On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

June 13, 2018

The Moment of Truth for Republicans. For more than a decade, Republicans have decided that destroying the Democrats and the competence of government is more important than defending American democracy. We saw that under President Obama, when Republicans pursued a strategy of blocking whatever Obama attempted, sight unseen, and refused to compromise on anything other than keeping the government open. The roots of that policy date back to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s efforts to destroy Bill Clinton.

We also saw Republicans and their allies in the courts conniving in voter suppression and substituting money for speech, and blocking Obama’s judicial appointees to an unprecedented degree. That was bad enough.

Now, under Trump, Republican enabling of both autocracy and a sellout of the national interest has reached new lows. With a few heroic exceptions, most Republicans have concluded that standing idly by while Trump makes truly bizarre foreign policy decisions that weaken America’s influence with allies and help totalitarian adversaries such as China, Russia, and North Korea is an acceptable price to pay for staying in power. The fact that many of these policies are lubricated by Trump’s personal financial self-interest seems not to matter either.

If we lose our democracy, or if we narrowly miss losing it, or if the U.S. ends up sacrificing a great deal of global influence, history will blame the Republican Party. Trump is a lunatic and a megalomaniac. At least some Republicans know better, but most refuse to act on their knowledge.

June 12, 2018

California Republicans have just enough understanding of basic numbers—such as, percentage of registered California voters who are Democrats, 45; percentage of registered California voters who are Republicans, 25—to know they’re not about to win any statewide races this November. But in the wake of last week’s primary elections, in which one Democratic Orange County state senator was recalled after Republicans waged a campaign against him for voting for a gas tax increase during the most recent legislative session, they think they’ve found the formula to boosting their prospects in congressional and other races this November: Run against the gas tax increase.

The increase, strongly backed by Governor Jerry Brown and the required two-thirds of the legislature, would make $5 billion available each year for repairing and updating the state’s rickety infrastructure: roads and bridges, as well as building new intra- and intercity rail lines. It’s backed by both business and labor and by various enviros. Republicans look at this and remember the tax-slashing Proposition 13, which the state’s business, labor, and political establishments opposed 40 years ago. New Republican gubernatorial nominee John Cox, who would stand a better chance this November if he ran as a Trotskyist, has vowed to campaign largely on repealing the gas tax increase.

Can the Democrats overcome this? Are Republicans’ hopes well-founded? There are two recent precedents for Democrats prevailing over similar challenges. In 2008, promoted by then-LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LA County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for the next several years to fund the construction of a countywide rail system and a better bus system. Eight years later, they re-upped that commitment, making the sales tax increase permanent. 

Getting LA County—which is home to roughly a quarter of the state’s population—to "yes" required the campaign’s advocates, including Villaraigosa and a coalition called Move LA, to make clear to voters what specific rail and road construction would take place where, with what tangible benefits. It worked. Both the 2008 and the 2016 votes required a two-thirds majority to pass, and pass they did.

So California Democrats have two choices before them as they go into the November campaign. Do they refuse to defend the gas tax hike and let the Republicans make hay, or do they do what Villaraigosa, the LA establishment, and the LA left did when confronted with the opposition to the sales tax hike: Make a case for what badly needed improvements those additional revenues would create. To do that, they have to specify what roads will be improved, what rail lines built—that sort of thing. A debate on taxes that focuses only on the tax and not on what it enables is always one in which the tax will be voted down.

To be sure, the LA experience is hardly an exact parallel of the current situation. The sales tax came in smaller increments and was less visible, though for all I know it took more money from the average Californian than the higher tax at the pump does. And LA is more liberal, and home to a smaller share of Republicans, than the state at large.

But Californians in every part of the state know how bad their roads are and how hard it is to get around town. There’s a case to be made that can largely nullify the Republicans’ attacks. Democrats—and most particularly, Jerry Brown—need to realize that the only defense for their tax hike is an offense that spells out what it will accomplish.

June 11, 2018

Trump’s Korea Diplomacy: A Catastrophic Success? Basically, there are two possibilities for Donald Trump’s Singapore Summit with Kim Jong-Un. Either Trump gets annoyed at Little Rocket Man, and storms out. Or the two leaders pretend to have made real progress.

What is out of the question is genuine steps towards nuclear disarmament on the peninsula—first, because it’s not possible to get that done in a brief summit meeting, especially with a leader as cavalier about details as Trump; and secondly, because there is no good formula for getting what both sides profess to demand.

The grail for North Korea is ridding the entire peninsula of nuclear weapons and drastically cutting the U.S. troop presence in the South. In return, Kim has talked about dismantling his own arsenal. But of course the devil is in the details.

If Kim does agree to disarm—and that has to mean both weapons and delivery vehicles—in exchange for security guarantees, what on earth could those guarantees be? Remember, the United States is a great power that double-crossed both Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and the Iranians, after making solemn arms-control deals. 

And what nations would be responsible for enforcing the guarantees? The always-trustworthy Chinese? Maybe Trump’s pal, Putin? Surely not the European Union.

What is more likely is the simulation of a deal, with a declaration of broad principles, details to come later. That would serve the interests of both Trump and Kim, who have in common that they are world-class cynics.

Trump could claim a diplomatic breakthrough, burnishing his stature as a dealmaker who succeeds by breaking conventions and norms. Kim could enhance his stature as the North Korean leader whom the mighty United States agreed to treat as an equal.

The only problem is that any such breakthrough would be fake news at best, and dangerous capitulation at worst. How fitting for the Trump era. 

June 8, 2018

Race, Class, and Loyalty. Ayanna Pressley, 44, is a respected African American member of the Boston City Council. A one-time political director for John Kerry, she was the first black woman ever to be elected to the council, in 2010. And she won citywide, in an at-large district.

In January, Pressley, calling for new leadership, surprised many observers by challenging incumbent progressive U.S. Representative Mike Capuano, a 66-year-old white guy, in the upcoming Democratic primary for Massachusetts’s Seventh District. Capuano is popular and well-entrenched in this majority-white seat.

This week, the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Capuano over Pressley. Earlier, Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon, went out of his way to back Capuano, calling him “a fierce advocate for those who have often been forgotten or left behind.”

Capuano has an exemplary record in supporting goals and policies important to African Americans. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as are most members of the Black Caucus.

But what’s the right principle here? Blacks and women have a long way to go in achieving proportional political representation. Shouldn’t blacks in positions of power be extending a hand to other blacks?

On the other hand, loyalty is a very big deal in politics. Should the Black Caucus abandon a loyal ally in order to promote a young black woman in what was always a long-shot campaign?

As much as I admire Pressley, I’m with the Black Caucus. Race matters a lot but it’s not the only factor that matters. That said, the Democratic political establishment could be doing a lot more to promote black and women candidates in open contests, or in challenges to incumbents a lot less progressive than Capuano.

June 7, 2018

The California Jungle

CONGRESS: At second glance, the numbers we have now from Tuesday’s primaries in California may look discouraging to Democrats. (At first glance, Democrats breathed a sigh of relief since they didn’t split their votes so badly in the swing congressional districts that they ran out of the money. In every one of those top-two races, a Democrat made it into the November runoff against a Republican.)

But at second glance, in six of the seven House districts represented by Republicans that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, the total vote for the Republican candidates exceeded that for the Democrats. (The only race in which the aggregate Democratic vote exceeded the Republicans’ came in the 49th District, which Republican Darrell Issa barely carried in 2016 and where he prudently chose not to stand for re-election this time around.)

Don’t those aggregate numbers look bad for the Democrats?

Well, that’s why we need a third glance. To begin, it always takes California about a week to tally all its votes; probably more than one-third remain uncounted. And historically, the votes counted late—late absentees, provisional ballots—tend to be disproportionately Democratic.

Moreover, in five of the six districts where the aggregate GOP vote exceeds the Democrats’, the Republican vote totals don’t exceed the Democrats’ by much—the Republican total ranges from 51 percent to 53 percent. Those numbers will shrink some as more votes are counted. Which means five of these six districts (and six of the seven, counting Issa’s) are very much in play in November. The only one in which the Republican total on Tuesday was so high it made clear that the district was out of reach was David Valadao’s district in the San Joaquin Valley.

If I had to bet based on the numbers we’ve seen so far and one additional factor (my gut), I’d say the Democrats will take Issa’s, Dana Rohrabacher’s, and Steve Knight’s districts. Jeff Denham’s, Ed Royce’s, and Mimi Walters's are possible but more difficult.


STATEWIDE: By finishing a distant third in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, Antonio Villaraigosa appears to have reached the end of his road in electoral politics. That road is worthy of contemplation.

As a young man, Villaraigosa first entered politics as a member of a Los Angeles-based Latino organization on the quasi-Marxist left. Always a man on the make, he soon became an organizer for the teachers union and a board member of the Southern California ACLU (which has always been a major political player in Los Angeles). Elected to the State Assembly in the early ‘90s, he became an unusually adept Speaker, then an LA City Councilman, then a two-term mayor. It was his drive and ambition that fueled the successful initiative campaign in which LA County residents voted to raise their sales taxes to build a major rail system in the auto-capital of the world. (It required a two-thirds vote, which, absent Villaraigosa’s fundraising and campaigning, never would have happened.)

But Villaraigosa also went to war with his old employer, the teachers union, becoming the chief advocate for expanding charter schools across Los Angeles. He became a darling of the charter school billionaires, who spent $22 million on his behalf in the current gubernatorial campaign. In recent years, these charter school backers—led by Netflix’s Reed Hastings and developer Eli Broad—have funded a generation of centrist Democrats in the state legislature; Tuesday marks their first major electoral defeat. Villaraigosa’s reliance on the charter billionaires was one of a number of pivots he’s made to the right in recent years, in some instances to secure campaign donations (from, for instance, the bail bond industry), in other instances, to win more conservative votes he theoretically could gain given the bipartisan nature of the jungle primary. Villaraigosa spent a lot of time and resources campaigning in the state’s most Republican region, the San Joaquin Valley. On Tuesday, the Valley voted for Republicans John Cox and Travis Allen.

Kevin de León is another Democrat who began his political life on the left, and unlike Villaraigosa, he’s largely stayed there—in recent years, as president of the state Senate, authoring and steering to passing pioneering environmental and labor legislation. The paradox of de León’s Senate campaign against incumbent Dianne Feinstein is that he was more ideologically attuned to California’s Democrats than the more conservative Feinstein and he won most of the institutional endorsements that normally matter—yet he raised hardly any money. He won majority (but not the required super-majority) backing of delegates at the Democrats’ state convention, and the endorsement of virtually every union in the state. As Lenin said of Bukharin, he was “the rightful favorite of the entire party.” But it didn’t translate into money or votes—and in California, money is the indispensable prerequisite for votes.

Why no dough? First, some progressive individuals and institutions assumed (rightly) that he’d make the run-off, and they could, if so moved, give then. Second, unions were hoarding their money in case Villaraigosa made it into the finals, in which case, they would have had to spend a ton of money to make sure that Gavin Newsom, with whom they had better relations, defeated him. Now that Republican John Cox will be the one waging a doomed campaign against Newsom in November, unions will have more money available for other races. Whether they invest in de León or spend it all on the congressional races remains to be seen.

De León has already had a significant impact, however, in driving Feinstein to the left, much as Cynthia Nixon has done with Andrew Cuomo in New York. Twenty-eight years after Feinstein first appeared before a state Democratic convention to defiantly announce her support for the death penalty, DiFi abruptly changed her stance two weeks ago. She also has taken a far tougher line with President Trump since de León began running.

Given the electoral travails of Villaraigosa and de León, it’s easy to overlook how well the third of the three most prominent Latino pols in the state—Attorney General Xavier Becerra—did in Tuesday’s primary. Becerra ran 20 points ahead of his nearest rival (Republican Steven Bailey) and is assured of an easy re-election come November.

In 2001, Becerra, then a member of Congress, ran for mayor of Los Angeles, but proved to be a non-electrifying candidate, particularly when stacked up against the indefatigable Villaraigosa. This year, Becerra didn’t really have to campaign: Ever since Jerry Brown appointed him attorney general to succeed Kamala Harris (who’d moved on to the Senate), Becerra has been suing Donald Trump for one outrage after another. That, it’s clear, is all the campaigning he needs to do.

June 6, 2018

What Would Cause Republicans to Break With Trump?For the most part, Republicans have been far too willing to enable Trump’s personal corruption, his sellouts of the national interest for personal gain, and a broad array of impulsive and incoherent policies. But even Republicans have their limits.

The big red line is still firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It would provoke an open break. Even Trump, in his stupor of Fox News fawning and genuflecting aides, knows that.

Lately, there have been other encouraging signs. A bipartisan discharge petition forcing House floor action on DACA is very close to having sufficient signatures. Trump’s implacable opposition is actually increasing support.

On Trump's sellout of national security policy to quarantine the Chinese telecom producer ZTE, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida led a bipartisan bloc of 27 senators to protest.

And Trump’s general incoherence on trade policy is producing unified big-business opposition. However much Republican legislators find it expedient to align with Trump, they will not abandon big business.

One other factor could turn Republican legislative distancing from Trump into a stampede—the scent of an election blowout in November. In hard-core Tea Party territory, Trump is still an asset. But in the dozens of suburban House swing districts held by Republicans, he is increasingly toxic. The more of a liability he seems, the more Republicans will feel free to attack him.

The year 2018 will be remembered as the moment when Americans lost their democracy, or took it back. 

June 5, 2018

Paul Schrade: Not Just the Other Guy Who Was Shot in the Ambassador Kitchen. Today’s New York Times has a story on the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s murder, featuring interviews with Kennedy staffers and supporters. But the piece misidentifies Paul Schrade, who was also critically wounded when Kennedy was shot, as “a campaign aide” (in the caption) and doesn’t quite get it right in calling him “a labor organizer who worked on the campaign” in the text of the article.

It’s important to get Paul Schrade’s actual identity right, though—because he was a key figure in California and union history during the pivotal decade of the ‘60s.

As a young man, Paul had worked as an assistant to United Auto Workers (UAW) President Walter Reuther, who headed what today has to be viewed as by far the most important progressive union in American history. In the 1950s, Paul headed a UAW local at North American Aviation in Los Angeles, and became the UAW’s western regional director in the early 1960s. As such, he became, in 1965, the first established union leader to provide resources and assistance to the fledgling union of farmworkers that Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were organizing. That same year, in the aftermath of the Watts Riots, he devoted union resources to establishing the Watts Labor Community Action Council and the East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), which became longstanding political powerhouses in LA’s black and Latino communities, respectively.

One year later, Paul put Chavez in touch with Robert Kennedy, who came to California to champion the farmworkers’ cause. Paul also opposed the Vietnam War early on—and when Kennedy declared his presidential candidacy in early 1968, Paul became his most prominent labor backer. By so doing, he also became the odd man out on the UAW’s national executive committee, on which he was by far the youngest member. Reuther certainly had profound misgivings about the war, and had helped form Negotiations Now, an organization that sought to bring the war to a halt but stopped short of advocating a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops. But Reuther was also an old friend and comrade of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with whom he had founded Americans for Democratic Action in 1948. Humphrey was a solid liberal, but was tethered to Lyndon Johnson’s war policy and refused to break with it. Like most labor leaders, Reuther supported Humphrey’s presidential bid when Johnson announced in late March that he wouldn’t seek re-election.

The Kennedy-Humphrey rift between Schrade and Reuther was the UAW’s top-level, in-house version of the rift between the New Left and the Old. Over the next couple of years, Schrade grew more critical of UAW practices, and in 1970, Reuther’s successor as president, Leonard Woodcock, made sure that Paul wasn’t re-elected to the executive committee or the western regional directorship.

That hardly ended Paul’s work in and for labor. For some years, he returned to the assembly line; he also founded and led the California ACLU’s Worker Rights Committee and played a significant role in a host of worker causes. After the Ambassador Hotel (where Kennedy had been assassinated and Paul shot) closed down, he spent several decades leading the fight to build a badly needed high school on the site. That required defeating a number of other proposals, including one for a towering high-rise from Donald Trump. In time, Paul prevailed: The Robert F. Kennedy High School now stands where the Ambassador once stood. More controversially, Paul has also long believed that there was more than one shooter that June night 50 years ago in the Ambassador kitchen.

Paul’s sidelines are almost as interesting as his primary endeavors. He became an expert on Italian bread baking, and became a de facto consultant to LA’s tony La Brea Bakeries. A Wagner devotee, he made annual pilgrimages to Bayreuth. And as a longtime resident of Laurel Canyon, during one stretch in the ‘70s, his next-door neighbor on one side was Jerry Brown, and on the other side, Timothy Leary.

June 4, 2018

L’État, C’est Moi. It is almost reassuring to learn that Trump truly believes he is above the law.

Arguing that the law does not apply to the president is the essence of dictatorship. It’s good to have that claim in black and white—reaffirmed by the even more bizarre claim by Rudy Giuliani that Trump could not merely fire James Comey but murder him and not be legally to called to account.

When Trump said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters,” people dismissed that as hyperbole. It turns out that he meant it literally.

This is the stuff of impeachment and removal. If it isn’t, we rapidly cease to be a democracy.

June 1, 2018

In Search of Principled Conservatives. In the era of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, there seems to be no such thing as principled conservatism. Long-hallowed conservative tenets such as budget balance, states' rights, and free markets, to name just three, have given way to enlarged deficits driven by tax cuts, opportunistic federal pre-emption of liberal state and city policies, and Russian-style klepto-capitalism.

There was also a time when at least some conservatives were skeptical of costly foreign adventures and massive military buildups. That’s gone, too.

Any shred of principle has been sacrificed to defending Trump, whatever he does—a feat that is hard to reconcile with any sort of principle, since you don’t know what he will do from one day to the next. The absence of principled conservatism becomes more ominous as Trump’s behavior becomes ever more flagrantly impeachable.

One exception worth looking at is the magazine The American Conservative. Yes, they take some positions that would make a good liberal cringe. But they are willing to challenge the abuses of klepto-capitalism and to express some skepticism about Trump’s behavior and his bizarre military adventures.

There is a debate worth having with conservatives about what markets can and cannot be trusted to do. But defending the efficiency of markets is not the same as excusing markets rigged by corruption. If we are ever to regain common ground in this country, a good place to begin would be by reclaiming first principles from sheer opportunism.

May 31, 2018

The Unhappy (But, Let’s Hope Short) Life of the Jungle Primary. All the recent problems with California’s jungle primary were apparent from the start.

As Tuesday’s California primary approaches, both parties are filled with a specifically jungle kind of dread. Democrats fear that their overflow of candidates who are seeking to turn red congressional districts blue will split the vote so many ways that Republicans—fewer of whom are seeking those offices—will finish one-two and move on to the November runoff. Republicans fear that Democrats will finish one-two in the races for statewide office, given that there are roughly nine registered Democrats for every five registered Republicans in the state. And that if there are no Republicans running for statewide office in November, Republican turnout will be low, imperiling their hold on those congressional seats unless they lock those seats up next Tuesday.

But none of this should come as a surprise. Right after the 2014 primaries—the second conducted under jungle primary rules—I predictedjust such a clusterfuck in an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times. I pointed out that one heavily Democratic congressional district in the Inland Empire had elected a Republican in 2012 only because each of the four Democrats who sought that office finished behind the two Republicans on the primary ballot, even though the four Democrats amassed more votes, so that the two Republicans were the only choices on the November ballot. (The jungle primary doesn’t allow November write-ins.) Two years later, the chastened Democrats were able to clear the field for the Democrat who two years earlier had run ahead of the other three—and in a testament to just how Democratic the district really was, the rookie Republican congressman didn’t even stand for re-election.

Somehow, the lessons of that 2012 race never registered very prominently with California activists. Even now, as Democrats are frantically scrambling to avoid the very same kind of disaster next Tuesday, references to this grim antecedent seldom come up in print or conversation.

I give the jungle primary ten years. Voters created it by initiative in 2010. With both Democrats and Republicans living in dread of its consequences, I expect voters to repeal it in 2020.