August 11, 2016

American Politics and Conflicts of Interest

Politico's Katy O'Donnell writes, "No matter who wins in November, the next president will bring enormous potential conflicts of interest to the Oval Office...Americans could see a leader regulating the same banks that lend the Trump Organization millions of dollars, or one negotiating with foreign governments contributing millions to the Clinton Foundation." O'Donnell goes on to note something which all of us should find deeply troubling: such conflicts of interest are perfectly legal.

This past week some conservatives have trounced on Hillary Clinton for influence which the Clinton Foundation might have had during her tenure as Secretary of State, but as O'Donnell reminds us, this a bipartisan problem, one involving presidents, vice-presidents, members of Congress, and staffers. 

Meriam-Webster defines a conflict of interest as "a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust." We see this all the time in Washington. We saw this during the Bush years when the administration, led by officials with deep connections to defense contractors, led us into war. The friends and former colleagues of these officials benefited greatly from war. Perfectly legal. 

We see this in the revolving door that exists between Congress and corporations. While still in office, many lawmakers make deals to work for these corporations upon leaving office, and in the interim they push legislation that benefits their future employers. For instance, Senator Judd Gregg spent his final years in office "fighting reforms to bring greater transparency to the derivatives marketplace." Once a private citizen, he went to work for Goldman Sachs. Congressman Billy Tauzin pushed for Bush's prescription drug expansion and also helped "block a proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate for drug prices." In the five years after leaving office,  he made $19 million as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies. 

There's also the reverse revolving door wherein soon-to-be Congressional staffers receive "six-figure bonuses and other incentive pay from corporate firms shortly before taking jobs in Congress." An investigation by The Nation found that many of these staffers "are well positioned to influence multibillion-dollar legislation on issues ranging from tax policy to defense, and which impact their previous employers."

And of course conflicts of interest can result from campaign donations. Citizens United enabled corporations to “spend unlimited amounts of their treasuries’ money on political advertisements.” "In effect," Noam Chomsky writes, "the decision permits corporate managers to buy elections directly." Perhaps just as troubling, corporations do not have to publicly disclose that they're spending this money," thus preventing voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.”


I think that reasonable people can agree that none of this benefits the average citizen. If we care about democracy, we really need to do something.

August 7, 2016

Reading Carl Bernstein's 'A Woman in Charge'

Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge (2007) is a painstaking and I think honest biography of Hillary Clinton. It dispelled me of some myths I'd grown up hearing from my Republican family. I'd been taught, for instance, that Hillary was an opportunist who latched onto Bill because she knew he was going places. But Bernstein shows that Hillary was "on her way to becoming a political meteor" long before meeting Bill. She become a prominent antiwar leader in college, got elected student body president her senior year, and delivered a politically-charged commencement address that ended up being published in Life magazine. As one classmate put it, "It seems wildly tragic that we know she could have been president if she had just not even married him" (62). 

And the evidence shows that Hillary genuinely loved Bill. One friend described her as being "besotted," "absolutely, totally crazy about Bill Clinton." Whenever Bill would be driving up to visit, her "face would change. It would light up." Some described her as being "near-obsessed with her relationship with Bill to the extent that her moods were dictated by the frequency of her phone conversations with him and the vibes she was picking up over the line from Arkansas" (97). One aide described the couple this way: "They would constantly argue, and the next thing you know, they'd be falling all over each other with 'Oh my darling...come here baby...you're adorable...' then throwing things at each other, and then they'd be slobbering all over each other" (113). 

Bernstein shows that Hillary, whatever else you might think of her, has sincerely held the values she's spent her career defending. She grew up accepting the Republican beliefs of her martinet father but began to rethink things after her Methodist church hired a new youth minister when she was in high school. The minister had been a Freedom Rider and preached that that true faith is accompanied by a concern for social justice. One night he invited Hillary and some other students to hear Martin Luther King speech and afterwards took them backstage to meet the reverend (35). She increasingly began to take up the fight for justice herself. Upon graduating from Yale, she famously chose not to go into corporate law but instead worked for Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund. Shortly after moving to Arkansas, "she was the leading force in creating Fayetville's first rape crisis center, the consequence of a student coming to HIllary and telling of her experience after being raped" (127).

But by no means is this book an apology for Hillary. Yes, we read how during Bill's 1974 run for Congress her "high-minded ethical insistence" ran afoul with his campaign managers. A lawyer who represented the state's dairy interests offered the campaign $15,000 with the implicit understanding that if elected Bill would "serve the interests of the dairy industry once he was in office. But Hillary fought the deal during a heated election eve meeting," telling Bill, "No! You don't want to be a party to this!" (114). But Berstein also tells us that this decision might well have cost Bill the election, and in the years that followed Hillary "would be far less committed to the high road and much more concerned with results" (115). 

Her Methodist faith has stayed with her over the years, and Bernstein details both its positive and negative effects. A White House aide said during the Lewinsky ordeal that her faith "explains the missionary zeal with which she attacks her issues and goes after them," as well as "the really extraordinary self-discipline and focus and ability to rely on her spirituality to get through all this." Others in the White House believed her faith engendered self-righteousness: "She elevates her staying with [Bill] to a moral level of biblical proportion. I am stronger than he is. I am better than he is. Therefore, I can stay with him because it's my biblical duty to love the sinner, and to help to try to overcome his defects of character. His sins are of weakness not of malice" (36). 

She also evidently used her faith to support the ends-justifies-the-means approach to campaigning which she adopted after the 1974 election. In the years that followed she would join Dick Morris in trying to convince Bill of the need to run negative adds (166-67). Hillary and Morris "believed that you had to make somebody else the villain before you got fatally tarred yourself." This strategy "became a dominant leitmotif of Clintonian governance, a strategy meant to allow Bill's big ideas and grand goals -- and Hillary's tempered idealism and experience -- to flourish" (168). Stan Greenberg admired this about Hillary: "I think that Hillary was of that point of view that you were not going to have people's confidence unless you could show that you're strong and tough against your opponents. Your opponents need to know that you're not going to be passive, you're not going to be a punching bag, that you're not going to get pushed" (203).  

Bernstein articulates what a trailblazer Hillary was in the women's movement. She began her career during a time in which few glass ceilings had been broken. The partners at Rose Law Firm was reluctant to hire her simply because she was a woman. "How will we introduce her to our clients?" one associate asked Vince Foster and Web Hubbell, noting that the firm's important clients were all men (129). This environment demanded a kind of no-compromising toughness of women, and Hillary was up to the challenge. Her colleagues and clients at the firm found her "intimidating -- not because she was particularly aggressive, but because she was rarely, if ever, deferential" (130). 

Hillary must be given credit for much of Bill's success in Arkansas. She proved to be his rock whenever he faltered. Bill was "capable of self-absorption, self-defeating distractions, juvenile outbursts, a debilitating weakness for women, and a tendency to throw it all away when he was on the edge of greatness. This was particularly true -- and would become more so -- when left to his own devices, without the constant help, guidance, and encouragement of his wife" (154-155). After losing a gubernatorial election in 1980, Bill slipped into a debilitating depression, and friends believe Hillary is the one who helped him pick up the pieces, providing him with the assurance, giving his life much needed structure, and ultimately convincing him that his political career was not over (160-163). 

Hillary also played a key role in reforming the state's educational system. Bill made her chairwoman of his Education Standards Committee in the early 1980s, and her "preparation for her assignment...was exhaustive, her expertise made almost as sharp as that of professionals with years of experience" (171). Her task force recommended mandating teacher-testing and requiring school districts to "uniform, state-imposed standards for curriculum and classroom size" (172). Although these reforms were unpopular with teachers unions, they proved to be incredibly successful: "the percentage of high school graduates who went on to college increased within four years from 38 percent to 50 percent," and school districts followed their instructions and reduced classroom sizes and began offering classes in foreign languages, advanced math, and science (174). 

Through this all, her devotion to Chelsea remained "absolute and unconditional." Both she and Bill were "hands-on parents. Given the time-devouring nature of their public lives, they found a remarkable amount of time to be with their daughter: discussions at the dinner table, driving her to school, cheering from the soccer sidelines, Scrabble games, and enjoying movies" (149). 

Bill developed an enormous debt of gratitude for Hillary and  continued deferring to her after becoming president. She urged Bill to reject the advice of his more Washington-savvy advisers and remain combative and non-compromising with his political opponents. But this strategy, which had been so effective in Arkansas, did not work in Washington. Lawrence O'Donnell, who served as Pat Moynihan's aide, said, "When your purpose is to pass legislation, you don't set up war rooms and you don't believe that you are going to vanquish the opposition." Bernstein writes that Hillary was "in a permanent state of warfare with Congress, including members of their own party" (407), and as a result her husband's popularity began to plummet. 

But what really hurt Bill's presidency was Whitewater and other related scandals, most of which involved Hillary. The accusations of their critics were ultimately shown to be baseless. After an investigation that lasted six years and cost taxpayers $52 million, the office of the special prosecutor could find no evidence that the Clintons had broken any laws, save Bill's lie about sex (349). And yet Hillary continually refused to cooperate with investigators, which only raised more suspicion and made matters worse. 

Bernstein posits a number of explanations for Hillary's behavior here. In part she stonewalled because she worried they would learn about more of her husband's sexual affairs. She also possessed a "fierce desire for privacy and secrecy" (553). She had always "zealously protected herself (and her family) from almost any invasive inquiry that might reveal something of her emotional life, her deeper ambitions, or her machinations" (221). Finally, she "seemed unable, or unwilling, to grasp the desires of less antagonistic citizens, members of Congress, and the press to be given straightforward, timely responses to legitimate questions" (366). She'd devoted her life to public service and had recently been tasked to deliver her husband's promise of providing universal health coverage, and she believed that all reasonable people shared her priorities and did not care about these trivial matters from the past. 

It's not clear how much Hillary has learned from these scandals, as her response to the recent email controversy has been eerily similar to her response to the Starr investigation. Her email usage was not illegal, although certainly careless and stupid, but instead of just coming out and admitting her error, she's again engaged in a type of lawyer-speak and subterfuge that has only made her situation worse.  But in other ways Hillary has clearly learned from her mistakes. For instance, when she ran for the Senate in 2000, "she did the opposite of a lifetime's instincts: she restrained her tendency toward unequivocal advocacy and the assertion of her own strongly held views" and instead went on a "listening tour" of New York. 

Although an effective PR move, the listening tour wasn't just for show. Ezra Klein has recently written: "[A]s I interviewed Clinton's staffers, colleagues, friends, and foes, I began every discussion with some form of the same question: What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail? The answers startled me in their consistency. Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns...Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens."

Klein initially didn't think much of Hillary's supposed listening skills, "[b]ut after hearing it 11, 12, 15 times," he began to take it seriously. He talked to a former Senate staff member who recalled how every few months Hillary would gather together her staff for "card-table time." Hillary would open up two "huge suitcases" which were "stuffed with newspaper clippings, position papers, random scraps of paper." "It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases," and she and her staff would pick through the papers. They would then put these papers into different piles on card tables: "scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there." The staff member says that these notes "really did lead to legislation," as Senator Clinton "took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up." And "[h]er process works the same way today." Several Clinton aides told Klein "that the campaign’s plan to fight opiate addiction, the first and most comprehensive offered by any of the major candidates, was the direct result of Clinton hearing about the issue on her tour."

Hillary has also developed a less combative and more team-building approach to governance. After becoming a senator, "[t]he first senators she sought out for conversation, for co-sponsorship of small but useful legislative initiatives, for prayer, for a drink, or for lunch in the Senate dining room tended to be those who had opposed the Clintons the most vigorously." Bernstein writes that she "identified who her enemies were, or those of her husband, and waged a war to win them over." "That was the internal institutional strategy. The external strategy was to show her constituents that she wouldn't let them down. She worked particularly hard for those who didn't support her" (547). 

* * * * * 

I can't say that I like Hillary more, or less, after reading this book, but I can definitely say that I understand her better. I can see that she's far from the demonic force that the far right has claimed. Hillary is a person of faith who has spent her life driven by a passion to make life better for society's most vulnerable citizens. She has an excellent mind and has learned from many of her mistakes. And she's also flawed. Her intense desire for privacy has at times led her to make awful decisions. And for all her intelligence, "when it comes to herself, she sees with something less than candor and lucidity. She sees, like so many others, what she wants to see." Bernstein laments that her 2003 memoir, when "judged against the facts," "underlines how she has often chosen to obfuscate, omit, and avoid" (552).

Hillary, in sum, is a remarkable woman, one who cares about people and has the ability to effect real change. And she also has some not insignificant weaknesses. After reading this book, I'm convinced that she has the ability to be an excellent president. I'm also convinced that if she's not careful she could easily get mired in the type of petty scandals which could sink her administration. 

August 1, 2016

Two Must-Reads for Bernie-or-Busters

First, Noam Chomsky argues why progressives in swing states should vote for Hillary Clinton. Here are some highlights from his article:

"The broader lesson to be drawn is not to shy away from confronting the dominance of the political system under the management of the two major parties. Rather, challenges to it need to be issued with a full awareness of their possible consequences. This includes the recognition that far right victories not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the “reasonable” alternative. A Trump presidency, should it materialize, will undermine the burgeoning movement centered around the Sanders campaign, particularly if it is perceived as having minimized the dangers posed by the far right.

"A more general conclusion to be derived from this recognition is that this sort of cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing."

Chomsky then articulates eight principles for "lesser evil voting": 

  1. Voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement directed in retaliation towards major party candidates who fail to reflect our values, or of a corrupt system designed to limit choices to those acceptable to corporate elites.
  2. The exclusive consequence of the act of voting in 2016 will be (if in a contested “swing state”) to marginally increase or decrease the chance of one of the major party candidates winning...
  3. One of these candidates, Trump, denies the existence of global warming, calls for increasing use of fossil fuels, dismantling of environmental regulations...Trump has also pledged to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants...Trump has also pledged to increase military spending while cutting taxes on the rich, hence shredding what remains of the social welfare “safety net” despite pretenses.
  4. The suffering which these and other similarly extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalized and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency.
  5. 4) should constitute sufficient basis to voting for Clinton where a vote is potentially consequential-namely, in a contested, “swing” state.
  6. However, the left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.
  7. Often this charge will emanate from establishment operatives who will use it as a bad faith justification for defeating challenges to corporate hegemony either in the Democratic Party or outside of it. They will ensure that it will be widely circulated in mainstream media channels with the result that many of those who would otherwise be sympathetic to a left challenge will find it a convincing reason to maintain their ties with the political establishment rather than breaking with it, as they must.
  8. Conclusion: by dismissing a 'lesser evil' electoral logic and thereby increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat the left will undermine what should be at the core of what it claims to be attempting to achieve."
* * * * * 

Vox's Dara Lind points out that Bernie-or-Busters are squandering their chance to hold Hillary accountable, and in so doing they're squandering their chance to advance the progressive movement. 

Lind writes that Hillary has shown that she's responsive to the demands of her constituents. When her base applies heavy pressure for her to move left on a given issue (e.g., criminal justice reform, a $15 minimum wage), she generally moves to the left. And in this regard she's no different than most politicians. For instance, liberal activists applied heavy pressure on Obama early in his presidency -- e.g., interrupting some of his speeches before the repeal of DADT or "before he implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young unauthorized immigrants in 2012" -- and in private he essentially ackowledged that such tactics worked. "In meetings with progressive activists, Obama often tells a story about Franklin Delano Roosevelt telling labor leader A. Philip Randolph, 'I agree with you, now go out and make me do it.' Ironically, FDR probably never said that — but Obama's use of it reflects how he himself understands politics. And when pressured enough, on immigration or the Keystone XL pipeline, he delivers."

"Here’s the thing, though, about working to get a politician to move to the left (or in any other direction): when the politician tells you what you want to hear, and supports a policy to pander to you, that’s a victory. It doesn’t matter whether they actually believe the sentiment. It matters that they know you believe the sentiment, and they’ve decided the most important thing is to do what you want.

"That usually means that the most effective activists in this style make clear demands of politicians about what they want to see, and then praises the politician when it happens.

"When Bernie Sanders was asked to say that black lives matter, and did — and started name-dropping Sandra Bland in speeches — that was a victory. The activists who’d criticized Sanders and his campaign acknowledged and praised it (even while remaining annoyed with some Sanders supporters)."

Many Bernie-or-Busters, on the other hand, have made it clear that they'll be against Hillary no matter what. Their goal doesn't seem to be moving Clinton to the left but demonstrating that she is illegitimate. 

"This is the question that left dissenters need to ask themselves about Hillary Clinton, if they haven’t already: is there anything that Hillary Clinton can do to redeem herself to you?

"If there isn’t, you can continue to protest her existence, but don’t be upset if she doesn’t respond — you wouldn’t accept a response if you got it.

"If there is, figure out how you can make her do it — especially (if she is elected) in January. You won’t be alone. In fact, you might be surprised to see that some of the people who supported Clinton in 2016 are right alongside, waiting to remind her of what she owes."