Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Four Democratic City Attorney Candidates Debate

League of Women Voters/KNSJ Forum Highlights Transparency, Accountability


Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Bryan Pease

Mara Elliott

Rafael Castellanos

Gil Cabrera

The four Democrats running for San Diego City Attorney in the June 7 election to replace termed-out incumbent Jan Goldsmith held a community forum Saturday, May 14 at the Thomas Jefferson College of Law in East Village. Though sparsely attended — representatives of the two organizations sponsoring the event, the San Diego County League of Women Voters and the progressive radio station KNSJ 89.1 FM, joked that they were competing with Billy Joel, who was giving a concert just a few blocks away in Petco Park — the forum included significant discussions about making the City Attorney’s office more accountable to San Diegans and more transparent in its decision-making processes.
The four candidates who appeared were Gil Cabrera, board member of the San Diego Convention Center and the San Diego LGBT Community Center; Rafael Castellanos, member of the Board of Commissioners of the San Diego Unified Port District and chair of the Port’s environmental review committee; Mara Elliott, current chief deputy city attorney and a lawyer with the City Attorney’s office for over 20 years; and Bryan Pease, local public-interest lawyer who represented Occupy San Diego in 2011 and has fought in court to preserve San Diegans’ right to free expression on both public streets and private spaces. The organizers advertised that all five candidates would attend, but Robert Hickey — a career prosecutor for the San Diego County District Attorney’s office for nearly 20 years and the only registered Republican in the race — didn’t show.
The event was moderated by Kay Ragan of the League of Women Voters, and featured questions from three progressive panelists — Marjorie Cohn, law professor and author, who teaches at Thomas Jefferson and helped arrange the venue; Martin Eder, executive director of Activist San Diego, KNSJ’s parent organization; and Anna Daniels of the online San Diego Free Press news site. A few questions also came from audience members, most of whom appeared to be either members of the sponsoring organizations or students at the law college. The event was being broadcast “live” by KNSJ, and Eder had wanted to set up a microphone so audience members could address the candidates — and radio listeners — directly. But Ragan said no; she explained that the League’s rules allow audience members to ask questions only in writing. “We don’t want someone getting up there and asking a 30-minute ‘question,’” she said.
According to the City of San Diego’s Web site, the San Diego City Attorney basically does three things. First, s/he is responsible for advising the Mayor, City Council and other city officials on whether what they want to do is legal and how they can enact public policy without violating the law. Second, s/he is responsible for prosecuting lawsuits filed by the city, and defending the city against suits filed by others. Third, the City Attorney is in charge of prosecuting all misdemeanor charges within San Diego, as well as Poway and any other San Diego County city that contracts with San Diego to provide this service. Felony charges are the responsibility of the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.
The meeting kicked off with questions instead of allowing the candidates the chance to make opening statements. Cohn’s first question was about the Brady rule, which requires that prosecutors make available to defense attorneys information that casts doubt on a defendant’s guilt. She phrased the query in a way that implied she didn’t think the City Attorney had always conscientiously followed the rule.
Pease, who answered first, called the allegations against city attorneys for not following the Brady rule are “part of a larger issue: people [at the City Attorney’s office] thinking their job is to win, instead of to seek justice.” Pease also used the question to reference his own history of fighting the city in court: “I am the only candidate who’s ever won criminal and civil cases against the City Attorney,” he boasted. “I’ve represented people arrested for registering voters” — a reference to former Congressional candidate Ray Lutz, who was taken into custody during the Occupy events in 2011 for signing up people to vote at the Civic Center Plaza where the Occupiers were camped.
Elliott said she thought the problem was that the current City Attorney isn’t educating the prosecutors on his staff well enough. She pledged to “reinstate the training our office used to have.”
Rafael Castellanos said the problem was that it’s become too hard for defense lawyers to get appointments with the deputy city attorneys who are going to prosecute their clients. “Failure to comply with a basic obligation to provide exculpatory evidence is serious,” he said.
“I’ve represented indigent defendants,” said Gil Cabrera. “Brady is fundamental to justice. The ultimate job of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not to win convictions. In a lot of cases, you have silly fights over the facts. The facts are what they are.”
Cohn’s question set the tone for the evening. Again and again, she, Eder and Daniels asked questions that suggested the current City Attorney — and, they sometimes hinted, many of his predecessors as well — have sucked up to powerful interests in the city and come down hard on poor people, progressive activists and others considered less desirable by San Diego’s elites. The questioners seemed to be arguing that the current City Attorney has all too often given the Mayor and City Council the legal advice they wanted rather than what they needed, and has seen his job more as figuring out how the rest of city government can skirt — or sometimes outright break — the law, instead of being honest about the legal issues raised by what they want to do.

Civic San Diego

One of the toughest questions of the night came from Anna Daniels and concerned Civic San Diego, the agency formed by the San Diego City Council in 2013 to take over the functions of the former Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC). From 1960 until Jerry Brown took over as governor of California for the second time in 2013, California cities could form so-called “redevelopment agencies” to take over “blighted” portions of their cities. The agencies could seize private property in the “blighted” areas, make loans to private developers to build new projects there, and pay back the loans through what was called “tax-increment financing.” That meant that instead of having to give back the extra property tax money being generated by the redeveloped properties, because they were now worth more than they had been, the redevelopment agency could keep it until the loans were paid off.
Critics of redevelopment argued that in practice it turned into a sort of Robin Hood-in-reverse scheme in which private developers lobbied the city to take over and “redevelop” areas that weren’t blighted at all, then use the city’s power of eminent domain to kick out the current property owners and give the land to them for big projects. San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency, the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), was one of the ones most criticized for this. Redevelopment opponents also argued that agencies like CCDC essentially ran themselves as Ponzi schemes, constantly looking for new areas to redevelop so they could keep collecting the tax increments instead of giving them back to the city’s general fund once the original loans were repaid.
What’s more, though the law required that a certain percentage of housing units built in redeveloping areas be “affordable,” San Diego was often accused of violating the spirit of that requirement. Critics said agencies like CCDC evaded the affordable-housing rule either by defining “affordable” in a way that the units were still too expensive for low-income people, or by the city allowing developers to pay so-called “in-lieu” fees, which would supposedly be used to build affordable units in other parts of town so developers wouldn’t have to put affordable units in otherwise market-rate projects.
In 2013 Governor Brown responded to these criticisms and got a law through the California legislature ending redevelopment and the tax-increment scheme that had financed it. The bill allowed California cities to set up “successor agencies” that could continue the work of the redevelopment agencies they replaced, but only to finish projects currently in progress and pay off the loans from them. Instead, San Diego’s city government replaced CCDC with a new entity called Civic San Diego, a private corporation whose board was appointed by the Mayor and City Council but wasn’t covered by the laws that say government agencies have to do their business in open, public meetings.
Critics argued that the city went so far in setting up Civic San Diego that they gave it broad authority to approve development projects and make land-use decisions that under California law should be made by the elected city government. The city is currently fighting a lawsuit that alleges Civic San Diego is operating illegally. The new City Attorney will be required to defend the city in that litigation and possibly settle the case.
Pease made it clear that he agrees with the critics of Civic San Diego. “It’s totally illegal,” he said. “Civic San Diego is a private organization that has been delegated legislative authority by the City Council. The lawsuit is absolutely correct. This is a totally illegal abrogation of legislative authority. That’s how development decisions are made downtown. We’re the only one of 65.000 cities in California that lets a private organization make these decisions. And it’s the same power brokers who had so much control under redevelopment.” He also called Civic San Diego “a black box” and said no one outside Civic San Diego knows how it makes its decisions.
Elliott said she has two concerns about Civic San Diego: “operating in a transparent manner, so people know exactly where the money is going, and ensuring that we have the right people around the table. I think we should re-analyze the memo [from the current City Attorney] that authorized Civic San Diego. The area served by Civic San Diego is very small. Not all the areas of the city are getting that special treatment. Labor has not been included in those conversations, and I think they’re a very important voice in the development of downtown. They’ve been excluded.”
“I agree that there needs to be more transparency, oversight and accountability,” said Castellanos. “Even the memo Jan Goldsmith’s office prepared indicates all those things, and also indicates that a number of reforms need to be implement if you’re going to keep it the way it is. Now, the whole intention was to try to streamline development downtown, and to a large extent it has accomplished that. What it hasn’t done is mitigated potential conflicts or increased transparency. But if you’re going to reform Civic San Diego, or do away with it entirely, the city itself needs to be capable of accomplishing the policies that were already approved. And currently, unfortunately, [the city’s Department of] Development Services is incapable of doing so.”
“The current memo on this is a classic Jan Goldsmith memo that says it’s sort-of O.K.,” said Cabrera. “It’s the swishiest memo you can imagine: ‘There’s issues, but it’s probably O.K.’ The conceit of Civic San Diego is that the city can’t do its fundamental job. And expanding it [to cover other areas of San Diego], as has been proposed, is an acknowledgment that the city can’t do its fundamental job anywhere. Civic San Diego shouldn’t be there. The city should be doing its job, and as the City Attorney, I will bring resources to bear to help the city figure out how to do its job so we don’t need Civic San Diego.”

Targeting Homeless People

Another question from Daniels concerned the city’s treatment of homeless people. “The city has taken aggressive action to keep homeless people from getting shelter,” she alleged. In addition to shutting down the city’s annual winter shelter, critics allege, the current administration of Mayor Kevin Faulconer has allowed police to seize homeless people’s belongings and harass them to get them to move around town. What’s more, the city recently authorized placement of a so-called “rock garden” under an overpass in Sherman Heights and acknowledged it was put there to keep homeless people from sleeping under the bridge.
“One of the first things I did at the Port of San Diego was issue a declaration that homeless people have civil rights,” said Castellanos. “I think [the way San Diego treats its homeless people] is a disgrace. I would be a very vocal spokesperson for the rights of homeless people. Moving people around and taking their possessions is a crime. One hundred people have died as a result.”
Cabrera said one of the recommendations he made as a Convention Center board member was increasing the number of Homeless Response Teams (HOT’s) and Psychological Response Teams. These combine police officers, social workers and, when available, trained therapists to try to get homeless people off the streets and into services where they can deal with mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, or other issues that may be keeping them from getting off the streets. “The City Attorney needs to recognize that these people are human beings,” he said. “We need to make sure the city doesn’t treat them as criminals.”
“As City Attorney, I will inform the Mayor and police chief that it is illegal to take homeless people’s possessions and put rocks up so they can’t sleep under bridges,” said Pease. “We have a homeless problem because developers are evading their responsibility to build low-income housing.”
“I see the homeless as one of our most voiceless populations,” said Elliott. “We need someone in government who can be a spokesperson.” Like Cabrera, she said that homeless people need help dealing with mental-health and substance-abuse issues, and the city should do what it can to provide it.

New Chargers’ Stadium

The candidates also got asked about the City Attorney’s role in the San Diego Chargers’ demand for a new football stadium downtown to be paid for by an increase in the Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT) paid by people who stay in San Diego hotels. The candidates present at the May 14 forum all seemed skeptical about the plan and whether a new stadium would be good for San Diego economically. They also used it to discuss a previous effort by the hotel owners to assess themselves and charge a private add-on to the TOT to market San Diego as a tourist destination and fund a plan to expand the San Diego Convention Center — a plan that’s already been declared illegal by a judge, who ruled that the money collected from that tax can’t be spent until the case is completed.
Cabrera conceded that the City Attorney “should not be driving policy whether to build a stadium,” but he was committed to being “the last line of defense for the taxpayers” in any stadium financing scheme. He also made it clear that his personal opinion is stadia are money-losers for the cities that build them. “According to an article in the Atlantic, the number of NFL stadium deals that have been good for taxpayers is ‘zero,’” he said.
“I said the hotel tax deal was illegal,” Pease commented. “The city is now years behind on expanding the Convention Center. The city is leaving money on the table. I’d like to see the TOT raised and the money go to the city’s general fund.”
Like Cabrera, Elliott said, “Our job is to get the best deal for the taxpayers. We have had bad deals in the past, like the Chargers’ ticket guarantee [by which the city agreed to pay for however many Chargers’ tickets the team didn’t sell]. We can give the decision-makers all the information, but we can’t stop a bad deal unless there’s a legal issue.”
“We’ve had a lack of experience at the City Attorney’s office in development and land-use issues, and that’s my area of expertise,” said Castellanos. “The city has been asleep at the wheel on these deals.”

Unequal Law Enforcement

A question from Martin Eder raised what he called the “national soul-searching” that resulted from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri two years ago and the other cases of unarmed African-Americans being shot and killed by police. But Eder claimed that there are other, less extreme but more constant ways police in San Diego and elsewhere go after people of color and low-income people than by shooting them. Among them, he said, are unequal enforcement of traffic laws, including parking fees, which led him to suspect the city is balancing its budget on the backs of poor people. He said this had happened to him personally: “When I moved to City Heights, I got hundreds of dollars’ worth of parking tickets — including a $65 ticket for parking in front of my own driveway — and towing fees I’d never experienced in other parts of San Diego.” He asked the candidates what they would do to make enforcement more equal throughout the city.
“I actually worked on this issue in the city of Escondido a number of years ago, when I was the president of La Raza Lawyers,” said Castellanos. “The Escondido Police Department was setting up these ‘sobriety checkpoints’ around schools in the morning, that were actually immigration sweeps. They were ticketing folks and they had an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officer inside the police department. They were impounding vehicles, separating families, and filling the city coffers on the backs of these individuals. An ACLU report was issued as a result of our work, and there was a state audit that was threatened and that exposed corruption. That will not occur in the city of San Diego if I am City Attorney.”
“I dealt with this as a judge pro tem when people were coming up with fines they couldn’t pay, and I have reduced these fines where appropriate,” said Cabrera. “As a city, we should report on where those tickets are being issued and where the money is going. Transparency is the best solution.”
“Excessive parking tickets and towing fees are a tax on the poor,” said Pease. “A former San Diego police officer is suing the city and alleging he was told to be aggressive in City Heights and Ocean Beach, and be easier in Rancho Bernardo.”
“It’s important to me that our office is perceived as being independent and following the laws,” said Elliott. “We need people in the neighborhoods to help us figure out where the problems are and where the violations are occurring. As the City Attorney, I would work to make sure we operate in a fair manner and don’t discriminate.”
The candidates were also asked about the city’s attempts to limit public protests to specific times and places, and ban free-speech actions outside those officially approved venues. “I’m not sure I really like that idea,” said Elliott. “Most of us would like to express ourselves, and that seems like an overreach by government.”
“I would be willing to brief the city on the Constitution,” said Castellanos.
“I would not be doing that,” said Cabrera. “The concept of doing that ahead of time is silly and takes the city’s reasonable time-and-place power beyond the pale.”
“I’ve represented people who’ve been arrested for passing out flyers on public property and, in one case, for registering people to vote,” said Pease. “As long as you’re not blocking ingress or egress, you have a right to be politically active in places like public sidewalks or Civic Center Plaza.”

Web links

San Diego City Attorney job description: https://www.sandiego.gov/cityattorney/role

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It Didn’t All Start at Stonewall

San Diego Democrats for Equality’s Membership Changes Dishonor 20 Years of Pre-Stonewall Queer Activism

by Mark Gabrish Conlan

At its meeting this Thursday, April 21, 6:30 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center on Vermont Street in Hillcrest, the San Diego Democrats for Equality (formerly the San Diego Democratic Club) will consider two changes to its bylaws. One would allow people as young as 14 to join even though they’re not yet eligible to vote. This one I strongly support. The other two I equally strongly oppose. The changes being proposed, as well as a change in the membership branding the club’s executive board has already put through without member approval, can be read at http://democratsforequality.org/change-is-afoot/#comment-1368.


TO: San Diego Democrats for Equality Members

FROM: Mark Gabrish Conlan

DATE: April 19, 2016

RE: Proposed San Diego Democrats for Equality bylaws changes

I am VERY strongly opposed to two of the changes in the San Diego Democrats for Equality’s rules referenced in the April 11, 2016 e-news posting by new club president Will Rodriguez-Kennedy.

I have never approved of ANY organization that forced all its members to begin and end their membership on the same date. Demanding that new members pay a full year’s dues for less than a full year of member services is fundamentally a rip-off. Whenever I’ve been in a club that has considered that policy, I’ve opposed it; and when I’ve been in clubs or other organizations that already had that policy, I’ve worked to change it. I think it’s wrong, verging on evil, to shortchange new members, and it’s especially bizarre that a club whose officials say they’re worried about new-member growth to adopt a policy that will discourage, not encourage, new people to join. It is particularly wrong, deceitful and objectionable to consider this change when the only stated reason for it is “to help keep track of expiration dates” — i.e., to make the club’s administration easier. It is the job of the club to serve its members, not of the members to serve the club.

I also very strongly oppose the rebranding of the membership levels. I remember when the club was considering its current name, one of the alternatives brought forward was “San Diego Stonewall Democrats.” I opposed that name then and I equally strongly oppose the use of the term “stonewallers” to describe three out of the five proposed new membership brands, for the same reason: I don’t want us to do anything to perpetuate the offensive and absurd myth that there wasn’t a Queer (the inclusive, if edgy, term I prefer to that rancid set of initials “LGBT” as a description of our entire community) rights movement in the United States before the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June 1969.

In fact, Queer activism in the U.S. has been traced as far back as 1926, when the first U.S. Queer-rights organization and publication were created in Chicago. Continuous Queer activism has taken place in the U.S. since 1950, when the Mattachine Society was organized in Los Angeles. Indeed, when I launched Zenger’s Newsmagazine in 1994, I put Harry Hay, the principal founder of the Mattachine Society, on my first cover and devoted my first feature to an interview with him in order to let the community know that there was a long and honorable history of militant Queer activism in the U.S. before it all supposedly started at “Stonewall.” In fact, I timed the launch of my magazine when I did because I had an opportunity to interview Harry Hay and thought he would be an appropriate feature subject for my first issue.

Indeed, so many of the landmarks in the history of American Queer activism took place in the state of California that it could be argued that the movement for Queer equality REALLY is a California product. Among them are:

• Start of continuous Queer-rights activism: Mattachine Society, Los Angeles, 1950.
• First Queer-rights organization of, by and for Lesbians: Daughters of Bilitis, San Francisco, 1955.
• First successful legal challenge to police entrapment of a Gay man for public cruising: Los Angeles, 1950.
• First ongoing Queer publication aimed at Gay men: One, Los Angeles, 1955.
• First ongoing Queer publication aimed at Lesbians: The Ladder, San Francisco, 1956. (Even earlier Lesbian newsletters were being privately typed and printed in Los Angeles in the 1940’s.)
• First openly Queer candidate for elective office in the U.S.: José Sarria, San Francisco, 1961.
• First occasion on which Gay-bar patrons fought back against a police raid: the Black Cat Tavern, Los Angeles, 1967.
• First pickets against a private employer for employment discrimination against Queer people: States Steamship Lines, San Francisco, March-April 1969.

This issue is personal for me not only because, as a lifelong Californian, I am (I think) justifiably proud of the pioneering role my state has played in the history of American Queer activism, but also because two of my closest friends, Leo Laurence and Pat Brown, were organizers of the demonstrations against States Steamship Lines three months before the Stonewall riots. The ritual invocation of “Stonewall” as the place where it all began dishonors the contributions of my friends and the others who stood up for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people long before it was politically easy or fashionable; indeed, while just being sexually active with members of your own sex was illegal in every U.S. state.

“Stonewall” as a term has other meanings which people of our political orientation should find objectionable. The name originated as a nickname for a general in the U.S. Civil War who fought on the side of the Confederacy — i.e., for the slaveowners — and in the early 1970’s the term “stonewall” in U.S. politics primarily referred to the Watergate cover-up and the illegal attempt of President Nixon and his campaign staff to corrupt the 1972 election and ensure Nixon a landslide victory. But my main objection to the use of the term “Stonewall” as shorthand for the Queer movement’s beginnings is it ignores and trashes the contributions of activists in the 1950’s and 1960’s who stood up for our rights at a potential risk and cost most of us can’t even imagine today.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mommy Hillary and Daddy Bernie

Why Hillary Clinton Can’t Beat Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders Could


Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may not be a real family, but they’ve certainly got good at playing one on TV. In the Democratic Presidential debates, especially now that the field of candidates is down to just the two of them, Hillary comes off as the nasty, controlling mother, setting strict limits on what the kids can hope for or even dream about. No matter how much you want that new toy, piece of candy, guaranteed access to health care, or free public-college tuition, you can’t have it! In fact, says Hillary in every inflection of her voice, every nod of her head, every stern, unsmiling facial expression, you wouldn’t really want it even if you could have it — which you can’t, so stop even thinking about it!
Bernie, in this little situation drama — and it’s indicative of how “familial” the debate has become that just about everybody calls the candidates by their first names — is the super-indulgent dad. What do you mean, you can’t have it? he tells the kids. Look at the neighbors’ kids, he says; they have it, and their parents make less than we do! It shouldn’t be surprising that in the Democratic primaries thus far — this is being written four days after Bernie’s spectacular, if narrow, victory in Michigan — Bernie has overwhelmed Hillary among young voters by unbelievable margins of 30, 40 or even 50 percent.
It’s not just because Bernie has promised them a free college education if they do well in school — though I’m sure a lot of his appeal to younger voters is that if he wins and gets that proposal through Congress, they’ll have access to a quality education and have the ability to donate whatever skills they acquire to positive social change instead of being burdened their entire adult lives with crushing six-figure student loan debt. It’s because Bernie, the cool dad, has not only retained the idealism of his own youth (remember that he went to a free public college in New York and got the kind of education on the terms he’d like to offer anyone else) but is openly seeking to rekindle a sense of hope and imagination in America’s modern young.
Hillary, by contrast, seems to be doing everything she can to squash any hint of idealism in the electorate in general and the Democratic electorate in particular. In one debate, she tried to squash Bernie’s plan for universal health care by reminding her audience that they couldn’t even get the so-called “public option” into the Affordable Care Act — and that was when the Democrats still had a majority in both houses of Congress. The world is the way it is, and you can’t even think of making anything more than just incremental changes, Hillary says, raising her voice to its maximum level of schoolmarmish seriousness and looking like she’s about to crack a ruler over the knuckles of any kid in her presence daring to dream of anything more than that.
I’ve somehow got on the e-mail sucker lists for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Full disclosure: the day after Bernie’s win in Michigan I logged on to his Web site and donated $27 — his much-proclaimed figure of his average donation — to the Sanders campaign.) Hillary and her supporters keep sending me e-mails saying that she’s the only hope we have of keeping Donald Trump from becoming Barack Obama’s successor as President in 2017. I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve become convinced over the past few months that if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton and the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, Trump will not only win, it will be a landslide. Why?

Hillary Clinton is a lousy politician. She’s even admitted it herself. In the last Democratic debate she said, “I’m not a natural politician, like my husband or President Obama.” The thing that should scare every Democratic activist and voter about a Hillary Clinton nomination is her utter and repeated inability to connect with ordinary people — especially ordinary white people. While her inexplicable popularity among voters of color (she carried Michigan’s African-American community by 62 to 35 percent) continues, Hillary’s standing among white working-class voters is so weak that in Michigan, in just two weeks of campaigning, she was able to convert an 18- to 25-percent margin in the polls to a 2-percent defeat at the ballot box.
In just about every public appearance, Hillary’s disgust with the whole process of campaigning is almost too palpable. She’s one of those frustrating political figures who, given the limits of her pro-corporate “Third Way” moderate world view (every time she introduces herself as a “progressive” in one of the debates, I want to yell at the TV, “You are not! You’re a moderate! You said so yourself!”), would probably make a quite good President. But her visceral hatred of the process you have to follow to get there — especially once you’re out of the cozy back rooms where you can quietly talk to big donors, party leaders and the so-called “superdelegates” (essentially party bosses and hacks who, in the so-called Democratic Party, constitute about one-eighth of the delegates and were put there in the mid-1970’s to make sure no genuinely progressive outsider — no George McGovern or Jesse Jackson or Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders — could ever get the nomination) and have to talk to real flesh-and-blood voters — helped do her in in 2008 when she ran in the primaries against Barack Obama, and it’s working against her this year as well.
Hillary Clinton comes into the campaign with an extraordinary set of negatives. Polls reveal 51 percent of respondents have a negative view of her. She says that’s the result of a quarter-century’s worth of attacks on her from the Right-wing axis of the Republican Party and its media outlets, talk radio and Fox News. She’s got a point, but she’d be better able to answer those attacks if she were stronger at getting people to like her, the way “natural politicians” like her husband and Obama have done. A lot of people ridiculed Bill Clinton when he said, “I feel your pain,” but he managed to convince many Americans that he had some emotional connection with their problems and he would do his best as President to help solve them. It’s impossible to imagine anyone — with the possible exception of other married women whose husbands can’t or won’t keep their dicks in their pants — who would ever believe Hillary Clinton felt their pain.
That’s one reason why only 37 percent of respondents in those polls say that Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy. Unlike her husband, she didn’t have a hardscrabble upbringing. She didn’t rise from a town called Hope (actually Bill was born in the neighboring town of Hot Springs, but the mythology his P.R. people built around the “man from Hope” has stuck); she was born to wealth and privilege in Illinois. Maybe not anywhere near as much wealth or privilege as Donald Trump — who’s been able to sell himself to America as a “self-made” multibillionaire even though he got a major leg up from his dad’s fortune — but wealth and privilege nonetheless.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “the rich are different from you and me,” by which he meant not only that they had more money but they’d been trained from birth to consider themselves an elite, entitled not only to money but power as well in whatever field they chose to go after it. Hillary Clinton wears that sense of entitlement like the ill-tailored but intimidating pantsuits she puts on for all her public appearances. It’s been her whole defense against the ridiculous controversy the Republicans and their media lackeys keep trying to gin up about her e-mails. Regarding her use of private servers for official business and her refusal to disclose — until the FBI and the courts forced her to — what was in those e-mails, she complains, “Colin Powell did it before me!” — as if that made it right.
It’s also why she thinks she can take speakers’ fees totaling $675,000 for three speeches to the elite financial firm of Goldman Sachs — who have supplied Secretaries of the Treasury to the last three Presidents, Democrats and Republicans, including Hillary’s husband — and not have to tell the American people just what was in those speeches. And it’s what gives her the sheer gall to take Goldman’s money — almost three-quarters of a million dollars of it in speaking fees as well as whatever their executives have given to her campaign — and then pose as a progressive who has a plan that will rein in the excesses of financial firms like Goldman Sachs.
Hillary’s only chance in a two-person race against Trump will be to get people to vote for her because, as much as they can’t stand her, they can’t stand him more. The same polls that put Hillary’s negatives at 51 percent put Trump’s at 64.

The white working class. Once upon a time — basically from 1932 to 1964 — the white working class was a bulwark of the Democratic Party’s governing coalition. Then the 1960’s happened. The Democratic and Republican parties flipped their historic positions on civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular. The party of racism, reaction and the Ku Klux Klan pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while the “party of Lincoln” became the party of Strom Thurmond, the “Southern Strategy” and white reaction in general. Also, the counterculture happened — and the Republicans, led by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California in the late 1960’s, saw another opening to the hearts of so-called “Middle America” by coming out against rioting college students and spaced-out hippies.
Richard Nixon won the Presidency in 1968 by tapping the fears of whites that the advances of Blacks and the counterculture directly threatened both their own well-being and the social stability of the entire country. It’s an appeal that still works for Republicans. Not only has the “Solid South” shifed from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican — right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has pointed out the uncomfortable truth (if you’re a Hillary supporter) that all those Southern states like South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas that gave her lopsided margins in Democratic primaries are virtually sure bets for the Republicans in November — so has the white working class elsewhere in the country.
Working-class whites form the bulk of the audience for Right-wing talk radio (is there any other kind anymore?) and Fox News. Since 1968 they have voted overwhelmingly Republican even when Republicans have pursued anti-labor policies targeting unions, rewarding corporations who relocate jobs overseas, encouraging the de-industrialization of the U.S. and pushing so-called “free trade” agreements whose real effect is to push town American workers’ wages by forcing them to compete with ultra-cheap labor in countries like Mexico, China, Viet Nam and Bangladesh. Along with evangelical Christians and gun-rights advocates, they’ve provided the votes that elected Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes to the Presidency.
And they’re even more enthusiastic about Donald Trump — which is one big reason why Hillary Clinton would have a reasonable chance against an ordinary cookie-cutter Right-wing Republican but will be totally crushed by Trump. Though he’s a multi-billionaire, he’s mastered the art of playing the super-rich populist pioneered by Nelson Rockefeller and also done by H. Ross Perot — “I’ve already got more money than God, so I can’t be corrupted or bribed.” What’s more — unlike fellow 0.01-percenter Mitt Romney, with his unashamed disdain for the estimated 47 percent of Americans “who just want the government to give them stuff” — Trump knows how to connect with the white working class.
It’s not only the racism — though white working-class racism has been a potent political force ever since George Wallace “primaried” Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and won in Wisconsin on the basis of working-class whites who feared their jobs would go to Blacks. It’s not only the sneering sexism and religious bigotry, which Trump wears proudly as a sign of his willingness to be “politically incorrect” and say the things white working-class voters think but have been told they should be ashamed of and shouldn’t say in public. It’s that Trump, alone of the Republican candidates this year, is saying the things white working-class voters yearn desperately to hear and haven’t been hearing from the candidates of either major party in quite some time.
In his article “Donald Trump Is Dangerous” (The Nation, March 14, 2016) John Nichols quotes Trump at one of the Republican debates saying, “This country is dying. And our workers are losing their jobs.” He lamented the decision of the Carrier air conditioner company to move their production from Indianapolis to Mexico and said the departure of American jobs to lower-paying foreign shores was directly due to “trade pacts that are no good for us and no good for our workers.” Trump ended that particular comment by threatening to enact a retaliatory tax on companies who “offshore” good American jobs.
No other Presidential candidate in 2016 is talking like that — except one: Bernie Sanders. Trump’s Republican opponents are still locked into the party’s libertarian economic orthodoxy that whatever “The Market” decides is good — if the U.S. loses its once-vaunted position as the world’s industrial manufacturing powerhouse, a status which was key to its victory in World War II, so be it. If that means most Americans are consigned to low-paid employment — when they can get jobs at all — while the rich get ever richer, so be it. The growing disconnect between the Republicans’ ability to get working-class whites to vote for them by using the “dog-whistle words” of racism and hatred of the counterculture (which, in 2016, translates as hatred of Queers) and the actual effects of their policies on working people is a vulnerability that would seem ready-made for the Democrats to exploit.
But not for Hillary Clinton. Not when it was her husband who pushed an initially reluctant Congress to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the first of these horrendously one-sided “trade” agreements that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations and harm everyone else in every country that’s a party to them. Not when it was her husband who pushed for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act from the 1930’s, which drew a wall between commercial banking and investment banking and thus prevented the kinds of financial manipulations that destroyed the economy in 1929 and again in 2008. Not when, after opposing a bill making it harder to declare bankruptcy when she was First Lady, she voted for the same bill when she was a U.S. Senator from New York and George W. Bush signed it into law (to his credit, Bill Clinton had vetoed it) — and she rationalized her vote by saying that as a Senator from New York, Wall Street’s home state, she was obliged to represent its interests.
It won’t be easy for Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” from Vermont (even though he was born in New York City and his roots are with its socially aware Jewish-American community) with a long record of supporting Leftist causes both here and abroad, to connect with an increasingly racist and xenophobic white working class. But at least he has what Hillary Clinton does not: a track record. Sanders can boast that he opposed every one of those damned “trade” agreements, from NAFTA to the currently pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — while Hillary Clinton has supported them all until very recently. Two years ago she called TPP a “gold standard” for trade agreements; now, with a Sanders-inspired pivot to the Left that only reinforces the public image of Hillary as someone who will say or do anything to get elected, and is therefore not to be trusted, she opposed it. In a general election between Clinton and Trump, Trump will wrap every one of those God-awful “trade” agreements and every American job that’s been “offshored” as a result of them around Hillary’s neck and drown her with them.

The historical factors. The 2016 Presidential election was going to be a hard sell for the Democrats from the get-go. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment, limiting the President to two terms, in 1947, only once has a party won three Presidential elections in a row: the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush winning largely on Reagan’s coattails in 1988. (When he had to run four years later on his own record, he lost.) Obama not only doesn’t have the kind of coattails Reagan had; if anything, he has negative coattails.
Obama took office in 2009 with a substantial Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and close to the magic 60-vote supermajority needed to accomplish virtually anything in the Senate. But the much-vaunted “Obama Coalition” has proven itself able to elect only one person: Obama himself. Otherwise, the Obama years have been one political disaster for the Democrats after another. They lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. The Democrats now have fewer House members than they’ve ever had since 1928.
Even worse, the Democrats have fallen far behind the Republicans in the numbers of governorships and state legislatures they control. In at least 25 states Republicans hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in just seven states — and aside from California (where governor Jerry Brown rules more like a moderate Republican anyway), they’re all small. This is important because it’s state governments that control how the district lines for House members are drawn — and Republican legislatures and governors have moved aggressively to gerrymander those lines to keep Republicans in control of the House even if more voters support the Democrats than the Republicans in House races.
State governments also set the rules for who can vote, when they can vote, when they can register, what the qualifications are for registering (including whether they have to show I.D. and what forms of I.D. are acceptable), how late the polls stay open, where the polls are and all other laws regarding elections. Here the Republicans have moved to limit access to the polls as much as possible so that people likely to vote against them — particularly young people, poor people and people of color — won’t be able to vote at all. That’s why the Republicans are unafraid of the much talked-about “demographic shifts” in the U.S. population that are supposedly turning the country more Democratic long-term. And it’s why they’re so dead set against any comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship: more Latino citizens means more Latino voters, and likely more Democratic voters.

The “intensity gap.” One reason the Obama years have been such a political disaster for the Democrats is that his Republican opponents have done so much better a job than his Democratic supporters in getting their people not only to vote but to care about politics and be activists. The Tea Party movement started almost as soon as Obama took office; its closest Left equivalent, Occupy, didn’t begin until September 2011, after Obama had been President for 2 ½ years. Republicans have been fired up since Obama took office, when Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said at the start of 2009 that his goal was to “make Obama a one-term President.” He didn’t succeed, but he achieved the next best thing from a Republican point of view: he made it virtually impossible for Obama to do anything.
Since regaining control of the House in 2010, the Republicans in Congress have repeatedly served notice on Obama that they will not permit him to govern except on their terms. They have shut down the government in an effort to force him to defund his own health-care program. Former House speaker John Boehner refused even to let the house vote on the proposed immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. Most recently, the Republicans in Congress are not only refusing to consider anyone Obama appoints to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court — continuing a pattern of resistance to Obama’s judicial appointments that has led to an unprecedented number of vacancies in the federal courts — now they won’t even consider Obama’s latest proposal for a federal budget.
And as they’ve done all this, the rabid Republican voters don’t think they’ve gone far enough. The Affordable Care Act is still receiving government money. So is Planned Parenthood. Abortion is still more or less legal, even though the Right’s anti-choice crusade has left 85 percent of all U.S. counties without a single abortion provider. Marriage equality for same-sex couples is the law of the land. Trade unions and the Environmental Protection Agency still exist. The U.S. government still owns an awful lot of land in the western and southwestern states. And the private sector still hasn’t been “unleashed” from the shackles of government regulation. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is going to be the Republican Presidential nominee this year if it isn’t Donald Trump, damned Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee and ordinarily a thorough-going Right-winger, as insufficiently “pure” because he voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act twice.
If anything, the Republican electorate — especially that section of it that votes in primaries — is even more rabidly Right-wing than the Republican party leadership. People who’ve interviewed audience members at Trump rallies and led focus groups of Trump supporters say that they start out criticizing Obama but then aim even more of their vitriol against the Republicans in Congress who are letting Obama get away with running the country. The much-touted “anger” of Republican primary voters this year has to do with the fact that, even after ham-stringing Obama with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, they haven’t got him to cave and let the Right run the country their way.
Therefore, according to the conspiratorial thinking that drives a lot of the American Right, they must be part of the problem, part of a corrupt bipartisan political establishment that is blocking the Right-wing revolution they think this country needs. Trump’s supporters believe only a powerful outsider with a proven track record of business success (actually Trump’s business record is considerably spottier than he likes to pretend, but the image he’s sold to America is of one unstoppable success after another) can come in and clean house from the mess both major parties have made.
And, as I noted in my first article about the Trump candidacy, that’s the same promise would-be dictators of both the Right and Left — Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Juan Perón, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez — have made to the people to gain power. One need only look at the climate of thug-like violence around the Trump rallies — not only the audience members who beat up protesters on the floor but the encouragement Trump himself shouts at them from the podium — to see Trump as the neo-fascist he is, not only copying Hitler’s tactics of riling up his nation’s people to support him but using quite similar arguments: if it weren’t for the Jews, Mexicans, Muslims or whoever the scapegoat de jour is, the rest of us would have great jobs and everything would be “fantastic.”

The Sanders voters. One of the biggest — and least-discussed — factors that will affect the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election will be what Bernie Sanders’ supporters will do if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination. What Sanders himself does will have an effect on that, of course — and he’s already signaled his willingness to support her when he said in one of the debates that Clinton on her worst days would be a better President than any of the Republicans at their best. It’s likely Sanders will not only endorse Hillary Clinton but will aggressively campaign for her — unlike Eugene McCarthy in 1968, who after he lost the Democratic nomination hemmed and hawed about whether he’d support the winner, Hubert Humphrey, and finally gave him a lukewarm endorsement just three days before the election.
But my analysis is that there are basically three types of Sanders voters, and they will react quite differently if Clinton beats him for the nomination. They are:
The Sanders Democrats. They are progressive but also pragmatic enough to realize what a disaster a Republican President — any Republican President, and especially Trump or Cruz — would be for progressive ideals and values. They may do it with some degree of reluctance, but they’ll vote for Hillary Clinton.
The Sanders progressives. Many of these are Leftists who long ago gave up on the two major parties and only came back to the Democrats because Sanders was running. Indeed, a lot of Sanders’ supporters are people who ordinarily regard electoral politics as useless and don’t vote at all. If Sanders loses the Democratic nomination, these people either won’t vote for President or will vote for a minor-party candidate like Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party — which, in America’s abominable system of winner-take-all politics, is unfortunately the same thing as not voting at all.
The Sanders independents. These are non-ideological people basically disgusted with the American political system as it stands. They see both the Democrats and the Republicans as hopelessly corrupt and in thrall to the 1 percent. They want to see an “outsider” President who isn’t beholden either to the grandees of Wall Street or the bosses of the big parties — and if Sanders doesn’t get the Democratic nomination and Trump wins the Republican one, a lot of these people will vote for Trump over the consummate “insider,” Establishment candidate Hillary Clinton.
My analysis is that Hillary Clinton will have a great deal of trouble winning Sanders’ voters over in a two-person race between her and Donald Trump. She’ll have an easier general election if Ted Cruz, who has most of Trump’s weaknesses and few of his strengths, is the Republican nominee.
It’s true that at least some Republicans have threatened to boycott the party in November if Trump is the nominee. Peter Weiner, who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, has an article called “The Party’s Over” in the current (March 21) Time magazine lamenting the Republicans’ transformation from the party of Reagan to the party of Trump — though his quarrel with Trump seems more about style than substance. “Many of us who are children of the Reagan revolution will not go gently into that good night,” Weiner writes. “We will not vote for Trump under any circumstances, even if he is the nominee; what’s more, we will do everything in our power to reclaim the Republican Party from this demagogic and authoritarian figure.”
But I suspect very few Republicans will share Weiner’s fastidious quibbles over Trump. Even if they don’t like him — even if he wasn’t their first, second or even third choice for the nomination — they’ll vote for him anyway. After all, what will the major-party alternative be? Either a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” or a woman whom Republicans have been taught to regard as the virtual Antichrist of politics for the quarter-century she’s been in the public eye. (The Right-wing American Spectator magazine used to send out subscription solicitations adorned with a crude drawing of Hillary Clinton as a witch.) The Democrats will lose far more potential voters if they don’t nominate Bernie Sanders than the Republicans will if they nominate Donald Trump.
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — and this article has turned out a lot more negative towards Clinton than I thought it would when I started writing it — at least they are serious, intelligent people with a genuine desire not merely to be President but to use the Presidency to make ordinary Americans’ lives better. Among the four remaining Republican candidates — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich — only Kasich fits that description. The others, Trump and Cruz in particular, are bellicose thugs whose level of immaturity and utter unfitness for national power is all too apparent every time they “debate.”
But just because people aspiring to rule countries are immature, obnoxious and even evil doesn’t mean they don’t succeed. Even the most blatant rabble-rouser all too often finds a rabble to be roused. If you think it can’t happen here, remember that there were an awful lot of Germans in the early 1930’s who didn’t think it could happen there either!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

After Iowa


Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If nothing else, the fooforaw about the recently concluded Iowa caucuses underscored the sheer preposterousness of the process by which the U.S. elects its President. The 2016 Presidential campaign had been in full swing for at least six months by the time the Iowa caucuses happened February 1 and for the first time actual voters had a chance to weigh in on who their next leader should be. Until then, the airwaves had been full of statements by the candidates themselves, their supporters, their detractors and the so-called “pundits” on radio and TV who declaim endlessly about the political realm. Almost every time I hear one of those people I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde’s wisecrack in one of his plays about the woman who “could state the obvious with a sense of real discovery.”
Iowans who turned out for the February 1 caucus didn’t actually cast a vote for the presidency. Instead, in the sort of multi-step indirect process our Founding Fathers loved (if you read the Constitution you’ll find they intended that no common people would be allowed to vote directly for any office higher than member of the House of Representatives, and when the Constitution was ratified even that vote was restricted almost entirely to white male landowners), they were actually voting for delegates to a county party convention, which will elect delegates to a state party convention, which will in turn elect delegates to the Democratic and Republican national party conventions, which will at least in theory select the presidential nominee. I said “in theory” because it’s been a long time (1972 for the Democrats and 1976 for the Republicans) since the outcome of a Presidential nomination process hasn’t already been decided well before the convention occurred.
What’s more, though it pains me to say this — aside from a couple of brief flirtations with the Peace and Freedom Party, I’ve been a registered Democrat ever since I was old enough to vote — is that the Republicans in Iowa run their caucuses far more rationally and, well, democratically than the Democrats. The Republicans at least take votes by secret ballot, count them in plain view of the caucus-goers, and release the actual numbers of people who voted for each candidate. The Democrats run their caucuses like a race for class president in a grade school. If you want to vote for a candidate, you actually have to walk to the corner of the room where their supporters are holding forth and make your choice visibly before the rest of the caucus-goers. What’s more, the Democrats don’t announce how many caucus-goers voted for each candidate — only the number of delegates to the state convention, which will elect delegates to the national convention that will theoretically pick the nominee, each candidate won.
As anyone with access to a newspaper, a radio, a TV, a computer or a smartphone probably already knows by now, Texas Senator Ted Cruz finished first on the Republican side with 28 percent of the vote, to 24 percent for billionaire real-estate developer and TV reality star Donald Trump and 23 percent for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got 9 percent and the rest of the field — including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, son of one President and brother of another — were mired in the low single digits. Indeed, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee — who won Iowa in his 2008 Presidential bid — announced on the eve of the caucuses he was “suspending his campaign,” a bit of legal legerdemain that — unlike an actual withdrawal — allows him to keep raising funds to pay off his campaign debt.
On the Democratic side, the race was tied. Repeat: the race was tied. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting on caucus night, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had 49.8 percent and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders 49.6 percent. Even within an actual vote count, two-tenths of one percent is definitely within the margin of error. Most of the mainstream media have been “spinning” this tissue paper-thin margin as a “victory” for Clinton, but don’t you believe it. Six months ago, the polls in Iowa had her with 65 percent to just 6 percent for Sanders. With hard work, dedication, an inspiring message and a special outreach to young people — many of whom were born during the presidency of Clinton’s husband and don’t have the warm, fuzzy feeling about it a lot of us older people do — Sanders closed that gap and turned the race into a tie.
With a few exceptions, the reporting on Sanders’ campaign in the mainstream media has been biased, sometimes contemptibly so. Sanders has experienced the first three of the four cycles Mahatma Gandhi was famously talking about when he said, “First they ignore us. Then they ridicule us. Then they insult us. Then we win.” It’s clear from much of the commentary about the Clinton-Sanders race (and with the third Democratic challenger, Martin O’Malley, having “suspended his campaign” after a dismal showing in Iowa, that’s just what it is) that the mainstream media and their corporate owners have already decided Hillary Clinton is to be the Democratic nominee, and woe betide any restive Democrats who have any other ideas.
Their most recent strategy has been to bring up George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972 and tell the Democrats, their fingers wagging in disapproval the way a grade-school teacher might lecture an unruly class, “Don’t do that to yourselves again.” The fact that McGovern was running against a popular incumbent who had just released world tensions by reopening relations between the U.S. and China and pursuing détente with the Soviet Union isn’t mentioned. Nor is the fact that the popular President, Richard Nixon, was systematically rigging the election in ways that only became public knowledge months after the Watergate burglars were caught. They also don’t mention that the next time the Democrats had to take on a popular Republican incumbent — Ronald Reagan in 1984 — they nominated a centrist, Walter Mondale, and still got creamed.
For us Sanders supporters, the relevant comparison isn’t 1972 but 2008. Indeed, if I were Hillary Clinton I’d be having dèja vu nightmares — “Oh, shit! It’s happening again!” In 2008 Clinton was considered the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, and her status as the first female nominee of either major U.S. political party was all but assured — but progressives in the Democratic party had other ideas. They rallied behind an obscure Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who had been right on the paramount foreign policy issue of the 2000’s — whether the U.S. should respond to the 9/11 attacks by invading and conquering Iraq, a country that had had nothing to do with 9/11 and didn’t pose a threat to the U.S. at all — where Clinton had been spectacularly wrong. That’s why this year Clinton is still trying to make it to the Presidency instead of preparing to leave it.
Indeed, in a real way Bernie Sanders has already won, whether he gets the nomination or not. Before he entered the field, Clinton was planning to offer herself in 2016 as a classic “triangulation” candidate. In late 2015 she gave an interview on foreign affairs to the Atlantic in which she rather snippily said, “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not a foreign policy.” Since “Don’t do stupid stuff” was already known as a catch-phrase President Obama used to describe his foreign policy, and that as Obama’s Secretary of State Clinton had advocated more hawkish strategies than Obama had been willing to do (like direct U.S. bombing attacks on the government of Syria), the anti-Obama message behind her comments was obvious.
Before Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton evidently planned to present herself as what’s been called a “Third Way Democrat,” criticizing both Obama and his Republican predecessor George W. Bush and saying we needed to vote for her to protect ourselves against crazies on both the Left and the Right. She was signaling with that Atlantic interview that she felt her husband was the last decent President the U.S. had had and her election would be a return to the economic good times and relative peace of Bill Clinton’s years. Now she’s singing a different tune, trying to claim for herself most of the same progressive goals as Sanders but saying she’s the pragmatist who can actually achieve them. She got caught in an embarrassing moment when she attacked Sanders as someone who thought he could just “wave a magic wand” and make fundamental changes happen — and some New York Times reporters got hold of a video clip from 2008 in which she’d used the same “magic wand” phrase to attack Obama.
Of course, once he actually took office Obama abandoned his campaign promises to be a progressive leader and mobilize his supporters to overcome Congressional opposition. He campaigned as a transformational leader but governed as a transactional one, sucking up to the big corporate interests that really run the country. His vaunted health-care reform was based on a plan originally concocted in the 1990’s by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and first signed into law on a state level by Obama’s 2012 opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Ironically, the folks at Heritage had put together the basics of what became the Affordable Care Act in case Hillary Clinton got too far with the health plan she was putting together for her husband’s administration in 1993 — but with the Republicans and conservative Democrats were able to stop without having to propose an alternative.
Today Hillary Clinton is running as the defender of so-called “Obamacare.” The Republicans in Congress have done over 60, count ’em, 60 votes to get rid of it, saying they want to “repeal and replace” Obamacare when it’s clear they want to repeal it and not replace it with anything. To the extent the Republicans — who as an extreme Libertarian party ultimately want to junk the entire social safety net, including Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and every other program to help non-rich people with government money — have a health-care alternative, it’s even more giveaways to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The only major-party Presidential candidate who’s actually proposing to repeal and replace Obamacare is Bernie Sanders, who wants to get rid of private health insurance altogether and introduce a Canadian-style single-payer health insurance system by expanding Medicare access to the whole population.
Of course, it’s hard to overestimate the difficulties either Clinton or Sanders will have in actually getting anything they’re proposing enacted by Congress. Between the huge contributions to super-PAC’s authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Citizens United decision and the Republicans’ skill at capturing state governments and gerrymandering Congressional as well as state legislative districts (redistricting has become the fulfillment of Bertolt Brecht’s bitter joke about “the government dissolving the people and electing another”), the next President, Republican or Democrat, will likely face a Republican Senate and almost certainly a Republican House. One commentator whose name escapes me wrote recently that the Democrats are facing a choice between Hillary Clinton, who will propose a program slightly more radical than Obama’s that Congress will ignore; and Bernie Sanders, who will propose a program much more radical than Obama’s that Congress will ignore.

Republican Revolution on Hold

Meanwhile, the Republicans have quietly — and sometimes not so quietly — been building momentum over decades for a Right-wing political revolution that, under the guise of returning to a vision of an “American ideal” that supposedly once existed, will massively roll back all government programs that benefit the non-rich, including public education; as well as end all regulation of business and all laws protecting workers’ rights, including their health and safety, and the environment. Their model is the 1880’s, the age of the super-capitalists who used to be called “robber barons” before Right-wing historians started rehabilitating them in the image of Ayn Rand’s capitalist superheroes, in which workers (including children) labored for 18 hours a day in utterly atrocious conditions, their employers had so much control over their lives they were virtual slaves, government was more or less openly bribed by the wealthy individuals and corporations that ran the economy, workers who tried to organize labor unions were jailed or just killed, and quite frequently — in 1873, 1893 and 1897 — the economy was utterly devastated by so-called “Panics” (19th-century speak for “depressions”) in which working people literally starved to death without jobs and without help.
If you want to see what the nation will look like once the Republicans grab the one part of the federal government they don’t already control — the Presidency — you need look no farther than Flint, Michigan. First Republican Governor Rick Snyder fired the elected local officials and installed a state-appointed manager to take over the city government of Flint and save money wherever possible. Then the manager decided to stop buying water from Detroit and instead feed the city water from the polluted Flint River through lead-lined pipes which only made the stuff even more toxic. Then, when the revelation came out that not only were people getting sick from the lead-soaked water but all that lead was going to stunt the mental growth of Flint’s children for their entire lives, Snyder first blamed the “experts” and civil servants around him, then hired a new set of “experts” to report to him about ways to clean up the problem. Meanwhile, the citizens of Flint are not only dealing with toxic water coming out of their taps, they still have to pay for it.
The Republican ambition to undo the progressive reforms achieved under Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican President who was read out of the party in 1912 and would be even less welcome in it today), Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt began while FDR was still in office, in the late 1930’s, when many of the forerunners to today’s radical Right were not only anti-New Deal but anti-Semitic and openly sympathetic to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The radical Right survived World War II and thought they had achieved national power in 1946, when voters elected a Republican Congress — but it lasted only two years before Democratic President Harry Truman rallied voters not only to re-elect him but put the Democrats back in the majority of both houses.
The radical Right thought it had a chance to take power in 1952, but their preferred candidate for the Republican nomination, Robert A. Taft, lost to Dwight Eisenhower, who made it clear in office he was interested in preserving and tweaking the New Deal, not eliminating it. (He was also the only post-World War II President who left office with the defense budget smaller than it had been when he took over; having formerly run the U.S. military, he knew how wasteful and unnecessary most so-called “defense” spending really was.) They thought they had a chance to take power in 1964, when Barry Goldwater became the first “movement conservative” to win the Republican Presidential nomination — and while Goldwater’s ideas, including privatizing Social Security and selling FDR’s big public-power project, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), were then too far out of the mainstream to elect him, the Republicans doubled down on his ideology and found other, more persuasive spokespeople to push it.
In 1968 Richard Nixon won the Presidency and established the Right-wing ideological realignment that, despite some reverses, has dominated American politics ever since. By reaching out to Senator Strom Thurmond and working out the so-called “Southern strategy” — basically exploiting white racism and prejudice against the 1960’s counter-culture — they permanently pulled not only the white South but the white working class in the North out of the Democratic coalition and into the Republican one. In 1972 Nixon thought that by winning a sweeping landslide re-election victory he could finally put the Right-wing ideology into practice, even though Congress remained in Democratic hands. But the political meltdown from the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s forced resignation and the inability of his appointed successor, Gerald Ford, to win election in 1976 once again put the Right-wing revolution on hold.
The Right thought they had their next chance for absolute power in 1980, when Ronald Reagan squeaked through with barely over 50 percent of the vote in a Presidential race with at least three major candidates. (An interesting illustration of how the victors rewrite history is the frequent description of Reagan’s 1980 win as a “landslide.” It wasn’t, though his 1984 re-election certainly was.) But Reagan, though he campaigned as a “movement conservative,” governed as a conservative pragmatist, advancing the Right’s agenda on some issues but doing things — like signing a bill granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants in 1986 and reversing some of his early tax cuts when they tanked the economy — that would get him read out of the Republican party today.
The next opportunity the Right had for total control — “full-spectrum dominance,” as George W. Bush’s advisor Karl Rove put it — was after the hotly contested 2000 election and after the 9/11 attacks made it seem like any criticism of the second President Bush was unpatriotic and virtually treasonous. The Bushes and Rove mapped out a strategy not only to keep the Congress in Republican hands indefinitely but to keep the Bush family in the White House. But the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, the display of governmental incompetence in the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the sudden meltdown of the U.S. economy in 2008 (largely as a result of the deregulatory policies the Republicans favor), led to the Republicans losing Congress in 2006 and the Presidency two years later.
Now they’re feeling their oats again. The so-called “Obama coalition” has proven able to elect only one person — Obama himself. Otherwise Obama’s years in office have been one political disaster for the Democratic party after another. In 2010 the Democrats not only lost the House of Representatives but, even more importantly, lost big in governorships and state legislatures. The reason that’s significant is that any year ending in “0” is a census year, and the party that’s in power in a state after an election in a census year is the one that will have the ability to remake the state’s legislative and Congressional districts to favor themselves. The Republicans came into the Obama years with a 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which they’ve used to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, eliminate virtually all restrictions on the ability of rich people to buy elections, and in rulings expected this year will probably decimate the ability of organized labor to be politically active and radically curtail women’s rights to reproductive choice. And in 2014 they won control of the U.S. Senate, which means that now the bills to repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood or attack (to mix my French metaphors) whatever the right’s bête noire de jour is get through both houses of Congress — and only Obama’s veto pen stands in the way of their becoming law.
All the Republicans need to do in 2016 is elect a President, and if they keep control of both houses of Congress they will run the entire federal government. What they’ll do with that power is amply illustrated in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Ohio, where they’ve eliminated the right of public workers to bargain collectively, attacked what’s left of private-sector unionism via so-called “right to work” laws, turned over public services (including public schools) to private for-profit companies, made slashing cuts in state services and enacted such crippling tax cuts — mostly benefiting the rich — that the states they govern are quickly going broke.
But the drive for complete Republican control of the federal government hit a bit of a speed bump in late 2015. Its name was Donald J. Trump. Yes, he’s running for President as a Republican and he’s so far disclaimed any interest in mounting an independent campaign if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination. (Actually he first said he might, then he wouldn’t, then he might again, then he wouldn’t again.) And it’s true that on a lot of issues he represents the Republican id in its full glory — in his bashing of Mexican immigrants as “murderers and rapists,” his attack on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (when she asked him a tough question about his attacks on women, he answered with an attack on her as a woman, saying she had “blood coming out of her eyes, or wherever”), and his call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the U.S., as well as his new-found hatred of abortion and his absolutist position on individuals having a Second Amendment right to own as many guns, of whatever type, as they want. He’s also screamed for a more aggressive U.S. military response to terrorism in general and ISIS in particular; indeed, talking about ISIS Trump sometimes sounds as if he thinks he can bully them into submission as easily as he can a rival developer he’s trying to best in a property deal.
However, there are dangerous bits of heterodoxy in Trump’s brand of Republicanism. For one, he’s pledged to preserve Social Security and Medicare instead of cutting, privatizing or eliminating them. He’s less like an American Right-winger than a European one, appealing directly to working-class voters who were the New Deal’s biggest supporters as long as they were its biggest beneficiaries — but turned against it in the 1960’s when the Kennedy and (especially) Johnson administrations tried to extend it to people of color. In an article in the February 1 New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/01/the-duel-faceoff-ryan-lizza?mbid=social_twitter), Ryan Lizza interviewed Henry Olsen, co-author of a new book called The Four Faces of the Republican Party. Olsen argued that most of the recent Republican Presidential nominating races have been about just how “conservative” the party can be. Trump “is not trying to answer this question at all,” Olsen told Lizza. “Instead, he is posing a new question: to what extent should the G.O.P. be the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy?”
The radical-Right activists who run the Republican party couldn’t care less about being the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy. Oh, they know they have to make at least a pretense of caring about them, but they really see the non-rich as “moochers” and “takers.” The radical Right doesn’t have anything to say about the growing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. because they think that’s a good thing. Drunk on the arguments of Ayn Rand and the “Vienna school” of economists she got her libertarian ideology from (notably Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek), they believe employers, not workers, create wealth — and therefore the rich should have as much of the nation’s wealth and income as they can take. To a modern-day Republican, attempts to buy the working class’s acquiescence in capitalism by making a few gestures in their favor — a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, health insurance subsidies, whatever — are not only wrong but literally immoral, since they amount to government stealing from the successful (and, therefore, deserving) to help the unsuccessful (and therefore undeserving.)
Of course, they’re smart enough to know that — even given how far Right they’ve already moved the discourse in this country (to the extent that the ideas that got Goldwater savaged as a dangerous radical in 1964, like getting rid of unions and privatizing Social Security, are now mainstream) — actually saying that in public is going to hurt them electorally. But that is what they believe. So when Trump promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., he’s getting in the way of what other Republicans regard as the inexorable march of market-driven fate. And until February 1, the Republican Right had every reason to fear the nomination of Donald Trump. Even some of his most Right-wing positions, like his assault on immigrants, he’d framed not in the usual Republican terms that we have to be “a nation of laws” and therefore can’t just let anyone into the country, but in the populist terms of building up the incomes and opportunities of America’s white working people by protecting them from the cheap competition of the foreign-born.
So a lot of Right-wing Republican hearts are breathing easier tonight now that Cruz has beaten Trump in the first showcase in which people actually had a chance to vote for President. Not that Trump suffered a Howard Dean-style blowout — Dean’s campaign in 2004 imploded so quickly it reminded me of the old exchange in Peanuts in which, after one of their failed baseball games, Charlie Brown said, “For one brief moment, victory was in our grasp,” and Linus replied, “Yeah, and then the game started” — but the media pundits who regard Trump’s brand of populism with almost as much scorn as Bernie Sanders’ brand of socialism seized on it and essentially tried to build a consensus view that Trump’s second-place showing in Iowa showed him up as a paper tiger.
With Cruz in the lead, Right-wing Republicans can breathe easier. They’ve got a standard-bearer with no heterodox opinions, no embarrassing gaffes like once inviting Hillary Clinton to his wedding, no hard-to-explain (to the Republican base, anyway) shifts like Trump’s statement in 1999 that even though he was appalled by the idea of abortion, he was nonetheless pro-choice. (Cruz’s exposure of that quote from Trump’s past probably hurt him more in Iowa than anything else, including skipping the final debate there.)
And as much as I and my fellow Leftists have been afraid of a Trump Presidency, a Cruz Presidency would be even worse. Trump at least has built a multi-billion dollar business; Cruz has done nothing except try to tear down the achievements of others. Trump has located himself in the most cosmopolitan city in the U.S.; Cruz has attacked him for “New York values,” which seems to mean mostly having a friendly, or at least not openly hateful and condemnatory, attitude towards Queers. About the only thing Cruz has done in the Senate is shut down the government in 2013 over his temper tantrum that he couldn’t get Obamacare defunded — and threaten a similar temper-driven showdown in 2015 over Planned Parenthood. Cruz has the thug-like mentality of a schoolyard bully who, if he doesn’t get his way, will take the football and go home.

The Parties Are NOT Alike!!!

If the Presidential campaign so far has proved anything, it’s that the belief of all too many American Leftists that there are no fundamental differences between the Democratic and Republican parties is flat-out wrong. No, the Democratic party is hardly as progressive as it could or should be. Yes, it’s entirely too beholden towards corporations and wealthy individuals to fund its campaigns. No, it’s not a socialist party, not a working people’s party (though in terms of the way working-class Americans — white ones, anyway — actually vote, it’s the Republicans who are the working-class party today!), not even a liberal party. But on issue after issue, the Democrats are superior to the Republicans — and superior in ways that are important for anyone concerned about the fate of America’s 99 percent.
When proposals to increase the minimum wage come before state and local governments, Democrats generally vote for them; Republicans don’t. Democrats generally support Social Security; Republicans want to cut, privatize or eliminate it. It is Democrats who are pushing the efforts at least to narrow, if not to eliminate altogether, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings for work of comparable worth. Democrats generally support a woman’s right to reproductive choice; Republicans don’t. Democrats generally support equal rights for Queer people, including marriage equality; Republicans don’t. Democrats generally support laws protecting workers’ health and safety; Republicans don’t.
And — most importantly for the future of the human species — Democrats at least acknowledge the reality of human-based climate change and its potential effects on the earth’s ability to support us. Democrats may not be willing politically to do as much as needs to be done to stop climate change from jeopardizing the future of life on earth, but at least they recognize it as a problem. Republicans generally deny that humans are causing climate change. Democrats at least recognize the necessity of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, even if they don’t always act as strongly as they should. The Republicans’ energy policy is “drill, baby, drill; mine, baby, mine; pollute, baby, pollute.”
In the run-up to this year’s Presidential campaign, we’ve seen mass insurgent movements break out in both parties around atypical candidates. As Lizza noted in his New Yorker piece, Donald Trump’s support comes mainly from working-class people whose families worked industrial jobs for decades and who have seen America stop virtually all manufacturing. It’s left them in a state where, for reasons they can’t understand but which mainstream politicians tell them are “inevitable,” the relatively high-paying industrial jobs that once sustained their families are gone — and more and more of the jobs that can be done without a college education are going to immigrants who will work cheaper and won’t risk their presence in the U.S. by daring to complain.
Bernie Sanders’ revolution is also driven by economics — not abstractly but directly. If the typical Trump voter is a middle-aged workingman displaced by globalization, immigration and the civil rights advances of people of color, the typical Sanders voter is a college student who was promised that college would assure them higher-than-average earnings. Instead they’re finding themselves racking up more and more student loan debt, and they’ve heard enough stories about people with Ph.D.’s working at McDonald’s to worry whether they’ll ever have jobs that pay enough to justify the huge investment they made in their educations. The typical Trump voter is someone who was promised the American dream and then had it yanked away from them; the typical Sanders voter is someone who’s been told all their life that they’re going to be part of the first generation in American history that isn’t going to have it as good, economically, as their parents did — and there’s nothing they can do about it.
I remember reading an article during the Reagan presidency that said that as long as the Republicans can persuade people that their economic problems are the fault of the people below them, they will win. As long as the Democrats can persuade people that their economic problems are the fault of people above them, they will win. The outcome of Iowa indicates not only that America is deeply split politically, but that the Republicans are still able to put up people like Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio who can win votes by tapping working people’s anxieties over race and culture — a strategy that’s been working for Republicans since 1968.
The Democrats are as divided within themselves as the nation as a whole is between them and the Republicans. It’s fascinating that, though Bernie Sanders is a few years older than Hillary Clinton — and much older in his style of presentation (impassioned rather than collected) — early polls in Iowa indicated young voters breaking for Sanders by 85 to 15 percent. Hillary Clinton represents the past of the Democratic Party: one that pays lip service to progressive ideals and occasionally expends political capital on them when they can balance that with the needs of their big-money donors and sponsors. Bernie Sanders, at least I can hope, represents its future.
As the Republicans get more hard-line in their determination to return us to the age of the robber barons and their “Panics,” the Democrats need to become, in deeds as well as in words, the party of the underdog, of the 99 percent, of the idea that there are certain obligations a just society has to all its members. The Democrats need to be the party that proudly proclaims that your access to employment shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin, the plumbing of your body, or whether you have papers. It should be the party that proclaims your access to health care should not be a crapshoot depending on your job or your marital status, but should be a right you are guaranteed by birth and which we as a people pay for jointly through our taxes.
It should be a party that proclaims the survival of our species is its paramount concern. It should say that greenhouse gases, rising sea levels and the other impacts of human-caused climate change are far more serious threats to our national security than ISIS and other terrorists. It will not, of course, become any of those things until we have the kind of “political revolution” Bernie Sanders is talking about — the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets the U.S. Left was able to muster in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s to achieve the political gains now threatened by the ascendancy of the Republican party and the radical Right that controls it.
As I’ve written before in these pages, achieving social change does not come about exclusively through electoral politics; nor does it come about exclusively through street action. It takes both. And whether he wins or loses the Democratic nomination or the Presidency itself, I hope that’s the lesson Bernie Sanders teaches the American Left.