On Politics as Theater

Apparently, it’s super quirky and cool for Kyrsten Sinema to give a thumbs-down to a livable wage. Neat! (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/BY-SA 2.0)

If you, like other Americans, recently received your $1,400 stimulus check, you likely appreciate the passage of the $1.9 trillion relief bill and its signing into law by President Joe Biden.

The coronavirus aid package, alongside offering direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, also extended $300 unemployment insurance boosts until September 6, expanded the child tax credit for another year, and allocated funds to COVID-19 vaccinations, rent and utilities assistance, and relief at the local, state, and tribal level.

The path to this legislation clearing both Congress and the White House, however, was a rocky one and not without controversy. For one, no House Republican voted in favor of this bill. Not one. Heck, more Democrats voted against the stimulus/relief package (two—Oregon’s Kurt Schrader and Maine’s Jared Golden) than Republicans voted for it. Owing to a majority in the House, this never really endangered the bill’s passage, but the final tally reinforces the notion that the bill didn’t have broad bipartisan support—at least as far as Congress is concerned.

In addition, other potential relief measures which might’ve been attached to this legislation were defeated, evidencing, in the eyes of many, the genuine disdain certain members of Congress have for their constituents. Kyrsten Sinema, in particular, drew the ire of Internet onlookers everywhere when footage of her exaggerated thumbs-down floor vote on including a $15 minimum wage in the aid package went viral.

I can’t presume to know what exactly was going through Sen. Sinema’s mind when she was making her cutesy gesture. A few critics suggested the moderate Democrat was trying to get the approval of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, which is especially egregious in that 1) McConnell didn’t even turn around to watch Sinema’s vote after she initially got his attention, and 2) McConnell is, ahem, a FREAKING REPUBLICAN. Party solidarity isn’t everything, but in this instance, it means a lot.

Generally speaking, then, Sinema’s theatrics were bad optics, a notion unaided by her arriving for the vote well-dressed with a Lululemon bag slung around her shoulder and with a cake for Senate floor staff forced to work through the night on the public reading of the COVID-19 stimulus/relief bill (more on this later). Even if her dessert offering was intended as a show of kindness for beleaguered Senate workers, it was a literal “let them eat cake” moment for her on a national stage.

To make matters worse, Sinema, through spokespeople, tried to deflect criticism of her no-vote on a $15 minimum wage by insisting that it was sexist to point to her thumbs-down in decrying her vote. To be fair, criticism of female politicians is often steeped in sexism. Political figures from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Hillary Clinton have suffered unfairly disproportionate barbs and scrutiny in the media, especially right-wing outlets.

In this instance, though, no one forced Sinema to make a big production out of her vote and it wasn’t as if the other Senate Democrats who helped defeat the resolution on a $15 minimum wage weren’t rightly condemned for voting with Republicans. As far as some might be concerned, she could’ve stood on her head. The direction of the vote was what mattered—and she chose incorrectly. On the heels of stated opposition to doing away with the filibuster—which is seen widely as an impediment to Democrats passing needed legislation by virtue of a simple majority—alongside the likes of fellow Democrat-when-it-suits-them Joe Manchin (who also voted against a $15 minimum wage, by the by), it casts Sinema’s outward profession of caring for working-class Americans in an awfully bad light.

Stunts like Sinema’s only serve to add to the glut of performativity which characterizes the current political landscape. Amid the negotiation of this latest stimulus/relief package through Congress and to President Biden’s desk, GOP senator Ron Johnson took it upon himself to slow down the bill’s passage by forcing Senate clerks to read all 628 pages of the bill, prompting Sen. Sinema to bring her ultimately ill-fated cake to the Senate floor. Rather than permit Americans in need, including his own constituents, to get the relief they deserve, he used his position in the Senate to delay the rolling out of real, tangible benefits.

Is the throwing of red meat to an increasingly calcified right-wing base purely for the sake of political capital not to be condemned in a more full-throated fashion? When does “owning the libs” cross the line? Is there even a line left to cross at this point?

In a similar vein, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently used his stature amid a deadly pandemic to very productively post a five-minute video of himself reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. The clip is an apparent attempt to defend Theodor Seuss Geisel’s works against the “cancel culture” of the left amid Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ move to take six books of his books out of publication for “racist” or otherwise outmoded imagery.

Not only was this decision the company’s and not the result of efforts of some conspiratorial leftist pressure campaign (and, by the by, Green Eggs and Ham isn’t even one of the Seuss works being taken out of publication), this doesn’t materially help Americans across the political spectrum. Besides, I could think of a lot of things more fruitful to do with five minutes of my life than watch a professional windbag like McCarthy read a book written for children. It’s boring on top of being insulting.

Don’t get me wrong—trolling has its appeal. In a media landscape already saturated by performativity and at a time when so any Americans are hurting, however, the above-listed nonsense falls flat, particularly when done as artlessly as the above examples. Only a select few people get to call themselves members of Congress. We need to demand more of them.


What is particularly unnerving in these examples of public spectacle is that they reinforce the idea of politics as theater, as something to be watched and not to be engaged with. Kyrsten Sinema, in the face of mounting financial hardship for scores of Americans, was more concerned about giving an attaboy to Mitch McConnell and bringing cake to Senate staff than improving the lives of millions of Americans, including residents of her own state. Ron Johnson, a serial Trump apologist, forced the reading of a bill basically just to be a dick and under the same conditions of health and economic crisis. Kevin McCarthy, who has been trying to claim he never supported Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election even though he TOTALLY F**KING DID, read a children’s book, ginning up some culture war bullshit in a disingenuous way to deflect from the disaster the Republican Party is, an organization threatening to tear asunder by its association with a pathological narcissist.

The proverbial bar seems like it has forever been lowered by four years of President Trump, but the conduct of these members of Congress is not to be encouraged or tolerated, especially for Sinema. Primary wins for progressives have regrettably been fewer and further between than leftists hungry for real change would like, but the incumbent should nonetheless be challenged here. Is her offense the most egregious in recent memory? Not by a long shot. But that one moment revealed enough such that Sinema’s constituents should have no doubt about where her loyalties lie—and they’re not with giving Americans a livable wage.

In the 24-hour news cycle, moments like these don’t get much time in the limelight—and perhaps that is a blessing as much as a curse. Regardless of whether we are to oust hack politicians like the aforementioned bad actors, it is advantageous to look past an obsession with electoral politics and build power at the community level, getting the buy-in of those who normally eschew politics as well as stunts like making videos about Dr. Seuss books and wagging their tongue at the poor. Simply waiting every two, four, or six years for better results just doesn’t cut it.

If you’re like me, you used to believe or still do believe that “politics should be left to the politicians.” This is the absolute worst thing you can do, frankly speaking. When we become spectators, it only encourages the shenanigans referenced earlier. Americans deserve better than the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Kyrsten Sinema, and Ron Johnson. The path forward starts with us, the people who elected them in the first place.

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.

Meanwhile, Congress Extended Warrantless Surveillance and Rolled Back Dodd-Frank…

shutting_down
For all the back-and-forth that made headlines leading up to and during the government shutdown, it’s when Democrats, Republicans, and even Trump have agreed in recent times that inspires a feeling of dread. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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:

  1. Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
  2. Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
  3. Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
  4. Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
  5. Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
  6. There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
  7. The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
  8. The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
  9. 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.

With Democrats Like These, Who Needs Republicans?

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In retrospect, we should have known Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin would vote for Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA based on their unnatural skin tones. (Photo Credit: Getty/Washington Post).

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)

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“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 (D-ND)

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“No” Votes: 5 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Mnuchin)

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 (I-ME)

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“No” Votes: 6 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Pruitt, Mnuchin)

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)

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“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 (D-VA)

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“No” Votes: 6 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Pruitt, Mnuchin)

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)

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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.

Jon Tester (D-MT)

“No” Votes: 8 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tillerson, Pompeo)

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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 (D-VA)

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“No” Votes: 9 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tillerson, Carson, Perry)

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?