On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner

A Break from Walls, Shutdowns, and Tweets. The poet Mary Oliver died at 83 yesterday. I hope you’ve encountered her work.

She is the great poet of being human, a lyrical poet who managed to touch a large audience with her simplicity and eloquent insight about making meaning from everyday wonder.

Here is part of one of her best, from her poem titled “When Death Comes.” 

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Whatever else you might say about Mary Oliver, she fully inhabited this world.

Poetry helps keep us sane, in this insane time. And now, back to the madness of Trump.

Meyerson

“All Right Then, We Are Two Nations.” That’s what John Dos Passos wrote in his great USA trilogy, recounting the divisions in the country at the time of the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—another season when nativism was running high and Italians were viewed by many “older stock” Americans as an inherently dangerous population.

Plus ca change:  In a survey released yesterday by the Pew Research Center, Americans opposed expanding what we have in the way of a border wall by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin, but that 58 and that 40 couldn’t be more entrenched. Not surprisingly, given the centrality of nativism, racism and Trumpism to the modern GOP, “Republican support for the wall,” Pew reports, “is at a record high, while Democratic support has reached a new low.” Moreover, Pew continues:

Nearly nine-in-ten (88 percent) opponents of expanding the border wall say it would not be acceptable to pass a bill that includes President Trump’s request for wall funding, if that is the only way to end the shutdown. Among the smaller group of wall supporters, 72 percent say a bill to end the shutdown would be unacceptable if it does not include Trump’s funding request.

I take these numbers to fairly represent what has become an unbridgeable divide between our two nations. I take them as an indication that those who are seeking the “center” in American politics will fail to find one. Neither side has any significant political incentive to plant a flag in midfield; neither side believes in the other side’s facts, epistemology, or sense of right and wrong. For the sentient American majority, the only long-term solution is to mobilize and enlarge our ranks to overcome the anti-majoritarianism of both the Republicans and the Constitution, and thereby win the political power that would strip from Republicans their capacity to inflict their bigotry on their fellow Americans. 

Kuttner

Seth Moulton, What Were You Thinking? Like a fine wine, Nancy Pelosi just gets better with age. Disinviting Trump to give the State of the Union address in the people’s House, of which she is now speaker, is a stroke of genius. It must be driving Trump nuts, if that’s not redundant. 

Trump is simply not accustomed to strong women, much less strong women exercising power that he can’t control. How could any Democrat have thought it would be smart politics to topple Pelosi, other than for sheer opportunism?

Meanwhile, Trump's support among Republicans continues to crumble. The latest is that VP Mike Pence and First Nepotist Jared Kushner were frantically trying to hold back a stampede of Republican senators signing onto a letter requesting Trump to allow the government to reopen for three weeks while wall discussions continue. 

Those Republicans include Lisa Murkowski, Lamar Alexander, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham. Alexander is a close ally of Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who has been uncharacteristically quiet as a turtle. Graham is usually a strong ally of Trump, except when he isn’t. 

One other piece of positive fallout: Ordinary Americans, watching and reading about the plight of unpaid workers at the TSA, the National Park Service, NOAA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and on and on, are starting to realize that these are dedicated Americans who actually do useful work. Imagine that.

What a pleasure to observe the astute Nancy Pelosi in action as speaker once again. We are lucky that the anti-Pelosi coup did not get to first base. 

Meyerson

The Emerging 2020 False Choice: “Just Beat Trump” or “Progressive Change?” According to a story in today’s New York Times, “the most consequential political question facing the Democratic Party is whether liberals will insist on imposing policy litmus tests on 2020 presidential hopefuls, or whether voters will rally behind the candidate most capable of defeating the president even if that Democrat is imperfect on some issues.”

This question, however, is rooted in the muck of dubious assumptions. The first such assumption is that the “imperfect” policy positions of more centrist candidates will have broader electoral appeal than more distinctly progressive policy positions. Relatedly, the second dubious assumption is that progressive policy positions (by which centrists generally mean progressive economic policy positions) will make it difficult for the eventual Democratic nominee to defeat Donald Trump.

Which progressive policy positions would those be? Breaking up the big banks? Raising taxes on the rich and corporations? A Green New Deal that involves major public investment and good job creation in the economically abandoned regions of the country (which include inner cities as well as small towns and rural America)? Rejecting corporate PACs? Instituting public financing of campaigns? Dividing corporate boards between representatives of workers and shareholders? Expanding Medicare and Medicaid as a phase in to single payer? Changing labor law to enable workers to form unions again? Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit? Mandating free public college and university educations?

My hunch—and I’ve got a passel of polls to back it up—is that such positions will help rather than hurt the Democratic nominee, in purple states no less than in the blue. And that shying from such positions will exact a toll that exceeds the benefits of centrist reticence. Americans—not just Democrats—are looking for leadership that will help them transform our nation from a plutocracy to a democracy. A nominee who doesn’t fit that bill—and there are a number of centrist hopefuls who don’t—would be less, not more, likely to defeat Trump in 2020.   

So—progressive change or just beat Trump? That’s the choice the centrists are saying we must confront. It’s a false one. 

Kuttner

More Hedge Fund Predators Buying Up Newspapers. You may have missed it, but an outfit called Digital First Media (DFM) is trying to buy the Gannett newspaper chain. Last year, I wrote a lengthy investigative piece on how private equity and hedge fund companies like DFM are destroying what’s left of America’s metropolitan dailies. You can read about it here

The basic model is to borrow money, buy a shaky newspaper (or in this case a whole shaky chain), charge the debt to the target company’s own balance sheet, and then cut costs (reporters and editors) to shreds. The distress of the newspaper industry has been widely blamed on the internet, but in fact predatory practices by outfits like DFM are a major contributing factor.

Last year, DFM bought the Boston Herald, and promptly cut the newsroom from 240 to 175. Now the target is to cut editorial employees to just 100. Meanwhile, DFM is shooting for profit margins at the Herald in the 17-percent range. 

It’s hard to shed too many tears for Gannett, no slouch when it comes to stripping newsrooms. Gannett’s flagship USA Today is damned thin already. It’s likely to be even worse if DFM manages to take it over.

Kuttner

Happy Birthday, Alex Hamilton! Facebook probably didn’t alert you—he didn’t have an account—but today is the birthday of Alexander Hamilton. He was born on January 11, 1757.

Why does this matter? Well, Hamilton might have a lot to say about our current situation. 

First, he was very much of an infrastructure guy. He wrote America’s first industrial policy, his famous "Report on Manufactures." He’d be a big proponent of a Green New Deal. He understood that building up the economy was primary, and globalism secondary.

Second, he was big on public banking. And third, he was a proponent of the virtue of public debt to finance stuff that the country needed. 

In short, our kind of affirmative economic nationalist. And, as an immigrant himself, he’d surely have opposed The Great Wall of Trump as the wrong sort of infrastructure. And of all the founding fathers, he was the most fervently opposed to slavery. Not at all Trumpian. Take that, Steve Bannon.

Our kind of guy. All together now:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a

Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten 

Spot in the Caribbean by providence, 

Impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be the man of the dollar

And feel the need for a Green New Deal?

Kuttner

How the Shutdown Ends. It will likely end one of two ways. An increasingly demented Trump could go ahead and declare a national emergency, order the military to build the wall—and his order will end up being quickly reviewed by the Supreme Court. 

It’s not quite a slam-dunk that the Court would approve it, because Chief Justice Roberts is showing signs of disgust with Trump’s extra-constitutional tendencies. To the extent that Trump listens to political advisers at all, he’s being told that this is a really bad idea.

Just as likely is that more Republican senators will defect. As recent public comments suggest, such GOP senators as Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mitt Romney of Utah, Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia, as well as several other senators up in 2020 such as Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine are very unhappy about the shutdown. 

They would much prefer to continue the fight about the wall in a separate ring of the circus, while the rest of the government re-opened. This happens to be the Pelosi-Schumer position, and as the shutdown drags on, the risk of more Republican defections continues, leaving Trump to play the weaker hand.

The end-game could be very well be some sort of fig leaf that Democrats can call border security and Trump can call a barrier. But with Trump, you never know. He might invade Mexico. Or Canada.

Meyerson

Governor Newsom and the Return of Laboratories of Democracy. This week, a number of states are swearing in new Democratic administrations. California, of course, was Democratic before November’s election, but it’s more so now, with Gavin Newsom taking the oath yesterday to succeed Jerry Brown as governor, and with the share of Democrats in each house of the legislature rising from just under two-thirds to a hegemonic-and-then-some three-quarters.

Newsom’s inaugural address held few surprises, save that when his two-year-old son toddled over and embraced him mid-speech. But the health insurance policies Newsom laid out in his speech and subsequent executive orders provide a good model for how a state can set a template for a policy shift on the federal level, should the Democrats capture the White House and the Senate in 2020.

At the outset of his gubernatorial campaign, Newsom had pledged his support for single payer health insurance in California. Rather than announce he would submit a single payer proposal to the Legislature, however, he promised in his inaugural address to petition President Trump and Congress to redirect federal funds (for, say, Medicare) to the state so it could establish a single payer system—a necessary prerequisite for putting the new system in place. In a sense, that fulfills Newsom’s pledge without his having to deal with the very complicated and politically difficult task of formulating a single payer plan capable of legislative enactment and, once the tax hikes are factored in, public support.

In his speech, Newsom also unveiled expansions to the state’s Medicaid program. California already covered (on its own dime, not the feds’) undocumented immigrants up to the age of 18; Newsom proposed to raise the age threshold to 25. He also signed an executive order yesterday empowering the state’s Department of Health Care Services to negotiate all drug prices for the state’s 14 million Medicaid recipients. Until now, a range of state and local agencies bargained separately with the drug companies. Giving one agency the power to negotiate prices for 14 million people will create a bargaining agency with more clout by far than any currently in existence anywhere in the nation. With congressional Democrats committed to doing the same on the national level (though the chances of such legislation passing in the Republican controlled Senate are slim), Newsom’s order enables California to show just how effective and far-reaching such a process can be in reducing drug prices.

Newsom also announced the state would increase the income threshold for Californians enrolled under the Affordable Care Act—up to $72.840 for individuals and $150,600 for families of four. To fund this increase, he announced he’d ask the legislature to re-impose the individual mandate requiring all Californians to have insurance or pay a penalty if they don’t. The mandate had been a part of the original ACA, but the Republican Congress revoked it, with President Trump’s signature, in 2017.

Which raises an interesting, if probably academic, question. Last month, a Republican-appointed federal judge in Texas struck down the ACA because the Supreme Court had upheld it due to Chief Justice John Roberts’ ruling that the mandate was a tax, and hence, constitutional. Minus the mandate, the Texas judge ruled, there was no longer a constitutional basis to uphold the law, which he struck down in its entirety.

Most legal authorities who’ve weighed in have written that the judge’s decision is wrong, that the act is clearly constitutional with or without the mandate, and that the ruling is very likely to be reversed on appeal. That’s why I said this is likely an academic discussion. If it’s not, however—if the ACA depends on the existence of a mandate—would the program be upheld in California or in any other blue states that follow Newsom’s lead, even if it is scrapped in states without a mandate?

In any event, Newsom has already pushed the envelope for progressive change, renewing Louis Brandeis’s faith in the potential of states to be democracy’s laboratories.

Kuttner

Needed for the Democrats—a Process of Elimination. With more than two dozen Democrats likely to declare for president, how on earth do they stage debates? We all remember what happened with the Republicans in 2016. With an immense field, there was no discussion of issues; it quickly turned even more nasty and personal than usual, paving the way for the most negative and outrageous candidate to win the nomination.

Uh-oh.  With a field this large and more than a 15 candidates onstage, anything could happen. Supposed charisma could crowd out content. Almost anyone could be declared the winner.

Maybe the Dems should emulate the World Cup or one of the major tennis tournaments, and use elimination rounds. For the Wall Street Democrats, Booker against Gillibrand. For the geezers, Biden against Sanders. For the progressives, Warren versus Brown (or maybe Sanders). For the dark horses, Landrieu against Castro.

Or we could decide this by coin toss. Or maybe by race or gender, God help us. Then the winners of the quarter-finals go to the semis, and then we get a one-on-one debate in the final.

Sound far fetched? Give me a better idea. Or just wait and watch the real thing—and weep.

Kuttner

Personal News and Prospect News. The very talented David Dayen, whose writing you probably know from our pages and other national publications, will be joining the Prospect in the spring as executive editor. 

In addition to adding immeasurably to our magazine, this will enable me to reach a long-sought personal goal of pulling back from management, to focus on writing, for the Prospect and other magazines and blogs. The rest of our leadership team will continue, joined by our wonderful new publisher, Ellen Meany, former creative director of the Madison weekly, Isthmus.

As we approach a new year and a new chapter in the ongoing struggle to reclaim our democracy and build a decent and just society, the Prospect will be breaking news and making news, and in very good hands.

Happy holidays to all.

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