Trump’s Battlefield of Choice

From the very start, Steve Bannon laid it out bare:

“I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

It fits with the Trump campaign’s 2016 strategy– sacrifice educated white votes from suburbia to pick up more plentiful (especially in swing states) lower middle class white voters. Trump wants to talk immigration, trade, and retracting the American global role, and he wants Democrats to talk racism, sexism, and things that generally don’t resonate with their voters, or swing voters. It works pretty well for them, or it at least did.

If you were going to pick a dream scenario for Trump, it would be a fight over racism with “the Squad”- AOC, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Just days after AOC called out Speaker Pelosi for “racism,” Trump could hardly resist injecting himself into this mess. Now he is in a fight with four women of color, two of which are Muslims, all of which are quite left, and at least two of which have a history of questioning Israel’s decency and legality. It’s a wet dream for him in motivating his base, and convincing the persuadable voters- the roughly 8% of the electorate who said they didn’t like Trump in 2016, but voted for him anyway- that Democrats don’t really care about people like them. Battling with AOC in particular, who isn’t popular nationally, or even in just New York, is perfect for Trump. Trump needs to keep almost all of these voters, and AOC is the opponent to help him do it.

One of the big fears Democrats in DC should have is that their base is certain Trump is unpopular, and just being bold and unapologetic is a winning strategy. It’s worth noting that Trump is currently polling his best on record. It’s also worth noting that this comes right after the first Democratic debate (perhaps it wasn’t a hit?). Many Democrats point to last year’s mid-terms, or Trump’s overall not impressive poll numbers as evidence he will be beaten in 2020. They point to Democratic advantages on issue polling, which also existed in 2016. They point to a perceived slew of new Democratic voters- even if registrations don’t back that up. It’s like 2016 didn’t happen- Democrats are sure the country feels like they do. Plenty of signs say otherwise though.

One of them is the debate we’re having- this is Trump’s favored battle field. Donald Trump wants the Democrats to focus their attacks on him on racism and sexism, and he wants AOC to be a big part of it. AOC and Ilhan Omar poll really poorly with the voters Trump swung in 2016, and he’d like them to be the face of the Democratic Party.

None of this is to excuse Trump’s tweets and general racism, but do consider it a call back to reality. Over the past three weeks, AOC has been a dominant figure in our political news. First, her Chief-of-Staff called moderate and new Democratic members today’s “Southern Democrats,” basically quasi-segregationists. Then Nancy Pelosi stepped in to defend them. Then AOC called her a racist. Then the House Democrats defended Sharice Davids against AOC’s Chief-of-Staff calling the Native-American, LGBT member part of a “racist system.” Then Trump tweeted racist things about “the Squad.” Now the House has rebuked him. It’s AOC, all the time. America doesn’t like it. They don’t like her.

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Give Me Nancy Over AOC Every Time

Nancy Pelosi is taking more than her share of grief from the far left right now for stating the obvious- real politics isn’t twitter. She was mad that AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley voted alone against the House Democrats border supplemental spending bill, then voted against the Senate bill too, and criticized House leadership for caving. Pelosi fired back with “All these people have their public whatever, and their Twitter world.” Pelosi then continued with “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” The internal fault lines of the House Democrats are on display.

This is not a new fight. In one of the very first votes of 2019, AOC joined Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard in voting against the rules package. AOC once voted with the GOP against re-opening the government during the shutdown, because the bill funded ICE. AOC joined up with Tlaib, Pressley, and Omar to vote against the 2020 Appropriations bill for Labor and Health and Human Services, putting them in strange company with more conservative Democrats Colin Peterson (MN), Ben McAdams, and Denny Heck. Obviously their stated reasons were different, but for the four freshman “progressives” they claim it was opposition to the Hyde Amendment remaining in the legislation. Never mind the hypocrisy. Never mind ending the Mexico City Policy (Global Gag Rule).

This is not the extent of the AOC lead internal battles. Her spokesman stated this week that “the greatest threat to mankind is the cowardice of the Democratic Party.” No, really. But that’s not all. AOC wants to see Caucus Chairman, Black Caucus member, and fellow New Yorker Hakeem Jeffries face a primary. Yes, really. On impeachment, AOC claims it has more support within the freshman class than publicly stated, and that progressives are frustrated with Speaker Pelosi. Yes, really.

I think it’s about time we call it as it is, and stop trying to make it anything but- AOC is pretty much a younger, non “white dude” version of Bernie Sanders. She is not “loyal” to the party, but rather views herself as a leftward critic of leadership. She’s sponsored just two pieces of legislation so far, neither of which has passed Congress, one of which was a resolution and wouldn’t have the force of law, and on the Green New Deal, she bungled the roll out. So basically, passing legislation is not her thing. Also, voting for legislation, if it’s less than perfect to her, is not ideal. Critiquing the Speaker though? That’s her jam.

AOC is using her seat in Congress for advocacy work, rather than legislating on the behalf of her constituents. If that’s what the people of Queens and the Bronx want, they are certainly free to re-elect her. Don’t hold this up as a blue print for America though. AOC, like Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley are all freshmen, but all represent seats that Democrats held before the 2018 Election, unlike the 40 seats Democrats picked up that were held by Republicans after 2016’s Election. Those 40 freshmen were running on far less divisive messages, like protecting Obamacare (not voting against the Health and Human Services appropriations bill, like her) and defending traditional Medicare. They may have talked about raising the minimum wage or expanding green energy development, but they weren’t going as far as AOC. They couldn’t. The Democratic Party can’t, unless it plans on going back to pre-2018’s 180 seats where they win 60% or more in the districts, but fail to win majorities. Those 40 new Democratic members can’t afford to legislate like AOC. They didn’t run on her agenda, because they would just lose.

Nancy Pelosi is not an advocate, she’s a legislator. She’s the woman who came to Congress and advocated for those suffering from HIV and AIDS. What does that mean? From her House website:

Armed with the lessons of San Francisco’s model of community-based care, Congresswoman Pelosi worked to accelerate development of an HIV vaccine, expand access to Medicaid for people living with HIV, and increase funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), the Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative and other research, care, treatment, prevention and search for a cure initiatives vital to people living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS.

In 1989, Pelosi, along with Rep. Jim McDermott and then-Rep. Charles Schumer introduced the AIDS Opportunity Housing Act, which led to the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA)initiative – an essential lifeline for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Legislating is about action. It’s about passing bills. For Pelosi, that’s passing the last minimum wage hike in our nation. It’s passing H.R. 1. It’s passing the Affordable Care Act. It’s passing Dodd-Frank. It’s usually about swallowing some things you don’t want in a bill. Sometimes it’s about being responsible, and even if you don’t like a piece of legislation, passing it any way because otherwise children sleep on concrete floors, with no blankets, soap, clean clothes, or toothbrushes. I know it can feel smart to simply say no if you don’t like something, but who do you leave behind? Someone leading a major party in Congress, you have more obligations than to your own ego and ideology. So while you may want to impeach a bad President, you may realize it’s not wise- both because he’ll never get convicted, and it will kill your party in the next election. Legislators have to get things done. Leaders have to have better judgment than to just do what the Twitter mobs want. Nancy Pelosi legislates and shows that judgment. Is it always perfect and satisfying? No. Adult life isn’t either though.

So back to the top, “the left” attacking Speaker Pelosi and supporting AOC- give me Nancy 100 times out of 100. I’d much rather have a responsible adult leading the Democratic Party, the first woman to ever lead any branch of the United States Government. I have faith that Speaker Pelosi has the best interests of the people of our country in mind. I have faith that she will get the best deal possible under any circumstances, and that she understands how to get things done in Washington. I don’t believe any of this about AOC. I believe she knows how to get television cameras to follow her, how to create memes, and how to get re-tweets. None of that is legislating, or leading. I’ll take a hard pass.

Our Disgusting, but not Unprecedented, Closed Doors

If you read me regularly, you probably know how I feel about AOC- I am not a fan. I think she is ignorant to much of reality, not serious about legislating, craves attention, and generally over the top in her rhetoric. I don’t hate her, I think it’s at least admirable that she is all of these bad things in defense of “the little people.” I just think she is a better packaged version of her awful mentor, Bernie Sanders.

So in our warped reality that we live in, of course I agreed with AOC’s characterization of the government as running “concentration camps” for migrants being picked up at our border. We are keeping people who’s only “crime” was seeking asylum in our country (their human right) in detention centers on the site of our infamous former Japanese internment camps from World War II. I may not be a fan of AOC, but objectively I don’t see how you can say she’s wrong. This administration is setting up internment camps, running ICE raids around the country, banning Muslims from traveling in and out of our country, and closing off ports of entry for asylum seekers. At the same time we’re cutting foreign aid to poor countries in our hemisphere, ignoring our responsibilities to treaty partners, and ignoring human rights abuses in places like Syria. The United States is not just failing to speak with moral clarity, we’re making sure to do the opposite.

I’ve heard people say they don’t recognize our country anymore. They must not study history much. My great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from present day Slovakia in 1922 and 1923. Literally months after my great-grandmother and her eldest daughter arrived in America, the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, closing Ellis Island and other ports of entry, setting quotas based on nationality and race, and providing funding for targeted enforcement. Asian immigration was largely banned. Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, and Slavs were largely banned because the quotas were set based on a 30 year prior census- 1890- for the purpose of keeping America white. The law existed unchanged until 1952, and wasn’t fully replaced until 1965.

Let’s also not pretend we haven’t been brutal to “outsiders” before. African-Americans obviously faced slavery and Jim Crow, not to mention systemic racial oppression since. The “Trail of Tears” treatment of Native Americans is a dark chapter in our country’s history. Of course, the Japanese internment camps I mentioned above were terrible. We turned away Jewish asylum seekers during World War II and it’s run-up as well. What’s going on at our Southern border isn’t exactly “new.”

I don’t like AOC or people who spend all their time “blaming America”- I think this country is far more great than it isn’t. We’ve done some amazing things as a nation and countless nations around the world hold us up as an example. Let’s not lie about our past, or present, in the interest of defending bad behavior. Xenophobia regularly pops up throughout our history, usually with ugly consequences. Ripping children away from their mothers and putting them in concentration camps is not out of character.

Our government is currently arguing in court that children in detention do not need soap, toothbrushes, beds, and blankets. We’re detaining people seeking asylum in our country for the sake of protecting children. We’re putting detention sites on the former site of Japanese internment camps, an ugly moment in our past. While I find AOC to be annoying and generally a net-negative in our government, I don’t think she’s the person we should be yelling at right now.

Not the Right Spokesperson for the Democrats

In the Trump era, Democrats were left largely without a voice for the first two years. Without the White House, the Senate, or the House, there was a vacuum. President Obama was gone. Hillary Clinton was gone. Tom Perez was busy off trying to appease Bernie world without angering everyone else. It was a free-for-all.

Fortunately in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm, the Democrats are a relevant party again. Nancy Pelosi is arguably the second most powerful person in America. The House Democratic leadership team gets the title “Majority” in front of their names now. Their chairman can subpoena information and run investigations and oversight. There are relevant Democratic voices in the process of making law.

Unfortunately, those aren’t the only voices that seem to have emerged from the leadership. There are other voices rising, voices with a “burn it down” tone to them. They aren’t interested in any compromises, or therefore actually making law. They don’t accept any criticism, they fire back at friendly criticism with the fury of hell. They’re convinced they and they alone “get it,” and that the last generation of Democrats just didn’t “do it right” to get what we want. There idea of “coalition building” is to bait and switch allies into supporting their ideas, then moving the goal posts. When they say unacceptable things, they fire back at fellow Democrats with cries of xenophobia.

I’m obviously talking about more than one member, but none of them have quite shined like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC. On a Capitol Hill full of men older than my parents, and with far less charisma, her media savvy does shine out. She’s good on TV, active on social media, and unapologetic in making demands in a way that excites parts of our base. She is the proverbial “golden goose” of the left. She comes out of the Bernie left ideologically, but plays identity politics with the best of them. Taking away my personal feelings about her politics, she is an impressive talent.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents the Bronx and Queens. It’s a cool district. It’s also not at all representative of most of the other 434 districts in Congress. At most, there are 100 seats as urban as her’s, probably less as diverse, and almost none as liberal. She did beat a formerly powerful Democratic Leader in last Summer’s primary, but she did so in a race where under 30,000 people voted, or less than 75% of what would typically show up in a hotly contested primary like this. She is not representative of a candidate who would win in most other blue districts, and yet she is demanding the rest of the party’s members follow her, whether it’s on the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or abolishing ICE. Worse yet, when they do follow her, she then changes what they agree to without their consent.

We are a long way from AOC’s brand being electable in the large majority of house districts. She would not win in swing-districts in North Carolina, Iowa, or Pennsylvania. Her ideas roll up huge support numbers in her district, but are far more controversial in places that Democrats don’t have a stranglehold on. Should she be primaried? I’d actually say no, it’s not my district, not my choice. Should she be the face of the party, the person people in PA-8, IA-1, or NC-9 see as representing our party in the media? Hell. No.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez polls under water about 10% nationally. As you can see above, she polls under water in the blue state of New York. Her favorability in New York City is less than overwhelming, and her position against Amazon putting a second headquarters in Queens polls underwater. With this much opposition to her even in “friendly” areas, it’s hard to sell her as a national savior for the party anywhere else.

Still, I’d consider her just fine for her district alone, if she wasn’t such a bully. They elected her there, they can have her. She’s not content with that though. She has promised to primary Democrats that are out of step with her ideals for the party. She has talked up a potential primary to House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries. There are rumblings of a primary against House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey. Both Jeffries and Lowey are members of the New York delegation with her. While she is likely to fail to unseat either, the possibility of nominating someone unelectable (especially in Lowey’s seat) is very real. Even if she does fail, it’s a complete waste of resources.

AOC is not the face of the party that Democrats need if they want to represent the majority of the United States in Congress very long, let alone the White House. To this point, leadership has left her to fire up the faithful and do what she does. There’s a danger this will become less harmless soon. AOC is not the leading figure Democrats need, particularly if she’s going to push more and more members to be acolytes of her politics. The Democrats need to elevate representatives who could represent more districts, rather than throwing red meat to the ideologues.

Dividing Lines

The political order is breaking down right in front of us. While DC is immersed in ideological battles, we’re seeing traditional liberalism and conservatism morph right in our eyes, you have cultural liberals arguing for free trade, cultural conservatives railing against billionaires, and moderates on both sides picking and choosing amidst the carnage.

This is not to say there aren’t still more traditional left and right, or even extreme left and right. That still exists. The main point is that there are new politics emerging, like a spring blooming from the Earth. In the aftermath of 2016, there are new coalitions forming, some good, some bad.

Americans aren’t satisfied with their political choices. This is why 42% self-identify as independent. It’s why more radical voices are rising on the left and right. It’s why people who lack credibility (Trump, Bernie, AOC) are gaining followings. People want to hear what they want to hear, not what is “possible” or “electable.” It’s why talking about the cost of something, or Congressional viability, or details of a plan haven’t derailed some of the frauds and grifters who have risen in our politics. Nobody cares about what’s wrong with their lies.

The only way out of this hellscape is vision. Someone will have to put something real, appealing, and truly good for people’s lives on the table. Tax subsidies for Amazon to bring minimum wage jobs to Queens aren’t exciting, even if they’re an upgrade for people who need more income there. Activists will sabotage that every time, because there’s no real joy in it. People want their standard of living improved. They want opportunity. The only way to stop them from dumb ideas is to offer good ones.

Income Assistance for those “Unwilling to Work,” Cow Farts, Killing the Airline Industry, and Placating Some Folks

Call me cynical- I don’t believe AOC’s botched roll out of her “Green New Deal” was a mistake. The Justice Dems poster child and former Bernie Sanders organizer has promised to “lean in” to an oncoming “war” in the Democratic Party, complete with primaries across the party. She’s been clear that she’s not willing to compromise with anyone, on much of anything. Her response to Democrats that want to repair Obamacare instead of overhaul the system for Medicare for All was very telling:

There are lots of questions to be answered on Medicare for All, and plenty of good reasons to look at other alternatives that get you to universality, or at least better than you have now. AOC isn’t willing to look at them though, and the reasoning has been hiding in plain sight for a long time now- her goal is eliminating any moderation within the Democratic Party. Why, you ask? Because AOC and Bernie Sanders aren’t radical or extreme anymore if everyone agrees with them.

Take the Green New Deal resolution AOC has been leading the charge on along with Senator Markey. There is nothing extreme about putting forward an actual bill (not a Resolution) to combat climate change, develop green energy, and create millions of jobs- in fact it’s smart policy on every level. During the roll out the details were a bit hazy, but the concept is so good that old pros like Markey wanted to join AOC’s cause. So did some of the party’s Presidential candidates too. It seemed like a good idea, not just harmless.

Then of course, came the details. They weren’t so good. The “FAQs” (frequently asked questions) weren’t signed off on by anyone else, and didn’t match the actual resolution. There was talk of income assistance for “those unwilling to work,” a Republican messaging wet dream. Then there was talk of cow farts. Yes, really. And yes, there was mention of eliminating airline travel. Yes, she uses planes regularly. And yes, they included language saying nuclear energy is off the table. It was an ugly “screw up,” one they even tried to claim was doctored- it wasn’t.

There are pretty decent arguments to be had for universal income, cutting back consumption of red meat, cutting back flight traffic, and not making nuclear energy central to our energy future- and nowhere near universal support for doing anything. I doubt that Democrats want to campaign on eliminating the union jobs in the nuclear sector, ending steak and burger consumption, closing airports, and giving tax dollars to “lazy people”- which is exactly how Donald Trump and Republicans will label those ideas, while spending millions of dollars to tell swing voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania just how radical Democrats are. Presented this way, you can’t build majority support for any of it. That’s even more true among swing voters.

So why release this? If you want to believe it was an honest mistake, have at it. Of course, you’re being willfully ignorant though. Why release anything to accompany the actual resolution, which was pretty clear on it’s own? FAQs can be helpful to the press, sure, but why did a draft version exist with a bunch of things not in the actual resolution? Their FAQs describe what might as well have been a different resolution altogether, so why was this draft written in the first place? How was the office staff so incompetent as to release the wrong version? I mean really, they’re calling for a massive overhaul of our energy policies and economy as a whole, but they can’t use a Congressional website correctly? If they’re truly just incompetent in this case, that should worry you too.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that they’re actually not incompetent, this wasn’t a mistake, and this was the plan all along. The idea was to have the entire Democratic “establishment” get behind the ideas that some would call “radical”- because if everyone agrees with AOC (and of course Bernie), then you can’t call them extreme or radical anymore. They’re now the mainstream. Their ideas are mainstreamed by the endorsement of them coming from the rest of the Democratic Party. Try arguing to the press that these other Democrats “didn’t sign onto that,” because they signed onto the actual resolution instead. It’s muddled messaging at best, and impossible at worst. Lefty activists will ask why they oppose the Green New Deal. The press will drag them into the weeds. The GOP will mock them over the details in the FAQs and call them radicals.

Inevitably AOC will eventually endorse her old boss Bernie, in part because she agrees with him, and in part because he’s a nice placeholder until she’s eligible to run herself. When his opponents try to label him as unelectable and extreme, she’ll trot out to his defense and not that they agreed with him, on this and other matters, such as health care. Trump will elevate her in the debate as a representative of the Democratic Party of 2020, because he sees her as vulnerable among the voters he needs. She’ll embrace that image. Everyone will be forced to pick sides. Being that so many Democrats are embracing her now, it will be tough to get back the space later. Welcome to being pinned in the corner.

We Need an Income Floor, Not Necessarily a Ceiling

One of the enjoyable things going on right now in politics is an actual debate about taxes. You have Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz saying wealth taxes are bad for the economy. You have AOC saying we should tax “the $10,000,000th dollar at 70%,” or something. And you have Elizabeth Warren calling for a wealth tax, on savings, of the top 0.01%. This is a healthy, robust debate, one we need. We’re running $1 trillion debts, our nation is crumbling of neglect at home, and our tax code is a total mess, thanks to everyone from Ronald Reagan to Paul Ryan.

I think we’re having the wrong debate though. I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate millionaires and billionaires, and their tax bills, but I think that debate should take a backseat to how we tax our poor and middle class. The discussion we need to be having is how to create more tax free money at the bottom of the income bracket, essentially “shifting” the loopholes to the working class people.

Nobody should pay taxes on their first $30,000 of income. Literally nobody. Make all of that money tax free, because that’s literally what you need to survive. The first $30,000 pays for your food, your housing, your clothing, and your health care (in fact, I’m probably underestimating it). This money shouldn’t be taxable. If I’m really being honest, people making below $30,000 should be guaranteed a tax return that gets them to $30,000, essentially creating universal guaranteed income (UGI) for all Americans. I’d up this number to something like $45,000 for couples and $60,000 for families of four. For those that call this crazy and fiscally irresponsible, I remind you that we would save much more when we don’t need as much money in welfare programs.

I would apply this principle on taxes besides income too. The payroll tax would start at $30,000, and would certainly not be capped at $132,900 (as it is now), if capped at all. Corporations and businesses would be incentivized in the tax code to be good corporate citizens, including paying a living wage, allowing unionization, giving paid vacation and medical leave, and offering health insurance and retirement to workers. If you start applying the principle of a robust income “floor,” or safety net, you start solving a lot of the failure in our economy. By the same token, companies paying below a living wage and not taking care of their workers should pay more. Essentially if we’re paying the UGI I described above to someone who has a job, their deadbeat employer should be paying taxes that make up the difference.

I’m not sure how I feel, to be honest, about wealth and windfall tax plans. I don’t oppose them. I’m also not sure I love them. What I am more bothered by is the existence of the working poor in America, not as much the super rich. We need to take better care of Americans living in poverty and even middle class conditions, and we should draw up a tax code that makes that happen.