dawg had a pronounced head start in the form of pledged superdelegates, as well as the unspoken but totally believable and real backing of the DNC in her bid to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Regardless, and ultimately, I feel the onus is on the candidate to own the lion’s share of the blame when losing or graciously accept and show thanks when winning.
This aside, even I recognize that a complete story of the 2016 election can’t be told unless we talk about former FBI director James Comey and his decision to inform Congress of the Bureau’s reopening of an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private E-mail server.
Comey is currently at the forefront of the 24-hour news cycle because he wrote a book and he was interviewed by ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos. His book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, released earlier this week, is less a memoir and more a treatise comprising his views on what constitutes ethical leadership and what makes a good leader, utilizing anecdotal experiences from his career.
As for the interview (you can read the transcript of the exhaustive full interview here), Comey’s insights, even if they aren’t wholly original or surprising, are nonetheless notable for their candor. He thinks Gen. David Petraeus should have been prosecuted more vigorously for lying to the FBI. He views Rod Rosenstein’s pretext for his (Comey’s) firing related to his handling of the Clinton E-mail scandal as untrue and “dishonorable.” He considers—or at least considered at the time of meeting him—Jeff Sessions to be “overmatched” for the role of Attorney General. He disagrees with how Barack Obama insinuated his opinions on Clinton and her E-mails into the investigative mix. He claims to have told John Kelly, then-Homeland Security chief and current White House Chief of Staff, not to resign when called over the phone by Kelly, but offers that he would support a decision to do so now.
Most notably from a headline-grabbing standpoint, his characterization of Donald Trump as someone who is mentally fit to be President, but “morally unfit” for the position, is not the kind of depiction #45 and his cronies want to hear. Comey essentially refers to Trump as a mob boss without all the leg-breaking, and it’s no wonder Trump has responded in quick fashion by labeling Comey an “untruthful slimeball” (Pot, meet Kettle), and the White House has trotted out Sarah Sanders to refer to Comey as a “disgraced partisan hack.”
The lingering question then, is how much we value James Comey’s insights on Trump, particularly his reflections on Trump’s efforts to get him to let investigation into Michael Flynn’s role in the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia go, in light of his questionable decision-making regarding sensitive information involving both the Clinton and Trump presidential campaigns.
For a study in comparisons and contrasts, let’s take a peek at three recent editorials/opinions from USA Today on the subject. USA Today’s editorial board, for one, regards Comey favorably overall, though this largely seems predicated on Comey being rated as more credible than Trump, a distinction that is akin to being labeled as less sleazy than Harvey Weinstein; the former FBI director kind of wins by default on that one. Otherwise, the esteem for the Comey-Trump “blood feud” is like that of a rubbernecker watching a burning car wreck. Just because we can’t look away doesn’t necessarily mean we should be watching.
Imaginably, not everyone writing for USA Today agrees. With the obligatory pro-Trump rebuttal—why do major news outlets feel they need to cater to his base?—Chris Buskirk, editor and publisher of a journal called American Greatness, which very humbly bills itself as “the leading voice of the next generation of American Conservatism,” assailed Comey for penning a book “full of smarmy, self-serving, mendacious claptrap,” and suggested Comey has a vicious anti-Trump agenda and seeks only to “undermine or destroy the duly elected president of the United States.” Much like some Hillary Clinton supporters will never be able to abandon the narrative that she had the presidency taken from her, Donald Trump’s most fervent backers will continue to see him as the most persecuted POTUS in history. Never mind that he’s enjoyed more advantages in life than you or I are likely to, but this is apparently the age of hyperbole and superlatives aided by ignorance of even recent history.
For the sake of a less conservative critique, meanwhile, we have the thoughts of Jill Lawrence, USA Today commentary editor, who gives James Comey no credit for his scathing criticisms of the President, insisting that his decision to make news of the reopening of the Clinton E-mail investigation was not good leadership, thus rendering his views on leadership in her eyes and many others’ suspect, and opining that Comey is once again inserting himself into another presidential race, only with more time in advance of the election. Lawrence’s reservations echo those of other Comey detractors across the political aisle. That Comey’s revelations are ego-driven and made with a flair for the dramatic. That his ends-justify-the-means propensity for public disclosure ignores his culpability in bypassing DOJ policy and the rule of law. That his soon-to-be bestseller could not only galvanize report for GOP candidates, but hinder Robert Mueller’s investigation that has long been—fairly or unfairly—accused of anti-Trump bias.
As far as Lawrence is concerned, all she really cares to hear from James Comey is an apology—not just to Hillary Clinton and those who stumped for votes for her, but to America as a whole—that he helped elect Donald Trump. I’m sure she’s not alone in this yearning. Whether or not this is the ego in Comey talking, a self-confidence he himself copped to at different points during the ABC News interview, though, this seems unlikely anytime soon. When prompted by George Stephanopoulos, Comey said that he would do what he did again without regard to thought of whether someone as potentially dangerous to American politics as Trump might win, and likening #45 to a “forest fire” that’s “going to do tremendous damage,” but will give “healthy things a chance to grow that had no chance before that fire.” Presumably, Comey is talking about the growth of political engagement by the American people, especially young people, but it’s one thing to appreciate a wildfire for its restorative properties and quite another to be the one holding the matchbook.
One wonders by the time we are done dissecting the 2016 presidential election whether we’ll be at or even past the 2020 election. Speaking of Hillary Clinton, recall that she had her own promotional book tour relating to an insider account published but a few months ago. What Happened has had its fair share of praise and scorn since its release from those across the political spectrum. Among the Breitbart crowd, well, you wouldn’t really expect many to review it favorably. An oddly pleasurable consequence of Clinton’s continued prominence is that on FOX News and elsewhere, the mere mention of her name causes commentators to all but froth at the mouth—even though she lost. David Weigel of the Washington Post referred to this effect as her “shadow presidency,” and this seems all too accurate. Heck, if you wanted to, you could probably make a drinking game out of it. Go to the FOX News website. Wait for something about Hillary or Bill to pop up. Drink. Chances are you could get hammered in a short period of time.
Among liberals and even moderates, though, critique has been abundant. Certainly, Bernie Sanders supporters did not take kindly to her characterization and blame of the senator from Vermont that accused him of not being a “true” Democrat and of engaging in character assassination rather than substantive debate about the issues. From their standpoint, this slight was fairly disingenuous considering Sanders a) campaigned for her after suspending his presidential bid (much to the chagrin of the Bernie or Bust crowd, to stress), and b) that she enjoyed such a strong backing from the Democratic Party establishment. Otherwise, observers found fault with Clinton’s apparent defense in her memoir of running as a product of a moneyed political system that voters rejected—narrowly, yes, and in favor of a fake populist in Donald Trump, but even so. For a subset of the American electorate that already saw Hillary Clinton as out of touch, What Happened hasn’t really done much to change this perspective.
Owing to Clinton’s recent polarizing account, one is left to consider what will become of James Comey and his legacy. The level of discourse between Donald Trump and the former FBI director has been characterized by various sources as being remarkably catty given the stature of these two men, and whether this is a product of their egos, a social media-fueled culture of tit-for-tat personal attacks, or both, for those of us among the American public growing weary of pettiness between political figures without substance—will we never tire of hearing about the size of Trump and his hands?—this whole business gives us a reason to tune out.
Certainly, Comey is detested by people on the left and the right, with Republicans attacking him as a liar and leaker of information, and Democrats and other members of the anti-Trump crowd deriding his actions as indefensible. Their effect on the 2016 election notwithstanding, those familiar with DOJ policy were highly critical of the decisions to both disclose that the Bureau doesn’t recommend prosecuting Clinton for her “extremely sloppy” handling of her E-mails while as Secretary of State and to make it known that the investigation was being reopened. For all of Comey’s waxing philosophical on the desire for governmental transparency, in these instances, perhaps such disclosure was unwarranted. After all, the Federal Bureau of Investigation often requires confidentiality as a product of the type of work it does, and if Comey was concerned about a potential backlash from conservative circles if he failed to be more forthcoming about matters involving the Democrats’ presidential hopeful, this fear may likewise have been misplaced or overstated.
Evidently, James Comey sees A Higher Loyalty and his criticisms of the President as necessary given the present political climate, much as Hillary Clinton feels compelled to explain What Happened and to be a leading voice against Trump despite her stated desire not to run again for public office. Just the same, with the likes of Claire McCaskill and others cautioning Clinton about unabashed attacks on #45 and his loyal “deplorables” when midterm elections are fast approaching, it is worth asking how valuable Comey’s dissection of ethical leadership is when his own leadership skills are being brought into question. Comey served this country within the Department of Justice for nearly 25 years. Maybe he would best serve it now by showing more restraint.
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As I have emphasized on this blog and as numerous other concerned members of the Resistance would offer, when something crazy is going on in national news and politics—which these days unfortunately seems to disproportionately involve President Donald Trump and his embarrassing conduct—it merits watching what is going on when Congress actually gets around to advancing and/or passing legislation through the House and Senate. To be sure, there have been a fair amount of distractions recently that have dominated headlines and have made this task more difficult. Probably the biggest topic on everybody’s minds was the President’s alleged use of the word “shithole” in describing countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and various African countries that are less savory as sources of immigrants than, say, Norway. I say “alleged” because several Republican lawmakers present for the meeting and DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have denied that he used that word. But come on—you know they’re full of shit. Even with a distraction like this, there’s another layer of distraction built in. Yes, Trump used a bad word, but the more important notion is Trump insinuated that it would be better if we accepted people from a country where white people are the majority as opposed to countries where black or brown people are the majority. Never mind that Americans are more likely to immigrate to Norway than the other way around because people who live there enjoy a high standard of living, universal health care, and generally are among the happiest individuals on Earth. The implication was clear to those who understand Trump has basically been a white supremacist’s wet dream since he started running for office.
Otherwise, there were more salacious accounts involving Trump’s personal life, specifically that he was having an affair with then-porn star Stormy Daniels while he was married to Melania back in 2006, and that, so as to not undermine his political chances or damage his brand or what-have-you, his lawyer formed a shell company in 2016 to negotiate the payment of $130,000 so that she would not disclose details about their relationship. Even though Daniels apparently did tell a number of details about it back in 2011 when interviewed by In Touch Weekly magazine—including the revelation that Trump is obsessed with sharks and hates their shark-y guts. Not a particularly damning revelation, mind you, but just entertaining. Why we haven’t heard or likely won’t hear more about it is perhaps puzzling—Chris Cillizza of CNN surmises it is likely because Trump’s camp has denied any connection between Trump and Daniels, people don’t want to be involved with anything even tangentially related to porn (at least where prying eyes might see), that we’ve heard it all about Trump already, or all of the above—but regardless of the profile of this story, it seems like pretty reprehensible behavior on Trump’s part from a moral standpoint, and pretty ethically inexplicable from a legal standpoint if there wasn’t any legitimate reason for Daniels to be getting $130K (and why wasn’t it $150K—that’s a much nicer “round” number than $130K, no?).
On top of this, there was the drama involving the government shutdown, which wasn’t so much of a “distraction” given that there were real consequences for this happening, but the partisan squabbling it encouraged was realistically more theatrical than anything. Democrats expressed their concerns about the level of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for the level of protection for “Dreamers” under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republicans were outright blaming the Democrats for this mess and used military pay as a bargaining chip, alleging that the Dems held these all-important monies for our uniformed men and women hostage. Donald Trump kept insisting that someone needs to pay for a border wall. All the while, fingers were being pointed in every direction—with most Americans pointing back at Congress for not being able to strike a deal or by tying the DACA issue to the budget resolution issue, even if Democratic, Republican, and independent voters alike broadly support an extension of DACA. In short, and after the fact, no one looks good as a result of this, and for all his past criticisms of President Obama in presiding over shutdowns, it looks especially bad for Trump now that he has encountered one in just a year or so since he began his tenure—and with both the House and Senate under GOP control, no less.
All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the #ReleaseTheMemo business that conservatives have had on the tip of their tongue of late! Congressional Republicans have been alluding to a memo in Devin Nunes’ possession that outlines Obama-era abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the FBI and Department of Justice, specifically as it regards investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Worse than Watergate, they claim! It is with this final distraction that I’ll bring in a recent piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for an excellent contextualization—as he is wont to provide—of this particular instance of click-bait news. Taibbi starts by saying what most reasonable observers have put forth: that if the memo is really as jaw-dropping as outspoken Republicans have made it out to be, then by all means, it should be released. At the same time, though, as Taibbi argues, if this material truly exonerates Donald Trump of any wrongdoing re Russia, why hasn’t the man himself released it? After all, Trump, um, is characteristically not afraid to share. From the article:
By all means, if the memo is important (although I doubt it) let’s let the public see it. But followers of this story should also remember that if this or any classified document somehow exculpates Donald Trump on any front, he’s had the power all along to declassify such information. Why Trump hasn’t done so on a number of these occasions has been one of the enduring mysteries of this affair. It’s given pause to even the most hardened Russiagate skeptics.
This includes people like former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of the National Review. McCarthy has been highly critical of the Robert Mueller investigation, but has also repeatedly wondered why Trump is not lifting the veil on some of these documents. One of the few figures in the media to explore holes in Russiagate theories propagated by both sides, McCarthy had this to say in August:
“I can’t get past a nagging question: Why must we speculate about whether the Obama administration abusively exploited its foreign-intelligence-collection powers in order to spy on Donald Trump’s political campaign? After all, Trump is president now. If he was victimized, he’s in a position to tell us all about it.”
At the very least, it’s food for thought, and prompts Matt Taibbi to label the #ReleaseTheMemo fervor “curious and disingenuous at best.” (Also not helping this case: that this hashtag has been linked to Russian bots that have helped to get it trending on Twitter.) At the same time, Taibbi indicates that it’s not like individuals on both sides of the political aisle haven’t been working to obscure what the sources of their information on Russia may be. Already, given its history of attention-grabbing details like lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers,” and the subsequent backlash it received for having the likes of Buzzfeed break the news unconfirmed, the Steele dossier, for one, has not necessarily been something the mainstream media wants to acknowledge as informative of the investigation into Trump’s affairs. In other words, there’s much confusion and misdirection about what people know and how they know it re Russia, and thus far, it has mostly amounted to nothing more than additional confusion and tedious back-and-forth accusation, as it did with the shutdown.
The main thrust of Taibbi’s article, meanwhile, and getting back to the notion of these events as distraction and theater, is that while all this political brinksmanship was going on, important legislation with serious implications was being passed, aided by Democrats crossing that proverbial aisle. The first, coincidentally, involves FISA. Specifically, the House and Senate passed an extension of Section 702 of the Act, which lets the U.S. government obtain the communications of foreign nationals outside the United States without a warrant. Per the language of the law, intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. citizens or nationals, or to use the power of Section 702 to surveil individuals on American soil. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties-minded organizations, however, have expressed doubts about how this program may be used and abused. The ACLU, in particular, enumerates these charges concerning the deleterious effects of Sec. 702:
Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
Section 702 surveillance chills freedom of speech and association.
There are more detailed explanations for each of these items on the ACLU page linked to above, but suffice it to say, there are legitimate concerns about how broadly Section 702 may be used to capture information that is relevant to “foreign intelligence”—a distinction that is subjective and seemingly intentionally vague—how this sensitive information may be stored in databases for undetermined lengths of time, how political or even personal enemies may be targeted by intelligence community members as an abuse of their privilege, how legal procedure may be circumvented in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts, and how so few data have been made clear to interested parties regarding the surveillance of Americans and the usage of their online communications. Liberal or conservative, it creates trepidation on the part of the average telephone/mobile/Internet user-consumer, and perhaps worst of all, it feeds the narrative of the “deep state” on the right that undermines even the best-intentioned government actions. But, by all means, let’s have more conspiracy theories!
As Matt Taibbi submits, too, it may be patently self-defeating to reauthorize the “virtually limitless surveillance powers of this president” when many suspect him to be aided or compromised by Russia. Which makes it all the more frustrating—at least to me—that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would vote for an extension of Section 702 of FISA when they have publicly expressed their doubts about Trump. Taibbi explains what is likely behind this “yes” vote from key House Dems:
This is a classic example of something that’s been axiomatic in Washington for ages: that both parties tend always to be interested in expanding executive power, no matter who’s in office or what the political situation. In this case, the principle of expanding presidential authority outweighed even concerns of abuses by the likes of Donald Trump.
Or, perhaps to put this another way, yes, let’s give the executive more power so we can exploit it when our party is in the White House. As tends to be the case in the world of politics, moral objections are relative to how many seats you control and whether or not your side is in the Oval Office.
The other piece of legislation which stands to get through the Senate, notably with the help of several Democrats, and which is equally if not more concerning, is the rolling-back of regulations provided for by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, already criticized for not going far enough to do either of its stated objectives. The list of Democratic co-sponsors to the so-called Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which was released on December 5 of last year, reads like a who’s who of irritatingly moderate Democrats. Michael Bennet. Joe Donnelly. Heidi Heitkamp. Tim Kaine. Angus King, who technically is an independent, but let’s give him, ahem, credit where credit is due. Joe Manchin. Claire McCaskill. Gary Peters. Jon Tester. Mark Warner. These are self-professed Dems from states like Colorado, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia in which being a centrist on matters of regulation of business appears to be a self-preservation move more than anything. Unless, as Taibbi suggests, they were either tricked or wooed by lobbyists for the banks. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:
In another bizarre episode, at least ten Senate Democrats recently crossed the aisle to support a rollback of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, the killing of which of course has long been a major policy goal of Trump’s. The Dodd-Frank bill story is particularly disturbing, because it signals a rare potential area of consensus amid the otherwise reassuringly dysfunctional three-headed monster that is the lunatic Trump, establishment Republicans, and Democrats.
The bill has been pitched as aid and regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions. Such groups are the widows and orphans of financial reform: nobody’s ever against helping them, which is why even giveaways to Wall Street behemoths are often dressed up as aid to regional bankers. The Dems who crossed the aisle to support the Dodd-Frank rollback bought into the lobbyist-flogged idea that Too-Big-To-Fail banks have too many punitive regulatory requirements, and moreover that “smaller” companies (i.e. firms with less than $10 billion in assets) should be exempt from the already watered-down Volcker rule, which prevents depository banks from gambling for their own accounts.
One of the main ideas behind the proposed bill, which passed the banking committee 16 to 7, is changing the definition of a “Too Big to Fail” institution from having $50 billion in assets to having $250 billion in assets. This quintupling of the size limit would mean a number of huge companies would now enjoy relaxed capital requirements and other benefits. Only about 10 companies would be left to face the more stringent rules.
Why is this a concern? Only because it would increase the risk of another financial meltdown like we had ten years ago. As Taibbi and others argue, de-concentrating financial power by breaking up the big banks and by forcing them to separate banking and investing (read: sanctioned gambling) activities helps to mitigate this risk. Besides, if you’ll recall, it was taxpayers who bore the brunt of the last recession, but absent more stringent rules to keep Wall Street and the financial industry in check, there’s no guarantee another crisis won’t manifest. And once more, we would be the ones called on to bail out the big companies who played fast and loose with our money—not the other way around.
As Taibbi frames this, this is Congress in a nutshell: they fight publicly over something that’s “irrelevant, inaccurate, or far from a resolution,” only to have a consensus group advance a bill that is highly important/relevant, but “unsexy” and unlikely to garner the same attention, or even the kind of attention it merits. For the liberal progressives among us, this is a decidedly poor modus operandi.
Even as distraction, the three-day “kerfuffle,” as Matt Taibbi called it, over the shutdown was particularly galling to many on the left because the Democrats made a deal without any real assurances from Republicans that voting on a new DREAM Act would be taken up in the near future. Oh, sure, Mitch McConnell swore there would be, but trusting Mitch McConnell is like the fabled frog trusting the scorpion not to sting it as they cross the river—the scorpion will sting because that’s its nature, and McConnell will back out of his promise because he, like our President, is a lying sack of shit. Of course, Chuck Schumer didn’t waste much time backing out of certain terms either—after initially indicating prior to the end of the shutdown that a border wall would be on the table as part of forthcoming negotiations, he apparently pulled a 180 and made it clear the wall was no longer on the table. Psych! Regardless, after Donald Trump and congressional Republicans were done lambasting the Democrats for causing the whole government shutdown, the relatively short duration of the shutdown dovetailed ever nicely into jabs from conservatives that the Dems “caved” on the issues at hand. Name-calling though it might be, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The fate of Dreamers and the wall are still sticking points, and once more, the can has merely been kicked down the road noting that this resolution is merely a temporary budget fix.
Not that this necessarily means a huge deal, but if Americans are disappointed and embarrassed by this particular episode in U.S. politics, you can just imagine what the world thinks of us—distractions and all. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, researched this very topic, and was struck by one prevailing theme which emerged from the responses he received from international observers: that there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system. For those looking on in Canada, France, and even the United Kingdom, with whom there yet remains some sympathy for our backward ways, there is cause for both concern and vague deprecation. For less understanding authoritarian regimes and otherwise tightly-run states, there is outright glee that America’s government can descend into chaos so easily, and unfounded as the claims may be, the shutdown makes us look weak, suggesting to some that Western democracy is fundamentally flawed (hello, Chinese propaganda!) or that the shutdown is pure theater to distract from the Democrats’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s ties to Russia (hello, Russian propaganda!). All these reactions without having to mention golden showers, shitholes, or Stormy Daniels. Jeez—has it only been a year so far? It feels more like ten with all the nonsense that’s gone on heretofore.
To reiterate, though, this goes back to the notion of distraction. For all the blaming and finger-pointing that went on this past week, where consensus has been achieved, yet worse consequences stand to be realized. The extension of Section 702 of FISA, as noted, is concerning to liberals and libertarians alike, and the continued collective kowtowing of Congress to “Too Big to Fail” institutions and Wall Street alumni is seeming proof that both parties work first for their benefit, and get to our concerns if and when they have the time and wherewithal. If you think a three-day shutdown is bad, just wait until the next economic nosedive, something that arguably is less a question of if and more a question of when.
Though it’s been fairly quiet on the confirmation front lately (President Donald Trump has been repeatedly criticized for his—shall we say—dilatory commitment to filling vacancies in his Cabinet), even ex post facto, it can be educational to see how our U.S. senators voted on the 19 nominees thus confirmed. A particularly valuable resource in this regard is an interactive graphic from The New York Times authored by Wilson Andrews, Times graphics editor, that plots the confirmation vote records of each and every senator, sorted by most “no” votes to least.
On the Republican side, the results are disappointing, if not unsurprising. Of the 52 Republicans with a seat in the Senate, only four have registered at least one “no” vote: Lisa Murkowski (DeVos), John McCain, (Mulvaney), Rand Paul (Pompeo, Coats), and Susan Collins (DeVos, Pruitt). Aside from Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name for consideration for the role of Secretary of Labor, and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, who required Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie and has been the only nominee to receive multiple “no” votes from Republicans, no one else has really been in doubt to pass confirmation proceedings. The only other candidates who have failed to garner even 55 votes are Mick Mulvaney (Office of Management and Budget), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Tom Price (Department of Health and Human Services), Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency), and Steven Mnuchin, the likes of which, either based on their past conduct, their conflicts upon conflicts of interest, or both, haven’t exactly distinguished themselves—well, at least not in the positive sense.
As for the Democrats and independents, the results are decidedly more varied. The top “no” voter in the Senate, tallying 17 of 19 nays, is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is not really regarded as a progressive heroine, but has seemingly moved further left as she has gone along, and certainly more so than in her days in the House. Also high on the list are some of the more popular and well-regarded senators in terms of their principles—Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have issued 16 of 19 “no” votes. These senators and others who have voted no roughly two-thirds of the time—13 or more “no” votes, let’s say—comprise a minority even within the group of just Democratic and independent senators. Only 15 of this bloc of 48 senators have voted “no” 13+ times (31.25%), and that clip decreases to a scant 15% within the U.S. Senate at large. On one hand, that more Democrats are willing to break ranks is perhaps encouraging in terms of the desire to not merely rubberstamp or preemptively dismiss nominees along the path to confirmation. On the other hand, if you were looking for a unified front from the Dems, you can go ahead and keep looking, and moreover, the divide in votes may be indicative of a larger ideological divide within the Democratic Party.
Though a minority in its own right, a group of eight Democratic or independent senators has failed to record 10 or more “no” votes in 19 confirmation vote proceedings, with five of them failing to eclipse even six of 19, or a third of votes. These are the lowest of the low, literally speaking, regarding “no” votes:
Joe Manchin III (D-WV)
“No” Votes: 4 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Price, Ross)
Joe Manchin, a professed Democrat, has cast as many “no” votes as Republican Senators who have voted “no” altogether during the confirmation process. As noted, that’s a bar that should be fairly easy to clear—and he hasn’t. The votes for Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson don’t come as that much of a surprise for Manchin, hailing from a state that is synonymous with coal, but the “yes” vote for Jeff Sessions is particularly egregious. Some are comparing Joe Manchin, based on his willingness to break from other Dems, to Joe Lieberman, a comparison which is not all that endearing. Though obviously a joke, it’s telling when the official Twitter feed for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee suggests Democrats oppose Manchin in the 2018 primaries with a lump of coal. Brutal, but not wholly undeserved.
Heidi Heitkamp, like Joe Manchin III, suffers the ignominy of voting “yes” on both Pruitt and Tillerson. Also like Manchin, she hails from a state in North Dakota of which fossil fuels make up a significant part of the economy, so not a huge shocker there, but still disappointing. That she would be so principled on nominees like Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, and Steven Mnuchin makes her positions on Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson all the more jarring. Either way, Heitkamp and Manchin are the only two Democrats to vote for both Pruitt and Tillerson, and the former, like the latter, should receive her due censure from progressives within the party.
Angus King of Maine is one of two independents in the Senate, alongside a certain senator from the state of Vermont who gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money regarding the Democratic Party nomination. Like Bernie Sanders, he caucuses with the Democrats. Apparently, though, he doesn’t vote with them nearly as often as his counterpart. Certainly, the “yes” vote for Rex Tillerson is concerning, but his approval for the likes of Ben Carson and Rick Perry is also vaguely disconcerting. Mr. King, you may be independent and may caucus with the Dems, but you are no Bernie Sanders. Not even close.
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
“No” Votes: 6 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Mnuchin, Tillerson; did not vote on Pruitt)
If you believe Joe Donnelly, he is a lawmaker committed to making life better for his fellow Hoosiers, and this includes working across the aisle when necessary. If you approach his statements and his voting record from a more pragmatic or even cynical viewpoint, though, you might say he capitulates to conservatives when he has to. As both a member of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator, Donnelly’s record has been marked by his being more moderate on both economic and social issues. While I respect that this likely has caused him stress in being the subject of attacks from both the left and the right, speaking as someone from the far-left, I and other progressive-minded individuals are looking for better than 6-for-19 on these confirmation votes. That would be fine in baseball, but Indiana does not have a major league team, and these matters are more important.
Mark Warner has the exact same voting record on Cabinet position confirmations as the aforementioned independent Angus King. That’s not an endorsement—nor should it be considered as such. Once again, the principled stance on Pruitt alongside a “yes” vote on Tillerson is an odd juxtaposition, and even casting votes in favor of Rick Perry or even Ryan Zinke raises the progressive brow. Warner, it should be noted, is the top Senate Democrat investigating ties between Russia and Trump, particularly in the arena of interference in the 2016 presidential election. That said, being recently spotted having a chat over wine with Rex Tillerson doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for Democratic supporters that his interests and party loyalty are all that pure. Mark Warner, you’re on notice.
Even for those Democratic senators who have cleared the low hurdle of six “no” votes, a few others have yet to garner double digits, putting their judgment in question, or, if nothing else, suggesting they may be too close to center to really inspire enthusiasm among younger members of the party base. The following senators, if not getting an explicit wag of the finger, are nonetheless worthy of a wary eye:
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
“No” Votes: 7 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tillerson, Carson; did not vote on Price)
You may have heard Claire McCaskill’s name in the news recently, when she called upon Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia and Trump, averring that she personally had never met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—when, in fact, she totally had. She also has recently been making a push to Bernie Sanders supporters in her bid for re-election—you know, despite endorsing Hillary Clinton early in the primaries and criticizing Sanders’ campaign at the time. These stories may say enough about the Democratic senator from Missouri, but her voting record alone on Trump’s Cabinet nominees should prompt criticism from the left.
As far as moderates go, Jon Tester is fairly well regarded among liberals based on a number of his votes in the Senate, as well as policy positions which have evolved and moved further left over time (e.g. same-sex marriage, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell). A bleeding-heart liberal Tester is not, though, with his pro-gun stance, for instance, painting him as more of a “your grandpappy’s” kind of Dem than the “elitist liberals” that are always being decried in right-wing circles. At least on the gun issue, this is perhaps to be expected in a red state like Montana. Still, one might have liked to see more push-back on nominees like Wilbur Ross or even Linda McMahon given his past diatribes against the wealthy. You get a pass this time, Sen. Tester. This time.
Tim Kaine’s presence on this short list means Virginia has two under-10 “no” vote senators to its name, the only such state to earn that distinction given two Democratic/independent senators. Kaine, as you’ll recall, was Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, and a way too “safe” one at that. He is the sort that is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm from even party loyalists, let alone a younger portion of the base looking for more conviction on important issues, such as free trade (like Clinton, Kaine has supported NAFTA and came late to his resolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and regulation of the banking industry (proposals of his, while under the guise of being pro-regulation, have been criticized by progressive groups as being anything but). Tim Kaine may be a nice enough guy, but he was the wrong choice for Clinton’s presidential campaign, and may be symbolic of the “mainstream” wing of the Democratic Party that is keeping it from more enthusiastically embracing more liberal views.
To be fair, one might argue that “no” votes without much hope of dramatically altering the outcomes of these Cabinet nominees mean very little. In this regard, stances taken against potential office holders amount to little more than posturing. By the same token, however, for those who have registered more “yes” votes than “no” votes, perhaps these confirmation votes presage a deeper reluctance to embrace the Democratic Party as a whole, or at least magnify the effect of their senator’s centrism.
Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, then, is with the looming vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as the next Supreme Court justice. In a vacuum, Donald Trump’s choice of Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Antonin Scalia might not be so hotly contested by Democrats. As things in the political world have shaken out of late, though, there is additional context to consider. Republicans already had majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate before the fateful events of November, and with Trump—a loose cannon if ever there were one—ascending to the highest office in the nation, the stakes are higher than ever for a party in the Democratic Party that is reeling from electoral defeats up and down the levels of government.
Of even higher relevance, meanwhile, is Merrick Garland’s stalled nomination for this same vacancy. As you’ll likely recall, Garland was tapped by President Barack Obama near the end of his tenure, which he was perfectly justified in doing. Effectually, Obama called conservative Republicans’ bluff, nominating the kind of jurist that appeals to those on both side of the political aisle, and thus requiring GOP lawmakers to all but in name concede their refusal to confirm or hear Merrick Garland was petty gamesmanship. Which, of course, they did. Mitch McConnell and Co. held their breath and waited for Obama’s second term to conclude, rejecting calls from their Democratic counterparts and their constituents alike to “do their jobs.”
With all this in mind, we return to the current kerfuffle over Neil Gorsuch. Whereas Trump’s various Cabinet picks have only needed a 51-vote majority to secure confirmation, the role of Supreme Court justice, because it is so vital and because it is a lifetime appointment, would require 60 votes as part of a procedural cloture vote to end debate and move on to the actual confirmation vote if Senate Democrats are determined to filibuster the nomination. So, how committed are the Dems and independents in the Senate to staving off the confirmation vote? Well, let’s just say they should have enough votes—a minimum of 41 would be required—to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination. But it’s not exactly a safe margin, and fairly significantly, I feel, a few senators have either wavered on whether or not they will support a filibuster, or have outright indicated they are against this measure. Once again, Wilson Andrews and The New York Times, with the help of Audrey Carlsen, Alicia Parlapiano, and Jugal K. Patel, have devised another helpful graphic to help us sort out the positions for or against filibuster.
Undecided or Unclear: 2
Up for Re-election: 2 (Benjamin L. Cardin, Robert Menendez)
Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez are likely to vote against Neil Gorsuch in a final vote to determine if he is confirmed or not. Remember, though, we are talking about specifically pledging to support the 60-vote filibuster, and as of Tuesday, April 4, 4:30 P.M. EDT, their commitment was judged by the team at the Times to be undecided or unclear on that front. Cardin, for what it’s worth, has said he supports the filibuster on social media, and Menendez has apparently followed suit. Both senators are facing re-election in 2018, but that provides only slight plausibility as to why they would wait until Democrats were all but assured of having the necessary 41 votes given they do not really hail from strong red states. In short, and to be quite frank, it’s pretty cowardly of Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez to make their intentions known after the fact. The above-cited article from The Hill also name-checks Angus King, who, as we know, is an independent and has only managed a scant six “no” votes (and is up for re-election), as a late decider. As Democrats, however, you would expect better of Cardin and Menendez, both of whom have gone 12-for-19 in “no” votes, and as a progressive hailing from the state of New Jersey, I am severely disappointed in the latter.
Against Filibuster: 4
Up for Re-election in Solid Trump State: 3 (Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III)
Not Up for Re-election: 1 (Michael Bennet)
Joe Manchin. Heidi Heitkamp. Joe Donnelly. We’ve heard these names before, haven’t we? Suddenly, their positions on Cabinet nominees, viewed through the lens of their opposition to the filibuster, make a lot of sense. All three are running for re-election in what are deemed “solid Trump states,” meaning Donald Trump carried them by more than five percentage points in the presidential election.
On one hand, I get that re-election in hostile territory, so to speak, stands to be difficult, and there are those of us who would be willing to accept a moderate Democrat who agrees with the party at least some of the time as opposed to a Republican who is more likely to promote a regressive political agenda. On the other hand, though, being, for all intents and purposes, light versions of Republicans arguably does little for the party and only helps depress turnout in elections, especially among independents and progressives. In this regard, the Dems who capitulate to conservative or even moneyed interests can be seen as conceding without making a concerted effort to expand their base among neglected demographic groups in their jurisdictions—playing politics in the short term and risking party support in the long term. In other words, the likes of Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin are playing not to lose rather than to win, and this same strategy as employed by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats only seems to be hurting the Democratic Party at the polls. Once again, speaking bluntly, Democratic leadership doesn’t seem to “get it.”
As for Michael Bennet, even for someone whose job is not immediately in danger, he has recognizably faced pressure from both the left and right regarding the filibuster. If Jon Tester, a senator in a red state up for re-election can support the filibuster, however, I submit Bennet (10-of-19 “no votes”) could have, too. Way to ride that center rail, Mike.
The Senate Republicans are expected to exercise the so-called “nuclear option,” essentially rewriting the rules so that 51 votes can advance proceedings to the actual confirmation vote. So, why bother with a filibuster? Democrats and others on the left would insist that this is more than warranted for the GOP’s refusal to hear Merrick Garland, and besides, with a president whose ethical conflicts are barely disguised as such, and who many contend is too unhinged to serve in his present role, there are those who call on Senate Dems to demand Trump release his tax returns at a minimum before considering Neil Gorsuch for the vacancy in the Supreme Court. Then again, Republicans would say that the Democrats “started it,” after rewriting Senate confirmation rules for executive and judicial nominees in their own right in 2013. Is all fair in love, war, and politics, or do two wrongs not make a right? I guess it depends on what side of the fence you’re on, honestly.
Even if the Republicans “go nuclear,” as President Agent Orange would have it, resisting the confirmation of Gorsuch and other picks until that point based on the merit of held ideals would convey to voters that the Democrats are willing to fight for their constituents and for what they believe in rather than merely trying to hold on to what seats they have. Moreover, claims from Joe Manchin et al. that politics should be kept out of the judiciary are weak sauce when politics so clearly stand behind the decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch in the first place. If Dems like Claire McCaskill want votes from Bernie Sanders supporters, they can’t just ask for it—they have to earn it. That is, they have to demand the kind of change that authentically speaks to the needs of their rank-and-file constituents, and not merely count on voters’ ability to distinguish their policies from those of the GOP, especially when calling for incremental or middling reforms. Otherwise, with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?