Seven Articles

The Post-Impeachment Case for Elizabeth Warren (American Prospect, February 2020)

How will the decision to impeach Donald Trump ultimately play out for the Democrats? Who would be their strongest candidate for president? Those questions might be easier to consider together than separately. The wisdom of impeachment is likely to depend on the identity of the candidate.

The Republicans have stayed on script and stood by their man. We can count on the Senate majority to acquit him in the next several days. And what then? With the hearings and trial concluded, will the public, the media, and the Democratic Party lose interest in the Trump administration’s misdeeds, along with the particulars of the House’s indictment? If that’s how things go, impeachment could look like a bad political bet in hindsight.

But suppose these proceedings come to be seen as just one chapter in a continuing exploration of the crookedness of the Trump regime? Suppose the disclosures keep coming and the Democrats seize on them to turn their 2020 campaign into a crusade against corruption in the broad sense—against the corporate capture and bribery-adjacent behavior that, Trump or no Trump, block our country’s way forward on just about all the big issues facing us?

That is perhaps another way of asking: What if Elizabeth Warren winds up as the Democratic nominee for president?

Warren has made corruption her signature issue. In the summer of 2018, four months before launching her campaign, she introduced a sweeping clean-government bill. It would prohibit lobbyists from raising or donating campaign money, while greatly expanding the number of people defined as lobbyists; impose a lifetime ban on lobbying for former elected and high-level appointed officials; compel the release of the tax returns of all federal candidates and officeholders; and bar corporations from bestowing “golden parachute” retirement packages on executives heading into government, among other things.

In October 2019, Warren announced her decision to swear off big-money fundraising events. This was another significant move substantively as well as symbolically, despite the validity of Pete Buttigieg’s complaint about the cash Warren had already collected.

But the heart of her appeal as an anti-corruption candidate lies in the connections she draws between money corruption and one area of national policy after another. Climate change, racial justice, economic justice, worker rights and dignity—progress on all these fronts, Warren argues, demands a fairer political process, a more representative government, and measures to curb the runaway political power of big corporations, Wall Street, and the ultra-wealthy. “Giant corporations have bought off our government,” Warren said at a huge rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park last September. “Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy, and corruption is breaking our democracy.”

The debate over “electability” has been loud, long, and simplistic, focused on the backgrounds, ideologies, regions, and genders of the candidates, with almost no effort made to envision the campaigns they would run or how those campaigns might affect the thoughts and spirits of the electorate. That lack of imagination, it seems to me, has led to a serious underestimation of Elizabeth Warren.

The corruption frame gives Warren the vocabulary to describe the opponent she hopes to go up against. Donald Trump, in her telling, is “corruption in the flesh”; congressional Republicans are “fawning, spineless defenders of his crimes.” But Warren is far from fixated on the Trump gang; she treats their brazenness as no more than an intensification of the respectable and routine brand of modern corruption that involves the twisting of laws and institutions of government to benefit a favored few.

Republicans may be right in their ugly calculation that Americans don’t f-ing care about Ukraine, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ranted to Mary Louise Kelly of NPR last week. But systemic corruption is quite another matter. It was a potent issue for, of all people, Donald Trump in 2016, when a slice of the electorate took his drain-the-swamp talk semi-seriously; and it was crucial to the Democrats’ recapture of the House in 2018, after the hollowness of Trump’s vows had become widely apparent. In a pre–2018 election Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 77 percent of those surveyed rated “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” as a top issue, and the voters who felt that way came down heavily in favor of Democrats.

Since then, House Democrats have made a break with the past by rallying around legislation—the first symbolic act of their term in the majority—that calls for nonpartisan redistricting, disclosure of dark-money donors, and a matching-fund system for candidates who submit to limits on campaign contributions. With a forceful and credible anti-corruption candidate at the top of the ticket, some of the centrists and corporatists could be swept into the reform camp and perhaps even stirred to acknowledge and regret their past complicity in the problem. That could have a huge impact.

Warren was tagged early as the “I have a plan for that” candidate. In interviews and debates, she has been quizzed about the political and practical wisdom of her proposals for a wealth tax, a Green New Deal, and universal pre-K, among other ambitious things. On balance, her plans and words have served Warren well, despite her overcommitment to Medicare for All. They set her apart (along with Bernie Sanders) from the technocratic and corporate-friendly lineage of recent Democratic presidents and candidates, and they convey an urgency appropriate to someone who aims to enter the White House in a moment of climate-change awakening.

But Warren rarely spends much time in the weeds of policy when she’s out campaigning. “I have a story for that” would be a more apt catchphrase for Warren on the stump.

Many of her stories are about America’s past and about corruption and the struggle to overcome it. In Washington Square, her subject was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. From her temporary podium, Warren could point toward the 11-story building (now part of New York University) that once housed the factory on its eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. It was, as she said, “one of the worst industrial disasters in American history,” but the structure survived even as 146 people died, “mostly women, mostly immigrants, Jewish and Italian,” some jumping to their deaths to escape the heat and smoke, others falling with a section of badly engineered fire escape. The death toll was so high because the factory owners had locked an exit (to prevent employee theft) and refused to install sprinklers (to save money).

Labor activists and reformers had been sounding the alarm about garment industry working conditions and safety hazards for years. “But the fat profits were making New York factory owners rich, and they had no plans to give that up,” Warren said. So instead of fixing their problems, “the owners worked their political connections, they made campaign contributions and talked with their friends in the legislature. They greased the state government so thoroughly that nothing changed.”

From the Triangle fire, she moved on to an account of the organizing and advocacy that ultimately led New York state to rewrite its labor laws “from top to bottom.” Warren anchored this part of her story in the career of Frances Perkins, who had been a witness to the fire (coming out onto the street from a visit with friends nearby) and wound up holding high positions in Franklin Roosevelt’s gubernatorial and presidential administrations. As secretary of labor—the first woman to serve in any president’s Cabinet—Perkins had a hand in laws that abolished child labor, standardized the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, established a federal minimum wage, and gave us unemployment insurance and Social Security. “The Triangle fire was the day the New Deal was born,” Warren said. It’s “a story about what’s possible when we fight together as one.”

Warren uses history to illuminate both the possibility and the difficulty of change. The policy breakthroughs she cited in her Triangle talk, she pointed out, were the product of a quarter-century of inside and outside agitation. Several were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which did not come until FDR’s second term, after the political ground had been plowed by first-term measures that empowered unions and delivered emergency relief to millions. “After we win in 2020, nobody gets to go home,” Warren said at a December rally in Des Moines, Iowa. “We all come back to push.”

She is running against cynicism as well as corruption. “Those with power—and those who do their bidding—dump an endless avalanche of excuses, misdirections, and distractions on the American people,” she said during a New Year’s Eve speech. “It’s all designed to get us to give up and resign ourselves to the way things are—with them in power and everyone else left behind.”

Drawing on her family history as well as our national history, she speaks as a baby boomer who benefited from the New Deal social compact. Two personal stories come up again and again. One involves the time her father lost his job and her mother decided to enter the workforce at age 50, putting on her best dress to interview for a lowly position at Sears Roebuck. That tale, as Warren presents it, is about someone rising to an occasion—“you do what has to be done to take care of the people you love”—but also about government’s crucial role as an instrument of justice, “because when I was a girl in America, a full-time minimum-wage job would support a family of three,” while now it “will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty.”

The other story is about Warren as a young mother getting a teaching certificate and a law degree from well-funded public universities that charged her just a few hundred dollars a year in tuition. “My daddy ended up as a janitor,” she likes to say, “but his baby daughter got the opportunity to become a public-school teacher, a law professor, a U.S. senator, and run for president!”

Warren has set out to convince us that our democracy can be reclaimed from big money and our government put to good use. That’s not easy for Americans to believe these days, but it’s a story we badly need to hear, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who could tell it better.

Something For The Democrats To Try At The Debates: A Little Togetherness (New Yorker, September 2019)

At Texas Southern University, in Houston, on Thursday night, the major Democratic candidates for President will finally be assembled on one stage. For three hours, from 7 to 10 p.m. Central Time, they will deal with questions posed by representatives of ABC News and Univision, and voters and pundits will judge their performances and form conclusions about who is getting the better of whom.

Meanwhile, another contest with implications for both the 2020 election and our collective future will be unfolding. It involves the invisible parties known as centrifugal and centripetal force—the tendency of moving bodies to fly apart or come together, respectively.

The centrifugal dynamic may be more in evidence tonight. We call these events debates, which presupposes disagreement. The questions come from TV newspeople, who are professionally inclined to bring up topics expected to stir conflict. Add in the phenomenon of an unusually large field of candidates, some under mounting pressure to stand out from the pack, and this tensome could spend a fair amount of the evening explaining and justifying their policy differences.

Alongside the obvious potential for disunity, however, a strong tug toward unity might be felt. Each candidate hopes to lead the Democratic Party’s effort to end a Presidency they all see more as a national disaster than as an ordinary deviation from the path of good policy and government. That shared belief gives their cause the character of an emergency-rescue mission, in which it would be appropriate to set past quarrels aside. The Democratic candidates are also aware of the poll-tested fact that many of their party’s settled positions command wide public support: most leading Democrats and the majority of Americans think alike about a lot of things.

The alignment is close when it comes, for example, to raising the minimum wage, imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, making health care a universal right, treating immigrant families and refugees humanely, and taking credible action to reduce gun violence. On these and other issues, the Democratic candidates could truthfully say, “We may disagree about the details, but we are all absolutely committed to [fill in the blank].” And they could truthfully add, “Our nominee, whichever one of us it is, will be trying to translate that broad agreement into action that Americans will feel and see and approve.”

Democrats are also in a position to tap into a deep well of disgust over Trump-related (and Trump-exemplified) corruption, whether understood in the conventional sense of behavior that crosses into the neighborhood of bribery or theft, or in the bigger sense of laws written, policies shaped and applied, and government agencies and programs run for the benefit of insiders, corporations, and the ultra-wealthy. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey of voters, from September of 2018, the “influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” ranked just one percentage point behind the economy as the electorate’s top concern. Roughly seven in ten of us, according to a January, 2019, Axios/Survey Monkey poll, view the current economic system as skewed toward the wealthy, want the government to do more about it, and profess to be “ready to vote for a candidate who agrees.”

House Democrats, in the first symbolic act of their majority, enacted an unexpectedly serious clean-government and fair-elections bill. Among other things, H.R.-1 calls for nonpartisan redistricting, disclosure of dark-money donors, and a matching-fund system for candidates who submit to limits on campaign contributions. Many elected Democrats have endorsed stronger steps, such as a lifetime ban on lobbying by former Presidents, lawmakers, and other top officials. Far more people would know about these proposals if the candidates made a point of bringing them up. And more people would take them seriously if some of the candidates decided to acknowledge and regret their own party’s historic complicity in the problem.

The corruption issue has the added virtue of being pretty much omni-relevant. What would your Administration do to combat global warming? After you’ve described your vision of a Green New Deal, you can talk about breaking the fossil-fuel industry’s headlock on energy policy. How would you help low-income families get out from under the burden of enormous student-loan debt? Besides laying out a plan for debt relief, you can promise to keep sometime for-profit college lobbyists out of the Department of Education. If you’re asked about tax policy, you can point to the “opportunity zone” tax break, which so far is shaping up to be a windfall for wealthy investors, such as Jared Kushner’s family members, while doing next to nothing for the distressed communities that it is supposed to benefit. In Donald Trump’s America, it is the rare debate question that does not invite a corollary discussion of crooked doings in high places.

Political parties are supposed to “pull together” once they have chosen a ticket and adopted a platform. That old tradition may not be adequate to the present occasion. The other side, after all, is already in general-election mode, combing the Democratic candidates’ statements for attack material. Trump & Co. can also be counted on to continue generating a record of unsavory deeds, which Democrats could and should be calling out in unison.

The candidates can’t be expected to squelch their differences—that wouldn’t be fair to their debate audience or tolerated by their hosts. But they would do well to self-regulate the amount of airtime devoted to verbal combat and to mount some coördinated resistance if the questioners try to provoke them. That way, they can reserve time for a joint effort to emphasize common values and positions, especially on the issues where they have something strong and clear to say with near unanimity.

Declarations of shared purpose are not the norm in a primary campaign. That’s another big argument for them. These candidates are running not just against a President and a party but against the tendency of proto-dictatorships and other abhorrent situations to be regarded, eventually, as acceptable or unalterable. The normalization syndrome will be another hidden presence in the room tonight, and throughout the 2020 contest. It is likely to be a tough opponent for these candidates, right up there with Donald Trump and the Republicans.

A debate—typically watched by a small and base-heavy part of the electorate—may not be the ideal setting for shows of togetherness, but, by making them a persistent and novel feature of this primary season, the candidates will be saying, “We’ve chosen to make our campaign extraordinary as a way of reminding everybody that this election is extraordinary.”

Have Democrats Forgotten How to Do Oversight? (American Prospect, August 2019)

August has arrived, and not a moment too soon for the Democrats of the House of Representatives. Let us imagine them making the most of it. Picture this recess as their chance to examine past mistakes and present circumstances and to ask themselves, now that their dream of a deus-ex-Mueller has been dashed, how they might finally begin to use their own powers—the powers of the unit of government they control—to illuminate the crimes, misdeeds, and maladministration of Donald Trump, his family, his campaign, and his gang of appointees and accomplices.

Let us certainly hope that question is on their minds. Meanwhile, I have posed it to a range of experts on congressional oversight, and their answers add up to something like a consensus judgment on how the Democrats should and shouldn’t proceed.

One key shouldn’t: They should not see their task simply as one of picking up the package of evidence handed to them by Robert Mueller and continuing to pursue the case he was either unable to nail or unwilling to state. Mueller felt bound to define his investigation narrowly, sticking to the trail of a potential Trump-Russia plot to meddle in the 2016 elections and adjacent offenses. The House, my panel of authorities agrees, needs to define its investigation broadly, as an inquiry into the bigger and more basic problem of kleptocratic corruption—of self-enrichment, crony enrichment, and betrayal of the public trust.

That rich realm encompasses three sub-territories. The first consists of all the areas where the Trumps have tried to turn the presidency to personal profit, whether by sneaking a $60 million real-estate developers’ tax break into the Republican tax package; getting government entities, contractors, and supplicants to purchase overpriced lodgings at Trump properties; or doing whatever they did with the $100 million supposedly raised for the inauguration ceremonies. In the second zone lie the various members of the president’s circle who, following his lead, have taken financial advantage of official positions or Trump ties. That domain blurs over into a third, in which we find the galaxy of federal departments and agencies that, thanks to the strategic placement of industry lobbyists and corporate insiders in the decision-making ranks, now routinely bow down to corporate interests at everybody else’s expense.

Plain old money corruption is the recurring theme everywhere in Trumpworld, his dealings with Russia included. He signaled as much in July 2017 when he warned the newly named special prosecutor (via an interview with The New York Times) that the Russia probe would cross a red line if it touched on Trump’s finances. That was surely the concern behind the “I’m fucked” rant memorialized in the Mueller report: Trump had every reason to expect a Russia inquiry to morph into a financial inquiry because, of course, he drew no such line himself. Although Mueller wound up chronicling acts that bordered on subversion, any loyalty to a foreign power was incidental: The real goal for Trump and the aides, agents, and hangers-on in contact with shady Russians during the campaign and transition was to make money.

In Trump’s case, the immediate loot was supposed to come from a real-estate boondoggle in Moscow. But he had also developed a taste for Russian financing when past sources had run dry. “After multiple bankruptcies in the 1980s and ’90s, Trump turned to Russian oligarchs and crime figures for a ready supply of cash,” Representative Jamie Raskin pointed out to me. “They were looking for ways to launder and safeguard money looted from the former Soviet Union.” Those transactions and thoughts of more like them appear to have been the original source of Trump’s desire to cozy up to Vladimir Putin, and in that sense, they drive U.S. Russia policy today.

Democrats, Raskin and others say, should rethink the aim as well as the subject matter of their inquiry. A scholar of constitutional law by trade (a former professor of same at American University’s law school), Raskin has no doubts about the impeachment-worthiness of credible allegations already on record. But regardless of what the House decides about impeachment or how long it takes to decide, it is time, he says, to concentrate on points of fact rather than law, and to lay out the facts to “tell a coherent and digestible story to the American people about how the president’s campaign and administration have both been money-making operations from top to bottom.”

Storytelling must be the mission. And the story has to go beyond the act of corruption, says Paul C. Light, an oversight specialist and professor of public service at New York University; it needs to include the injury to government’s ability to do right by everyday people. “There’s a lot of outrage in the Democratic bloodstream,” Light says. “Unfortunately the House has not paid much attention so far to the effects of Trump’s corruption. Why does it matter to the American people? How does it affect your pocketbook or your children’s future? Who’s he robbing?”

Eight years in the minority have sapped the Democrats’ supply of oversight know-how. One of the party’s past masters of the art, former Representative Henry Waxman, counsels persistence and a willingness to “hit the same point over and over again.” The Democrats, he says, should borrow a page from Trump’s “No collusion, no obstruction” playbook. They should be willing to keep pounding away at a concise (in their case, true) message about crooked government and innocent people being shafted. “Sometimes it’s hard to get something across except in a cumulative way,” Waxman says.

Members of Congress are prone to attention-seeking behavior, and the attention is sometimes gained at the expense of credibility or respect. House Republicans happily accepted that trade-off throughout their two-and-a-half-year investigation of the Benghazi terrorist attacks. The Democrats, having lived through a number of such partisan score-settling exercises, could be tempted to respond in kind. That is a temptation to be resisted, in the opinion of party elders with oversight experience.

One of them, former Michigan Senator Carl Levin, heads a nonprofit based at the law school of Wayne State University in Detroit. The Levin Center, dedicated to “oversight as an instrument of change,” champions a bipartisan approach, and in partnership with the Lugar Center and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has taken more than 200 House and Senate staffers through oversight-training boot camps built around hypothetical scandals. Literal bipartisanship is, of course, impossible in the age of Trump and Mitch McConnell. Nevertheless, says Elise Bean, co-director of the Levin Center’s Washington office and a former top Levin aide, House chairs and inquisitors would do well to rein in their instincts for invective and blame-setting. For the House’s hearings to stand a chance of stirring anyone beyond the base—any of the estimated 13 percent of Trump’s 2016 voters who had supported Barack Obama in 2012, for example—committee chairs will have to work extra hard to coordinate questioning and discourage grandstanding. “These inquiries need to be fact-based,” Bean says. “They can’t just come across as one group of people railing at another group of people.”

Grandstanding can be especially tempting in House committees with dozens of members coveting their five minutes of glory. The chairs themselves can be greedy for attention, a concern that may cause them to prioritize what are known as “fire alarm investigations” built around matters of immediate news interest. The alternative—the “police patrol investigation” of a systemic problem with a backstory—may look like too much work for too little gain. But it’s far more likely to be impactful, Light says, based on a review of 31 House investigations between the years 1945 and 2012. And the Democrats can afford to be comparatively subdued on the subject of Trump corruption, because the facts themselves are so appalling.

Most hearings, as a matter of cold statistical fact, draw little media or public notice. What gets noticed is the occasional riveting image of, say, a gang of tobacco executives swearing that nicotine is nonaddictive, in front of a committee with evidence of long-standing corporate knowledge to the contrary. But it is generally a mistake to aim for a knockout punch; moments of high drama are serendipitous and not to be counted on, says Waxman, who chaired that particular hearing back in 1994. While the tobacco execs’ robotic denials of the obvious got lots of play, Waxman points out that nobody remembers the long slog of investigations and hearings leading up to that climax.

On top of the usual challenges, Democrats must now deal with a president and an attorney general telling everyone under their authority (and quite a few people who aren’t) to withhold cooperation. “Lots of norms are being thrown out the window,” says Molly Claflin, a former Senate Judiciary staffer now employed at American Oversight, an anti-corruption nonprofit that files lawsuits and surfaces official documents to compensate for the recent neglect and underfunding of Congress’s investigative work.

To get over the Trump stonewall, House committee staffers will have to cast a wide and imaginative net for witnesses, what with all the Trump-dependent people likely to resist testifying. One place to look, Light suggests, is in the middle ranks of corrupted entities, private or public. The Financial Services Committee, for example, might bring in some of the Deutsche Bank financial-crime watchdogs who tried to warn their superiors against continued lending to Trump family interests. The Natural Resources Committee could question some of the career employees at the Environmental Protection Agency who have been blocked from going after polluters. If such people feel skittish about testifying, they can be offered the option of wearing masks and having their voices distorted—a nice touch, perhaps, for the committee’s attention-getting purposes as well as the witnesses’ job-security purposes.

The ultimate victims of crooked government—everyday people—can also be called in. A Department of Education in the clutches of for-profit college companies and private student lenders is one unlikely to implement a loan forgiveness program for holders of student debt who commit themselves to public service. Light points to that program as a neglected and ripe target for oversight. “You have tens of thousands of people,” he says, “who have made their payments on time and are working as police officers, nurses, medical professionals and can’t get a dollar of forgiveness.” The testimony of a carefully chosen sample of those people could be the perfect prologue to a round of student-loan hearings.

Powerful stories can be aired more than once in forums with different frames of reference. The House Education and Labor Committee could hold a stand-alone hearing on the loan forgiveness program, for example; but that problem could also be examined by the Oversight and Reform Committee, under the spirited leadership of Elijah Cummings of Maryland, as part of a multi-agency investigation of the role of the former corporate lobbyists and executives now littered across the federal government. They’re all over: David Bernhardt, the fossil fuel lobbyist turned interior secretary, proud of his readiness to hand out oil-drilling leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Daniel Elwell, the former airline guy running the FAA while it slow-walked its response to the safety issues of the Boeing 737 MAX; Jay Clayton, the ex–Goldman Sachs lawyer (married to an ex–Goldman Sachs executive) presiding over the Securities and Exchange Commission, and on and on. “Trump has found a fox for every henhouse in Washington,” Raskin says. That point could be effectively dramatized not only by the testimony of career public servants trying to do their jobs, but by an electronic map of the Trump administration with one agency after another lighting up as its conflicted leaders are identified.

Tax policy and tax enforcement is an obvious hearing topic. The Ways and Means Committee, under the cautious chairmanship of Richard Neal, took a woefully long time to sue for Trump’s tax returns, and it is unclear whether or how soon that litigation will bear fruit. The practical consequences of a New York law intended to force the release of Trump’s state tax returns are also up in the air. But Neal’s committee should have plenty of fodder for investigation, including an “opportunity zone” tax break with potentially large benefits for Jared and Ivanka, the disposition of a $7 million back-tax debt owed by the hedge fund manager and Republican donor Robert Mercer, and the strangely fast-tracked Senate confirmation of an Internal Revenue Service general counsel who had previously helped the Trump Organization with its taxes.

Trump hotels and resorts present another fertile area of inquiry. It is easy to imagine a hearing devoted to the parade of foreign dignitaries and business promoters feeding the coffers of the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington en route to meetings with Trump-appointed public officials. The Emoluments Clause, widely associated with favors from foreigners, has a domestic dimension as well, Raskin points out. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution tells us that the president is paid a fixed salary and “shall not receive … any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” That language could be hard to square with, say, military personnel being housed at Trump-related properties in Las Vegas, Hawaii, and elsewhere, and not always when the president was there with them.

The issue of Russian money laundering will be a tough nut to crack—but worth cracking. Hearings on that topic could strain the patience of that segment of the public already inclined to tune out matters related to Trump and Russia, while others may have trouble understanding why a rich Russian’s money is any dirtier than a rich non-Russian’s money. The Intelligence Committee could help clarify that point by introducing us to some of the thugs in the Trump orbit and to the practical meaning of the term “oligarch” in Putin’s Russia.

House Democrats could hold nonstop hearings from now until November 2020 without exhausting the supply of worthy targets. So far, however, they have not shown much appetite for oversight. Since the delivery of the Mueller report they have issued subpoenas, filed lawsuits, argued about jurisdiction and privilege and prerogative, and endlessly debated the pros and cons of impeachment, but they have done very little to call public notice to the rampant criminality of the Trump regime.

Some in their ranks seem content to soft-pedal the issue. If Mueller couldn’t come up with a Trump-busting scandal, they seem to believe, there is no point in carrying on with the hunt. On that theory, the Democrats should lay off the attacks, put on a smiley face, and just talk about “what we plan to do for the country,” says one such Democrat, the centrist Massachusetts Congressman (and pretend presidential candidate) Seth Moulton. But the experience of the past several months suggests just where that formula is likely to lead. If lawmakers and candidates lose interest in Trump’s crimes, so will the country at large, and a wide swath of the media will feel more liberated than ever to follow its natural impulse to normalize.

The country needs Congress to do more oversight, not less. It’s time for the Democrats to map out a coordinated and thoughtfully sequenced series of hearings and investigations designed both to expose new information and to stir more awareness and outrage over what is already known and half-known. Old stories, vividly told, can have fresh impact; that is true even if they have a sketchy basis in reality, as the House Republicans proved with their endless claims about Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails. The Democrats can proceed, moreover, with confidence that more dirt will surface, even if they cannot say exactly what it will be or where it will be found. Elected by fraud and fluke, Donald Trump has given us the crookedest presidency in our national memory, if not our history. Never has anyone with so much to hide occupied such a central and visible place. That is a formula guaranteed to keep the flow of ugly information coming as long as anyone keeps looking.

Mueller and his team, in the course of not quite finding an actionable Trump-Russia conspiracy, unearthed evidence of a multitude of other offenses, and that haul helped the Democrats retake the House of Representatives last year. By Election Day next year, Trump’s crimes could be his undoing, and they could pose an impossible burden for his Republican partners in Congress as well. The Democrats cannot be sure of that—but it would be a terrible mistake to discount the possibility. Donald Trump himself is clearly troubled by the prospect of renewed scrutiny. We caught a recent glimpse of that fear in his racist fulminations against Elijah Cummings—a crazed preemptive effort to undermine one of the senior House members and committee chairs most bent on pressing ahead with aggressive oversight. If the president doesn’t think he’s home free, the Democrats had better not make that assumption either.

Tax-foolishness (October 2019)

The Democratic Party has a job to do.

First, deliver us from the evil of Donald Trump. Next, get America focused on our longer-term national disasters — the undermining of democracy, the grotesque overconcentration of wealth and income, the swollen power of corporations and financial privateers, the rapid heating of the air and seas, to name a few.

That’s the task that, more than many of us might like, we are counting on the Democrats to tackle over the next few years. It’s a mission that some elements of the party have yet to take to heart. I offer in evidence a transcript of last week’s presidential debate and the results of my first foray into computer-assisted textual analysis – a search for appearances of the letters t-a-x.

Sixty-nine. That’s how many times somebody or other mentioned taxes or taxing or taxation. In fairness to the candidates, the culprit was often one of the so-called moderators. Marc Lacey of the New York Times got the ball rolling with his multiple attempts to make Elizabeth Warren acknowledge, with Bernie Sanders, that taxes for middle-income families could go up to cover the cost of the Medicare for All plan that both candidates support. Since Warren declined the invitation, Lacey’s main achievement was to demonstrate that an old-fashioned print scribe could do tax gotcha as mindlessly as any TV newshound.

Sadly, though, a number of would-be Presidents insisted on getting into the game. Joe Biden raised the mythical specter of a $10,000 tax hit to “firefighters and schoolteachers” and went on sermonize (in a post-debate interview) about the need to “be candid and honest with the American people.” Amy Klobuchar lectured her fellow candidates along similar lines, declaring that “we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”

Pomposity ran rampant. Canned attack lines abounded. Warren’s failure to say just how she would fill a “multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan” was, according to Pete Buttigieg, emblematic of “why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular.” Once a supporter of Medicare for All, Mayor Pete had just a few months earlier urged his rivals to “stand up for the right policy” and “stop worrying about what the Republicans will say” since “they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists” regardless. In last week’s spin room, a different-sounding Buttigieg complained that Warren had been “more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken than about how this plan is going to be funded.”

Not to be left behind (except in the polls), Beto O’Rourke answered a wealth-tax question with the observation that Warren sometimes came across as “more focused on being punitive and pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up and making sure that this country comes together around those solutions.”

It was a dubious characterization of Warren and her campaign. Substituting the word party for country, however, it was a pretty apt assessment of the latest turn in the candidacies of O’Rourke, Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttiegeg.

Shabby oneupsmanship aside, the scare talk about taxes was disheartening. Once upon a time, Democrats left that sort of thing to Republicans. After Ronald Reagan rode the California property-tax revolt into the Governor’s mansion and the White House, many Democratic lawmakers were cowed into voting for his top-heavy tax cuts. Then an opportunistic band of “New” and “Third Way” Democrats sold their party on the neoliberal agenda of low marginal tax rates, deregulation, monopoly-coddling, union-scorning and corporate-centric trade pacts. It turned out to be a poor formula for “lifting up” the have-nots and have-lesses, but a great boon to the fortunes of the have-mores and have-mosts.

And so, along with all the Democratic Party’s other challenges, it must now work very hard to rebuild its credibility as a champion of the unwealthy and unconnected.

Of the 2020 candidates, Sanders and Warren have led the way in this crucial project. Both have come up with brave policy ideas. They have been brave on the tax front as well, even if Warren has pointedly refused to create a telltale bit of “I will raise taxes” video for Republicans to use in their attack ads, which, as she well knows, will carefully omit whatever she might add about the impact on health, health care and what people with and without insurance have to pay for it.

When Democrats make Warren out to be a dangerous tax-hiker, they feed into the anti-government cynicism that was and remains the other party’s chief stock in trade. That would be bad form in any election season. It is shameful behavior among those engaged in a collective effort to end the rottenest and most dangerous presidency of at least our lifetimes.

If I had a more sophisticated analytical toolkit, I would not be content to count variations on the T-word. I would develop a metric for references to the public goods that taxes make possible — clean-energy innovation, public transport, schools, white-collar law enforcement and the rest. When candidates up and down the Democratic ticket start bringing up those things more often than they speak of taxes, their party will be in a far better state of readiness for the assignment that awaits.

Elizabeth Warren’s Presidency, According to David Brooks (September 2019)

Are you having trouble seeing the future? No worries. David Brooks will wipe your windshield clean for you.

In his September 20th column, Brooks has scoped out the next 50 years of U.S. history, beginning with Elizabeth Warren’s election as President and the Democrats back in charge of the Senate.

Here’s some of what Brooks says is destined to follow:

A moment of “dance-in-the-streets euphoria” on the part of “the American educated class”;

An Administration composed of self-righteous ideologues, incapable of compromise;

Failure to enact President Warren’s take-it-or-leave-it proposals, one after another — Medicare for all, free college, a wealth tax, and the rest;

Warren and her kind swept from office in 2024 on a fresh tide of national disgust;

A country soured forever on the twin follies of “conservative populism” and “progressive populism”; and finally…

A resurgence of Clinton-Obama-style “moderate liberalism… embracing all and seeking opportunity for all.”

As a freelance pundit, this is where I should jump in with my critique of the Brooks scenario. But I’m going to save myself the trouble. Truth is, I can think of little to say that has not already been said in the online comments of hundreds of pissed-off readers of the New York Times op ed page. I now yield the podium to a few of them:

“Another paternalistic little fable.” – mary k, north Carolina

“Every time I read what David Brooks has to say about Warren, I am left wondering – would he say the same things if she was a man? She is so far from his caricature of her, I think her strength is threatening to him.” – Cassandra, Sacramento

“Has he not heard about the climate crisis? There is no mention of it in this essay.” — the quiet one, US

“BTW Dave, in your vision of 2050 did you happen to see how climate change was progressing? I’m interested to know how my grand kids are coping.” – Claudius, Pleasant Vly, NY

“David Brooks continues his habit of characterizing garden variety liberal Democrats as bomb-throwing radicals. Elizabeth Warren… hardly needs Prof. Brooks to instruct her that she will meet with resistance in the U.S. Senate. She works in the U.S. Senate.” – Chris Rasmussen, Highland Park, NJ

“I think Mr. Brooks conflates American Democracy with a love of capitalism a bit too much; what people want more than a chance to become bazillionaires is a chance to feel treated fairly within the system that dominates their lives.” – Brad Price, Portland

“FDR was pushed from below by the socialists and the Communists and the unionists. The middle class was born and the corporatists and the capitalists had to start paying their own way. Modern day GOP-supported capitalism is completely out of control.” – Bill T, Farmingdale, NY

“If centrist Democrats see a candidate win by running on a progressive platform, they’ll migrate left. And what were once fringe ideas – like universal healthcare, free college, a green new deal – will become more mainstream.” – Quay Rice, Augusta GA

 “The positions you regard as extreme are likely to be remembered as an opening offer in what becomes a compromise piece of legislation.” – DA, St. Louis

“You assume that she will choose to be a failed dogmatist over a successful pragmatist. You say that what distinguishes her from Bernie is that she shows self-awareness (a debatable point about Bernie) and then spend the rest of the column outlining a scenario where she is utterly unaware of those with whom she has to work… What I respect about conservatives is that they played the long game. You don’t dismantle the New Deal and Great Society overnight. I support Warren because I sense she has the self-awareness to know that to move our nation toward economic, social and environmental justice, we have to play the long game.” – Tomg, Rosendale

“Warren is both a savvy politician (knows how to work with people and get things done) and a fighter for principles and policy… American capitalism is seriously broken… It no longer serves even the middle class, much less the working class and the poor. It is not about making things or serving the public good. It needs major repair, not tweaks and fixes. Warren is the only Democrat running [with] the wherewithal, the smarts, the experience, the know-how and the fight, to take on the rich and powerful… All that said, even if Warren wins and the Dems take back the Senate, the rest of us will have to stay active or became more active to have a chance of turning the hate-filled, mean-spirited society around so that it truly works for the public good.” – rgoldfilm, Berkeley

“To paraphrase Elizabeth Warren, it’s amazing that David Brooks would go to the trouble of writing a piece likes this, just to show us all the things we cannot have and all the things we should not fight for”. – adam, Brooklyn ny

“Dems have always known how to legislate for half a loaf. Exhibit A: Obamacare. Unlike craven Mitch, a Democratic Congress would send bills to President Warren without requiring pre-approval. Warren herself knows how to wrangle.” – A Boston, Maine

 “We need five or six parties, not two. We need an electorate that builds their opinions based on the same factual foundation. We need healthcare and college for all with opt-outs for people who want to buy their own (e.g., in NYC, not everyone takes the subway). We need… a lot. In the meantime, I’ll take Warren with open arms.” — mattcasper11, San Diego, CA

“I sense a certain panic in the course of reading this op-ed. People who have benefited from the status quo tend to be the ones most resistant to change… With Warren, I see a fighter; for our democracy and for social justice.” – wp, Oklahoma City, OK

“I suspect that Elizabeth Warren will not hold your opinion in anywhere near as high regard as Obama apparently did. You were exactly the kind of thoughtful conservative that Obama was trying to win over. Yet somehow, when push came to shove, you sided in your columns time and again with the obstructionist Republicans in opposing Obama’s initiatives… You demonstrated that the bonds of loyalty to ones friends and colleagues and ideology are not easily broken…” —  DebbieR, Brookline, MA

“Looking back from 2050, half of us have drowned.” — Amos Baynes, NC

Life Cycle of an Attack Story (February 2019)

It sprouts. The Washington Post unearths a 1986 Texas State Bar registration card on which Senator Elizabeth Warren listed her race as “American Indian.” It’s the “first document to surface showing Warren making the claim in her own handwriting”; it is also entirely consistent with what Warren has been saying for months – that she used to identify that way but never gained any professional advantage from it. The Post accordingly relegates the discovery to paragraph 7 of a story about Warren’s apology to the Cherokee Nation for a practice that, she now understands, was offensive to many Native Americans.

It grows. Other media companies, however, make a bigger deal of the registration card. Some are simply chasing eyeballs; that would be, for example, CNN, which runs a stand-alone story about the Texas document and gives a Republican Party spokesman space to accuse Warren of “a politically opportunistic apology that doesn’t go nearly far enough.” And some are delighted to have any fresh pretext for disparaging a conspicuously popular progressive; that would be, for example, Fox News, which reports that Warren is “once again in the hotseat,” and the Boston Herald (owned by a rapacious hedge fund), which characterizes the Post story as a “stunning setback” for Warren.

It morphs. The media coverage becomes news in its own right – proof, according to the Associated Press, of Warren’s continued struggle “to move past [her] Native American heritage flap.” The AP story points to another statement of regret issued by Warren in response to the disclosure: “For the second time in two weeks, the Massachusetts Democrat apologized Wednesday for claiming Native American identity on multiple occasions early in her career.” (Warren could, of course, have declined comment; that would have stirred a comparable burst of bad press about her failure to answer “fresh questions” on the subject.)

It propagates: Now everybody wants a piece of the story, and we get a round of articles about Warren facing “new fallout” (ABC), headlines about the “Smear That Just Won’t Die” (CBS Boston), and speculation about “whether the ancestry issue will haunt Warren throughout the primary” (Politico). Meanwhile Facebook and Twitter light up with posts from pundits ready to pronounce Warren’s presidential candidacy doomed before it has been formally announced.

What should we make of all this? Herewith a few preliminary questions and answers offered for consideration by anyone in a mood to consider them:

Q: When is a scandal getting overworked?

A: When the continued life of the story becomes the story. (Note to free press: please find something better to do with your freedom than to wonder how long somebody will be “haunted” by something.)

Q: Who’s calling the shots? In October, when Warren announced her DNA test, she drew harsh criticism from Native American groups and leaders. But now the attacks are coming almost exclusively from corporate hacks and Republican hatchet-people. That should be another signal for the mainstream media to move on.

Q: Where’s the beef? What’s really bothering these folks?

A: I’m going to go out on a limb here: just possibly they are less troubled by any concern for the feelings of indigenous peoples than by the pain that some of Warren’s policy proposals would inflict on her critics and their benefactors. The proposals I have in mind include an annual tax of 2 percent on household net worth over $50 million and 3 percent on household net worth over $1 billion; a major increase in the IRS budget and the frequency of audits performed on the ultra-wealthy; a crackdown on the use of offshore tax havens; a multi-year lobbying ban for all federal employees; a prohibition on lobbyist donations to candidates for Congress; a mechanism for German-style worker representation on corporate boards; and a variety of other measures to combat routinized corruption and counter the game-rigging economic and political power of bankers, CEOs and the super-wealthy. Just possibly, I would further theorize, Warren’s critics are also troubled by her proven ability to get things done (things like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), and to give compelling voice to ideas that the corporate-funded Right has long been able to dismiss as creeping Bolshevism.

If that’s the stuff that Warren’s attackers are truly worried about, I say, that’s probably the dimension of her candidacy that the rest of us should focus on, too.

Elizabeth Warren Wants Us to Look Under the Hood (June 2019)

OK pundits, you can stop speculating about which Democratic candidate will be the first to go after Joe Biden. Elizabeth Warren wins that race. She’s been going after him since the mid-1990s.

Biden was then a U.S. Senator and a champion of “bankruptcy reform,” by which he and many of his peers meant legislation making it harder for people to go bankrupt or purge their debts. (This and other good Warren stories are well told by Emily Bazelon in the current New York Times Magazine.) Filings for bankruptcy had been on the rise, and Congress seemed willing to blame the filers: they had spent beyond their means, knowing they could take advantage of a permissive legal system. Too much “Tommy, Ralph, Gucci and Prada,” as Newsweek put it – that was the theory that prevailed in the halls of power.

Warren was a law professor who had studied the data and concluded otherwise, tracing 90 percent of consumer bankruptcies to a job loss, a medical problem, a divorce or the death of a spouse. And the economic consequences of such events, she noted, tended to hit women harder than men. In a 2001 journal article, Warren criticized feminist organizations for the “limited scope” of their policy concerns, pointing to consumer debt and bankruptcy rules as neglected “women’s issues.” The National Organization for Women (NOW), as it happened, had singled Biden out for praise as a sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act. Warren suggested that NOW would be equally justified in censuring Biden for pushing bankruptcy reform. “Why isn’t Senator Biden in trouble with grass-roots women’s groups all over the country, and with the millions of women whose lives will be directly affected by the legislation he sponsors?” she asked.

While the government was tightening the screws on consumers, it was loosening the rules for lenders. A series of deregulatory measures and court decisions had wiped out the effectiveness of the state usury laws that once restrained interest rates across the country. Banks were beginning to stick their customers with unreadable and unnegotiable contracts containing “gotcha” fees that made debt costlier and harder to escape than it appeared. The politicians of Biden’s state, Delaware, had played a large role in letting this happen, and they had collected heaps of money from Delaware banks and financial institutions while they were about it.

Warren wondered aloud if there might be a connection between that money and the drive for bankruptcy reform. Biden did not take kindly to the inference. “I am so sick of this self-righteous sheen put on anybody who wants to tighten up bankruptcy,” he commented during one of the Senate hearings with Warren as a witness.

At a subsequent hearing (shortly before final passage of the bill in 2005), Biden acknowledged the validity of some of Warren’s testimony, but added that she really ought to be complaining about credit-card interest rates, not about bankruptcy reform. Warren replied that she would gladly complain about both; since Biden was not proposing to cap interest rates, however, she didn’t think it was right for him to “take away the last shred of protection from these families.”

At the time, Warren had no thought of running for the Senate, no less the Presidency. But she had already begun to pick a fight that she continues to wage on the 2020 campaign trail. It’s the fight against a three-decades-long process of rewriting the rules of the U.S. economy to the benefit of corporations, banks and the ultra-wealthy, and it pits her against a long line of Democrats who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and awareness, have helped that process along.

Warren started out as a Republican, and she is eager to tell anyone who asks (or doesn’t, like Bazelon) that her favorite president is Teddy Roosevelt. The Teddy she has in mind is the trust-buster, who fought monopoly not only for stifling competition and consumer choice — the only objections recognized by today’s Supreme Court — but as a threat to democracy. “If you go back and read his stuff,” Warren told Bazelon, “it’s not only about the economic dominance; it’s the political influence.”

She admits to a fondness for Teddy’s cousin Franklin as well. But while other New Deal fans focus on the safety net and spending programs, Warren emphasizes FDR’s efforts to regauge the rules of the economy and, as Bazelon writes, “the significance of the legislation (like the Glass-Steagall Act) that Democrats passed to rein in bankers and lenders and the agencies (the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) that they put in place to enforce those limits. Warren credits this new regulatory regime, along with labor unions, with producing a golden era for [white male] workers over the next four and a half decades” and, alongside the many enduring injustices of the postwar era, “the greatest middle class the world had ever known.”

Like Warren, most of the Democrats running for President see rising inequality as a problem. What sets Warren apart is her preoccupation with the underlying rules of the economy and her explicit rejection of the Clinton (and perhaps the Biden) theory that Democrats can solve the problem by throwing programs at it. “It’s structural change that interests me,” Warren told Bazelon. “And when I say structural, the point is to say if you get the structures right, then the markets start to work to produce value across the board, not just sucking it all up to the top.”

That is Warren’s rationale for proposing, along with her impressive plans for things like student-debt forgiveness and a wealth tax, legal action to break up the tech giants, legislation to reestablish the Glass-Steagall wall between basic banking and Wall Street speculation, and a sweeping anticorruption bill that would close the revolving door between Congress and the world of corporate lobbying.

These are not easy sells. Warren worries that she will have trouble getting voters to open the hood and ponder the components of the economic-justice engine. “It’s like teaching class,” she says. “’‘Is everybody in here getting this?’ And that’s what I just struggle with all the time. How do I get better at this? How do I do more of this in a way that lets people see it, hear it and say, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

It’s a message that may or may not help Warren win the Presidency. But she already has people listening. That’s one of the best things to be said for the contest up to now.