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Real Ron DeSantis, Part 1 (Follow the Money)

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Ron DeSantis reading “The Art of the Deal” to his infant child in his primary TV ad.

You know that the environment has become a major issue in Florida when Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis is running commercials claiming to “stand up to special interests” that have led to massive toxic algae blooms that have polluted rivers and created enormous “red tides” in the Gulf of Mexico.  So now suddenly DeSantis has become an environmental crusader after running as Trump’s “Mini Me” in the primary??

Of course, that’s all nonsense. DeSantis has a lifetime score of 2% from the League of Conservation Voters, which is about as low as it can get. Outrage over the disgusting green slime in Florida’s rivers and coastline generated by government-subsidized sugar growers has made Big Sugar almost as politically toxic as the algae itself–especially in the heavily Republican areas most affected. DeSantis received at least $4,500 in direct contributions from the sugar industry when he first ran for Congress in 2012, and thousands more within his first year in office. Now DeSantis is making a big thing about no longer taking money directly from Big Sugar, but he is supported by PACs like Jobs for Florida which gave his campaign $100K in late August. US Sugar and Florida Crystals have contributed more than $280K over the past 5 years to Jobs for Florida.

You can tell a lot about a politician from who gives him money. Throughout his political career, DeSantis has been financed by some of the most reactionary and anti-environment PACs in the country. In the 2016 election, by far the largest contribution to DeSantis’s campaign ($267,615) came from the Club for Growth, a SuperPAC fueled by Wall Street money which funded primary challenges against Republicans who strayed from its uncompromising line. Jane Mayer, in her excellent book Dark Money,  says it “developed the use of fratricide as a tactic to keep officeholders in line after becoming frustrated that many candidates that it backed became more moderate in office. It discovered that all it had to do was threaten a primary challenge and ‘they start wetting their pants,’ one founder joked. Its top funders included many in the Koch network, including the hedge fund managers [and Trump supporters] Robert Mercer and Paul Singer and the private equity tycoon John Childs [see below].” The Club for Growth spent millions to win the 2012 GOP primary for Ted Cruz. For the 2016 election, DeSantis ranked #7 in Club for Growth contributions. (Marco Rubio was #4 at $327,280, according to OpenSecrets.org.)

John Childs personally remains among DeSantis’s top donors. So far this year, he has directly given $500,000 to the campaign PAC Friends of Ron DeSantis, according to the official tally kept by the Florida Department of State. During 2016, he also gave $400,000 to the “Fighting for Florida Fund”, described by OpenSecrets as a “single-candidate SuperPAC in support of Ron DeSantis.” Childs made his money in leveraged corporate buyouts (most famously in the takeover of Snapple) at a Boston-based firm and was described in the Boston Herald as “the closest thing the Republican party has to an automatic teller machine in Massachusetts.” Jane Mayer notes that in the 2010 “Tea Party” election cycle, Childs spent $907,000 on federal elections.

Robert Mercer also contributed $200,000 to the DeSantis’s 2016 Fighting for Florida Fund. You may recall that Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, were among Trump’s biggest financial backers in the 2016 election, and Mercer was a major funder (and co-founder with Steve Bannon) of Cambridge Analytica–the UK-based political consulting and data brokerage firm which dissolved earlier this year amidst scandal over, inter alia, misuse of personal data of millions of Facebook users and allegations of being implicated in the Russian manipulation of the US 2016 election and the Brexit referendum in the UK.

But the largest contribution to the 2016 PAC was $500,000 from Frederick Sontag’s Spring Bay Capital LLP, described by Politico as “a Ponte Vedra Beach private equity firm that focuses on technology-based investment.” These three donors–Childs, Mercer, and Sontag–represented 87% of the total $1,265,000 raised for this PAC.

Unspent money from one PAC often spills over into a succeeding one. And so it was that $318,101 from the 2016 Fighting for Florida Fund was dumped into the 2017 Fund for Florida’s Future, which was set up for DeSantis’s run for the Republican nomination for governor. (Yes, I know this gets confusing, which of course is the whole point.) The new PAC was established in April 2017 by–wait for it–Frederick Sontag (see preceding paragraph), who chipped in another $500,000 to get things rolling. At the time, as Politico noted, DeSantis (who had not yet announced his candidacy) could not be officially be associated with or raise money for a state political committee because he was still a federal office holder.

The next megadonor to step up for the still officially candidate-less Fund for Florida’s Future was Richard Uihlein, the fiercely anti-union Chicago-based CEO of Uline (a packaging supplies company), who chipped in $250,000 in June 2017. According to Politico,Uihlein is filling a void created by the demise of Steve Bannon, whose GOP revolution — with Republican megadonor Robert Mercer as his supposed benefactor — was derailed when he became a party pariah…In addition to donating to tea party groups and the Club for Growth, which Uihlein has supported in the past, he’s given several million dollars to super PACs backing specific candidates in Senate races.” Among his more notable beneficiaries have been Ted Cruz and failed Alabama GOP senate candidate (and accused pedophile) Roy Moore. The Washington Post reported that the Uileins gave more than $55 million to conservative candidates and PACs in the past decade ($22 million in 2016 alone) for federal elections, plus at least $45 million from the Uihlein family foundation.

Other big donors to the Fund for Florida’s Future PAC were Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus ($250,000) and billionaire CEO of Interactive Brokers Group Thomas Peterffy ($100,000). These four donors–Sontag, Uihlein, Marcus, and Peterffy–taken together with the spill-over from the Fighting for Florida Fund represented more than half of the total contributions to the PAC, according to data available from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.

That PAC was succeeded in January 2018 by a new SuperPAC, “Friends of Ron DeSantis”. This was kicked off by–stay with me here–a spill-over of almost $2.5 million from the previous PAC, and an additional $1.1 million from his “principal campaign committee”, “Ron DeSantis for Florida”. (The FEC limits donations to principal campaign committees to $2700 per person per election, so it essentially functions as “petty cash”.)

Once DeSantis announced his candidacy for governor in early January, the right-wing money tree really started producing. Along with his announcement, DeSantis proudly issued a list of his financial backers, headed by Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, and David Bossie, president of Citizens United and Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016. Also included in the list were Breitbart co-owner Rebekah Mercer, deputy RNC finance chairman Elliott Broidy (who has been implicated in too many scandals to detail here), and Foster Friess (a conservative Christian mutual fund manager from Wyoming and key member of the Koch donor machine). Donald Trump tweeted that DeSantis, who had made a name for himself attacking the Mueller investigation, was a “brilliant young leader” who would “make a GREAT governor of Florida”.

There are a lot of very rich “Friends of Ron DeSantis”. As of the end of September, individual contributions of $50,000 or more and spill-over money from his other PACs represented two-thirds of the $19.3 million raised. (Again, according to public data from the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.)

Leading the PAC, so to speak, is $2 million from Laura Perlmutter, wife of Marvel toys CEO Isaac Perlmutter. (She reportedly gave the same amount to Marco Rubio in 2016, but her husband was worth $3.7 billion at the time, so no big deal for them.) There was $750,000 from the Chicago-based hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, another $500,000 from the aforementioned John Childs, a token $25K from Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone. (Griffin, Childs, and Langone had all been prominent participants at the notorious Koch-convened 2010 Aspen “donors summit” that bankrolled the Tea Party and created the “Kochtopus” network of superrich donors and dark money PACs.)

Other noteworthy donors to “Friends of Ron DeSantis” so far include:

The list goes on and on. And this is only the visible money that has to be reported! We have no real idea about the dark money PACs whose donors don’t have to be disclosed.

What do these people expect to get for their money? Aside from the satisfaction of having a governor who will snap to attention when they call, it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly. But the PACs that support DeSantis have a very clear agenda which is anti-regulation (especially with regard to financial dealings and the environment) and low or no taxes on corporations and the rich. These donors live in a world of wealth and privilege, whether by birth or achievement or just good luck, and they want to keep their money. Many of those with Florida connections are in the Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach/Jupiter orbit. They’re fine with our health care for profit system, and calls for Medicare-for-all scare them. DeSantis’s militantly pro-Israel (and pro-Netanyahu) positions certainly haven’t hurt him with the Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd. Twenty years of Republican control has made Florida a very comfortable environment for preserving wealth and doing business with a lot of chummy help from Tallahassee, and those who have benefitted don’t want it to change.

What really stands out when you start looking at all of this is how utterly–and legally–corrupted by money our politics has become. In a world where a $5,000 or $10.000 donation to a candidate is just chicken feed, what chance do we who can only afford to give 10, 20, or 50 dollars really have? This election is our chance to bend that trajectory at least a bit before the tsunami of money drowns democracy for good.

The Naked Exercise of Power

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The Union of Concerned Scientists for decades has maintained a “doomsday clock” to show how close the world is to nuclear annihilation. We now need a similar clock to illustrate how close our country now is to slipping definitively into despotism. If we had such a clock, my guess would be that we’re about 11 p.m. With today’s hearing on Brett Kavanaugh we slid a few minutes closer to midnight.

There were so many things wrong with the Republicans’ handling of the only accuser of Kavanaugh allowed to speak to the Judiciary Committee, but the bottom line is that letting Dr. Ford give her testimony was merely a charade to disguise a pre-cooked conclusion: a rushed party-line vote to confirm a blatantly partisan (and potentially criminal) judge to the Supreme Court, tossing out all normal procedures. Mitch McConnell had announced the result before the hearing ever convened, and Kavanaugh’s never-credible mask of judicial propriety and impartiality fell off for all to see during his rant before the committee. And it sure looks like the man has a little drinking problem as well as issues with impulse control.

This was Part Two of a Republican take-over of the Supreme Court, following McConnell’s infamous refusal to allow Obama nominee Merritt Garland to have so much as a hearing. It is also the culmination of a decades-long organized effort to gain perhaps permanent control over the entire federal judiciary. The notion of the Supreme Court as a check on partisan excess and executive over-reach is effectively a quaint historical memory if, as appears almost certain, Kavanaugh is confirmed.

Making the Supreme Court the tool of a single party is more dangerous to democracy than getting control of the Congress or the White House precisely because there is no real electoral remedy. Once the SCOTUS becomes as partisan as the other branches of government, it can permanently alter the political playing field to insure continued minority rule by Republicans. Just imagine, for example, how the Roberts court with Kavanaugh on the bench will rule on gerrymandering or corporate money in elections, let alone issues such as abortion, “religious freedom”, or gay rights.

Americans in general don’t know much about history, but anyone familiar with the French or Russian revolutions will recognize what is happening to American democracy, which has managed to function–however imperfectly–because virtually all political factions ascribed to an unwritten set of customs, norms, and practices that made the written Constitution work more or less as intended. All of that has now been thrown out the window.

The Republican Party has become our version of the Jacobins or Bolsheviks, perfectly willing to subvert democratic rules and norms in pursuit of raw power. And they have their demagogue in Donald Trump, who has made them perfectly subservient to his will. Senators like Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio and, yes, Ted Cruz who once proclaimed Trump to be a “con man” and unfit for office, now eagerly lick his balls. We are in the midst of a slow-motion coup-d’état.

November 6 may well be our last chance to keep this from happening.

 

 

 

The Florida Primary–Wow!

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More than a year ago, I first met Andrew Gillum at a meet-and-greet at a supporter’s home in Miami Shores. I knew very little about him then, but once I heard him speak I knew that he had something special and that I wanted to support him in any way I could. Here was a man I agreed with on virtually every issue and who could discuss them without sounding like he was just reciting talking points. And he had charisma–not the demagogic kind, but the kind that makes you believe that he would really do something to address the gross inequalities in American society. I was sold.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, because last night he won the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida–something that no poll or pundit predicted. This was truly a grass-roots campaign, and it’s worth looking closely at how it happened. It certainly wasn’t because of money. Here are the figures on campaign spending:

Philip Levine: $37.7 million
Jeff Greene: $34.7 million
Gwen Graham: $16.3 million
Chris King: $7.8 million
Andrew Gillum: $6.6 million

During the entire campaign, here in Miami I saw exactly one TV commercial for Gillum and that was on the day before the election. By contrast, both Greene and Levine blanketed South Florida with television ads throughout late spring and summer. Greene also spent heavily on attack ads that targeted Levine and Graham, and Levine responded in kind. Graham was late getting into the TV campaign, apparently banking on her lead in the polls and strong ties with the state Democratic establishment to carry her to the general election. Here I get echoes of Hillary Clinton’s complacency and sense of entitlement.

Nor did I find an single mailer from the Gillum campaign in my mailbox, even though I received tons of them from other candidates for state and local office. I think the campaign simply didn’t have the money.

Political commentators are focused on money that Gillum got from wealthy liberal donors George Soros and Tom Steyer (Fox News is already repeating the meme “Soros-backed Andrew Gillum”), but most of this money came very late in the campaign and was relatively modest compared to what was being spent by other candidates. As instrumental as it might have been in putting Gillum across the finish line, it’s hard to see where that money went in terms of traditional ways of boosting his message and name recognition with the general public.

I worked the polling station for Gillum at my precinct on election day, and people kept coming up and telling me that they were voting for Andrew. This is when I first suspected that some kind of earthquake might be happening, but scarcely dared to think it was true. At the same time, I wondered how they even knew about Gillum and what he represents given his minimal presence on traditional media.

The answer, I think is primarily word-of-mouth amplified by social media, starting with hundreds of appearances by the candidate in homes and churches and recreation halls all over the state. People just saw and heard Gillum and wanted to get involved. They talked to friends and family. Several people mentioned to me his performance in the candidate debates. Getting endorsed by Bernie Sanders late in the campaign clearly helped give him visibility and highlight his message, but Gillum was who he is long before Bernie backed him. He succeeded because of the Obama-like faith and enthusiasm he inspired in his volunteers. The polls missed it completely! I suspect polling tends to under-represent black voters and younger voters. I haven’t seen any detailed analysis of the vote yet, but my impression is that Gillum’s message of giving a voice to people who haven’t had much of one is resonating with both groups–I think I could see that in the people who were turning up to vote yesterday.

But now, of course, it’s going to be a different game–and an ugly one. The contest against Republican nominee Ron De Santis, who couldn’t thank Trump enough in his victory speech, will be the title fight for the national mid-terms, given Florida’s key role as swing state and the perfect polarity between the two candidates. The national parties are going to be in this big time, and astronomical sums of money–especially dark money–will be pouring in with all that entails. It is worrisome that slightly more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic one. This is not going to be easy.

Race will certainly be a big factor in this election. No African-American has ever won statewide office in Florida. The last major contest involving a black candidate was in the Tea Party year of 2010 when Kendrick Meek lost in a three-way race for the US Senate with Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. Outside of South Florida and the major cities, Florida is still Southern. According to census data from 2016, black voters represent only about one-eighth of all registered voters in Florida, and register at significantly lower rates than whites (47.4% vs. 69.1%). Much of that disparity probably has to do with targeted voter suppression measures, notably the law that permanently strips voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony and which disproportionately impacts minorities. (A measure to end this practice will be on the ballot in November.) The flip side of this is that there are potentially a lot of votes to be gained if Gillum can energize disaffected and unregistered voters to sign up. But especially in the era of Trump, we can expect a lot of overt and covert racism to infect the campaign. Indeed, it has already started. Quite honestly, I fear for the physical safety of Gillum and his family, just as I did for the Obamas.

I am impressed, however, by Gillum’s ability to build a loyal coalition that spans classes and ethnicities. His positions are being called leftist, socialist, and radical, but that is just an indication of how constricted our vision of what life in this country could be has become. I think the time is now to articulate a bold liberal alternative to the greed, corruption, racism, and xenophobia of Trumpism, and I believe Gillum has the charisma and leadership qualities to do that and win.

I admit to feeling a measure of grief for the Gillums whose lives are about to change in ways beyond anything they could imagine as they are suddenly thrust into a national spotlight. I hope and trust they will find the inner strength to rise to the challenge. I’m not a religious man, but I wish them Godspeed and will do all I can to help.

 

 

The Democrats Running for Governor of Florida

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L to R, Jeff Greene, Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King

As the country’s third-most populous state, Florida is critically important in national politics, particularly since it is a swing state that has determined the US presidency. In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida by (a hotly disputed) 537 votes and therefore the White House. Obama won by about 3 percentage points in 2008 and by 1 point in 2012, and Trump won by 1.2 percent in 2016.  The races for the state governor have been similarly close and were decided by about 1 percent of the vote in both 2010 and 2014.

Despite the virtual even split in state-wide voting by party, Republicans have dominated the state government for decades, largely because of gerrymandering but also because the state legislature is seated hundreds of miles away from the big population centers where Democratic voters mostly are and therefore gets little public attention or scrutiny. If the Democrats can win the governorship, it could have an enormous impact on the state’s future. So this year’s contest really matters.

I will happily vote in November for any of the five Democrats now in contention for the nomination, any of whom would be a vast improvement over Rick Scott or either of the two Republicans in the race. But I do have definite opinions on the August 28 primary. Here is how I see the race in my personal order of preference (regardless of polling numbers).

Andrew Gillum, currently mayor of Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee, is my top choice. He is the most consistently progressive of all of the candidates and is endorsed by Bernie Sanders. He supports Medicare-for-all, higher corporate taxes to fund public education, strong environmental protection, and a $15 statewide minimum wage. He has campaigned for much tougher gun regulations, repealing “stand-your-ground”, and has been twice sued (unsuccessfully) by the NRA. He was the first of the candidates to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He is a charismatic speaker who  has attracted national attention as a young (39) politician with a promising future. I like the fact that he has actual experience in governing a fairly large city and can speak with assurance on the issues. He was raised in Miami and therefore knows the realities of south Florida, but has managed to succeed in the very different environment of  the Florida panhandle (sometimes known as “south Georgia”).

Gillum is African-American, which is potentially a major plus in generating enthusiasm within a party whose demographic base is increasingly composed of blacks, Latinos, and other people of color as well as younger whites who are comfortable in a multi-cultural environment. He has made a central theme of his campaign the idea of giving a voice to people who have not had much of one in Florida politics. Mobilization is key, because black candidates for statewide office have had a tough time in Florida, but Gillum’s skills in communicating in a “no bullshit” style could give him the ability to break through barriers, and he has not been afraid to take his campaign to the “red” areas of the state.

His major handicap has been lack of money. He is by far the least wealthy of the five candidates–his reported personal net worth of $334,000 is roughly 2 percent of that of the least wealthy of the remaining Democratic candidates. His campaign has been run on a shoestring, mostly on the enthusiasm of volunteers (of which, full disclosure, I have been one). See table below. He has not been able to afford many TV ads (I have seen none yet in the big south Florida media market), and has therefore suffered from lack of name recognition. If he can pull off an upset and win the primary, however, the money will be there, and I believe he really could win in November.

Campaign finance figures as of July 27, 2018
Candidate Contributions Expenditures
Andrew Gillum $2,834,580.89 $1,234,491.78
Gwen Graham $5,363,675.90 $2,586,821.63
Jeff Greene $10,600,150.18 $10,079,173.22
Chris King $6,233,654.49 $5,047,477.12
Philip Levine $13,232,081.29 $11,306,819.21

Philip Levine would be my second choice for the the nomination. Like Gillum, he has real governing experience as mayor (2013-17) of Miami Beach–a fairly small, but very high profile city with major national economic and cultural interests in play. He is personally wealthy with a reported net worth of some $133 million, having made a fortune in the cruise line business and real estate, and he has not been shy about spending his own money on his campaign. He has blanketed the south Florida media market (and I assume other cities as well) with effective and well-targeted TV ads.

Also like Gillum, he has staked out a highly progressive platform including emphasis on education, gun control, environment, and healthcare. He has also come out in favor of full legalization of marijuana. As mayor of Miami Beach–perhaps the city most threatened by sea level rise in the US–he initiated an innovative and expensive program to alleviate occasional flooding with an ambitious pumping system and by physically raising the level of major streets. He got good marks as mayor,  and despite an occasionally abrasive manner, he comes across as no-nonsense, can-do guy.

Levine has strong connections with the Clintons and served as a Hillary’s surrogate in south Florida during her presidential campaign. I do wonder whether he can really connect with and energize the black and Latino voters that he will need to win in the general election. He has, however, done some important outreach work with the growing number of Puerto Rican voters in Florida, with an ad highlighting his aid to the island after Hurricane Maria and the endorsement of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. There is little question, however, that he has the resources to run a campaign.

Gwen Graham is in many ways the candidate of the Florida Democratic establishment–with both the pluses and minuses that entails. Her father, Bob Graham, was both a Democratic governor of the state (1979-87) and a US senator (1987-2005), so she has deep connections to the party’s machinery. In 2014, she won election to the US congress from a district in northern Florida centered in Tallahassee, but she declined to run for re-election in 2016 after the congressional district map was redrawn and gave hers a large Republican base majority. During her one term in congress, she was considered to be among the most centrist Democrats, and opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and voted for the Keystone XL pipeline. In debates, other candidates have criticized her for lack of loyalty to Obama.

As candidate for governor, Graham has staked out a slightly more centrist platform, a bit less aggressive on gun control, favoring medical marijuana and decriminalization of recreational use but not outright legalization, and supporting raising the minimum wage while remaining vague about how much. Her vote on the pipeline has raised questions about her environmental bonafides, especially after she was questioned by reporter Jim DeFede of Miami’s CBS station regarding her family’s financial stake in a planned megamall at the edge of the Everglades in Miami-Dade county. When DeFede repeatedly asked her if building a massive shopping mall in that location was a good idea for the environment, she responded robotically with canned talking points that the site was inside the Urban Development Boundary (which is true) and that all legal environmental rules had been met (which in Florida can be a fairly low bar). She also is quite well off, with a reported net worth of some $14 million.

As the only woman in the race, Graham never fails to mention that she is a “mom” (the subhead on her website is “Mom, PTA President, Congresswoman”), and in debates has sometimes implied that she’s being picked on because she’s a woman.

My main concern about Graham is that to me she shows some of the same characteristics that hurt Hillary Clinton, namely that she comes off as a bit cold and mechanical, sticking resolutely to the script regardless of the context, along with having a sense of entitlement because of who she is. I just don’t know if she can generate the excitement and enthusiasm needed to get voters to turn out in November, but she has connections and name recognition.

Chris King is a 39-year-old Harvard grad and lawyer (Univ. of Florida) from the Orlando area who made quite a bit of money in real estate and property management. (His reported net worth is about $17 million.) He has worked on a number of progressive causes both in Florida and abroad, but this is his first run for elective office. He has highlighted his entrepreneurial skills while articulating a very progressive platform, with emphasis on gun control and the environment, but has struggled to get name recognition and to distinguish himself from the other candidates. Perhaps as a result, he has become more aggressive in attacking the vulnerabilities of the other candidates.

To me, King comes across as earnest and committed, but politically inexperienced.

Jeff Greene jumped into the race only this summer, but he is by far the richest of the candidates with a reported net worth of at least $3.3 billion (yes, that’s a B!). All that money has bought a blitz of well-produced TV ads that have made him into a contender. The ads portray him standing up resolutely for women’s rights and standing up to Trump. The latter is a bit of a sensitive point because he was quoted as saying that Trump was “a great guy” back in November 2016, and he may still be a member at Mar-a-Lago (he says he’s not sure). His mansion in Palm Beach is in the same neighborhood.

Greene made his fortune in real estate in Florida and elsewhere, and is reportedly the biggest landowner in West Palm Beach. He made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for US senator in 2010. He has made improving schools a major theme, but has his own three young children enrolled in a private school that he founded. He has also become more aggressive in attacking his rivals, funding attack ads on TV targeted at Graham and Levine.

While I have no real issues with Greene’s official platform, I am bothered by the implicit arrogance of his campaign–basically that he can use his vast wealth to buy the nomination. To me, the overwhelming importance of money in politics has become the debilitating–and perhaps terminal–disease of our erstwhile democracy. Delivering this critical nomination to someone with no track record in public office because he has unlimited campaign funds just seems wrong.

To conclude, it’s worth repeating that there is remarkably little disagreement among all five of the candidates on the major issues. The important thing is to vote! Florida has closed primaries, so you must be registered as a Democrat (or Republican) to vote in your party’s primary. (The only exception is if only one party has a candidate for an office, in which case any registered voter can cast a ballot for that specific office.) It is too late to register for the primary, but you can still register for the general election up until October 8. The date of the primary is August 28. Early voting in Miami-Dade County started August 13 and continues until August 26. In Broward County, early voting begins on August 18.

 

 

 

The Brains of the Radical Right (Part 2)

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This is a continuation of my previous post on historian Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, a study of the impact of economist James M. Buchanan’s theories on US public policy.

Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981 buoyed hopes that Buchanan’s theories might at last be implemented in the US, as had been done in Chile under a military dictatorship. A conservative resurgence seemed to be developing not just in the US but in Europe as well, where Margaret Thatcher was taking an axe to Britain’s welfare state and state-supported industries after becoming Prime Minister in 1979. Reagan had a huge margin in the 1980 election, and his choice for the general to lead the revolution as budget director, David Stockman, was an avid libertarian. The conceptual field had been plowed by conservative think-tanks like the Koch-funded Cato Institute and the Scaife- and Coors-funded Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, which provided ready sources of like-minded recruits to staff the new administration.

Stockman’s mandate was to radically reduce and restructure big federal programs to shrink the federal budget and the public sector in general–basic libertarian dogma. The ultimate goal would be privatization, and the Great White Whale of federal programs was Social Security. But Stockman soon realized, as he later wrote, that: “A true economic policy revolution…meant risky and mortal political combat with all the mass constituencies” which those programs had engendered, such as “Social Security recipients, veterans, farmers, educators, state and local officials, [and] the housing industry.” By 1982, he had concluded that the Reagan Revolution simply could not happen in “the world of democratic fact.” What happened instead was a massive tax cut without corresponding spending reductions which produced what was then the biggest peacetime deficit in US history. (Does all this sound surprisingly contemporary?)

Social Security survived, but the goal of killing it (or at least taking it private) lived on as well. Buchanan came to much the same conclusion as Stockman about the political impossibility of a direct assault on a program that had such broad support. His solution was to undermine political support with a divide-and-conquer strategy combined with a psyops operation against faith in its viability. He laid out much of his thinking in a 1983 paper published by the Cato Institute called “Social Security Survival: A Public Choice Perspective” in which he memorably labeled Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”–a meme that remains viral in Republican circles.

The strategy was basically to split the American public into three groups. One would be those who were already or soon would be receiving benefits–they would be reassured their benefits would remain untouched by changes. The second would be those who were a decade or so away from becoming eligible; these would be told that for them to get benefits, there would have to be changes in the rules such as increasing their contributions and raising the eligibility age–changes that would make Social Security less attractive. The third group would be younger people new to the work force; these were to be convinced that it was doubtful the system would even survive long enough to benefit them and that they would be better off by putting their money in private investments. If the rules could be changed for them to opt out, then the demise of the system would become a self-fulfilling prophesy, because the system depends on near-universal participation. Buchanan made no mention of what had happened the year before in Chile, where an economic crisis had just wiped out retirement savings under the newly privatized social security system there.

Indeed, Buchanan’s prescription was partially adopted. In 1983, Reagan signed a law to amend the original legislation, gradually increasing the age for full benefits from 65 to 67 and making up to 50 percent of Social Security benefits taxable. (The taxable portion was increased to 85 percent in 1993). Moreover, for the last 50 years there has been a steady drumbeat of propaganda from the right aimed at dismantling the system. The pitch remains basically the same:  (a) Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that will run out of money in year X, (b) the return to the individual would be higher if invested in private stocks and bonds, (c) the system is unfair to the young and those with higher incomes, (d) the government has no right to take your earnings to fund Social Security when they could get higher yields elsewhere, and therefore (e) the system needs to be radically “reformed” in order to “save” it–albeit in a much changed and diminished form. This has become Republican gospel from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush to Paul Ryan.

That Social Security has survived is testament both to its enduring popularity and to the complexity of the problem. (For an analysis of the later, see here.) But the psyops have had the intended effect on the program’s credibility–especially among younger people who increasingly doubt they will ever get anything from it. However, the fact remains that in 2018 among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 23% of married couples and about 43% of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. At least one-third of US workers report that they have saved NOTHING for retirement, and more than half of them have put away less than $10,000! For 80 years, however, Social Security has successfully done what it was intended to do: provide the elderly and disabled a basic level of income, which for many would otherwise not exist. The case against it is fundamentally ideological, i.e., that the government should not be doing this because it requires a redistribution of private wealth.

Buchanan’s important role in propagating and providing intellectual respectability for such ideas also got a major boost in the early 80s, when Charles Koch decided to link his vast financial and organizational resources to Buchanan’s academic network.  George Mason University was then an undistinguished state-supported commuter college just outside of the DC Beltway in Fairfax, Virginia, but it had an ambitious president who was eager to get corporate money to build the school’s brand. He was able to lure Buchanan away from his Appalachian redoubt at Virginia Tech in 1983 with a stunning (by academic standards) salary and a promise of virtual autonomy as head of his Center for Study of Public Choice, which would be transferred and largely staffed with Buchanan’s faculty satellites from Blacksburg. GMU had already acquired in 1980 the Koch-financed Center for the Study of Market Practices established by economist Richard Fink at Rutgers as a seminary for the Austrian school of economics. (Fink later became executive vice-president of Koch Industries and, inter alia, chairman of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and director and co-founder of the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity PAC.)

The synergy between Koch money and Buchanan’s academic network in the context of a Reagan administration soon transformed George Mason University into what one Wall Street Journal writer called “the Pentagon of conservative academia”. Just 15 miles from the White House, Buchanan’s program was perfectly positioned to supply consultants, interns, and staff to help implement the administration’s policies. GMU also acquired a struggling law school in Arlington, which with lavish private financial backing soon became the analog in legal circles to what Buchanan’s program was in economic ones–staking out legal arguments advocating for the superiority of unregulated corporate capitalism unfettered by government intervention. (The law school was renamed after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia following his death.) Also in the mid-80s, GMU also acquired the Koch-financed Institute for Humane Studies–a kind of libertarian seminary for propagation of the faith which has since become a haven for climate-change deniers. Koch organizations reportedly have given the IHS an estimated $34 million between 1985 and 2015, while other conservative foundations have contributed at least an additional $20 million.

All of this heady activity reached a crescendo in October 1986 when Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. (On the politics of the Nobel economics prize and its slant toward free market theory, see this interview. For a skeptical contemporary view of the award, see here.) Becoming a Nobel laureate made Buchanan virtually unassailable at GMU, and the university administration was content–even eager–to let Buchanan do his thing without interference as long as the corporate money kept rolling in, which it did. Few seemed troubled by the increasingly tight nexus between Buchanan’s autonomous Center at a publicly-funded state university and the obviously partisan political activity that its programs supported. (It is ironic that Buchanan, who on principle did not believe in tax-supported education, spent virtually his entire academic career at state-supported public universities.)

If the Kochs and their allies in the privatization campaign were disappointed by the Reagan administration’s inability to deliver and–a decade later–in the failure of the Republican “Contract for America” led in Congress by Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Phil Gramm, they found a long-game strategy in Buchanan’s ideas that might eventually succeed by changing the basic rules of the system. The strategy was to accomplish as much as possible through boring regulatory changes that attracted little or no attention from the press or the public. The more drastic changes would be repackaged as “reforms” that were presented as fiscally “unavoidable” but would inevitably lead to failure of the programs and the destruction of political support for them–the “starve the beast” approach. The targets would include not just Social Security and Medicare, but environmental regulations, the graduated income tax, public education, and even feminism. Eventually, the same strategy would be applied against Obamacare.

In 1997, Charles Koch made another $10 million investment in a new James Buchanan Center for Political Economy at GMU, which combined both Buchanan’s and Fink’s centers under one organization with Koch and Buchanan as co-chairs of the governing board. It was chartered as a non-profit, tax-deductible 501(c)(3) whose mission was “research, education, and outreach”. MacLean notes that most of the people who were brought in to do the Buchanan Center’s “outreach” were political operatives, not academics, who paid little heed to the restrictions inherent in its tax status, which required abstaining from partisan political activity. In May 1998, board member Wendy Lee Gramm (Senator Phil Gramm’s wife) sent out a fund-raising letter so blatantly in violation of the Center’s charter that it led to a blow-up within the university and eventually to a rift between Buchanan and Koch–basically over control, not philosophy.

Once it became clear that Koch was really totally in charge, Buchanan retired to his rural retreat. In 1999, the James Buchanan Center for Political Economy was replaced by the Mercatus Center, which remains effectively the tail that wags the GMU dog. On the Mercatus Center’s website, the History and Timeline page makes no mention either of the James Buchanan Center or of its predecessor, the Center for Study of Public Choice (nor does it mention Charles Koch). But Koch had gotten what he needed from Buchanan: a respectable economic philosophy to justify private greed and a workable strategy for achieving his goals. When Buchanan died in 2013, neither Koch nor Fink attended his memorial service. In the end, the Nobel prize winner was just “the help.”

If you’re looking for a good end-of-summer read on something that’s really important, buy a copy of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Brains of the Radical Right (Part 1)

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Does the name James M. Buchanan ring a bell? No, not the eponymous president who preceded Lincoln, but the libertarian Nobel laureate economist whose ideas and writings have provided the intellectual underpinnings and playbook for today’s radical right and have been promulgated by lavish support from the Kochs and other super-rich dark money contributors. In case a book about that sounds super-boring, I just finished reading Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, and I can assure you that it is a riveting story. But most importantly, it explains how the economic and political theories of the reactionary right from the “Reagan Revolution” to the “Contract with America” to the Tea Party developed and took over the Republican Party in the age of Trump.

Buchanan, who died in 2013, became the most prominent American proponent of something with the anodyne name of “public choice theory” (I know, but stick with me, please!). In a (doubtless oversimplified) nutshell, he argued that individuals vote solely based on their economic interests, and that government programs, which use tax money to take money from some people in order to provide goods or services to other people, create a society of “takers” who violate the economic freedom of the “producers” who are being essentially robbed without their consent. He defined freedom purely in individual economic terms, and rejected any idea of a common good or general social benefit, regarding collective action of any kind (for example, labor unions) as anathema because they violate individual liberty. The problem that Buchanan saw was that government programs that help the many at the expense of the few are popular with the recipients of those benefits, who therefore vote for the politicians who support them, which in turn results in expanded government programs and spending. The same is true with regard to government regulations that place restriction on certain economic activity, such as environmental controls. His solution to that is to write the rules so that government activity is limited to military and police protection and that voting is restricted to exclude the “takers”. Is this starting to sound more familiar now?

Buchanan grew up in Tennessee and, aside from graduate school in Chicago and a brief faculty appointment at UCLA, he spent his adult life in Virginia. Indeed, the philosophy he espoused clearly reflects the South of his era–minimal government serving an oligarchic ruling class, minimal investment in public education or other government services, and virtually no concern about the common welfare or social justice. MacLean draws a direct line from the ideas of the antebellum South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who defended slavery with the language of economic liberty.

MacLean explains how Buchanan’s evolving academic writing entered the political realm in 1950s Virginia–then the political fiefdom of Harry Byrd, Jr. and a bastion of segregation. There his arguments against tax-supported public schools became one of the pillars of the state’s “massive resistance” to integration, which resulted in the actual closure of some schools rather than admit black students–in one rural country this lasted for 4 years! Buchanan was then at the University of Virginia, which was at the time something of an academic backwater–all male and, of course, all white. There he began to cultivate and attract a coterie of like-minded disciples and colleagues who became known as the “Virginia School” of economists and produced a steady stream of academic research and graduates to propagate libertarian ideas. There he also pioneered the development of autonomous institutes or centers within the university system that were financed by corporate and private money and therefore could operate largely outside of the norms and restraints  of the university administration.

Buchanan didn’t resort to of overtly racist language in justifying Virginia’s massive resistance, opting to stay with the abstruse academic language of “public choice” and economic freedom. (Just as Southerners have always insisted that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but rather preserving states’ rights.) Here, as on other occasions throughout his career, Buchanan was unconcerned with institutional segregation and racism. For this line of thought, inequality is irrelevant and reducing it is not even a goal, and the fact that black kids were being deprived of even an inferior education was of no importance. For people who do care about such things, Buchanan’s role in this sordid effort by Virginia and other states to preserve Jim Crow has tainted every use of his writing against government programs to reduce inequality and expand our democracy. For Buchanan’s libertarian partisans and the Republican radicals who have weaponized his ideas to attack dangerous things like unions, Social Security, and public schools, that’s no problem.

Buchanan’s academic work was purely theoretical, and he disdained empirical research and the kind of sophisticated mathematical modeling that mainstream economists employ. His theories, therefore, were more in the mode of an elaborately worked-out theology than scientific methodology. However, his ideas did get their shot at practical application in a somewhat unlikely place–the country of Chile during the military dictatorship that began in 1973. Starting in 1975 the Pinochet regime sought advice from the monetarist economist Milton Friedman (a mentor for Buchanan at the University of Chicago) and from F. A. Hayek, the Austrian economist who was the dean of the libertarian (aka “neo-liberal”) school which so profoundly influenced Buchanan. But it was Buchanan himself who had the strongest and most lasting influence on the Chilean regime, which became notorious for its ruthlessness and brutality.

A Chilean devotee of the “Virginia School”, Pinochet’s Labor Minister José Piñera devised a series of radical structural changes known as the “seven modernizations” which were implemented starting in the late 70s. These included draconian restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, transformation of the judiciary, free trade in agricultural commodities, drastic limits on government regulations in the economy, and privatization of education through the use of vouchers and “self-financing” of university education–all of which were “public choice” nostrums. The beauty of it, of course, was that in a dictatorship there was no opposition to stand in the way.

Buchanan himself went to Chile in 1980 to deliver a series of lectures and private consultations which went well beyond economic restructuring. His most enduring legacy was in the re-writing of the Chilean constitution to restrict democratic participation and to implement his theories while making them almost impossible to change. Buchanan always distrusted democracy because it empowered “takers” who support the sort of government redistributive programs and regulations that restrict individual economic freedom.  In Chile, he found a way to place shackles on the electoral system which would permanently over-represent the right-wing minority to favor elite interests. (The new constitution was presented in a “yes or no” plebiscite clearly rigged to produce the desired result, and the result was a “virtually unamendable” charter that survived the military dictatorship to the present day.) Buchanan returned to Chile in 1981, when the Mont Pelerin Society (an exclusive club of like-minded economists) held a celebratory meeting in Viña de Mar, which was widely viewed as providing legitimacy and an intellectual rationale for the regime’s actions.

So how did it all turn out for Chileans? In the interest of brevity, we’ll skip over the social costs of the dictatorship (including at least 3,200 Chileans killed or “disappeared”, more that 20,000 tortured while under detention, and an estimated 200,000 forced to flee the country) and just focus on the economic results. Initially, things looked good, especially for those with means. Their privatized social security accounts blossomed as banks loosened lending practices and foreign money flooded back into Chile. Then in 1982–the year after the Mont Pelerin Society’s victory lap–the international financial crisis hit, and the Chilean economy–now largely operating as an unregulated free market–went into a tailspin. Many major banks went bankrupt, unemployment spiked above 20 percent, and middle class retirement savings in privatized accounts evaporated. Between 1970 and 1987, the number of Chileans classified as poor or indigent went from 23 to 45 percent of the population. Without a safety net, precarious and low-income work became the norm for nearly half the Chilean labor force. Chile’s middle class, once the strongest in Latin America, has never fully recovered. The crisis was severe enough that even Pinochet got rid of the “Chicago Boys” who had been running the economy and imposed more orthodox economic policies including nationalizing some banks. Even today, Chile’s index of income inequality is the fifth highest of the 35 OECD countries, exceeded only by Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and South Africa.

Nothing daunted, the public choice theorists got their next chance to affect policy when Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1981. That story will continue in another post.

 

Start the Impeachment Campaign Now!

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In our country’s history, there has never been a president as deserving of impeachment as Donald Trump. The reasons for removing him from office are both manifest and numerous, but his subservience to a hostile foreign power on display in Helsinki has made this both more obvious and more urgent.

The problem is how to do this successfully when the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress (not to mention the Supreme Court) and continues to protect Trump from any accountability. The process is inherently difficult, and indeed no president has ever been removed by impeachment. Nixon, the only president ever to resign, did so under the threat of impeachment, but was never formally impeached.

Constitutionally, the process has two parts. First the House of Representatives must pass a bill of impeachment which lists the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of which the president is accused. Then two-thirds of the Senate (i.e., 67 members) must vote to convict him of such crimes. At present, barring a miraculous Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion of a large number of Republicans, neither of those things can happen. For that reason, the Democratic Party leadership has stifled any attempt to bring impeachment proceedings forward, and moreover has been virtually unwilling to utter the “I” word. We are in uncharted waters here, but I believe this timid approach is the wrong strategy, especially in the current fraught political environment.

So how are we to deal with a president who is plainly being manipulated by a foreign despot? We must begin by recognizing that impeachment is not really a judicial process, but rather a political one. The Constitution does not describe what kinds of acts might qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors”. In essence, those acts are whatever Congress decides they are.

The three historical examples of impeachment illustrate just how arbitrary these can be.

  • Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing Secretary of War Edward Stanton in alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act which had been passed by Congress to protect Stanton and which was probably itself unconstitutional. (His impeachment failed in the Senate by one vote.)
  • Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky (the formal charges were perjury and obstruction of justice), following a multiyear investigation by Independent Counsel Ken Starr of various unrelated allegations of wrongdoing growing out of the Whitewater scandal while Clinton was governor of Arkansas, which never resulted in indictments of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. (Both charges failed in the Senate.)
  • Richard Nixon was about to impeached for his role in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee. As noted above, he resigned the presidency before he could be impeached.

Of the three, clearly the Nixon case was the most egregious, but all of these took place amidst a supercharged political environment. However, none of these can remotely be considered as serious as the charge of collusion with Russia to subvert the US election process, and only the Johnson impeachment (immediately after the Civil War) occurred in a political atmosphere nearly as bitterly divided as our current one.

So far, the Democratic Party leadership has opted to put all of its eggs in Robert Mueller’s basket, hoping that his investigation will result in evidence of wrongdoing so compelling that Trump’s Republican protectors will be shamed into doing the right thing. While that isn’t completely inconceivable, there are obvious flaws in that strategy.

First, Trump could simply pull the plug on the Mueller investigation and gut the upper levels of the Justice Department and install his own lackeys. (The first steps in that direction may have already begun with the appointment of Trump transition team official Brian Benczkowski to head the Criminal Division at Justice.) What would happen then is quite unclear, but with a Republican congressional majority that is plainly interested in NOT seeing the investigation through to its conclusion, it could well simply fizzle out, and the evidence that Mueller’s team has assembled might never see the light of day.

Trump could also start handing out pardons right and left in order to avoid the public glare of trials and to discourage witnesses from cooperating with investigators. However counterintuitive it might seem, a president can issue a pardon before a conviction or before formal charges have even been made. Gerald Ford did exactly that for Nixon.

The Democrats’ operating assumption has been that if Trump were to do any of these things the blowback would be so severe that he simply wouldn’t dare. I think that is a dangerous assumption. Would anyone have thought that three days after humiliating himself before Putin in Helsinki, Trump would then invite him to the White House? The Democratic leadership may also fear that by pushing the impeachment idea, it might actually encourage Trump to scuttle the Mueller probe. I think he will do that regardless the minute he decides that Mueller is getting too close.

The other fundamental weakness in this strategy is the assumption that there is some level of evidence that will–by itself–cause the Republican leadership to allow an impeachment bill reach the floor of the House, let alone reach the Senate for a trial. So far there is zero evidence that that assumption is valid.

There are two things that could make a successful impeachment possible. The first is a massive Democratic vote turnout in the mid-term election, which would eliminate the Republican majority in the House and show conclusively that supporting Trump is a political liability. That would allow a bill of impeachment to come to a vote in the House. However, there is absolutely no possibility that the Democrats will have close to the 67 seats in the Senate needed to convict Trump.

That leads to the second necessary condition, which is a report from the Mueller investigation that is so damning that there will be unbearable pressure from the American public on Republican senators to stop defending Trump. I think the Democratic leadership needs to begin laying the ground work for that now, and that means they need to begin a media campaign now that lays out the basic argument for impeachment in order to educate the public that isn’t paying attention yet. And that media campaign must be a central part of the message that Democratic candidates at all levels will be delivering before the November elections.

There is plenty of material already known that in more normal times would provide ample justification for impeaching Trump. Start with the unprecedented levels of personal corruption by Trump and his family, and their flagrant flouting of ethics law and regulations. Or the wanton destruction of the international security apparatus that has protected the US and our allies for 70 years. Or the willful refusal of Trump’s administration to implement our own asylum laws and the inexcusable separation and incarceration of immigrant children away from their parents. Or the big one: Trump’s treasonous subordination of US interests to those of Vladimir Putin.

Lets repeat:  Impeachment is a POLITICAL process! For it to work, it needs a movement behind it. There is tremendous political energy in this country in reaction to Trump, but it is essentially leaderless with disparate goals. It needs to be mobilized in support of one great objective: to destroy Trump and what he represents. If we can’t do that, everything else the opposition is trying to do will fail as well. We are in the middle of a reactionary counterrevolution, but we continue to play by obsolete rules that the enemy has totally abandoned.

The Democratic Party is the only institution that can do this, but its leadership is far too timid and focused on process. It needs to articulate clearly to the American public why Trump cannot be permitted to remain in office and then make that its number one priority. If Schumer and Pelosi can’t do that, then we need to replace them with someone who can.