5/16/19

Mike Gravel is running a more credible campaign than most Democrats

For one simple reason: if you want to win, you have to be willing to attack Joe Biden.

Right now, this is how the polls look:


I guess one can imagine a bizarre universe where more than 70% of the candidates who don't already support Biden rally around a single opponent, but this defies both common sense and about five seconds of looking at the polls. If you want to win, Biden's numbers have to come down. This means attacking him. If you aren't attacking him, you are not actually trying to win.

Senator Mike Gravel, of course, is not actually trying to win the Democratic nomination. He's said so himself. But there really is no reason why we should take a candidate who is being open and honest about his agenda less seriously than candidates like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and, Beto O'Rourke - candidates who also have no intention to win.

How do we know this? Because they aren't attacking Biden. They don't have a distinct version of America that they are willing to fight for, even if that means standing up to the frontrunner. Say what you will about Gravel, but it is beyond dispute that he has a clear platform and politics. That's precisely why his campaign has launched repeated, ferocious attacks on Biden's vote for Iraq, his opposition to busing, his defense of the big banks, his criminal justice record, and so on.

At this point, there's no real question as to why Gravel is running - the only real question is why his opponents are. Certainly it is convenient, for a certain variety of embarrassed centrist, to have a selection of vaguely progressive stand-ins to "support" until it's time to fall in line behind Biden, but it's hard to imagine that being a deliberate objective for their campaigns. More likely, they're just getting in on the standard also-ran grift that's become a staple of every major party primary, where candidates try to leverage novelty campaigns into book sales, pundit gigs, a boosted national profile, and perhaps even a VP nomination. Here, again, Gravel has distinguished himself from his opponents. He hasn't shown any interest in any of that so far; his fundraising, for example, has explicitly called for the smallest donation possible, simply in an effort to get him into the presidential debates.

Say what you will about Mike Gravel, but you cannot dismiss him as a fringe novelty candidate: he is a former United States Senator who played, among other things, a historic role in ending the Vietnam War. You cannot dismiss him as a third party candidate, as so many dismissed Ralph Nader; you cannot dismiss him as not-a-Democrat, as so many have dismissed Bernie Sanders. You cannot dismiss him as marginal in the polls: he continues to outperform multiple candidates who everyone agrees are legitimate candidates. And you cannot dismiss him as irrelevant: Gravel is fighting the frontrunner, which makes him infinitely more relevant than the dozen or so also-rans who won't.

Podcast chat on Fox News boycott skepticism

I laid out a socialist case for skepticism of the Fox News boycott - and what a socialist solution to Fox News looks like - in an interview with Joe Virgillito on The Daily Beat.

5/13/19

Joe Biden is a retreat from the age of Obama

Joe Biden is going to spend the next year selling his campaign as a return to the era of Barack Obama. And this means, of course, that every other candidate will spend a lot of time reminding us that Joe Biden is not Barack Obama - that everything about him, from his record to his philosophy to his vision for the future, is if anything a step back from Obama's legacy.

Usually, this is going to just involve the tedious work of wading through Biden's fifty year political career and dredging up all of the votes and quotes he'd rather we forget. Instead of delving through all of that, however, I want to look at something different: how people have talked about Biden. Specifically, about what they had to say about him before it became useful to hype his progressive bona fides and position him as an ally of the liberal-left.

Because that's not how anyone talked about him before. In fact, when Obama selected Biden as his VP in 2008, this was almost universally regarded - even among mainstream liberal pundits - as a move to pacify white, establishment, conservative critics who were squeamish about voting for a young black president running as an agent of change.


David Brooks, for example, praised the Biden pick as a move away from Obama's "romantic" message of change back towards the "realistic" politics of John McCain:
When Obama talks about postpartisanship, he talks about a grass-roots movement that will arise and sweep away the old ways of Washington. When John McCain talks about it, he describes a meeting of wise old heads who get together to craft compromises. Obama’s vision is more romantic, but McCain’s is more realistic...If Obama hopes to pass energy and health care legislation, he’s going to need someone with that kind of legislative knowledge who can bring the battered old senators together, as in days of yore...Biden’s the one. The only question is whether Obama was wise and self-aware enough to know that. (NYT, 8/11/2008)

Here's how Chuck Todd put it in How Barack Obama Won:
Despite all of the cable chatter by uninformed hype-analysts about putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket, the campaign believed Obama needed someone safe, and safe meant an older white guy... Obama, himself, wanted to be a bit more daring.... 
[But] much of Obama's goal for the final months of the general election campaign was making voters who didn't like Bush and wanted change feel comfortable with him. Biden did that. As the candidate himself would say, Obama is the change...[but] he needed to surround himself with folks who were reassuring...the folks he picked were the conventional, experienced choices, not risky change agents. (19-20)
Here, Todd seems to underestimate just how daring Obama wanted to be. Subsequent reporting shows that he took the possibility of a Clinton pick quite seriously, for example: in Game Change, Heilemann and Halperin report that Obama
kept raising a name that wasn't on any ledger: Clinton...Let's just run through the Hillary option again, he would say to his brain trust. She's tough, she's smart, she's prepared to be president, she has a constituency - she got eighteen million votes. You can't just dismiss that. (339)
The lure of a safe, right-leaning pick ultimately proved to be too seductive, but the authors add that "right up until the moment he rendered his decision as final, Obama kept chuckling, shaking his head, and thinking, I can’t believe I’m picking Biden." (341)

Even Obama's own advisors - the voices of caution and centrism in that selection process - were uneasy about Biden. In The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe recalls a meeting with him that "confirmed what we suspected: this dog could not be taught new tricks." During that meeting, Plouffe and David Axelrod confronted Biden about an issue that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have taken him to task over in recent weeks: his stance on consumer bankruptcy protections.
...we asked him how he would answer questions about differences in views or voting record with Obama. We used a bankruptcy bill, where, put simply, Biden had taken the position of the banks, and Obama, of the consumers. Delaware was the state with the largest number of financial corporations, so this was not a small matter in terms of how Biden would approach it. (291)
Obama's team was right to worry. Biden's cozy relationship with the Delaware credit industry - and his work on that bill in particular - was rightly regarded as a betrayal of the working class and a serious liability for a populist campaign running on a message of change. Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, captured the standard reaction:
The sad truth is that Biden not only supported but aggressively pushed for a conservative, anti-working class bill that made life a lot harder for that family he talked about...So why would Obama go ahead and pick someone with this kind of baggage? ...It just means that Obama, who was on the people's side on this one, now won't be able to his this issue as hard as he could. (8/25/2008)
The anti-war movement - which had returned control of Congress to Democrats in 2006's wave election, and then propelled Obama to the nomination on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War - also regarded Biden's nomination as a step backwards. Even then, Biden had developed a reputation as one of the most hawkish Democrats in the Senate: he had been agitating for a unilateral attack on Iraq since at least 1998, and infamously called for the country to be partitioned in the wake of Bush's invasion. Stephen Zunes, writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, offered a typical reaction:
Incipient Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate constitutes a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses....Early in his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to not only end the war in Iraq, but to challenge the mindset that got the United States into Iraq in the first place. Choosing Biden as his running mate, however, raises doubts regarding Obama’s actual commitment to “change we can believe in.” (8/24/2008)
From Brooks to Cockburn, from Todd to Greenwald, this was the 2008 consensus: Obama chose Biden to shore up his right flank. There was of course significant controversy over whether this pick was a good thing - a savvy concession to get a black progressive in office, or a base capitulation to the reactionaries - but there was never any question about who Biden was. Nor should there be today. Joe Biden isn't a step back to Obama - he's a step back from Obama, a point that, until quite recently, we all took for granted.

5/10/19

Biden can be beat

Abi Wilkinson asks, "Give me your most persuasive, optimistic case for why it's not going to be Biden." Here's my take.

Biden's enjoying his post-announcement honeymoon right now, which is always a moment of strength for any presidential campaign. But even now, 50% of voters are backing another candidate, while 9% aren't backing any candidate [1]; meanwhile, if you ask voters to pick all of the candidates they would vote for, 54% of them won't even consider Joe Biden. [2] And only a minority of voters - 41% a the moment - want him to win. [3]

Biden is not, in other words, a frontrunner with majority support - he needs his opponents to split their vote. But even worse for Biden: most voters want him to lose. This gives us every reason to believe that as his opponents drop out, their supporters will disproportionately migrate to anyone-but-Biden. Which means that his lead will probably narrow as time goes on, a trend that will disproportionately favor candidates who have a high floor of support and who can afford to tough it out.

Bernie can be that candidate. Even at his worst (14.6%), his floor his still higher than the highest ceiling of any not-Biden candidate in the race (three months ago, Kamala Harris managed to reach 12.3%) [4]. He still has the most enthusiastic supporters in the race with a 21% "Very Favorable" rating and a 2.01 Likert score. [5] And Sander is still, of course, demolishing the rest of the field in fundraising, earning $15.3 million in donations under $200. [6]

It is difficult to predict with any rigor how dropouts will benefit Biden and Bernie; as Nathaniel Rakich points out, second choices are fluid and unpredictable [7], and when multiple candidates are dropping out, third, fourth, and fifth choices start mattering too. One simple poll probably illustrates this point: if you ask voters whether they prefer Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, a plurality (31%) says "Neither One", and the percent that says "About the same" (16%) is more than enough to wipe out Biden's current lead over Bernie (30% versus 23%, putting him 7% up).

If the race comes down to Biden and Sanders, as I think it will [8], then as many as 45% of primary voters who don't already favor one or the other will have a choice to make. This doesn't mean that Biden will lose, but it does mean that he is probably very beatable - and that Bernie is almost certainly in the best position to do it.

5/9/19

Three left critiques of Jay Inslee's "Climate Conservation Corps"

Data for Progress has published an article by Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee calling for the creation of a Climate Conservation Corps (CCC). Since Inslee has labored to brand himself as our climate candidate, I'd like to offer some friendly criticism from the left:

1. Fix your defunding problem.

Inslee promotes the CCC as "a bigger, more ambitious" version of the Clean Energy Service Corps, which Barack Obama created in 2009. But the immediate problem facing the CESC was not that it was too small or unambitious; the immediate problem, as Inslee himself admits, was that it "was never fully funded after Republicans took control of Congress in 2010."

This is, in fact, the immediate problem facing nearly every climate change proposal being advanced by the left: deniers do not want to fund action on climate change, and as soon as they take power they will defund it. But as we see with the CCC, most of the proposals being advanced by climate activists and policymakers seem to be proceeding on the reckless and implausible theory that once we take power, right-wing Democrats and Republicans will never take office again.

Inslee - and everyone else pushing climate policy - needs to explain how their proposals will deal with the defunding problem. There are ways to construct policy that make it significantly less vulnerable to right-wing defunding, but if our plan is just "never lose an election again", the left is taking an absolutely intolerable risk.


2. Fix your funding problem.

To his credit, Inslee is one of the only candidates to give significant attention to the central and most urgent challenge in the fight against climate change: green international development. Inslee calls for the creation of a "Global Climate Service Corps", which will provide boots on the ground "to help rebuild a more sustainable world" abroad.

This program, presumably, would demand a lot of funding in order to pay for these positions (more on this below). But like nearly every other mainstream liberal-left advocate for climate action, Inslee is ignoring the central political problem of international climate development: scale. Say it with me: Climate action means sending at least two trillion from the global north to the global south every year. Climate action means sending at least two trillion from the global north to the global south every year. Climate action means sending at least two trillion from the global north to the global south every year.

Neither Washington DC nor the US public at large is even dreaming of funding on this scale. It would be the most ambitious and transformative redistribution program, by several orders of magnitude, in the history of the world. We are not going to secure this kind of funding without an enormous political fight. We need to fix the international funding problem, and that begins by admitting that it exists.


3. Fix your imperialism problem.

Again: Inslee deserves credit for at least acknowledging an international dimension to the fight against climate change, something that we can't take for granted even among the "ecosocialist" left. But even as he calls for a Global Climate Service Corps, Inslee seems to be insisting on a curious restriction: this program "will give Americans the opportunity" [emphasis added] to assist with international development.

Obviously, the investments we need to make in international funding are going to seem a lot more palatable to the US public if they are promoted in the name of US interests - giving Americans jobs, advancing America's "standing" in the international community, and so on. And as I've argued here, if that's what it takes to win political support for a sufficiently ambitious international development program, then climate activists need to accept this - even if it chaffes our anti-imperialist ecosocialist sensibilities.

But in this case, once we bear in mind the $2 trillion rule, it beggars belief that a green Peace Corps could actually provide in personnel and expertise even a fraction of the international aid the US needs to contribute. To put this in perspective, the Peace Corps's annual budget is about $400 million, which is about .06% of what we should be investing in the fight against climate change. And of course, creating an agency that relocates US residents all over the world so that they can do the work is astronomically less cost-effective than funding people who already live there.

Unfortunately, the polling Data for Progress has published for Inslee's Climate Conservation Corps erases its international component entirely - it only asks about "repairing and upgrading our infrastructure" [emphasis added]. So unless they're sitting on numbers that they haven't released, we really have no idea what Americans think about the most important part of his proposal.

But if winning the support of Americans for green international development means dodging the fight over funding and floating a program that would almost certainly be inadequate to the task, then we need to understand this as a case where green imperialism is standing directly in the way of progress. If Inslee wants the support of a left that's calling for an ambitious and internationalist fight against climate change, he's going to have to do better than this.

5/1/19

It's Bernie - or Biden.

I think we can all agree that our country would be much better off if Bernie Sanders were competing for the Democratic nomination against Gloria La Riva, Cornell West, or (why not?) Liza Featherstone. If that were the choice facing socialists in our fight to defeat Donald Trump, then it would make perfect sense for us to stand on the sidelines and watch these primaries play out. We could have a sensible debate over whether to break up the banks or simply nationalize them, for example, with full confidence that either outcome would pose a serious and enduring threat to capital.

And yet here we are, nearly a year away from the primary, and it already seems quite clear that Sanders will not be running against La Riva, Featherstone, or West. It also seems unlikely that he'll be running against Warren, Buttigieg, or Beto - three opponents who remain mired in the single-digits even as they run as self-proclaimed capitalists.

Instead - if preference polling, favorability polling, first-day fundraising totals, and endorsements are any indication - Sanders' primary opponent for the Democratic nomination will almost certainly be Joe Biden. He is winning by all of these measures, and has been for several months now, and usually by a significant margin. Sanders has managed to pass him in preference polling a few times, has annihilated him in various straw polls of uncertain legitimacy, and has built a sizeable lead in overall fundraising - but none of this is enough to make him the frontrunner. And the rest of the field, meanwhile, is trailing far behind.


A persisting theory in circulation right now - call it the Biden Bubble - maintains that his lead is only temporary, and that his infamous propensity for gaffes, along with his record of bad votes and general creepiness, will eventually catch up with him.

Here's my counter-scenario: none of this will matter. Biden will maintain a high floor of support propped up by Obama nostalgia, by disengaged voters who recognize his name but who will otherwise ignore the primaries until the final week, and by centrists who genuinely love his politics. As the primaries wear on and his opponents drop out, he'll pick up a disproportionate number of anyone-but-Sanders voters who see him as their best bet, and of establishment players who need to bet on the winning horse for the sake of their careers. There will be a snowball effect, and sooner or later socialists will find themselves staring down the barrel of a Trump-or-Biden election.

The situation we find ourselves in is directly comparable to what faced Republicans in 2016: an unacceptable and eminently beatable frontrunner who is nevertheless guaranteed to win if the divided opposition can't unite around another candidate. The GOP saw the writing on the wall quite early on; even Scott Walker had the sense to drop out and beg his opponents to rally against Trump. It was a classic collective action problem - for the greater good, most of the GOP candidates (as well as their base) would have to sacrifice their personal preferences. And yet even as Trump's poll numbers soared and their own numbers tanked, also-rans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio insisted on staying in the race.

Socialism is the politics of collective action. If we can't even do better than the GOP on this, we will lose. Every indicator we have says that Joe Biden is the candidate to beat, and every indicator we have points to one candidate as the best chance to beat him. It's still Bernie.

4/24/19

A simple strategy for restoring felon voting rights

Once in office, immediately frame your victory as a national referendum on felon voting rights. Give Congress one month to pass legislation, warning them that if they fail you will be forced to start using the blunt instrument of mass pardons in order to enact this clear democratic mandate. 

If they miss the deadline, begin by issuing pardons that will draw as little opposition as possible: clear cases of wrongful conviction, some innocuous subset of non-violent offenders, and so on. Repeat the initial demand, warning that you will issue even more pardons if Congress fails to pass legislation. Repeat, repeat, and repeat until Congress passes legislation or it becomes politically impossible for you to continue.

*   *   *

This proposal may seem extraordinarily radical, risky, and combative, and I have no doubt that even sympathetic socialists can come up with legitimate strategic and legal quibbles over the particulars. To its credit, however, I think that this kind of strategy recognizes several important political realities that socialists need to come to terms with moving forward:

1. The modern presidency, despite its serious shortcomings, still has more democratic legitimacy than the Senate, the Supreme Court, state and local governments, and arguably the House. Socialists who are committed to meaningful parliamentary or direct democracy need to recognize that what we have ain't it, that what we have was not even designed to be it, and that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Right now the presidency is both our most democratic institution and our best hope for creating a better democracy, and socialists should not hesitate to use it.

2. The president's most viable route to enacting the democratic will will often be through executive action. This is really just an elaboration on point (1), but we should be clear-eyed about it: in the immediate future, Congress will pose an often insurmountable obstacle to democracy. The most effective way the president has to deal with this is through his executive authority: either by simply using it, or by leveraging it to force legislative concessions. Presidents need to bow to this reality and proceed accordingly by pursuing an agenda that is open to working outside of antiquated legislative norms.

3. Our next president should maximize her political leverage by moving as quickly as possible after she is elected. When a president is elected, there is always significant uncertainty about how much of a power-shift has just taken place - and yet there is also extraordinary ideological and institutional pressure on our elite to affirm, out of respect for democracy, that whatever has just happened is legitimate. That's why, despite the usual allegations of foul play at the polls, elections also usually end with the opposition making a big show of respecting the results, congratulating the winner, and declaring hopes for their success.

This moment can never last, but as long as it does, our next president needs to take the opportunity to affirm that a change has taken place - to ratchet in new norms and a radical shift in our politics, all with the memory of a recently mobilized and commanding political majority close at hand. There is never a better time to pursue socialist ambitions as aggressively as possible.

4. One of our immediate priorities should be to expand and entrench our power. This is just remedial Machiavelli so I don't want to dwell on it - either you accept it, or you don't - but since US socialists are so allergic to wielding and maintaining power, the point has to be made. When we take control of the state, one of the very first things we need to do is ensure that all of the antidemocratic obstacles placed in the way of our continued control of the state are completely destroyed. If you do not do this then it is probably only a matter of time until the enemies of democracy take power once again and tear down everything you have accomplished. This was one of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration, and it allowed the radical right to exploit the Achilles' heel of his incrementalist politics.

The left must not let that happen again. As I argued four years ago, one of the best ways to prevent that would be for our next president to move quickly to enact democratic reforms through executive action - and that calculus hasn't changed.