Putting “Getting Things Done” in Context

What has Bernie Sanders done? Only been a consistent leader on progressive issues in over 20 years in Congress (and even before that) and started a political revolution. How’s that? (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 3.0)

As a Bernie supporter dating back to 2016, many things stick in my proverbial craw, but one turn of phrase even today still grinds my likewise proverbial gears. When asked during a Democratic debate in October 2015 by Anderson Cooper whether she is a moderate or a progressive, Hillary Clinton remarked, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

Ooh! Sen. Sanders, did you feel that sick burn?

Without wanting to delve into Clinton’s history and go tit for tat, pointing out all the things she may not have “gotten done”—like, for instance, actually winning the 2016 presidential election—the litmus test of getting things done remains problematic because of how unevenly and borderline disingenuously it gets applied, specifically as it concerns authentically progressive candidates.

For that matter, I’ve witnessed it being used by supporters of one progressive candidate against another. You probably have an idea about where I’m going with this. Anecdotally, I’ve seen some Elizabeth Warren fans take shots at Bernie, asking, for all his 28 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, what has he, you know, done? Presumably, some of these Warren supporters were Hillary supporters from the last campaign cycle, so the same line of attack about what the senator from Vermont has accomplished may yet be fresh in their minds. For a select few, there may additionally be some misdirected resentment in accordance with the notion Bernie is not a “true Democrat” and was a chief reason why Donald Trump won. Poor Hillary. It’s never her fault.

Key to the do-nothing-Bernie argument is a glance at his legislative record, particularly the legislation for which he was primary sponsor actually getting enacted. His objectors will point out that, in over two decades in Congress, Sanders has only had seven of his resolutions/bills ratified: four from his time in the House, three in the Senate. Five of these motions enacted are germane mostly to his home state, including two pieces of legislation which served to designate post offices after someone specific. Not altogether scintillating stuff. The other two specifically addressed cost-of-living adjustments for veterans and updating the federal charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Again, you may find yourself uninspired unless you were specifically impacted by these changes.

What this line of thinking fails to account for is the context in which these bills were introduced. After all, this is Congress we’re talking about here, an institution not exactly known for its prolific productivity. The very GovTrack.us showcase of Sanders’s sponsored legislation linked to above helps explain this reality.

Does 7 not sound like a lot? Very few bills are ever enacted — most legislators sponsor only a handful that are signed into law. But there are other legislative activities that we don’t track that are also important, including offering amendments, committee work and oversight of the other branches, and constituent services.

Right. There’s a bigger picture to be appreciated. On the subject of committee work, Bernie is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Budget and a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; and Veterans’ Affairs committees. So there’s that.

Such analysis also doesn’t consider the over 200 bills/resolutions signed by the president to which Sanders added his name as a co-sponsor since being sworn in as a U.S. Representative in 1991. As it must be clarified, not all of these are watershed legislative achievements. I mean, from my count, nine of these co-sponsorships were related to commemorative coins. Still, to imply inaction on Bernie’s part is misleading.

Moreover, this ignores all the times Sen. Sanders has shown leadership on a bill that, through no fault of his own, hasn’t been passed. Look at his recent offerings. Recognizing the “climate emergency” for what it is. College for All. Medicare for All. Social Security expansion. Raising wages. Lowering drug prices. These were all proposed this year. Just because this legislation is dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled Senate with a Republican in the White House doesn’t confer meaninglessness. It signals the individual proposing it is willing to fight for things worth fighting for.

This is before we even get to the issue of when political expediency “gets things done” but not necessarily in a way that is productive for all Americans. Back in June, Joe Biden touted his ability to work with the likes of James Eastland and Herman Talmadge to pass legislation, waxing nostalgic on the “civility” that could be afforded to all parties.

Beyond the obvious problem that Biden is touting his ability to work with Southern segregationists in—let me highlight this in my notes—2019, that communal effort may not be what it’s cracked up to be. The former VP has received his due criticism from Kamala Harris and other Democratic rivals for allying with segregationists in opposition of busing to integrate schools. Next to his legacy as “an architect of mass incarceration,” as Cory Booker put it, Biden’s willingness to compromise paints him in a rather poor light. It certainly clouds his purported credentials of being a champion of civil rights.

It’s not just with Bernie either. Across the board for Democrats, it seems instructive to view legislative efforts through the lens of what party controls each house and who is potentially waiting to sign a passed bill in the Oval Office. Republicans, led by shameless obstructionist and judiciary stacker Mitch McConnell, control the Senate. Donald Trump, who appears to have a death grip on today’s iteration of the GOP, is president. Should we fault Sen. Warren for watching Trump and Co. dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her eyes? Should we admonish Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of The Squad for voting their conscience only to see Senate Republicans or moderate Democrats in either house stand in their way?

Centrists like Nancy Pelosi may sneer at progressives who “have their following” only to see their votes outnumbered or their voices drowned out by appeals to civility and expediency. Absent the ability to lead, however, the progress they seek is all but nullified. There’s a reason why figures like Sanders and AOC are so popular when Congress as a whole is not. The policy positions they embrace are, by and large, supported by the American public. What’s not lacking is their commitment. It’s the political will to see their initiatives through.


Key to the Clintonian-Bidenesque “getting things done” mentality is a firm belief in the value of bipartisanship, of reaching across the aisle in the name of advancing legislation. Say the right things. Make the right amendments. Pull the right levers. Eventually, a workable bill will come out. That’s how things are supposed to work, in theory. Reasonable people making reasonable policies.

Amid the dysfunction of today’s Congress, this ideal still appears to hold water with the general public. How else to explain Joe Biden’s continued hold on the top of Democratic Party polls after two poor showings in the debates and despite a history of gaffes and poor decisions? Unless some voters are simply happy enough to have some semblance of Barack Obama’s presidency back. If we could just go back to the days before the era of President Donald Trump, everything would be back to normal, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Biden may reminisce fondly about the days when Democrats and Republicans could get along peaceably or believe that once “sensible” leadership is restored to Washington, the GOP will cut the malarkey and retake the mantle of responsible stewards of the country. He arguably both underestimates the polarization of the current political climate and overestimates his own deal-making ability in doing so, though.

Today’s Republican Party isn’t your granddaddy’s Republican Party, simply put. Not when the president is lashing out against his critics on Twitter daily, getting policy directives from FOX News, and putting the nation on the path to a dictatorship. Not when members of the party are actively denying the severity of our climate crisis or pretending that white nationalism doesn’t exist. Not when party leaders are defending the inhumane treatment of migrants at our border and are sharing derogatory memes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues with impunity.

For those of us who aren’t old enough to recall an environment like the one Biden envisions, this is all we know of the GOP, and based on how low it has sunk and continues to sink, there’s every reason to believe it has reached the point of no return—if things were even that good to begin with. Once we take off our rose-colored glasses and re-appraise past decisions from intersectional perspectives, we may come to realize just how devastating certain policies spearheaded by both parties have been for Americans outside the so-called ruling class.

In addition to his checkered civil rights record, Biden’s cozy relationship with the banking, financial services, and insurance industries contrasts starkly with his image as a blue-collar champion. Given a crowded Democratic primary field and ample resources with which to evaluate his overall record, this may turn out to be a liability. That is, even if he earns the party nomination, there’s still the matter of the general election. Trump seemingly defied the odds against Hillary Clinton, in many respects a superior candidate. Who’s to say doubling down on someone like Biden won’t backfire, leaving us with a second term of President Trump? If he’s doing and saying all these reprehensible things now, what will this mean when he gets re-elected and has nothing to lose?

Going back to the days of bipartisan cooperation under past administrations may have its superficial appeal to voters, especially moderate whites who can better afford to be casual political participants. Even that relative comfort may be illusory, however. The climate emergency is not going to fix itself. Nor is the student debt crisis or the health care affordability crisis or our crumbling infrastructure or any other serious dilemma facing our world. Simply put, the stakes are higher now and Obama-era notions of hope and change dissolving into incrementalism aren’t sufficient. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take real people power.

Let’s therefore put aside vague, top-down conceptualizations of “getting things done” in favor of mobilizing voters and encouraging citizens to get involved at various levels of government. We’ve got the people. We only need the conviction to see it through. If you’re not on board with a progressive vision for our future, don’t worry about what is politically “feasible” or what can get done. Worry about getting out of the way of those determined to lead.

Hell No, I Won’t Give Republicans Credit

Rep. Justin Amash deserves a modicum of credit for recognizing Pres. Trump’s conduct as “impeachable” as read in the Mueller report. But by and large the rest of his party does not, nor do Democrats merit overwhelming praise either. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Give the Devil his due.

Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sure, he may have had a lot of help in doing so. After all, it was, ahem, awfully fortunate to have Russia meddle on his behalf. Also, there was that whole suspiciously-timed letter by James Comey to Congress about reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private E-mail server.

And WikiLeaks had that whole DNC E-mail dump. Oh, and Trump lost the popular vote, but because of our crazy, mixed-up Electoral College, he still won (and subsequently gets to promote conspiracy theories about electoral fraud on the part of Democrats from his bully pulpit). Plus, income and wealth inequality, low turnout, racism, sexism, strategic mismanagement from the Clinton campaign and the Democrats in general, and other factors played a probable role in the final outcome.

But yes, strictly speaking, Trump won in 2016. Do I think he deserves some great degree of credit for this, however? No, I don’t, and my question to you is this: for what do you think he merits praise exactly?

From the very beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump ran on a platform of divisiveness that would be laughable today if A) it weren’t so reprehensible and B) he didn’t actually win. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. By now, this is one set of remarks in a long line of boorish, ignorant rhetoric on Trump’s part. At the time, though, it was stunning to have someone with presidential aspirations utter these words with a straight face. This didn’t come from some character on HBO’s Veep. This was a real person really saying these things. But give the Devil his due, right?

In spite of the expert predictions, Trump didn’t sink his chances right then and there. Instead, he flourished, all the while going after his political rivals on both the left and the right, going out of his way to criticize those who dared to challenge him. Megyn Kelly was only asking him tough questions because she was on her period. John McCain was less of a man because he got captured while serving in the Vietnam War (never mind that Trump himself never served because his father used an allegedly fabricated diagnosis of bone spurs to get him off the hook). Carly Fiorina was ugly. Marco Rubio became “Little Marco.” And was “Lyin'” Ted Cruz even eligible to run for president because of the whole being-born-in-Canada thing? With every jab at a fellow Republican, Trump revealed a new ugly dimension to his character. And his supporters reveled in it.

Truth be told, they still are. Long before potential Democratic challengers were lining up to be the one to take a shot at making him a one-and-done president in 2020, the man was holding the same type of rallies he held in advance of 2016. Eschewing teleprompters, he continued to rage against the changing face of America and to harp on Hillary’s conduct despite having won, all the while taking potshots at the likes of Maxine Waters and suggesting that, as a black woman, she was fundamentally less intelligent than him. LOCK HER UP! IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET THE F**K OUT! To you or I, this might feel like Hell on Earth. But to these attendees, it was a party. And for once, they felt like they were winning. Whoever they were anyway.

In Trump, they saw a figure who made them proud to be Americans, who they felt understood how they were being ignored, replaced, talked down to. He tells it like it is. He’s not a politician. He’s the epitome of success. Hey, at least with him it won’t be boring. For whatever reason or mix of reasons, they celebrated his political ascendancy. So what if he allegedly cheated on his wife with an adult entertainer and paid her not to talk about it? So what if he claims to be a religious man but won’t (or can’t) name a particular chapter or verse of the Holy Bible he finds illuminating? So what if he said he would be too busy during his tenure to play golf but has already outpaced Barack Obama in time spent away from the White House with clubs in hand? We’re making America great again. Even if we have to drag you kicking and screaming into that new America which looks a lot like the old America.

Regarding the voters who opted for Trump, then, while we might not absolve them completely for their questionable decision-making and should press them on why they continue to support the president if they still do, we can keep in mind that they are not political experts. They are flesh and blood, not necessarily guided by reason, prone to failings as we all are. It is Trump, meanwhile, who primarily deserves admonishment herein. Purporting himself to be a man with all the answers who alone can fix America’s ills. A man of the people, one lacking polish but one who connects with everyday voters. He’s not politically correct. He’s not a Washington, D.C. insider. He gets it. TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP! Promises made, promises kept.

Except he hasn’t. Where is the wall that Mexico is going to pay for? Where is that big replacement for the Affordable Care Act that is supposed to be loads better than Obama’s signature achievement? Where is the infrastructure investment he promised? What about his vow that we’d make no cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security? Or the improved Iran deal we’d be negotiating? Or the notion we’d eliminate the federal debt in eight years? Or that he’d willingly release his tax returns? I’m not saying Pres. Trump has broken all of his campaign promises, mind you. Disappointing as actions like taking America out of the Paris climate agreement and keeping the prison at Guantanamo Bay open are, Trump said he’d do them and he did.

Given how much he boasted he would do, however, to brag now about “promises made, promises kept” is to engage in disingenuousness. Judging by PolitiFact’s scorecard, more than half of Trump’s promises have either been broken, have stalled, or have been subject to some sort of compromise. If you include initiatives in the works which have yet to come to fruition, the percentage of promises kept grows yet smaller. This is especially notable for Trump’s most chant-worthy agenda items. BUILD THE WALL? We’re not even close on the steel slat barrier Trump and Co. have envisioned. LOCK HER UP? Last time I checked, Hillary Clinton isn’t behind bars. DRAIN THE SWAMP? Lo, but the president has done nothing but feed its alligators, populating his administration with appointees with ties to Goldman Sachs.

To put it another way, for all Trump has pledged to do, how often has he followed through, and along these lines, how beneficial have these policies actually been for the average American? Probably the biggest “achievement” Trump and his party can claim during his presidency is passing tax legislation that primarily benefits corporations and the wealthiest among us. There’s also Trump’s liability for getting involved in trade wars that see the cost of goods and materials passed on to consumers and put American jobs in danger. Even the relatively strong economy Trump has enjoyed as POTUS was inherited from his predecessor. Though come to think of it, it is rather on-brand for Trump to get a favorable situation handed to him and try to take credit for it afterwards.

When it boils down to it, the only thing for which we possibly could be giving credit to Donald Trump is being a fraud—and that’s not something most of us would agree deserves applause. He connived his way to the White House like his father connived his way out of the draft on his behalf, and later in life, he sold Americans a bill of goods they were only too willing to pay for. As president, he has continued his faux populist charade, all the while making everyone not like him—a rich white Christian male who shares his worldview—either a mark for the con or a target for abuse.

Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote about this “skill” of Trump’s amid his penchant for cruelty back in October 2018:

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

This is the United States in the age of Trump, and that he seems to have taken so much of the Republican Party with him is startling. The GOP as a whole merits scorn for their wholesale failure to adequately condemn him and/or their utter abandonment of their stated conservative principles, as well as their identities as ostensibly decent human beings.

Lindsey Graham? He has turned from a sometimes-critic of Trump to his sycophantic defender. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins? They’re “troubled” by Trump’s actions to the point when they actually have to stand for something—and then they end up toeing the party line when it comes time to vote. Mitch McConnell? He got Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by refusing to do his job, has obliged the president on the use of the “nuclear option” to confirm his awful nominations for key government posts, and has reflexively stonewalled legislation advanced by a Democrat-controlled House as a matter of partisan gamesmanship. And this is what deserves applause?

I’ve heard it said that whereas Democratic supporters feel they need to fall in love with candidates, Republican supporters fall in line and that’s why they keep winning. Based on their control of the White House, the Senate, and numerous state houses and governorships, this may be true in part. Again, though, do I hold this “strategic” approach in any high esteem? No, I don’t. Not when Trump and the rest of his party are pandering to the lowest common denominator, lying, cheating, and stealing their way to victory.

Do the rest of us bear at least some responsibility for allowing ourselves to be manipulated in this way? Hell yes. Our disorganization, shortsightedness, and silence help fuel their misdeeds. But do I propose that the GOP get credit for playing one big shell game and reaping the benefits? Hell no.


It is in the context of us-versus-them, Democrat-versus-Republican, winning-versus-losing binary paradigms that Rep. Justin Amash’s breaking of ranks with his GOP brethren to indicate Pres. Trump has “engaged in impeachable conduct” after reading the unredacted Mueller report is so intriguing. That he would make his conclusions known publicly, jeopardizing his standing within the party and, perhaps more significantly, his financial backing suggests some level of courage more tepid challengers such as Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney lack.

Of course, we the American public may cheer Amash’s going out on a proverbial limb without necessarily subscribing to all his political views. Awash in a cultural tide of black-and-white depictions of public figures and “canceling” anyone who utters something out of turn, we can appreciate Amash’s candor on this issue while still acknowledging the need to hold him accountable on less agreeable positions. This is a conversation about impeachment, not an ideological purity test.

Amash’s defection, if you will, is made doubly noteworthy by House Democrats’ reluctance to push for impeachment as steered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It certainly eats away at the narrative put forth heretofore that Trump “isn’t worth impeachment.” Here’s a Republican—a Republican!—saying that the contents of the Mueller report are grounds for impeachment.

Elie Mystal, contributor to The Nation, takes it one step further by declaring that Amash “is putting the Democrats to shame.” As Mystal sees it, the Dems should’ve been making the case for impeachment since taking back the House in November but they’re too scared, “as if merely uttering ‘the I word’ will bring a curse upon their house.” He writes:

The Democratic Party strategy has been to wait for somebody else to make the argument that Trump should be impeached, then glom onto it. They’ve been waiting for somebody else to do the hard work of convincing people for them. The New York Times reports that some Democratic leaders are now privately more insistent on starting impeachment proceedings, if only to counter the hardball tactics being employed by the White House. It would seem sheer embarrassment is pushing the House towards the option they should have been advocating for all along.

The Democrats were hoping for Robert Mueller to take care of things on his own, but that didn’t pan out. Or maybe a different Republican “with honor and decency” might have come forward, the expectation of which Mystal characterizes as a “disease” Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden appear to get when winning an election. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn has reportedly defied a congressional subpoena, so he’s out too. Now, against the odds, a “Tea Party joker” who “has positions [Mystal] could easily spend the rest of [his] life opposing” has taken the initiative to assent to impeachment. The Democrats’ cover has effectively been blown.

Mystal ends his piece with this stinging criticism of the Democratic Party:

[Amash] is out there looking like he’s got actual convictions, even as Republicans gear up to primary the hell out of him. He’s not waiting for Democrats or Republicans to make the argument that Trump should be impeached. He’s making it himself. He’s taking it directly to his voters. He’s trying to convince them that he is right. It’s dangerous. He might lose his seat. But as they’d say in the neighborhood: he ain’t no punk.

The Democrats look like the punks. They’re standing on top of a diving board, scared and shivering, hoping somebody would just push them in already and save them from their embarrassment.

Bringing the conversation back to the central issue of who deserves credit, Justin Amash earns some on the subject of impeachment, putting his views above the public stance of party leadership and risking a backlash from party organizers and voters alike. But that’s as far as it goes.

Along these lines, the Democrats get some credit for generally adopting more progressive policy positions than the Republicans. That, however, isn’t that onerous a task given how far off the deep end the Republican Party has apparently gone, and what’s more, the Dems (with a few exceptions) have blown a good chunk of that goodwill in not pushing for impeachment and therefore not communicating they care to hold President Trump accountable. Forget what the Senate will (or won’t) do. Forget how Trump will take it (um, guessing he won’t like it). At a point, you have to stand for something.

As the saying goes, give credit where it is due. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reason to give credit in Washington these days, least of all not to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers.

Give the Devil his due? Hell no.

Bernie’s Not a “True Democrat.” So What?

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But he’s done as much to advance the Democratic Party’s true ideals than anyone in recent history and is among the least likely in the Senate to vote with President Donald Trump’s agenda. Shouldn’t that count for something? (Photo Credit: American Federation of Government Employees/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Since Bernie Sanders made official what has long been suspected in that he would run again for president in the 2020 election, for his detractors, the reasons abound why they don’t “feel the Bern.” He’s too old. He’s too socialist. He’s another white male. His policy goals are untenable. He’s too full of himself. He cost Hillary Clinton the last election. He has done irreparable harm to the Democratic Party. He hasn’t done enough to rein in the sexism of his campaign or his supporters. He’s out of touch. His time has passed. He needs to step aside.

As a confessed Sanders supporter from 2016—and thus someone making no claims to objectivity—I bristle at a number of these concerns. Especially the ones about Bernie costing Hillary the election or doing major damage to the Democrats. Some people seem conveniently to forget that Bernie campaigned for “Hill-dawg” after ending his own bid. As for the party’s integrity, if one person is capable of causing such profound destruction to the Dems’ infrastructure, to me, that says worse about the party itself than the one supposedly wreaking havoc. Just saying.

The objection heretofore unnamed which particularly galls me, however, is the notion Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat.” True, Bernie isn’t a Democrat; he’s an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats, but he identifies primarily as an independent.

Admittedly, as fact-checker Linda Qiu, working then for PolitiFact and now for the New York Times, explored back in 2016, Bernie has had a problematic association with calling himself an independent vs. identifying as a Democrat, particularly as it pertains to his candidacy for president. On his Senate website, he listed himself as an independent. On his campaign website, he identified as a “Democratic candidate.” He has frequently criticized the Democratic Party and has rejected the label of Democrat in the past, but he has campaigned for Democrats.

As I saw one Internet commentator put it, Bernie’s like the guy who goes to bed with you and doesn’t call you back the day after. As he caucuses with the Democrats, serves on Senate committees with them, and frequently co-sponsors bills with them, I think this criticism is a bit overblown. At the very least, Sanders’s ambiguity is confusing to the prospective voter. From the party’s perspective, too, they might not feel too jazzed up about a candidate receiving the apparent benefits of associating herself or himself with the Democrats without willing to link herself or himself definitively with the party. Fix your heart or die! Wave that blue banner! What’s so bad about the Democratic Party that you don’t want to join?! (Wait, that was rhetorical—don’t actually tell us!)

For the individual voter, however, despite the confusion and whatever self-serving advantages an uneasy alliance with one of the two major parties might hold, the litmus test of whether someone is a “true Democrat” makes less sense to me. Of course, if you’re a diehard Democratic Party supporter, I get it: you probably feel a sense of umbrage about Sanders’s awkward dance with the Dems. What, Bernie, you’re good to be a member? If you don’t want to call yourself a Democrat, we don’t want you! And take your “Bernie Bros” with you!

Such a response to Sanders’s candidacy is understandable, if impractical. Much in the way we might insist on ideological purity tests for political candidates or even people/organizations that we admire and materially support, some of us who have long backed the Democratic Party regard upholding the party’s ideals as important. It’s not just a matter of intellectual attachment. It’s a matter of the heart or even the soul. As imperfect as her actions have been and her reasoning may yet be, Donna Brazile’s complaint about reducing the influence of superdelegates because of the blood, sweat, and tears she shed for the Democrats speaks to the seriousness with which she treats these affairs. Simply put, it’s personal.

With all this acknowledged, there are two big reasons why Bernie running as a Democrat in 2020 seems desirable: one more general in relation to our political system, the other specific to present circumstances. The first reason is that independent candidates face an uphill electoral battle and their very candidacy risks swaying the election. At heart, I tend to dismiss the third-party/independent-candidate-as-spoiler diatribes that periodically manifest after close races. Given the current dominance of the two major parties, a Democrat’s or Republican’s loss in a contested race should be seen mainly through the lens of that candidate’s and that party’s failure to seal the deal. Besides, it’s your right to vote however you want.

Independent as he may be, though, and as disagreeable as you may find some of his positions on issues, Bernie’s no dope. He doesn’t want to split the electorate any more than you would plead with him not to. Along the same lines, he has rejected overtures from third parties—both existing and theoretical—because of the time, effort, and organization it would take to bolster and sustain the ranks of such a progressive faction.

Then again, he could always not run. In fact, some of his 2016 supporters might share these sentiments. For all the criticism and mudslinging a presidential campaign brings with it, not to mention the strain of going from city to city doing debates, interviews, speeches, and the like, there’s a lot for one person to endure and the risk of damage to one’s political career for all the scrutiny. See also “Howard Dean Scream.”

The other major reason why Democratic Party supporters should encourage the strongest possible pool of candidates is the man who currently resides in the White House—you know, when he’s not at one of his resorts. The Dems and their supporters are deservedly riding high after their party took back control of the House subsequent to the midterms. Still, nothing is guaranteed for 2020, and especially after Donald Trump’s upset win in 2016, the Democrats would be loath to take anything for granted. Trump, for all his malapropisms and missteps, maintains a base of fanatical backers. And this is before we even get to disinformation campaigns about individual candidates that surely are underway—foreign or domestic.

To reiterate, I voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries in 2016 and still admire him, so I’m not unbiased in expressing my opinions. Just the same, I’d like to think that if he were 100 and purple, I’d support him nonetheless. For me, it’s a matter of his stated ideals. This is not to say that other candidates don’t share similar views or possess their own strengths. It’s a crowded field and a deeper one this time around, at that. For the pragmatists among us, however, his bid for the presidency as a Democrat shouldn’t be an issue, assuming the proverbial cream will rise to the top and that the primary process is a fair one. Bernie diehards, you don’t have to say it; I can already see you wagging your finger at the DNC.


What is truly problematic about the argument Bernie Sanders isn’t a “true Democrat” is that this distinction, much like Sanders’s identification with the Democratic Party, appears to be nebulous. How does someone get classified as a true Democrat? Is it based on time served in office under the party banner? Dues paid or donations raised? Commitment to the party ideals? Some combination of the above? Does the definition change over time? And who decides such things?

Briahna Joy Gray, senior politics editor for The Intercept, for one, celebrated in 2017 that Bernie is not a Democrat because that apparently leaves him free to advance the party’s ideals while the actual Democrats lament political “realities” and revert to the same faulty electoral strategies. Gray closes her piece with these thoughts about the charge levied by Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and their establishment ilk that Sanders is “not even a Democrat”:

The implication that non-Democrats would fail to live up to Democratic values, when those values are precisely the ones the Sanders movement aims to push forward, is partially why the “not even a Democrat” smear is so grating to progressives. That the party is moving leftward should provoke warm-hearted optimism and encouragement from Democrats; after all, those are ostensibly their values, too. Instead, the petty and territorial response from some Democrats reminds one of the line from Mean Girls: Bernie Sanders “doesn’t even go here!”

Political parties aren’t sports teams. Politics are about principles and results, not tribalism.  As Marc Munroe Dion, quoted in Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal, put it when describing the despair that had settled on a dying manufacturing town, those still invested in party affiliation itself are performing “political rituals that haven’t made sense since the 1980s, feathered tribesmen dancing around a god carved out of a tree trunk.” Affiliation is not a birthright or an immutable characteristic, but an expression of personal ideals. If Bernie Sanders, the most popular politician in America, is not a Democrat, it is the Democrats, not Bernie, who need to consider redefining themselves.

From where Gray is standing, Sanders’s candidacy and lingering popularity should only be threatening for Democrats if his core values and theirs fail to align. That their ideals aren’t that dissimilar and yet a tension between the two sides exists suggests it’s the Democrats who have trouble articulating or defining their ideals, notably because they’re, in part, compromised by their fidelity to “banking interests and the technocracy” as opposed to the interests of labor that at least once formed the backbone of the party’s support. It’s hard for us to be “with her” or “stronger together” when it’s difficult to know whose designs are being considered alongside our own expressions of what we need.

As of February 23 and as calculated by FiveThirtyEight, in the U.S. Senate during the era of President Donald Trump, only Kirsten Gillibrand (12.2%), Jeff Merkley (13.3%), and Elizabeth Warren (13.3%) have voted in line with Trump less often than Bernie Sanders (14.6%). That puts Sanders in line with other contenders like Cory Booker (15.6%) and Kamala Harris (17.8%), significantly better than declared or rumored candidates like Sherrod Brown (29.2%) or Amy Klobuchar (31.3%), and miles ahead of someone like Joe Manchin, who has voted in line with Trump’s position 60% of the time. West Virginia’s identity as a “red” state notwithstanding, and noting that a party is only as good as its weakest link, how silly does it look to cast aspersions on Bernie when he fares better on the ideological purity test than the majority of his Democratic colleagues and when someone like Manchin seems like the living embodiment of a DINO (Democrat in Name Only)? This is not a good look for the Dems.

True, Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. But so what? He’s done as much as anyone in recent memory to help save the Democratic Party from itself, and while it can’t be assumed that he would’ve won the 2016 election had he won the nomination, he may just be the Democrats’ best option in 2020.

Why Do Billionaires Like Howard Schultz Want to Run for President? Because They Can

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering an independent presidential run, but there seems to be little to no need or desire for him to run, not to mention his lack of political experience. (Photo Credit: Flickr/Department of Defense/U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann/CC BY 2.0)

Reportedly, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is “seriously considering” a presidential run—as an independent no less.

Why not run as a Democrat and join an ever-deepening 2020 field? As Schultz has suggested in interviews, he opposes running as a Democrat because of what he views as “extremism on both sides.” He also believes that if a progressive won the Democratic Party nomination, it would be a surefire way to get Donald Trump re-elected.

There’s a bit to unpack here even with so little quoted, so let’s get down to it. On the notion that there are extremists or bad actors “on both sides,” while this may be true, it would seem a bit of a false equivalency. On the progressive left, you have people arguing for a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, etc. On the far right, you have Nazis and other white supremacists. For someone who professes to loathe Trump, Schultz’s discourse sounds a lot like his. Even if he’s talking primarily about the national debt, to speak in general terms about the left and right is as reckless as the deficit spending about which he speaks.

As for the idea that having a progressive as the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 means handing over the presidency to Trump, this is a line that’s been parroted over and over since the 2016 election and even before that. But it underestimates the enthusiasm that exists across ideologies for progressive ideals and policy initiatives, and fails to account for the struggles more moderate candidates have encountered in recent elections. Hillary Clinton, for all of her education and experience, and despite sexism and shenanigans prior to Election Day, had serious flaws as a candidate right down to how she ran her campaign. If centrism is the virtue we’ve made it out to be, shouldn’t Clinton have finished 20 points ahead, as she (in)famously quipped? The results don’t appear to bear this out.

This is all before we even get to the obvious assertion: that running as an independent would steal votes from the Democratic nominee. Such a prediction may or may not be true; it’s hard to assess what independents and other unaffiliated voters may be thinking as they step into voting booths absent exit polls, and then, of course, it’s too late. There’s also the matter that voters should be free to choose whomever they want in an election. It’s their vote and their right. That said, I don’t know that I’m encouraging independent presidential runs—especially not from billionaire businessmen given we have one in the White House.

Initial responses to Schultz’s visions of 2020 candidacy, er, haven’t been great. At a recent stop on his book tour—it’s called From the Ground Up and you can be sure it speaks to his credentials as a job creator and someone interested in civic engagement!—Schultz was interrupted during his interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin by a heckler who told him, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole” and later added, “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter.” As the kids would say, shots fired.

Schultz brushed off the criticism—”I’m not running a primary race on Twitter”—but it is interesting witnessing a lukewarm (at best) reception for Schultz’s hint at a presidential bid. Sure, the bulk of it may relate to the contention that Donald Trump is no ordinary president, a racist fraud and pathological liar intent on taking the country backwards who needs as an undivided an opposition as possible to get removed from office and get us back on track.

A component of this animus might additionally stem from Starbucks’s uneven track record of late in avoiding controversy, notably concerning race relations. While still executive chairman of Starbucks, there was the whole to-do at the Philadelphia store that saw two black men arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend. Let’s also not forget the Race Together campaign, an initiative devoted to racial equality and one promoting a dialog on race which was panned as misguided and tone-deaf. Turns out people don’t like when white billionaires lead a discussion on race relations. Go figure.

What’s also perhaps striking about Schultz’s non-announcement announcement is, despite the poor reception it has received from hecklers and trolls, how much press it has received in such a short time. Sure, a book tour helps, though there seems to be no shortage of books on the market from political figures or those with similar aspirations.

As noted, however, interviewers and other members of the media have been lining up to greet the former Starbucks chief executive and absorb his supposed political insights. He and his wife Sheri got some face time on 60 Minutes this past weekend. CBS This Morning. The New York Times. NPR. Laudatory opinion pieces by David Frum. You may not necessarily hold these sources in high esteem, but they certainly do expose Schultz and his views to a fairly wide audience.

To be fair, not all of this has been positive or even neutral press. In a series of tweets about Schultz, Paul Krugman painted him as a conservative and anti-Democrat masquerading as a centrist. Other detractors have raised objections similar to the ones outlined above. We don’t need another egotistical billionaire in the White House. No one asked or wants you to run. I asked for a caramel macchiato, not a caramel latte. OK, that last one is a joke, but suffice it to say there is plenty of negativity to go around.

Still, Schultz must figure he has an audience, right? And, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as negative press? If Donald Trump can build a following despite the attempts of the mainstream media to laugh off his presidential campaign, it’s conceivable that the networks and pundits who prop him up might be enough to make an eventual candidacy seem meritorious. If Schultz is as self-centered as he’s made out to be, he might be swayed by Trump’s attempts to egg him on, too. Left or right, there’s no shortage of individuals who would undoubtedly relish the chance to try to take the president down a peg. It’s a trap, but in an era of performative outrage, any blowback could have its purpose. Hey, at least I stood up to the man! At least I stood for fiscal responsibility!

This very column devoted to Schultz’s testing the waters could be seen as unnecessary attention. In other words, if we ignore him, he’ll go away. Especially after Trump’s electoral success, though, it may be a few cycles before the billionaire executive candidate goes out of fashion. Either way, there’s a larger conversation about how money and privilege afford power. Long before the Trump era, Ross Perot had a reasonably successful run as an independent. As long as someone’s personal finances can get him or her a ticket to “the show” and as long as he or she has a path to voters’ attention, focusing on candidates like Howard Schultz as a subset of the discussion of the role of money in politics remains relevant.


The devil’s advocate argument, if you will, for Schultz’s possible candidacy would seem to exist with respect to the notion that he built his company, as the title of his book alludes to, “from the ground up.” If he earned his money through his hard work and his vision, why not spend it how he wants? There would also be historical precedent if Schultz wins. Schultz would be the first Jewish president of the United States, though like Bernie Sanders, he tends to downplay his faith. As he said in his 60 Minutes interview, “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president. I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.” Let that be the only comparison between Schultz and Sanders, at least in this space.

Even if Howard Schultz can run for president, however, should he? In spite of recent controversies involving the Starbucks brand, the man hasn’t engendered much antipathy from the American people. Should he decide to run for office, particularly as an independent, that could dissipate fast. Why risk the damage to one’s reputation as well as a possible Starbucks boycott? Any way you slice it, that’s bad for business.

Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, claims to appeal to the voter who is sick and tired of bickering and ineffectiveness between the two major parties. He wants “to see the American people win.” But a number of his positions seem out of step with what Americans want, and certainly with what progressives would like to see. His deliberation on the national debt evokes the “pay-go” debate as it applies to the Democratic Party agenda, a shift that Nancy Pelosi and others have embraced along the lines of economic “pragmatism” but one that could stunt progressive initiatives.

His insistence that universal health care is as illusory as Donald Trump’s visions of a border wall, meanwhile, belies the idea that it is practiced around the world, suggesting that if we really wanted to, we could follow the lead of Australia, Canada, China, Europe, most of South America, Russia, and scores of other areas/countries. That Schultz so readily and straightforwardly dismisses something which is fast becoming part of the mainstream political conversation makes one tend to wonder whether he fails to understand this much or understands all too well and chooses to ignore it. To this effect, I’m not sure which is worse.

So, yes, Howard Schultz can run for president. It’s a free country. It just seems, though, like there’s not a huge need or desire for him to throw his proverbial hat into the ring, and having people dip into their personal finances and vie for public office when campaign finance is already so enmeshed with the designs of corporate and wealthy donors seems problematic.

Money should not suffice or be a prerequisite for political participation. Let’s not encourage another out-of-touch billionaire who lacks experience to go beyond hocking his autobiography.

Joe Biden? Really?

Joe Biden is affable, experienced, and believes in the dignity of a hard-earned paycheck. But does that make him the best choice for Democrats in 2020? (Photo Credit: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lopez/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

According to a recent poll of 455 likely Democratic caucus-goers from the state of Iowa, Joe Biden is their top choice for president in 2020 at 32%. Bernie Sanders comes in second at 19%, followed by Beto O’Rourke at 11%. Elizabeth Warren (8%) and Kamala Harris (5%) round out the top five, assuming you don’t include “Not sure” as part of this ranking.

Observers will point out this is a very early poll. For the sake of an example, Jeb Bush had a comfortable lead at this point in 2014—and we all know how that eventually turned out.

Nevertheless, these poll results hint at what Democratic supporters’ priorities might be leading up to 2020. With Biden leading the pack, political experience and a perceived ability to stand up to Donald Trump appear to be key factors in voters’ decision-making process. In the language of the poll, they prefer a “seasoned hand” to that of a “newcomer.”

As a reaction to Trump, this predilection for the former vice president is understandable. Trump, the outlandish outsider, has demonstrated what damage a neophyte with a questionable temperament for the job can do. That said, is Biden really who the Dems want to represent them in the next presidential election?

If you ask Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist, the answer is heck, no. Bruni, despite liking Biden, urges him not to run for president. Here’s Bruni’s opening salvo from a recent column:

You’d agree, wouldn’t you, that Consideration No. 1 in choosing a Democratic nominee in 2020 is making sure that the person is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump? That nothing else comes close? Then what would you say if I told you that we should put our chips on a man who failed miserably at two previous campaigns for the nomination, the first one back in 1988, a year before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born? And that when he applied the lessons from that debacle to his second bid two decades later, he did no better, placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses, getting fewer than 1 percent of the state’s delegates, and folding his tent before even the New Hampshire primary?

And that he spent nearly 45 years in Washington, a proper noun that’s a dirty word in presidential politics? And that his record includes laws and episodes that are reviled — rightly — by the female and black voters so integral to the Democratic Party? And that, on Election Day, he would be 77, which is 31 years older than Bill Clinton was in 1992, 30 years older than Barack Obama was in 2008, and a complete contradiction of the party’s success over the past half-century with relatively youthful candidates?

You’d tell me that I was of unsound mind. Well, Joe Biden’s boosters are.

But tell us how you really feel, Frank. In analyzing the general election prospects of a man who sounds a lot like he’s about to run for president, Bruni is critical of the pitch Biden is making for a Democratic Party nomination. Which, at this point, mostly amounts to him touting his qualifications. Hillary Clinton is supremely qualified for the top political office in the country based on her experience. Donald Trump is, well, not. But it was Trump who won the 2016 election. In this political climate, experience might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

This is not to say that Biden isn’t a great guy at heart. As Bruni feels, he’s a devoted political servant and family man, as well as someone with the inner strength and the requisite knowledge to match his aspired role. He’s “real.” 

Still, there are some not-so-savory elements of Biden’s political career. Though he has since apologized for not being able to “do more for” her—Biden has been criticized for his part in questioning Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. His questions have been characterized as reflecting a remarkable tone-deafness, and while he avers he always believed Hill’s testimony, his demeanor at the time suggests otherwise.

As Bruni underscores, Biden also merits scrutiny/criticism for his ties to the banking industry and support of a 2005 bill that made it more difficult for consumers to win protection under bankruptcy, as well as his role in drafting a 1994 crime bill that some analysts and activist groups allege did damage to communities of color and helped fuel America’s mass incarceration problem.

On the latter, Biden has repeatedly defended the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The victims of institutional racism and the war on drugs, however, might take issue with this badge of honor.

Plus, and with all due respect, he’s an old white dude. This isn’t necessarily a disqualifying factor; look at how popular Bernie Sanders is with young people. Still, as a D.C. insider who doesn’t signal a move of the Democratic Party in a new, progressive direction, he’s a questionable choice in their bid to unseat Trump from the Oval Office. 

Bruni closes with these thoughts on Biden’s prospective candidacy:

He has said that he’ll decide in the next month or two whether to run — whether he’s willing to spend that much time away from his grandchildren. For their sake, I hope he stays on the sidelines. For our sake, too.

As a Bernie supporter from last election, I’m definitely biased in his favor relative to Biden. But when ol’ Amtrak Joe would seem to be a poor choice next to others in the field with less experience, too, I tend to agree with Mr. Bruni.


In deference to Joe Biden and responding to Frank Bruni’s dismissal of his earlier runs, while his past presidential campaigns have fizzled out, Biden stands a better chance now that he has more name recognition having served as vice president. Assuming Hillary Clinton doesn’t run in 2020—and that’s no guarantee, mind you—he’s got name recognition and probably would have the backing of establishment Democrats should he survive the nomination process.

I also don’t think Biden’s age is the problem that some make it out to be. Sure, people may see young progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the future of the Democratic Party, and deservedly so. (If you think like Matthew Yglesias, you might be ready to usher her into the White House, but let’s wait until she actually is of age and has served a day in the House of Representatives, shall we?)

In the meantime, the Dems have an election to win and it’s not as if people like Biden and Bernie Sanders have serious physical or mental health concerns that would prevent them from serving. Age is just a number, and what matters most are a person’s ideals and capability for the office, not their gender, race, religion, or any other identifying characteristic.

Saying Biden is recognizable and competent enough to be president of the United States is not an endorsement, though. In a piece from 2017 reacting to a blog post Biden wrote for his namesake institute at the University of Delaware about choosing a future that “puts work first,” Bill Scher, writing for POLITICO, discusses Biden’s platform being essentially a rejection of populism, whether the kind exploited by Donald Trump and his ilk in their pitch to Republican voters or the sort championed by Bernie Sanders as a means of saving the Democratic Party, well, from itself.

Scher’s piece is a lengthy one, and merits a full read, if nothing else, for its dissection of Biden’s views on universal basic income, Silicon Valley executives, corporations, and the “dignity” of one’s work. His closing remarks, however, do nicely sum up Biden’s strengths and his potential weaknesses ahead of a probable presidential run:

With all this in mind, there’s one major question left that Biden has to consider before he runs: Does he have a shot? He’s an old white man at a time when many Democratic voters are hungry for fresh faces. However, he’s also a commanding presence who would likely enter a field overcrowded with rookies stepping on one another’s populist toes. And he’s just as comfortable talking about the old days at the local auto show as he is embracing multiculturalism. He can seamlessly shift from celebrating the American worker to confronting the scourge of domestic violence (as he touts one of his big Senate legacies, the Violence Against Women Act) to the importance of LGBT rights (and reminding how he publicly nudged President Obama on gay marriage.)

If nothing else, Biden has a path. It’s a path that diverges from left-wing and right-wing populism; a path that seeks partnership between workers and corporations, unity across racial and gender lines, and reverence for higher education and the idea that you can work your way to a better life if given the right tools.

But walking that path will require a few more signature policy ideas, and a whole lot of Scranton charm. If anyone can make everyone believe he’s on their side—and in turn, erase many of the divides wracking the American electorate—it may well be the fast-talkin’, back-slappin’, gaffe-makin’ God-love-him Uncle Joe.

Biden is indeed someone with working class appeal, whether or not you buy into the authenticity of his image. This aspect of Amtrak Joe’s character is undoubtedly why Barack Obama chose him as his running mate. At a time when the backing of working-class whites, traditionally a bastion of Democratic Party support, is far from a guarantee with job losses affecting the manufacturing sector and union membership on the apparent decline, Biden’s ability to connect on a personal level with voters in crucial swing states is not to be undersold.

All the same, Biden, at least at present, lacks a big idea that can inspire across voting blocs. Repugnant as many of us may find it, Trump rode the vision of a wall at the Mexican border to electoral victory—and appears prepared to shut down the federal government over this issue, still insisting to anyone who will listen that Mexico will pay for it. Simply put, Biden will need more, on top of a credible, complete platform amid a crowded Democratic field.

Accordingly, and to bring Bruni’s objections back into the mix, Joe Biden is a risky proposition for Democrats leading up to 2020, with or without a signature policy proposal and especially if he keeps touting 90s-era crime legislation that critics increasingly see as problematic as views evolve and conflicts between groups persist. Even as he has his share of admirers, it may be better for his legacy, the Democratic Party, and all of us if he passes on a 2020 presidential bid.

We’re in the Midst of a Culture War. Do We Actually Like Fighting It?

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The protests at UC Berkeley in 2017. As much as “the culture war” between liberals, conservatives, and everyone betwixt and between may be characterized by outrage, we should consider it’s become so pervasive because we actually relish fighting it. (Photo Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Funcrunch Photo/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, took to his blog to explain his reasoning for why he switched his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Though he acknowledged it wasn’t his biggest reason—positions on the estate tax, concerns about Hillary’s health, and a lack of concern about Trump being a “fascist” and belief in his talents of persuasion also were factors—part of his decision was the subjective experience of being a prospective voter in the election. In a subsection of his post titled “Party or Wake,” Adams had this to say about the Clinton-Trump audience dichotomy:

It seems to me that Trump supporters are planning for the world’s biggest party on election night whereas Clinton supporters seem to be preparing for a funeral. I want to be invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.

Silly and privileged as it might seem—I want to have a good time and not a bad time—there might be something to Adams’s sentiments as they relate to Trump’s base. In a sprawling piece for Politico, senior staff writer Michael Grunwald delves into how the culture war has pervaded our modern political landscape. Speaking on the mood at Trump’s rallies during the campaign, he evokes that party-like atmosphere to which Adams referred:

The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun-grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.

“How much fun everyone seemed to be having.” From my liberal suburban bubble, it seems strange to imagine an environment that feels akin to a circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno as fun.

And yet, there’s the feeling of inclusion (without really being included) that his fans apparently relish. As much as one might tend to feel that Trump gets more credit than he deserves, he has tapped into a genuine spirit of Americans feeling ignored or replaced and desiring to be part of a celebration. We don’t want change. We don’t want a level playing field for everyone. We want America to be great again. We want to keep winning. Never mind that we don’t exactly know what winning means or if we’ll still be winning five, ten, or twenty years down the road.

There’s much more to dwell upon than just the tenor of Trump’s rallies, though. Which, despite having won the election back in 2016, he’s still regularly holding. Is he already running for 2020? Or is he doing this because winning the election is his biggest achievement to date? Does anyone else think this is weird and/or a waste of time and other resources? Or is this Trump being Trump and we’re already past trying to explain why he does what he does? But, I digress.

Before we even get to present-day jaunts with the “LOCK HER UP!” crowd, there’s a historical perspective by which to assess the tao of Trump. Grunwald starts his piece with a trip back to a John McCain campaign rally in 2008. In a departure from his more measured political style, McCain railed against a Congress on recess and high gas prices by issuing a call to arms on drilling for oil, including in offshore locations. McCain sensed the direction in which his party was headed, a moment which presaged the rise of Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin, unabashed in demanding more energy no matter how we get it.

As Grunwald tells it, the audience ate this rhetoric up “because their political enemies hated it.” Damn the consequences as long as we “own the libs.” Ten years later, McCain is gone, Trump’s in the White House, and every political confrontation is a new iteration of a perpetual culture war. Instead of motivating his supporters to vote and institute policy reform, Donald Trump is “weaponizing” policy stances to mobilize them.

Accordingly, even issues which should be above partisanship like climate change and infrastructure are framed as part of an us-versus-them dynamic. Granted, Trump may not have created the tear in the electorate that allows him to exploit mutual resentment on both sides of the political aisle. That said, he has seen the hole and has driven a gas-guzzling truck right through it. Meanwhile, foreign adversaries are keen to capitalize on the disarray and disunion. Russian bots and trolls meddle in our elections and spread fake news online, and don’t need all that much convincing for us to help them do it.

The threat to America’s political health, already somewhat suspect, is obvious. It’s difficult if not impossible to have substantive discussions on policy matters when so much emphasis is on the short term and on reactionary positions. Expressing one’s political identity has become as important as putting forth a meaningful point of view. And Trump, Trump, Trump—everything is a referendum on him and his administration, even when there’s no direct causal relationship. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What’s particularly dangerous about this political climate is that it obscures the reality of the underlying issues. Along the lines of expressing our political identities, emotions (chiefly outrage) are becoming a more valuable currency than facts. As much as we might dislike the perils of climate change or even acknowledging it exists, it’s happening. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The topic shouldn’t be treated as a zero-sum game between urban and rural districts. But tell that to the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C.

President Trump, while, again, not the originator of divisive politics, is well-suited for capitalizing on this zeitgeist. As Grunwald describes it, he understands “how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies.” This means going after Democratic constituencies and giving bailouts/breaks to Republican-friendly blocs. With GOP leadership in Congress largely in step with his policy aims, too (this likely gives Trump more due than he deserves because it implies he actually makes carefully crafted policy goals), ideologically-based attacks on certain institutions are all the more probable.

What’s the next great hurrah for Republicans, in this respect? From what Mr. Grunwald has observed, it may well be a “war on college.” I’m sure you’ve heard all the chatter in conservative circles about colleges and universities becoming bastions of “liberal indoctrination.” Free public tuition is something to be feared and loathed, a concession to spoiled young people. And don’t get us started about a liberal arts degree. It’s bad enough it has “liberal” in the name!

As the saying goes, though, it takes two to tango. In this context, there’s the idea that people on the left share the same sense of disdain for their detractors on the right. How many liberals, while decrying giving Republicans any ammunition in Hillary calling Trump supporters “deplorables,” secretly agreed with her conception of these irredeemable sorts? There are shirts available online that depict states that went “blue” in 2016 as the United States of America and states that went “red” as belonging to the mythical land of Dumbf**kistan. For every individual on the right who imagines a snowflake on the left turning his or her nose up at the “uncultured swine” on the other side, there is someone on the left who imagines and resents their deplorable counterpart. Presumably from the comfort of his or her electric scooter.

This bring us full-circle back to our experience of waging the cultural war first alluded to in our discussion of the party vibe at Donald Trump’s rallies, and how people could be having a good time at a forum where hate and xenophobia are common parlance and violence isn’t just a possibility, but encouraged if it’s against the “wrong” type of people. The implications of a culture war fought eagerly by both sides are unsettling ones. Close to the end of his piece, Grunwald has this to say about our ongoing conflict:

This is presumably how entire countries turn into Dumbf**kistan. The solutions to our political forever war are pretty obvious: Americans need to rebuild mutual trust and respect. We need to try to keep open minds, to seek information rather than partisan ammunition. We need to agree on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative sources. But those words looked ridiculous the moment I typed them. Americans are not on the verge of doing any of those things. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.

“Because we like it.” It sounds almost as strange as “how much fun everyone seemed to be having” with respect to Trump’s pre-election events, but it rings true. Sure, some of us may yet yearn for civility and feelings of bipartisan togetherness, but how many of us are content to stay in our bubbles and pop out occasionally only to toss invectives and the occasional Molotov cocktail across the aisle? I’m reminded of actor Michael Shannon’s comments following the realization that Donald Trump would, despite his (Trump’s) best efforts, be President of the United States. Shannon suggested, among other things, that Trump voters form a new country called “the United States of Moronic F**king Assholes” and that the older people who voted for him “need to realize they’ve had a nice life, and it’s time for them to move on.” As in shuffle off this mortal coil. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s my second Shakespeare reference so far in this piece.

I’m reasonably sure Shannon doesn’t actually mean what he said. Though who knows—maybe his creepy stares really do betray some homicidal tendencies. I myself don’t want Trump voters to die—at least not before they’ve lived long, fruitful lives. But in the wake of the gut punch that was Trump’s electoral victory, did I derive a sense of satisfaction from Shannon’s words? Admittedly, yes. I feel like, even if temporarily, we all have the urge to be a combatant in the culture war, assuming we invest enough in politics to have a baseline opinion. Because deep down, we like the fight.


Wars among ideologues can be messy affairs because each side holds to its dogmas even in the face of factual evidence to the contrary and in spite of signs that portend poorly for their side. Regarding the culture war, there’s nothing to suggest a cessation of hostilities in the near future. To quote Michael Grunwald once more, “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back.” Rebuilding mutual trust and respect. Keeping open minds. Agreeing on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative facts. Indeed, we are not on the verge of doing any of that. Having a man like Donald Trump in the White House who not only fans the flames of the culture war but pours gasoline on them sure doesn’t help either.

What’s striking to me is the seeming notion held by members of each side about their counterparts across the way that they actively wish for life in the United States to get worse. While I may surmise that many conservatives are misguided in how they believe we should make progress as a nation (i.e. “they know not what they do”), I don’t believe they are choosing bad courses of action simply because they want to win over the short term. Bear in mind I am speaking chiefly of rank-and-file people on the right. When it comes to politicians, I am willing to believe some will make any choice as long as it keeps them in office and/or personally enriches them.

But yes, I’ve experienced my fair share of attacks online because of my stated identity as a leftist. Even when not trying to deliberately feed the trolls, they have a way of finding you. One commenter on Twitter told me that, because I am a “liberal,” I am useless, not a man, that I have no honor and no one respects me nor do I have a soul, and that I hate the military, cheer when cops are shot, and burn the flag—all while wearing my pussyhat.

Never mind the concerns about soullessness or my inherent lack of masculinity. Does this person actually think I want our troops or uniformed police to die and that I go around torching every representation of Old Glory I can find? In today’s black-and-white spirit of discourse, because I criticize our country’s policy of endless war, or demand accountability for police who break protocol when arresting or shooting someone suspected of a crime, or believe in the right of people to protest during the playing of the National Anthem, I evidently hate the military, hate the police, and hate the American flag. I wouldn’t assume because you are a Trump supporter that you necessarily hate immigrants or the environment or Islam. I mean, if the shoe fits, then all bets are off, but let’s not write each other off at the jump.

With Election Day behind us and most races thus decided, in the immediate aftermath, our feelings of conviviality (or lack thereof) are liable to be that much worse. The open wounds salted by mudslinging politicians are yet fresh and stinging. As much as we might not anticipate healing anytime soon, though, if nothing else, we should contemplate whether being on the winning or losing side is enough. What does it to mean to us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, etc. if the Democrats or Republicans emerge victorious? Do our lives stand to improve? Does the income and wealth inequality here and elsewhere go away? Does this mean the political process doesn’t need to be reformed?

As important as who, what, or even if we fight, the why and what next are critical considerations for a fractured electorate. For all the squabbling we do amongst ourselves, perhaps even within groups rather than between, there are other battles against inadequate representation by elected officials and to eliminate the influence of moneyed interests in our politics that appear more worth the waging.

The Bob Menendez Conundrum

menend-itis
For a candidate with superior legislative experience and supposedly stronger “Jersey values,” Bob Menendez is awfully compromised by his ethical failings. That fellow New Jersey Democrats rallied behind him so quickly after his criminal trial speaks to a dysfunctional political process in his home state and with the Democratic Party at large. (Photo Credit: Benedikt von Loebell/World Economic Forum/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.