A close-up view of a diversity of politicians
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Little ghosts, fairy princesses, and cowboys waited in the wings. The calendar said November the first, Day of the Dead, suggesting that the youngsters should by then have been in sugar shock, but a Halloween snowstorm postponed the trick-or-treating here in the hinterland of Chicago.
A few children and the parents who drove them to a suburban neighborhood didn’t get the memo and trudged through snow to relieve us of a few Smarties, Twizzlers, peanut butter cups and M&Ms.
It was all light and sweetness; the children are to a large extent unfailingly polite with their thanks, even for the Skittles and Almond Joys, little-loved product which may well be regifted to grandma or, given a year, back into an unsuspecting reveller’s Hallowe’en pail.
That holiday finished, a new group of door-knockers, a more ghastly lot, have begun their descent on our doorstops: Politicians and their canvassers. We have reached a milestone in these days of grey skies and glummer moods. One full year of high-pitched demagoguery remains until the big day, damn any dreams of Thanksgiving with the trimmings and the sleigh bells that ought to bring our enchantment. Like the tykes, these harbingers of this other day, in time, will also demand their tribute (more taxes).
For too many US citizens the dread of Election Day 2020, Nov 3, is inescapable. The spectre of Donald Trump’s re-election is a prospect that scares the wits out of half of the US, give or take one percentage point. A half-century record low unemployment rate of 3.6 percent (It’s the economy, stupid) would normally ensure an incumbent’s re-election, but this is an unforgiving era.
The Democrat Party has arrows in the quiver, a rich list of Trump downside: the unnecessary trade wars (in particular, things like the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a hedge against trade disputes with China), a woefully dysfunctional administration (is Kim Jong Un a good guy, or bad, today?) and, of course, those unceasing unfiltered musings on social media, taunts unbecoming of a president.
For all that, dwelling on Trump fatigue, and there’s plenty from all quarters, could have the unintended result of seeing the Democrats snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They are already making unforced errors. Allow me to count the ways, by alighting on a few of the 17-plus of them.
Democrats figure any of those 17 (or so, since a handful of campaigns are nearly out of cash) candidates remaining in the race (yes, they started out with even more) ought to be a shoo-in to replace a reality-show president more unpopular than popular. Trump’s churlishness, the Twittering, and boorish behaviour clearly is taking their toll on the man, as it should. Normally that would be a headwind for a challenger. But we live in the age of Trump.
The Democratic candidates are only beginning their inevitable turn on each other with just three months to go until the Iowa caucus, the official and antiquated kickoff. Still, most seem uneager to pull out the shivs, as they are in near-accord on a panoply of handouts. For starters: Free college tuition and student loan forgiveness; reparations paid to the descendents of slaves; gun control or outright firearms confiscation; lax border control; and the government takeover of healthcare (including free coverage to undocumented immigrants – people in the country illegally.) The latter, to upend health insurance coverage – yet again, after millions were forced to find new doctors just five years ago – is popular within their ranks but could ultimately be a losing proposition.
The groaning national debt, officially stated at $23 trillion, but nearer $120 trillion accounting for unfunded liabilities driven primarily by Social Security, the American system of pensions, might normally be a topic of discussion, even for liberals. Yet their spending blowout makes Trump look miserly, and completely neuters the possibility of discussing the president’s spendthrift ways. The businessman campaigned on a pledge to balance the books but has failed miserably to address the burden that will inevitably fall on future generations.
While all agree that Trump has badly damaged his country’s relations with other nations, foreign policy is a black hole for the group. Paeans are devoted to the global peace and sunshine should they prevail over their party rivals, then Trump, but there is no there there when it comes to policy. With Trump’s back-of-the-envelope diplomacy, this lack of specifics is a mistake.
Meanwhile, their party concurrently has gone all-in with the 11th-hour attack on Trump that dominates the news. The bet? That the spectacle of impeachment, even with the Republican-controlled Senate’s near-assured rejection, will be enough to make Trump unelectable. The procedure is designed to be a slog, to entrench the image of a corruptible president in the minds of the undecided voter. (Such undecideds exist, strangely, and it is the most ill-informed who tend to sway balloting.) In reality, the effort satisfies the Democrat party base and few others. The die has long been set and polls indicate that nearly half of the party members wanted to impeach Trump even before his election.
The impeachment centres on recent allegations that Trump exerted pressure on Ukraine to investigate the role of Hunter Biden, a son of the former vice-president Joe Biden, as a highly compensated but wildly underperforming member of the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings. Hunter’s obvious lack of qualifications (outside of being the son of the vice-president, then president Barack Obama’s point man on Ukraine) is played down by the news media, which has no interest in the son of a politician being paid $50,000 a month (more accurately $150,000 a month to Hunter’s partnership) over a two-year period. The probe instead centres on claims that Trump used his position to bear down on the Ukrainian president to torment Joe Biden, a political rival. Both issues are concerning.
A whistle blower, using the term loosely, has testified to House Democrats privately that he has knowledge of a quid pro quo – threats to withhold US aid to Ukraine. Ultimately, the Ukrainians demurred but no money was blocked. When it comes to foreign aid, many US citizens (and a recent poll about the impeachment hearings bears this out, with nearly 70 percent saying Trump did nothing illegal vis-a-vis Ukraine) would actually like to see a little more of the pro quo for the quid when it comes to all the money the United States doles to foreign countries. Whatever you think, Latin is back.
The upside of impeachment to the Democrats – considering its ultimate futility – is miniscule: The reprising of TrumpLand, the pikering of braggadocios like Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director whose tenure lasted only days and, more recently, the dodgy individuals surrounding Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York City who serves, and badly so, on Trump’s legal team. The casino toughs from “The Godfather Part II” could’ve picked up some tics on swagger from hangers-on like “The Mooch”, who don’t dress nearly as nattily.
The national fatigue of having gone through the Mueller investigation into allegations – unproven – that Trump’s campaign worked with Russia, the strategy is a longshot, but there is no turning back. The House hearings are likely to backfire. Republican lawmakers, vastly outnumbered in the chamber, recently managed to insinuate themselves more into the hearings. They will be allowed to call witnesses with the majority party’s approval, so be assured that the whistle blower’s political motives and Hunter will feature prominently in the inquisition, even if it unlikely that the Democrats will allow the son’s testimony. Everyone knows that Hunter is the star witness.
Another long-shot risk, unless somehow Vice-President Mike Pence is sullied by the Ukrainian call, should the process come to a quick and shocking decision against Trump: A President Pence, something Democrats would find most frightful, as Pence actually would govern as a conservative, unlike his wild, flyabout boss,
This is a screed about the shortcomings of a party poised to repeat history – 2016, not 2012 or 2008. Certain that the loathing of Trump will pull the level, Democrats remain oblivious about the mounting disdain for the manner in which the impeachment is playing out. Another problem is the joylessness of their campaigning, the visceral anger in their speeches. Yes, discuss how to be a better country (that is, after all, the point of it), but raving about the country’s deficiencies is a job for the rest of the world.
They are cut from better cloth, this well-credentialed cast (a vice-president; US senators, like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist candidate of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey; and others). All have taken the pulse of the party’s hardline progressives and tack far to the left of even Barack Obama. As of this writing, it’s a three-way race between Warren, the unabashed “Democratic socialist” Sanders, and Biden.
Warren, schoolmarmish and preachy, rails against corporate greed. This is meaningless, low-lying fruit, and she’s smart enough to serve up a more sophisticated worldview than casting business as Rich Uncle Pennybags. The current media darling’s Medicare for All plan would swap private health insurance with a federal government-administered system. Even Sanders lambasted Warren’s mathematics and her claim it would only raise taxes on corporations and billionaires. Yet he also insists on a federal takeover, insisting healthcare is a human right. (The rights of medical practitioners who would be compelled to fulfill the letter of that right go unmentioned in the commandeering of 18 percent of the US economy, but never mind.)
She is oblivious to the fact that citizen fealty to bureaucracy is not a feature of the land. What she has done is present a plan she sees as a salve for the Affordable Care Act (also known as ObamaCare), policies that some see as undelivering and overpriced. ObamaCare did increase access for many uninsured, but millions of other patients were forced to find new doctors because of the act. Its muddled rollout may well have tipped the scales in Trump’s favour as much as did Hillary Clinton’s horrible campaign.
Theirs is a tacit admission that Obama’s signature achievement has fallen short. Obama, when called upon to stump for the eventual nominee, might not do so with enthusiasm, if he shows at all for one of the two (or a Warren/Sanders or Sanders/Warren “super team”.)
The remaining few who have not solidified their position on healthcare, if it is not too late, would do well to avoid telling 156 million US citizens that they are going to lose their employer-sponsored health policy in favour of a to-be-determined insurance scheme that will be managed by brethren of the rubber-stamp operators at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Or that more and more private physicians are turning away from accepting Medicare payments.
Harris, who last week closed all but one of her campaign offices in another early primary state, New Hampshire, is faring poorly even in her native state of California and is poised to join the dropouts. Although she thought herself on firm territory in the identity politics arena (her father is Jamaican), her rivals have assailed her overzealous prosecution of drug criminals, disproportionately affecting blacks and Hispanics. Harris has attempted to rewrite her history, and literally so. An autobiography avoids any mention of the paramour who stewarded her political career.
Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur, cuts a compelling case for rethinking the fight against poverty. He introduced the idea – one supported even by some on the right – for a universal basic income. Doing so, he offered to experiment by using his own money to hand $1,000 a month to dozens of families. Yang is building a presence in Iowa too.
Other stragglers: Julian Castro, a former Obama cabinet member, Klobuchar, and Booker. The latter joins Biden, a serial plagiarist, in having a febrile imagination. (Booker crafted a personal backstory that included his plying the mean streets with his friend, a drug dealer named T-Bone. To my knowledge, not one curious mind in the nation’s news media have ever asked Booker as to why he had to fabricate a friend with such a stereotypical name.)
Another prescriptive for the Democrats: Cull the turkeys (as if by telepathy, Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, a skateboarding former House member from Texas, took the hint on this Thanksgiving motif and announced he was quitting the race. O’Rourke, who lost the Senate race against the unctuous incumbent, Ted Cruz, and frittered away about $100 million in that losing effort, may have exhausted his devotees’ affections. He thought he could distinguish himself with his enthusiasm for confiscating semi-automatic rifles, or “buybacks” as well as heightened screeching about Trump being a racist, based on something or other. The lasting result of O’Rourke’s Trump fixation is that Trump was left to write the coda to the “Beto” O’Rourke Experience during one of Trump’s many untoward rally rantings.
Illogic and chutzpah also define Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana (who until recently was unbeknown to most residents of South Bend, Indiana). The openly gay hyperpolyglot mayor, (it is pronounced “boot-edge-edge,” his campaign says) has never been tested by the media with one of those legendary Maltese jokes, but he is well-spoken, if cut from the same political cloth as his competitors. Buttigieg rather laughably suggests he is heir to Obama’s mantle as the next The One, owing in part to having a “funny name.”
He remains in contention, a longshot, but plucks away with stale material, notably his pointless insinuations that Mike Pence, the vice-president is a homophobe and a bigoted Catholic. Pence, who as Indiana governor sided with the owner of a pizzeria that refused to cater a gay wedding, has had none of it, calling Mayor Pete a dear pal and recipient of prayers. Of this non-imbroglio, my gay friends only scratch their heads. “Pizza? For a wedding reception?”
There are others, like Tom Steyer, a billionaire self-proclaimed environmentalist, who having made his fortune on fossil fuels, is spending tens of millions of dollars of that lucre on an already failed campaign and billboards promoting Trump’s impeachment. To round out the lineup, a certified mystic, Marianne Williamson, a serial author of “powerful spiritual manifestos” promises she would serve her nation as “healer in chief”. In theory, there’s some utility to that notion, but rubbing crystals together hasn’t exactly put her in the race. If she’s any good at her day job she knows what’s coming and will also step aside.
As scorekeepers struggle to keep up, needless background noise pops up. The failed 2008 and 2016 candidate, Hillary Clinton, who launched a senseless internecine war with another hopeful, Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii. Clinton alluded to a primary candidate being “the favourite of the Russians” being groomed for a third-party run. The target of the intimation is woman a who has served two tours of duty in the Middle East, including a year-long deployment, with the US Army National Guard (she remains active as a major).
It’s ludicrous but typical of Hillary Clinton, a kleptocrat who has always conflated her husband’s popularity with her own. (Gabbard stood her ground and countering a vow, if elected, to end “Clinton-Bush” warmongering, something that should have been said between 2008 and 2016. Touche.)
The Democrat National Committee would do well to put Clinton on a year-long, port- and wi-fi-free world cruise. That is unlikely. Confab organizers love to book a woman, unaware that what Clinton does best is to galvanise the opposition. Put this in the unforced error column.
Related is the other huge mistake of the party and its lockstep promoters within the news media: The icing out of Tulsi Gabbard, who an active member of key House committees over three terms, is a compelling candidate, has the most hypens (Hindu, Samoan-American, female) but doesn’t play the identity card. She lacks the baggage of her opponents, baggage that Trump will exploit come presidential debates time.
Until then, we’ll be expecting the bumper stickers, yard signs, the robocall telephone harassment, and callers on the neighborhood. We’ll rush to turn out the lights. “Nobody’s home!”
Brad Webber is a US journalist with 40 years experience at the nation’s top newspapers