Impeachment and political reform must be at the top of the agenda or nothing else will change
My Salon column this morning:
The ABC/Univision Democratic debate last week ran a bit more smoothly than the previous two, even managing to squeeze in a decent discussion on climate change and Afghanistan policy. These events are always more theater than substance, particularly with so many people on the stage. But early debates in the primary season are where engaged partisan voters outside the early states get a chance to see the larger field of candidates and develop a sense of where the party's center of gravity is in the current election cycle.
It's pretty clear that all these candidates have ambitious agendas, most of them are much more progressive than any Democratic platform was just a decade or so ago. And contrary to D.C. conventional wisdom, these platforms aren't just a jumble of policies on the liberal wish list. It's clear from the passion and energy these candidates exude, regardless of where they fit on the party's ideological spectrum, that they recognize that the entire system is failing rapidly.
To ensure that the next generation has any kind of a chance, we will require a massive reform effort the likes of which we haven't seen in decades. All this will have to be done under the intense pressure of growing global instability and the existential crisis of climate change. This country has dealt with acute crises in the past, but this may be the most complicated set of problems we've ever seen. And all these challenges are related and will have to be dealt with holistically.
So while this election is first and foremost about ending the surreal Donald Trump presidency, he is a consequence of all those other issues, not the cause. Those challenges will still be there after he's gone and they will require innovative and courageous action.
The candidates have different ways of approaching this monumental challenge. You have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsing fundamental, systemic economic reform. Coming at it from a different progressive angle, we saw former Rep. Beto O'Rourke offering up bold action on guns and immigration. In between are various levels of progressive commitment from incrementalists like former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to mainstream liberalism from Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
There is a growing consensus among Democrats that this country must finally face up to the racism that still permeates its culture and institutions if it wishes to maintain some fragment of its lofty ideals about freedom and equality. They are all committed to dealing with climate change on a massive scale to meet the scope of the problem.
The field will be winnowed before too long as the money runs out and the energy flags. It's still early. But barring something highly unlikely happening over the next few months, the next Democratic nominee and leader of the party was on stage last Thursday night. For all of their big plans and bold ideas, I was surprised that with the exception of one exchange about the elimination of the filibuster, there was no talk of necessary political reform at all. And none of them found a way to bring up the single most important issue that is currently roiling the Congress: whether or not to impeach the current president.
The good news is that in response to a series of questions by the New York Times, the candidates do seem to be prepared to take bold steps to rein in presidential power, even if it hasn't come up much in the debates. It's unusual for any politician to entertain giving up the trappings of power and one would expect that the presidential candidates will have to have their feet kept to the fire on this. But the abuse of office under Trump, including the blanket use of "executive immunity" and the groundless evocation of "national emergencies," among many other examples, show the extent to which Congress has abdicated its own power in recent decades, counting on the good judgment and integrity of the president to guide policy. The inherent weaknesses of the system are being tested under Trump as never before.
Here's how the New York Times reported this:
Democratic presidential candidates broadly agree that President Trump has shaken the presidency loose from its constitutional limits and say that the White House needs major new legal curbs, foreshadowing a potential era of reform akin to the post-Watergate period if any of them wins next year’s election.
The necessary reforms around national security will likely be more complicated, but are vital. The twin disasters of Vietnam and Iraq should have been enough to propel needed changes but it's now clear to anyone that it is only by sheer luck that we have avoided a major catastrophe under Trump. That could change at any moment.
If there was ever a time for the presidential candidates to step up and show some leadership on the issue of impeachment it was at last week's debate. It came up once during the second debate in July, but the current state of play in Washington is so muddled and chaotic that it calls for some outside leadership. House Democrats are running around arguing semantics, some so obviously trying to have it both ways that it would be laughable if it weren't so serious.
Bill Barr's Department of Justice is disingenuously refusing to hand over grand jury documents from the Mueller report, citing the House's muddled messaging, and specifically House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's repeated statements that they are not in the midst of an impeachment investigation. Meanwhile Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., is clearly pushing from the other direction, taking the first official procedural steps toward an impeachment inquiry last week. The party is all over the place and it couldn't have picked a worse time.
I realize that none of the candidates vying for the 2020 nomination want to step on congressional toes. But House Democrats are making a hash of this. Impeaching Trump is the first step in the major reform agenda that will be necessary to deal with this complex set of challenges. And the Democrats' eventual candidate will have a lot to lose if the House doesn't follow through.
You know that Trump will run on the message of Democratic fecklessness and his own survival superpower. "They couldn't find anything wrong! I am too strong for them!" The way things are going, more than a few of those famous swing voters might just conclude that he's right.
Update: Coincidentally, Warren released a comprehensive political reform plan this morning:
In 1958, the National Election Survey first asked Americans a simple question: Do you trust the government to do the right thing most of the time? That year, 73% of Americans said yes.
In 2019, that number is just 17%. Five out of every six Americans do not trust their government to do the right thing.
Why have so many people lost faith in government?
It’s true that right-wing politicians have spent a generation attacking the very idea of government. But it’s also true that these days, our government doesn’t work for most people. Sure, it works great for the wealthy and the well-connected – but for everybody else, it doesn’t.
It doesn’t work because big insurance companies and hospital conglomerates put profits ahead of the health and well-being of the American people, and dump piles of money into political campaigns and lobbying efforts to block any move toward Medicare for All.
It doesn’t work because big oil companies that have concealed climate studies – and funded bought-and-paid-for climate denial research – bury regulators in an avalanche of shady, bad-faith pseudoscience and then spend freely on influence peddling in Congress to make sure nothing like a Green New Deal ever sees the light of day.
It doesn’t work because giant pharmaceutical companies want to squeeze every last penny out of the people who depend on their prescriptions, while their army of lobbyists suffocates reform any time there’s a discussion in Congress on drug pricing.
Universal child care. Criminal justice reform. Affordable housing. Gun reform. Look closely, and you’ll see – on issue after issue, widely popular policies are stymied because giant corporations and billionaires who don’t want to pay taxes or follow any rules use their money and influence to stand in the way of big, structural change.
Make no mistake about it: The Trump Administration is the most corrupt administration of our lifetimes.
Foreign nations, like Saudi Arabia, funnel money into Trump’s pockets by spending freely at his hotels.
Trump's tax bill is a $1.5 trillion giveaway that primarily helps large corporations and wealthy Americans. Half of the total registered lobbyists in Washington worked on issues involving the word “tax” the year the bill was written – that’s eleven lobbyists for every member of Congress. And when the members of Congress who championed it lost their elections, they got juicy gigs in the lobbying industry themselves.
Trump’s Supreme Court Justices were hand-picked by right-wing extremist groups that spent millions on television ads – first to hold open a Supreme Court seat in the Obama Administration, and then to pressure the Senate to rubber stamp their candidates of choice, even when it meant ignoring serious sexual assault charges to ram through the confirmation.
Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency was a climate denier with ties to Big Oil – and when he was forced to resign after a slew of ethics violations, Trump replaced him with a former coal lobbyist.
Our nation’s ambassadors are a who’s who of Trump’s biggest donors and Mar-a-Lago members.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But these problems did not start with Donald Trump. They are much bigger than him – and solving them will require big, structural change to fundamentally transform our government.
That’s why I’ve released plans to fight Washington corruption. A plan to make sure that no president is above the law. A plan to tackle defense contractor coziness at the Pentagon. A plan to ban private prisons and expand oversight, transparency, and enforcement for all contractors hired by the federal government. In Congress, I’ve previously advanced wide-ranging anti-corruption legislation.
But we must go further.
Today, I’m announcing a comprehensive set of far-reaching and aggressive proposals to root out corruption in Washington. It’s the most sweeping set of anti-corruption reforms since Watergate. The goal of these measures is straightforward: to take power away from the wealthy and the well-connected in Washington and put it back where it belongs – in the hands of the people.
My plan lays out nearly a hundred ways that we can change our government to fix this problem – from improving public integrity rules for federal officials in every branch of government to ending lobbying as we know it, fixing the criminal laws to hold corrupt politicians to account, and ensuring our federal agencies and courts are free from corrupting influences.
And I'm just getting started.
That's what I'm talking about. Read on for the specifics.