Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Reflections on an Election Year When It Finally Hit the Fan


Part of Last Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz, by the Hirshhorn Museum. Its conspiratorial feel, with panicked outsiders, seems apt for Washington.

- by Skip Kaltenheuser

Frustrations on the coverage of the Democratic primaries have been slow-cooking quite awhile. Not just with the networks, I’m also looking at you, National Public Radio. Does NPR have a clue as to how badly it's damaged its brand from reporters and commentators chirping regurgitations of Hillary talking points from the outset? For that matter do the NY Times and the Washington Post? They’ve sounded so long like self-appointed gatekeepers, queen-makers, charges of media malpractice now abound. Now brace for articles, already appearing, on how Bernie blew it, too little too late. Never mind media putting him in a box and for so long paying scant attention beyond socialist snowball in hell status.

We can take solace that the public’s collective tin ear to media fixes is well on its way to repair, but that doesn’t cure the frustration. I listened to NPR’s Scott Simon Saturday, interviewing (lecturing) RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, over her group’s support of Bernie Sanders.

Ms. DeMoro acquitted herself well, plowing past Simon’s condescending entreaties to party unity, to getting the inevitability of math, to what’s really practical for health care in the political system, and to every other point he could squeeze in to call the game before the clock runs out. In his mindset there's only one game in town. Never mind pushing the party where it needs to go, never mind concern over game-changers that might wait in the wings. But I assure you in Washington there’s ample trepidation over what might next waltz out of the wings, and on its impact on voter turnout for down-ballot races.

Simon’s comments typify the drumbeat to make Bernie the fall guy for Hilary’s troubles. Apparently it’s now against the law to point out that occasionally the empress strolls buck-naked. And the commentariat now infuses Bernie with mystical powers to demand his supporters rise up for Hillary. If not, Bernie’s fault Hillary loses.

I don’t recall that loud a media pile-on when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter, didn’t hear it as a major mutter when walking about the convention floor of the ’80 Democratic convention in NYC. Sure, it didn’t turn out so well, perhaps someone might have had a Dutch uncle talk with Ted early on. But Jimmy was a real incumbent, not the illusion of one.

Democrats are trying hard to find the soul of their party, and many may drift if they don’t. Independents are already the largest identification out there. More people get that with the skyrocketing wealth gap, Hillary’s specialty-- incremental change-- only locks in a status quo that speeds that gap.

Here’s a thought. If you want Bernie’s supporters to come around for Hillary, quit trying to stifle their voice at every opportunity, quit telling them from the outset their aspirations are hopeless, their efforts pointless, that they’re naive as to what’s possible, that if we end up in Trumpville it’s their fault for not folding early.

By the way, who told Chuck Todd of Meet the Press to play that corny triumph music when he breathlessly shows the latest transient polls? I keep waiting for Rocky to come out punching, demanding Todd change the tune. Todd landed the perfect theme music to go with Calvin Trillin’s description of Sunday talk shows, the Sabbath Gasbags.

So, plenty of resentment leftover from the death of a thousand slice-and-dice talking points directed at Bernie by Hillary’s minions. They’re well-placed in the media echo-chamber, including pundits financially tied to Hillary’s campaign and to super-pacs supporting her.

Most critiques boiled down to “single issue candidate,” “how does he pay for it?,” and “the Republican Congress will pour molasses on him.”

They’ll pour molasses on Hillary, too, as they do on President Obama. But if Bernie actually won, a number of seats would likely change in Congress, despite the gerrymandered districts that give the Republicans the House despite their losing the collective popular vote. We dream of a corrective algorithm that fairly redraws districts based on the census, letting the chips fall where they may. But that dream requires courageous state legislators. In any case, if Bernie triumphs, a sea-change cometh. Regardless, odds of Republicans losing the US Senate are decent, at least until the following midterm elections. Voter turnout takes the prize.

How does Bernie pay for it? C’mon. We’re way beyond flirting with the Roaring Twenties wealth gap. Adjustments are in order. That’s how to pay for needed infrastructure projcts, public college tuition, further improving health care and other investments in our future. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the twenty (!!!) richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of all Americans-- the bottom 152 million in 57 million households. The wealthiest tenth of one percent owns more than a fifth of US household wealth, triple the percentage that rarified crowd owned in the 1970’s. Put differently, that top one-thousandth of Americans owns about what the bottom 90 percent of Americans own together.

An article in Scientific American notes that contrary to what most Americans think, America is the most unequal of Western nations, with far less social mobility than Canada and Europe. The Walton family is richer than 42% of American families combined. The bottom 40% of Americans have three tenths of one percent of US wealth. Not a misprint. Three tenths. Of one percent.

Many believe this disparity is greatly understated, that a tremendous amount of top tier wealth is not accounted for, that it’s hidden in off-shore holdings or shell companies, undervalued, etc…

Peel off some of this distortion, and reorient priorities, shucking waste like the F-35 fighter. We can find some money for Bernie. He might have to modify some plans as he goes along, everyone must, but there’s money.

Meanwhile, in the last fifty years the CEO/worker pay ratio has gone from 20-to-1 to 354-to-1. Maybe some CEO’s could take a haircut and put that money into apprenticeship programs.

Bernie’s a single issue candidate? Bull. The rigging of our country by our campaign finance system, flaming democracy long before the Citizens United accelerant was poured on, is far and away the biggest issue. Because it affects every other issue. It distorts every market, every decision on priorities. And it fertilizes a mindset attracting public servant “temps” aiming to flee Congress and government for big money in lobbying and legal jobs as soon as they’ve staked claim on an influence niche.

Here’s a column from the last election considering what the well-heeled want as they practice the low art of the thinly-disguised bribe. Nothing’s changed.

Side effects of this rigging even extend into state courts, where the lion’s share of court decisions affecting our lives take place, in states that have some aspect of judicial elections-- a majority of states. The result of the election money grab is that decisions are increasingly tilting against individuals in favor of corporations and their lawyers. You don’t think that widens the wealth gap? Also impacted are issues ranging from environmental regulation enforcement to drawing legislative districts. Here’s a column on equal justice slipping away.

Fundraising is big business in Washington, a vested interest in many quarters including media advertising. It takes on a life of its own as much as the military-industrial complex. Indeed, there’s ample crossover to that complex.

Goal Thermometer In 2016, the cost of the presidential election alone is expected to exceed $5 billion, doubling that of 2012. The cost of Federal campaigns together may reach $9 billion. That $27 dollar average contribution for Sanders is remarkable for the dent it’s made. But the big money and the dark money aren’t going away, any more than are the politicians raffling off their favors with a quiet wink.

If you believe, as I do, that the biggest threat to this country’s stability is the rapidly growing political clout of the finance sector, then steps must be taken to fracture that political power. Here’s a bit on finance sector influence, also written the last presidential campaign cycle. Again, nothing’s changed except it’s worse.

If you’d permit another digression, I interviewed Ralph Nader in 1999, for Bank Director magazine. Consider how prescient Nader was as to where the unshackled finance sector was taking us. Here’s the text.

When Hillary was First Lady, I wrote admiringly of her after watching her in the basement of a row house in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. She gave awards and a thoughtful talk to excited microfinance entrepreneurs. They’d been brought in for an international microcredit conference, and Hillary’s support was touching. Someone who gets it, I thought, who knows what reasonable access to capital means to the underprivileged.

But Hillary also gets what access to policy levers means to the finance sector, and what that means to candidates. The Clintons have always gotten that.

In one 16 month period ending last May, the Clintons earned 25 million dollars for 100 speeches, half of them by Hillary, according to FEC filings.

Why would Goldman Sachs or anyone pay Hillary five thousand or more beans per minute for speaking to them? Nothing new or insightful a politician can say is worth that amount of money, nothing riveting and novel in subsequent speeches. That kind of money is paid for only a few reasons, primarily thanking someone for past actions and influencing someone’s future actions. Maybe greasing revolving doors between the finance sector and key government positions. There’s limited value to bragging rights on hearing what everyone knows is a kowtow speech run once more through a speechwriter’s grinder, other than showing off the implicit influence and largess of paymasters that others might covet.

Never mind the political tone-deafness of giving speeches for such largess to an industry Bill Clinton gave the country’s car keys to, and which ran into a tree.

I wish Hillary would share those emerald-embedded platinum words. I doubt there’s a Romney-esque 47% sinker there, but I’ll bet there’s plenty to make Hillary’s recent Wall Street comments sound like lip service is all that’s moved toward Bernie. According to Politico, Hillary’s comments in one speech to Goldman Sachs included calling “banker-bashing” “foolish” as she defused Wall Streets role in the economic meltdown, saying “we all got into this mess together.”

Come to think of it, they did all get into this mess together. Rubinomics. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin was kindly donated by Goldman Sachs. After deregulating the finance industry, Rubin returned to Wall Street, earning $126 million from Citigroup in the decade that included the financial meltdown and the taxpayer bailout of Citigroup. Thank you. Thank you very much.

We’ll always be indebted to Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for knifing through public relations gauze with his graphic imagery of Goldman Sachs as a vampire squid.

Taibbi is among those who’ve written on how Goldman Sachs successfully uses the revolving door to salt the upper tiers of government(s). And if you want to drill deep, Money and Power… by William Cohan reveals in detail Goldman’s style and influence, and the scandal of what’s legal.

Goldman Sachs did get dinged recently for five billion dollars to resolve serious questions from Federal and state authorities over its sale of mortgage-backed securities. Sound like a real comeuppance? In 2010 alone, Goldman gave out over three times that much in bonuses. After all, they had to retain the talent that destroyed many trillions in assets of the little guy. Any jail time for those deceptions that garnered the ding? Nope. But the large-sounding number is a big PR splash for DOJ.

That’s a holdover from Eric Holder’s real legacy, kid gloves for banks. Hands-off Holder is now back making millions as a partner at Covington & Burling, a law firm servicing the biggest cheeses in the finance industry. Basically, Holder is part of a DOJ firm within a firm, as a half dozen other top officials at DOJ have also landed there.

Ever wonder what happened with the deadline Holder announced a year ago at the National Press Club as he packed up to migrate to a corner office in the the law firm he always knew he’d return to? Responding in part to a question I’d submitted on the lack of prosecutions, including of small banks, he announced a deadline for US Attorneys to submit potential cases against banks responsible for the economic crisis. That deadline came and went in mid-April of 2015. Forget specific cases, DOJ won’t even say if a significant number was submitted, or if any significant number will go forward. Any bets on how many are in the pipeline as the statutes of limitation roll on?

It’s not just banks. DOJ prosecutions of all white-collar crimes are the lowest in two decades. Who else tasked with financial enforcement is looking ahead to their post-public servant riches?

The Breadline by sculptor Georg Segal, part of the expansive FDR Memorial.

Catch an insightful NY Times essay by Senator Elizabeth Warren explaining how enforcement of all kinds can be gutted by putting the insincere and self-serving in key roles in federal agencies.

Here’s Senator Warren’s new report, Rigged Justice, backing her essay with the twenty worst enforcement failures last year.

Remember, a hands-off tone is set entirely within the executive branch. No Congressional molasses need be poured. Consider the revolving door payback for fundraising, for speaking fees, for foundation contributions. The favor machine.

By the way, a year ago a Washington Post analysis showed the largest chunk of corporate donors to the Clinton Foundation was the financial services industry. Single issue, indeed.

Dwelling on payback, if you want to grasp the number of favors awaiting Bill and Hillary’s thank-you notes, read Inside the Clinton Donor Network, a Washington Post investigative piece last fall. It details the billions fundraised by the Clintons over four decades, for elections and for their foundation.

The range leaves one in awe. Foreign interests and those who advocate for them are thick in the donor mix.

Consider Haim Saban, Israeli and American billionaire who rose from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to owner of Univision and loads more. He’s been the Clintons' largest contributor over the years, donating and raising many millions for Bill and Hillary, and millions more for the Clinton Foundation.

Some months ago, Saban called for the US government to racially profile Muslims. He did all he could to oppose President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Saban founded the Center of Middle East Policy, which should say something about its honest broker credibility. As it should about the Saban Center for Middle East Policy he founded at the Brookings Institute. Saban served on President Clinton’s Export Council, advising on trade issues. He and his wife had several sleepovers in the White House. Read up on Saban’s past efforts to derail investigations of pro-Israel lobbyists for espionage and to get a preferred congresswoman to head the House Intelligence Committee.

Donors at Saban’s level know how to play Washington like a violin. How does one escape worry that this highly lucrative pro-Likud bird chirping for decades in Bill’s and Hillary’s ears impedes cutting square deals in the Middle East peace process? That it might dampen efforts in a Hillary presidency? There are many elements to past failures of the Middle East peace process, I’m not accusing Bill Clinton of throwing the fight because of Saban or others.

But the will to succeed is everything in really tough challenges. It isn’t hard to undermine pushing boulders up a hill. Think what damage a perpetually failing peace process has done to Middle East stability and to this country’s image, and what that has cost.

Perhaps Diogenes was really seeking an honest broker.

Here’s a couple digressions in the foreign policy realm, on the future of US influence abroad and on corruption in Afghanistan, both sadly with evergreen shelf life.

At least we know Hillary would never turn to the likes of Kissinger for advice. Wait, what’s that?…

If you’d like an excellent summery of why Hillary’s embrace of Kissinger should give pause, here’s a piece by Greg Grandin, detailing a long relationship and what it wrought. NAFTA’s included, a side effect of which was the fracture of union bargaining power.

But what the hey, the White House recently gave Kissinger the Distinguished Public Service Award. Can the rest of us do less? Here’s my tribute.

Hillary’s African-American firewall confuses me. Plenty have written on the Clintons’ roll in ham-handed welfare reform and overkill legislation on crime. And thanks to a clever young protester, Ashley Williams, attention’s been paid to the ultimate dog whistle, bringing young “super-predators” “to heel.” Political personas seeking to look tough on crime and tough on welfare have played havoc with lives in a host of ways. Kind of like looking tough on foreign policy.

But what creeped me out early was was the execution of Ricky Ray Rector just before the 1992 New Hampshire Primary. To signal how tough he’d be on crime, then Governor Clinton returned to Arkansas to preside over the execution. Rector’s murder of a white policeman was horrific, but after the mentally-ill Rector tried and failed to completely blow his brains out, he was so mentally feeble that he put aside the pecan pie in his last meal so he could finish it later.

Now read up on Marc Rich, and consider a different quality of Bill Clinton’s mercy. And a bellwether of Holder’s legacy.

Meanwhile Bernie, who in the early sixties was a Chicago organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), gets snide comments from Hillary surrogates that they never met him in the South. Yeah, there was no segregation up North. Getting arrested in Chicago is always a ticket to fun and games.

Or that his non-southern African-American backers are “a remove” from the South. Dissing Harry Belafonte? Spike Lee?

Mo’ money and prisons. Until last fall, and waves of criticism, Hillary was taking money from bundlers from the private prison industry, an industry that recently got notice for shoddy treatment of warehoused undocumented immigrants. Here’s a column tangential to those with vested interests in expanding prison populations.

A couple memories of different views on fundraising.

When I started scribbling, one of the first politicians I interviewed was Bill Proxmire of Wisconsin, then chair of the Senate banking committee. Few positions have more potential for fundraising. I asked him how he dealt with money in politics. He said in his last election he spent two hundred bucks, mostly on stamps mailing back contributions. His constituents knew he was like The Untouchables. Proxmire couldn’t be bought. And he always won by big margins.

I once asked the chief of staff of Senator Alan Cranston how his boss dealt with fundraising. He deadpanned, People think if they give you a lot of money, they’re buying influence, but all they really buy is access. Cranston was later damaged in an influence scandal involving a bank.

I think Bernie’s running a little closer in spirit to the Proxy model. Hillary, not so much.

Here’s a fine read from the New York Review of Books on how the Clintons prime the pump for the Clinton Foundation, and in turn how the foundation primes the pump for the campaign.

Bernie’s been more than a tilt at the windmill. Polls seem to indicate that Bernie will garner more independents than Trump. And more than Hillary would pick up against Trump. After Trump exhausts calling Bernie a socialist, Trump’s low on ammo.

Modern elections usually usher a different party into the White House when a two-term lessee departs. That’s not a vulnerability for Bernie. However you view him, he’s not more of the same. He’d be heading a new and improved party.

Think back to the two-for-one Clinton presidential offering in 1992. People forget that the Clintons ought to call third-party candidate Ross Perot “Uncle Ross.” It was Perot’s distaste for George Herbert Walker Bush, a former CIA Director who claimed to be “out of the loop” on Iran-Contra, that determined where Perot trained his sizable firepower. In 1996, Bill’s opponent was Bob Dole, who has a great class smart-ass sense of humor but at his core was Nixon’s hatchet man. After moving to DC I kept my Kansas voter registration for years so I could vote against him. Hillary is skilled and smart, but there is not a proven legacy of Clinton campaign juggernauts. 2008, not so great. At times her campaign seemed a Tower of Babel of advisors, consultants and contributors.

For those nostalgic for the Clinton administration’s golden era, Thomas Frank has a few words that bring that era up to date, connecting past glories to ongoing impacts.

Apologies to Gloria Steinem, but most folk, millennial women in particular, instinctively know voting for someone primarily because of gender, race, creed, ethnicity or sexual preference is the flip-side of voting against someone primarily for the same reasons. When I voted for President Obama twice, his being mixed-race was a non-factor. Despite disappointments like Holder, despite the unfulfilled promises of transparency and of journalistic access, despite the disgraceful treatment of whistleblowers, I thought and still think Obama was the best choice. I believe that’s how a growing majority of Americans ultimately choose who gets the top job.

As Bernie channels Teddy Roosevelt in the bully pulpit, his voice rings true against The Big Money.

It’s a precarious leap of faith to envision the Clintons biting the hands that lifted them into the oligarchy.
Torrents will pour forth on Trump realities. Some of those realities are plenty ugly. But people will also learn more of those pulling levers behind Hillary’s curtain. And of their resemblance to the heavies in The Big Short and 99 Homes.

If Hillary takes the nomination, her slogan might be Lie back, close your eyes, and think of the Supreme Court.

Critically important, but I’m not sure that’s the stuff of revolution. Or of voter turnout if cynicism flies off the charts.

My comments neglected the 800 pound orangutan in the room. I don’t want to hurt his feelers so one brief drive-by: Trump’s speech patterns will sound familiar to anyone ever hit hard by a con artist. His jumble of slip and slide phrases allow his marks to hear whatever they want. Until Trump’s responses to the crowd fervor of his base pull him past the point of no return once too often, he’s a better contender than Trump Plaza. Charlie Sheen, you could have been a contender. Winning!

Here’s a thought. If you want Bernie’s supporters to come around for Hillary, quit trying to stifle their voice at every opportunity, quit telling them from the outset their aspirations are hopeless, their efforts pointless, that they’re naive as to what’s possible, that if we end up in Trumpville it’s their fault for not folding early. Cynics might be forgiven for detecting a whiff of efforts to suppress Bernie supporter turnout. Earlier, when his supporters raised a legit question as to why southern primaries, in a region no Democrat will sweep in the general election, should be such an early determinant as to brand the primaries a done deal, some of the commentariat even tried to raise the specter of prejudice. That’s not a path to capture Bernie supporters' hearts and minds.

Now I’ll wait for my musings to implode as the race progresses, with the sudden twist of an economic cool-off.

Thanks for your indulgence and best luck to the country.

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At 8:28 AM, Blogger cybermome said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:31 AM, Blogger cybermome said...

Great piece.

Feel like I have been whacked on the head

At 12:00 PM, Blogger VG said...


Interesting and well-written article.

However, one thing you said really set me back. "Democrats are trying hard to find the soul of their party...." Which "Democrats" do you mean? The ordinary voters or the Dem establishment? If the former, okay. If the latter, NO. Absolutely not.

I don't know if you will read comments re: your post. But if you do, I think some clarification is in order.

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Skip Kaltenheuser said...

Thanks for the read and comment, VG.

I could tweak this until the cows come home. But perhaps best to consider soul-searchers as those seeking to have their best ideals meaningfully championed by the candidates they elect to office. Lip service need not apply.



At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow - a very powerful and truthful explanation of how the Clintons have managed to elevate themselves via the "peter principle." They both are of my generation, but I do not see the world as they see it - to be used to further their ambitions at the cost of decency and integrity. Thank you for spelling it all out for me.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger VG said...


I've read your comment above, and thanks for responding.

Okay, the best I can to is to give my opinion. There are very few candidates at all levels who rise to the level expressing my "best ideals' But, "best' is very iffy, according to what one considers "best". My ideals are mine only.

But, I still want to know how you define "Democrats". Okay, from what you said, my take is that you are not talking about the "Democratic" party establishment. Like DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schulz, or Chuck Schumer.

I have a very limited perspective on this (apart from talking to Howie and reading DWT), which for the present consists of people on a peculiar email list I am on, consisting of people I knew during college (class of '69).

Most of them seem to be -knee-jerk Dems, and of course (I'm reading their minds) "Bernie is not a real Dem".

Sorry to press you on this, but I do read a a lot on the internet. Not claiming to be any kind of political expert. I am not that. But any time I read something about "Democrats" my radar goes off, and usually "Ds" means the establishment Dems. And, imoh, they are not at all struggling to find the soul of the D party. They already know where is is. $$.


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