Self-Identification & Primary Hostilities

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the Democratic presidential primary has dramatically heated up in recent weeks. Bernie Sanders has closed the gap in polling in Iowa and nationally, while building up a lead in New Hampshire. As polls have tightened, the Clinton campaign, their surrogates and many online supporters have gone into attack mode.

What is disheartening to me is that this could be a primary where big ideas are debated and we have a serious discussion of what direction the Democratic Party wants to take the country in coming decades. To be sure, we are having this debate, however it is being played out in increasingly uncivil tones. I’m no shirking violet and I do not think there’s anything wrong with heated political debate. But it is frustrating to see friends and organizations I respect wade into vicious attacks on each other over the candidates and who people support.

I have a sense as to what is causing the rising acrimony. Policy ideas are, generally, fact oriented things. Many different ideas can be easily arranged on a spectrum, with the political philosophies of left and right representative of different polls, and policy solutions conforming towards different points on the spectrum. Arguably there is no normative value associated with different spots on the spectrum. The concept of single payer healthcare is inarguably to the left of Obamacare, which is inarguably to the left of a system where there is no public subsidy for private health insurance.

Where this becomes fraught in today’s political environment is that people have very different, values laden senses of political identifiers. For people who use them to describe themselves, words like “progressive,” “centrist,” or “conservative” tend to mean “a good person.” Thus someone may proudly claim to be a “bold progressive,” a “staunch conservative,” or a “realistic centrist” as if those adjectives increase the person’s worth. And in the tribal realm of politics, individuals apply their assignation of self-worth not just to how they view themselves, but by supporting candidates like them, who fit these same billings and amplify their own worth.

The problems emerge, as we are seeing in the Democratic primary, when someone views themselves as a “bold progressive” and supports a candidate like Hillary Clinton in a race that also includes Bernie Sanders, an inarguably more left (and thus “progressive” in today’s parlance) politician. To say that Sanders is to Clinton’s left is a statement of fact – it has no moral value, nor does it impart any assessment on the worth of the candidates nor their supporters. It just is.

But for people who explicitly or implicitly take “progressive” to normatively mean “a good person,” then someone being more progressive means that they can lay claim to being “a better person” than our Clinton supporter. No one likes to feel like they are worth less than they see themselves, so they fight back against this idea (even though it is purely implicit and premised on the normative application of “progressive” as a designation of self-worth). They defend themselves from this perceived attack. They look for the tiniest of holes in the ideological spectrum, searching for issues to find spots or moments where their preferred candidate is to the left, and thus the True Progressive. We see this in the primary fight where the Clinton campaign has sought to turn Sanders’ lifetime “D-” NRA rating into a liability based on a handful of bad gun votes. The triumphant Clintonite response to this, “A-ha! Bernie is in the pocket of the NRA! He is no True Progressive!”

This also speaks to why we are seeing a real hatred of Sanders emerge in the Democratic establishment, which is almost exclusively backing Clinton and increasingly public in their disdain for Sanders. Democratic “elites” are flocking to Iowa, driven in part by fear and part out of a hatred of Sanders.

The campaign and its allies had planned all along to escalate their efforts at this point, as the caucuses near. However, Democratic governors, senators and other party leaders said they are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surfing a wave of populist frustration to the nomination. And they were quick in interviews this week to dispense advice to Clinton.

Within the Democratic elite, where Clinton enjoys near-universal support, the antipathy toward Sanders has grown steadily as he has emerged as a potential Clinton slayer. All week, McCaskill has been loudly predicting an electoral catastrophe if her party nominates Sanders.

As much as there will be a massive rending of garments in Washington if Hillary Clinton fails to win from the position of presumptive nominee, the Clinton supporters are not wearing desperation well. They’re taking it personally and it is showing.

At least, this is what I am seeing. It could explain the anger and hatred at the increasing success of Sanders’ campaign. If everyone feels like he exists as a finger in their eye, a statement that they are not as good people as they thought they were, then anger is an understandable reaction. Whether it is justified is a different question, but at least this could explain it on an individual, emotional level.

On Krugman’s Critique of Sanders’ Single Payer Plan

I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive look at the critiques of Bernie Sanders’ single player health care plan. There are a lot out there, which is not surprising given how big an idea Sanders has put into play. For weeks the drumbeat from the Clinton campaign, surrogates and some in the press has been to ask, “Where is Bernie’s single payer plan?” Now that he has produced one, the immediate pivot has been to tear it down with an argument that amounts to, “Bernie’s single payer plan is unrealistic because it is a single payer plan.”

There’s a lot that gets packed into these criticisms, but I wanted to take a look at one from a very respected source: Paul Krugman. Paul Krugman’s takedown of Bernie Sanders single payer health care plan contain three main fallacious arguments in my view.

The first is his lede & description of Obamacare: “It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations.” That is a re-writing of history. The long standing goal, as Senator Sanders repeatedly pointed out last night in the debate, was universal health care, not access to health insurance. To wit, if the goal had always been the sort of insurance access kludge we got in Obamacare, Obamacare would have been arriving as the clear demand, not the bartered, lobbied, crafted, kludged end-product that we ended up with. Obamacare might be an effective delivery vehicle for “access to health insurance for all Americans” – and its expansion of Medicare are even more effective – but it certainly did not deliver health care as a right. To that end, as much as it was a generational accomplishment for the Democratic Party, it did not leave the health care box permanently checked on the list of goals for the the Party.

The second issue I take with Krugman is that his first two objections to Sanders’ plan are attempts to be pragmatic, yet ignore what Sanders is actually saying. They are, effectively (1) incumbent players have lots of power and (2) it will be hard to convince the public that the tax costs to them are worth it (as rich people will spend lots of money opposing the bigger hit to their wallets).

I don’t doubt that these are accurate descriptions of reality and why passing single payer would be hard. But I think it is incredibly disingenuous to raise these points as reasons that Sanders’ plan is bad, while ignoring that they are fundamentally connected to Sanders’ argument that we need a “political revolution” in America that gets money out of politics and ends the influence of major lobbies like the health insurance, pharmaceutical and financial industries so that we can do the things we need to do like pass single payer healthcare.

Sanders has throughout the campaign presented a coherent argument about how fighting income inequality, passing single payer healthcare, achieving criminal justice reform, and fighting climate change (among many other issues) are all intrinsically linked to the need to reduce the influence of mega corporations, millionaires and billionaires in the political process. Not only is it not news to Sanders that there are major forces aligned against him, it is fundamental to his whole campaign’s argument.

It is dishonest to look at Sanders’ single player healthcare play in the absence of the political analysis that it exists in, then try to discredit the Sanders’ plan as unfeasible on the basis of this exclusion. This is what Krugman’s first two points about Sanders plan being likely to face opposition from powerful lobbies and rich people does. It ignores the fact that Sanders is saying the exact same thing.

Krugman’s third point is that voters wouldn’t stand for this sort of disruption to their insurance plans. Well, today, maybe that could be true. But if we envision a future where we have had our “political revolution,” where money is being forced out of politics, the rich are being made to pay their fair share to help healthcare exist as a human right, then perhaps Americans will be not only willing, but anxiously awaiting the minor disruptions which may come in the process of switching from the kludge of health care and insurance programs we now have to a more unified one that offers them richer benefits.

Sanders’ whole campaign has told the story of how he wants to create a different America, one that is more equitable, that is less corrupt and is built to work for the people, not billionaires. It is no doubt an aspirational story. There are no doubt many pragmatic arguments to be made against such a vision being achieved in the next year or two or four. But focusing into one part of the Sanders vision and trying to discredit it for lacking the very terms found in the rest of that vision is fundamentally dishonest.

Moreover, the highly pragmatic and conveniently disingenuous critique of Sanders is no accidental artifact induced by Sanders’ specific proposals. The likelihood is that there is no single payer plan that could be constructed and presented in such a way so that the political pundit class, establishment Democrats and the entire Republican Party would look at it and say, “Gee, that is a highly pragmatic and achievable plan that we can all see passing within the first four years of a Sanders administration.” None. The response we are seeing now is always the response that we would see from Clinton and centrist self-described wonks.

That is what it is. It does not mean Sanders should not be campaigning for single payer nor that he made a mistake by articulate a plan. Presenting a vision, grounded in a wider analysis of the political process, for how we can deliver health care as a right in America is a critically important step that Sanders has taken. It pushes the envelope on what has been presented by American presidential candidates. We are having a debate about single payer health care in America – that is a good thing! This is a necessary step for us ever actually getting single payer. It isn’t going to happen absent a politician running on it, building a movement of support for it, and having that movement force it forward over loud, monied opposition.

Bernie Sanders knows this would be a dogfight. He’s told us so for a long time. And as of January 2016, he’s the only candidate pushing forward into the fray.

Charles Pierce on Sanders, Clinton & Trump

Charles Pierce is on point here about the why and the how Sanders has made the primary race with Clinton a close fight:

The simple fact is that, if HRC has lost her lead at the moment, she has lost it to a superior campaign.

And it’s not as simple as the “populist anger” narrative would have you believe. Sanders has been running a 50-state campaign since before he formally declared his candidacy. He went to South Carolina. He went to Mississippi. He drew large and approving crowds in both places. He has stayed doggedly on message, directly refusing to help the elite political class in its pursuit of shiny objects. He repeatedly has emphasized that the pursuit of his policy goals, which all have to do with breaking the power of impending oligarchy and its threat to self-government, cannot be limited simply to electing him. And that’s where the easy narrative falls apart.

Pierce goes on to explain how Sanders’ populism is distinct from Trump, a meaningful difference in a media environment seeking easy answers for what the Beltway press finds to be two inexplicable campaigns:

Sanders punches up at the elites that, frankly, have more power in our politics than he does, or than you do, or than any politician does. He tells his audiences that he can’t do it alone, that the money power has grown too great for any one person to combat. He needs them more than they need him. He is not Napoleon, he is a democratic politician. And that makes all the difference and that’s why the “populist anger” narrative is a shuck. Anyone who says they could vote for either Bernie Sanders or He, Trump has been living for the last nine months with their head in a laundry bag.

The respective appeals of the two men are similar only on the simplest and least consequential levels. On the most profound levels, the two campaigns couldn’t be more different. Bernie Sanders is where he is because the positions and the policies he has been championing all his career have come back somewhat into favor ever since some grifters broke the world economy and then made off with the rubble. That is why he’s different from Donald Trump and that is why Hillary Rodham Clinton is noticing that things in the rear-view window are closer than they appear.

Not All Lobbyists Are Created Equally

The New York Times has an article today on the emergence of a problem area in the Obama administration’s nearly-blanket exclusion of lobbyists from holding positions in the administration. Essentially while President Obama’s campaign promise to shut out lobbyists has largely worked, it has also meant many uniquely talented individuals who have spent their career lobbying for non-profits, charities, and human rights groups are ineligible to roles they would be excessively well suited for. At issue is the simple reality that not all lobbyists are created equally. It is fairly nonsensical for administration officials to contend that someone who has spent a career working for Human Rights Watch is indistinguishable from someone who has spent their career lobbying for Philip Morris, Pfizer, or Wal-Mart.

The article reminded me of the exchange during the 2007 Yearly Kos Presidential Forum, where Hillary Clinton was heavily booed for saying she would continue to accept lobbyist contributions to her campaign.

While Clinton’s answer was politically problematic in front of a very progressive audience that largely, at that time, backed Obama and John Edwards, in hindsight the point she’s making should be quite clear. Lobbyists fighting for nurses, firefighters, child care workers, or victims of genocide simply are not the same as lobbyists for major corporations. Unfortunately for Clinton, while she was making a true assertion about different types of lobbyists, she would not extend that distinction to her finance department’s guidelines for accepting donations. That is, she used nurses to cover for pharmaceutical lobbyists and was largely punished for it politically.

Making exceptions to this policy wouldn’t be hard. An easy guideline would be to limit acceptable lobbyists to those that have worked in social services, human rights, labor unions, and environmental organizations. Or, on the other hand, you could exclude anyone who has lobbied on behalf of a Fortune 500 company or industry lobbying group. This would work because the problem isn’t constitutionally protected lobbying activities, but the influence of money on politics. I’ve never heard of Human Rights Watch being associated with someone like Jack Abramoff, though I can’t say the same for many business lobbies. Those are the areas whose influence the Obama administration should seek to reduce in their house, not people working honorably for human rights and charitable purposes.

Our Nation on Clinton’s Visit to China

SFT Deputy Director Tenzin Dorjee talks about the current state of affairs in Tibet as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits China for the first time.

Tendor was also quoted today on the Clinton visit by AFP:

Students for a Free Tibet said Clinton’s remarks sent the wrong signal to China at a sensitive time.

“The US government cannot afford to let Beijing set the agenda,” said Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of the New York-based advocacy group.

China has been pouring troops into the Himalayan territory ahead of next month’s 50th anniversary of the uprising that sent Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama into exile in India.

“Leaders really need to step up and pressure China. It’s often easy to wonder whether pressure makes a difference. It may not make a difference in one day or one month, but it would be visible after some years,” Dorjee said.

You can donate to SFT’s Rangzen Circle by clicking here.

Blue Dog Dem Trumps Liberal Aristocrat

I’d posted a few times on the outrage that would have been the appointment of aristocrat Caroline Kennedy to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in New York. The idea of someone who has never ran for office or been a public servant to be handed on of the most important exclusive jobs in the land was repugnant to me. Seeing Kennedy step aside from the seat hunt was satisfying, but I can’t say that Kirsten Gillibrand is a better pick, even if she has actually won her office a few times.

Gillibrand is a conservative Democrat – a Blue Dog with little understanding of the rule of law. She voted for the FISA Amendments Act, which included retroactive immunity for telecoms who helped the Bush administration spy on Americans. She is an opponent of comprehensive immigration reform. That said, she also voted against TARP and will be a support of worker rights legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act.

How does the conservative Gillibrand represent New York, one of the most progressive states in the country? How will her views evolve in the Senate, where she won’t have to appeal to fairly conservative voters in upstate New York’s 20th Congressional District? It’s certainly possible that she will become as liberal as her constituents, but I can’t think of a single Democratic Senator who became more liberal after attaining office. It’s much more common for senators to become less liberal as the enter the collegial, risk-averse Democratic Senate caucus.

There were many better candidates to represent New York in the Senate — Jerry Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, Andrew Cuomo, Tom Suozzi, Nydia Velazquez, Steve Israel, and the list goes on. Paterson picked a conservative Blue Dog, a rarity in New York federal politics. I just don’t get it.

The most likely (and cynical) answer is that Paterson wants up-state political credibility and he believes Gillibrand will be a strong advocate for Paterson’s first campaign for governor. Unfortunately while this move may help keep Paterson in office, it doesn’t serve the citizens of New York as well as it serves New York’s Governor. As is so often the case in Democratic politics, the best liberals can do is hold their breath and hope centrists and conservatives will end up being more liberal than they’ve ever been before while entering the conservative legislative bodies in Washington.

Hillary Clinton on US-Tibet Policy

Hillary Clinton was not asked any questions about Tibet during her confirmation hearings earlier this month. This marked the first time in sixteen years that a nominee for Secretary of State was not verbally asked about Tibet in their hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an ominous sign for how the Committee is thinking about America’s relationship to Tibet and its impact on Sin0-American policy.

The Boston Globe has published the written questions posed by Senator John Kerry to Senator Clinton, as well as her responses (PDF link). Here is the question and answer on Tibet.

98. The government of China and the Dalai Lama of Tibet disagree on the issue of greater autonomy for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which has been a stumbling block in their ongoing dialogue.  Meanwhile, many Tibetans have lost faith in the possibility of a negotiated compromise, while Chinese leaders have expressed a deep distrust of the Dalai Lama’s intentions and foreign contacts.  What options may be acceptable to both sides?  What kinds of international pressure, if any, would be helpful in promoting a resolution?

The Obama Administration will speak out for the human rights and religious freedom of the people of Tibet.  If Tibetans are to live in harmony with the rest of China’s people, their religion and culture must be respected and protected.  Tibet should enjoy genuine and meaningful autonomy.  The Dalai Lama should be invited to visit China, as part of a process leading to his return.  We will condemn the use of violence to put down peaceful protests, and call on the Chinese government to respect the basic human rights of the people of Tibet, and to account for the whereabouts of detained Buddhist monks.  We will also continue to press China on our concerns about human rights issues at every opportunity and at all levels, publicly and privately, both through our mission in China and in Washington.

This is a very solid statement, though it does not support Tibetan independence nor explicitly call for the end of China’s 50 year old military occupation. It would have been great to see an explicit call for the release of political prisoners or ending population transfer of Han Chinese into Tibet or Tibetan nomads into concrete villages.

That said, this is a written policy response and it is a jumping off point. It’s my hope that Senator Clinton and her staff at the State Department will push for President Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office. That would be meaningful change that I could believe in.