Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Howard Schultz, The Democratic Party and The Future of Liberalism

“Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong.” 
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, appeared on CBS 60 minutes recently and declared that he was considering running for President of United States of America, as an independent. The rebuke from the left was swift, predictable and harsh.

The New York Times ran an opinion piece calling Mr. Schultz irresponsible and self-centered. Vice wrote that whilst he was not the first billionaire to run for President, he was “the most disconnected from reality.”  There were also public threats to boycott Starbucks.

The boycott threat was led by Neera Tandon, a longtime Clinton acolyte, who served as Mrs. Clinton’s policy director for her first failed presidential bid. The justice editor of a left-leaning publication, Think Progress, said that if Mr. Schultz runs, the Democratic National Committee and "major unions" and "major presidential campaigns" should "all use their email lists to promote a Starbucks boycott until he drops out."  Sadly, boycott calls have become a standard bullying tactic the left uses whenever someone does or says something they disagree with.

I was disappointed because this pushback confirmed that liberals no longer believe they have a persuasive argument or that they can win people with ideas. Instead, much like Mr. Trump they resort to bullying and browbeating anyone who dare challenge or expose this truth.

Democrats fear Mr. Schultz will split the anti-Trump vote and hand Mr. Trump a second term. This is a valid concern. However, what Democrats fail to understand is that there is a deeper malaise within liberalism that needs to be addressed, and it has nothing to do with Mr. Trump.

Liberals have long refused to acknowledge that the Trumps, Modis and Bolsanaros did not win - liberalism lost. 

Over the last fifty plus years liberalism grew complacent and ignored the growing economic inequality and social divides prevalent in every democracy. Liberals forgot that democracies, like gardens, are fragile and need constant tending. As a result, what remains today is a vapid shell of liberalism; one that stands for nothing but is against everything. It is defensive, cowardly and quick to chastise everyone, but offers no alternate vision.

Our problems are deep, messy, and have been building over generations; there are no “big ideas” or quick and easy solutions, it will take more than one generation to fix them. However, unless we start to have the prickly, honest conversations and dig into inconvenient and uncomfortable issues, we will continue to create room for extremists and false prophets, on the right and left, who will gladly fill these voids with superficial, dangerous and divisive solutions. 

I don’t want to defeat Trump; I want to address the root causes that enable people like him to win power in the first place. And the only way to do this is by offering a bold new vision for liberalism. One that is rooted in humility, civility, compassion and recognition that nobody has the answers. We will need to work together, across the political spectrum, to solve our deepest and most intractable problems.

There is already a grave danger that the continued and increasing lack of unity and disarray within the Democratic Party will likely result in Mr. Trump's winning a second term. A party that might field twenty-five to fifty plus candidates stands for nothing and will never offer a compelling vision. They will be too busy infighting and their candidates will need to resort to being outrageous or to positing extremist views, simply to stand out in a crowded field. 

The continued framing of issues with race and gender politics have also come home to roost for Democrats. We now know that Mrs. Warren identified herself As ‘American Indian’ On Texas Bar Registration, and in Virginia the party is in full self-destruct mode. The Governor and Attorney General, both white men, admitted to wearing blackface, and the lieutenant governor, a black man, has been accused of multiple sexual assaults. The New York Times described this mess “unfolding at the intersection of race and gender, and risks pitting the party’s most pivotal constituencies against one another.”

I have sounded the alarm bells before. More than six months before the 2016 election, it became clear to me that Mrs. Clinton’s tone-deaf campaign and Democrat’s lack of cohesive message and vision was going to allow Mr. Trump an unlikely path to victory. I wrote to her campaign begging her to drop out, suggesting that if she loved this country she would let someone else run. 

Today, I am convinced Democrats are lulling themselves into the same false sense of security that Mrs. Clinton did, because they are once again unable to see past the President’s low poll numbers, historic unpopularity and the large number of investigations into his business and political activities. It is naïve and dangerous to think that any of this will translate into electoral support for Democrats from independents and anti-Trump conservatives. Especially not when they are running around championing socialism as the answer to all our problems.

The fact is that the majority of independents and anti-Trump conservatives I know find themselves without a party, and Democrats have shown zero interest in courting these voters. So I am convinced that the threat of an independent, centrist candidate is the wake-up call needed to ensure Democrats do not hand Mr. Trump his second term on a platter; like they did his first.

I admit my logic might seem counter-intuitive to some, but there is one thing I have learned about human nature; people do no act in their self-interest until there is an imminent threat. Consider that most young people do not spend money on health insurance simply because they have fewer ailments and feel healthier than older folks. By the same token most people do not buy renters insurance until they experience a pipe burst, a burglary or some other catastrophe.

I believe Mr. Schultz has integrity and would make a great President. I see in him a humility that is completely missing in our political class. If the politicians attacking him did a little research, they would find that while they have been busy making grandiose promises, Mr. Schultz was implementing solutions. Starbucks provides quality healthcare and college tuition for all of their employees and is also working to employ thousands of veterans, youth and refugees

Mr. Schultz’s candidacy will also compel the party to have a real debate, not superficial ones. It will force them to clearly articulate what liberalism stands for in the 21st century. They need to present a unified platform and message derived from assembling the most viable ideas from different factions within the party; rather than have them compete. 

Also, they will not be able to placate a subset of their base with a populist or extreme agenda, and will need to appeal to the broader electorate. The threat of Mr. Schultz splitting the vote will ensure they can no longer sidestep this debate.

Mr. Shultz will challenge them with his ideas (we are yet to hear them) - good, bad and sometimes half-baked - and will force them to stake coherent positions on messy and uncomfortable issues. I have no idea what Democrat's position on immigration is. They will be forced to offer solutions versus platitudes about equality or utopian dreams of quality healthcare, universal income and college for all. 

To take on and defeat Mr. Schultz they will need to rally around a few nationally viable candidates, deliver a unified message and will not be able to get away with simply vilifying Mr. Trump or following him into the gutter. They will be forced to address all that is broken with liberalism, our political process and craft a new vision that has appeal for ALL Americans, not just for specific groups.

Democrats are acutely aware of this and that is why they are running scared of Mr. Schultz. 

It is interesting that the people attacking him most vehemently are people from the party that lost to Mr. Trump. The media pundits claiming that there is no path to victory for an independent candidate are also the same ones who assured us that Mrs. Clinton was going to win. 

America’s founding fathers didn’t want political parties as they feared factionalism. The two-party system today is their worst nightmare. Perhaps, the time has come to break the duopoly, partisan bickering and constant gridlock that do nothing to serve the people. 

Mr. Trump lacks integrity, maturity and the temperament to lead, but to defeat the forces of Trumpism, Democrats must beat him at the ballot box with their ideas, not with more extremism or threats of impeachment. 

There is no question that there are short-term risks of an independent candidate running, but the long-term cost of not starting this debate, combined with the Democrats dangerously erroneous path, will be much more harmful for liberalism and for democracy.

 

Monday, January 28, 2019

A Crisis of Hearts and Minds in the Democratic Party

(Pelosi and Schumer respond to Trump’s Oval Office speech / Image Credit: NBC News)


“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” 
-George Bernard Shaw

Pete Buttigieg is running for President in 2020 against Donald Trump. Who? Exactly.

That, in a nutshell, defines the core problem the Democratic Party will face in 2020. Almost every mayor, senator, governor, congresswoman and man believes he can take on President Trump and that she alone is the best candidate to defeat the incumbent. I remember remarking about the demise of the Republican Party when 18 candidates ran in the 2016 primaries. That was a clear indication of a group with too many Indians and no Chiefs. At last count, we had 55 potential Democratic presidential candidates. I am just grateful that Michael Avenatti, the self-proclaimed Trump on the left and Stormy Daniels lawyer, dropped out of the race after facing multiple accusations of sexual assault.

Put it this way: if we thought the battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was ugly and exposed deep rifts within the base, then I suspect the 2016 primary will feel like a Disney movie compared to what we will witness in the 2020 primaries.

Democratic candidates are already stumbling over each other to showcase their lack of judgement and discredit the front runner, Joe Biden; whether it is Elizabeth Warren’s attempt to prove her Native American heritage with a DNA test or Corey Booker’s Spartacus moment during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Curiously, a few days after some of the progressive favourites announced their bid for the Presidency, media stories started showing up about Biden taking $200,000 for stumping for a Republican candidate and about his role in the much-maligned Clinton-era crime policies which resulted in a disproportionate number of people of colour being incarcerated for minor drug-related offences.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Kirsten Gillibrand, who announced her Presidential bid on a late night comedy show and Kamala Harris, both desperately trying to grow their likeability with younger voters. Ms. Harris released well-designed campaign merchandise with a catchy tagline, and is also taking on the new age social media darlings like Beto O’Rourke (who is expected to run) with a video of her dancing to a Cardi B song. No word yet on whether Ms. Harris will release a viral video on serious policy positions.

The problem is that when you have so many candidates with such minor policy differences, it is impossible for voters to differentiate, and candidates need to find extreme ways to stand out against the crowd. Outrageousness is exactly what helped Trump come out on top and ensured that the entire GOP narrative during the campaign and primary debates was focused more on size of manhood and pussy’ grabbing, versus substantive policy discussions.

I have written previously about how Republican’s moral blindness and abandonment of core Conservative principles during the Bush, Jr. years resulted in an internal civil war. No question that the cracks had been building for many years before, but the Bush years were the final straw, and it led to the rise of the rebel and anti-establishment Tea Party.

The freedom caucus, as they are now called, was responsible for pushing out moderate Republicans like Speaker John Boehner and House Majority leader Eric Cantor (who was defeated in a primary), and is entirely responsible for the GOP dysfunction we witnessed during the Obama years. Their antics of ‘no compromise’ without any goal or unifying vision left their party defenseless and wide open for a hostile takeover by Donald Trump. Now, the Democrats, rather than learn the lessons from the demise of the GOP, seem poised to repeat history, within their own ranks.

Much like the Republican Party, the rift we see inside the Democratic Party has been growing for a number of years and is not sudden. While Bernie did not cause this rift, his anti-establishment campaign did ignite and light the match with young Millennials who were feeling disillusioned with Obama. By going after Hillary Clinton, Bernie also took on the ageing Democratic ‘establishment’ and old guard who many felt had unfairly chosen Obama’s successor without consulting the younger, more progressive and diverse Democratic base.

The fact is that the Democratic party was already broken and hopelessly divided when Obama won his first nomination; in fact he too had defied and defeated the establishment by running against Hillary Clinton, and his primary victory simply hobbled an already weak party.

To win his primary battle against Hillary, Obama knew he needed to go around the party machinery. This is why he created Organising for Action; “OFA was created as a shadow party because Obama operatives had no faith in state parties,” according to Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane KleebAs a result, during the Obama years there was a massive erosion of power in state legislatures, congressional districts and governor’s mansions.

At the start of Obama’s first term, Democrats controlled 59 percent of state legislatures, by the end it was down to 31percent; the lowest percentage for the party since the turn of the 20th century. Democrats held 29 governor’s offices at the beginning of his term and by the end they had only 16; the party’s lowest number since 1920. There is no question that, while Obama himself was popular, his persona transcended the party and did not trickle down the ballot. His was a coalition built less on party unity and more on personal charisma, optimism and the idea of tearing down racial barriers. Large numbers of people who came out to vote for him were voting for the first time, and many were minorities who had not voted in a long time.

In 2016, Hillary failed to bring together the same voting coalition that helped Obama win office. Millennials, deeply disappointed with Obama for not being progressive enough, broke for Bernie and many older blue collar voters who voted twice for Obama, and had not cast a vote for a Republican presidential nominee beforebroke for Trump because they felt completely ignored and betrayed by Democrats. Of course, we cannot negate Hillary’s own long-standing establishment baggage and deeply polarizing personality. We also have to credit Trump for reading the depth of frustration among working class white voters, a group who had long been the core of the Democratic base. There is no doubt Trump’s message was deeply divisive, but that fact remains that he was the only candidate speaking directly to them.

After the 2016 election, I hoped the Democratic Party leadership would take time to introspect, listen with humility and then forge a new platform for the American people for 2020, one built on ideas, and not ideology rooted in identity politics. Yet, two years on, the dysfunction and factionalism within the base and party seem to have grown deeper and wider, and with their unhealthy obsession to remove Trump from office by any means, it is clear Democrats learned nothing from their humiliating 2016 election defeat.

In fact, it feels like every corner of the Democratic coalition is self-destructing or tearing itself apart in some manner. The Women’s March organisation, a powerful activist group within the base, which was formed by a diverse group of women as an act of resistance to Trump’s misogyny, had a rift in its very first meeting. Apparently, it began when the black and Latino women told their Jewish counterpart that “Jews needed to confront their own role in racism”.

Rather than find ways to unify, it seems the divisions from this first meeting only continued to grow over the past year and finally blew into full public view this year with charges of anti-Semitism roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches. This rift eventually led to marches being cancelled in some cities, and three competing marches being held in New York City.

Then there is the Bernie wing of the party, who call themselves Democratic Socialists, which is represented by young, outspoken leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This group genuinely believes their time has come. 2016 was the first time since Gallup has been asking this question that a majority of “Democrats had a more positive view of socialism than they did of capitalism. Much like the Freedom Caucus, this is a rebel group that is intent on remaking the soul of the Democratic Party from the inside. In a recent interview with Five-Thirty Eight, Waleed Shahid, a Bernie Sanders campaign alumni who recruits progressive candidates for Congress, was asked if this far-left group was the equivalent of the House Freedom Caucus, his answer was unequivocal: “Yes, it is”.

One could argue that the Democrats seem united, having selected Nancy Pelosi as speaker, whom the new left was totally against, and having withstood the government shutdown as a cohesive unit. The problem is that this unity is an illusion because it is driven entirely by a shared hatred of Donald Trump, and not built on a unifying vision or faith in leadership. Hate is never a reliable adhesive for long-term unity and it just corrodes the vessel it is carried in.

Democrats will not win in 2020 by simply being the anti-Trump party, again. Hillary Clinton spent all her time and energy vilifying Trump, rather than offer Americans ideas and solutions and we all know how that movie ended. Nor will they win if they cannot clearly articulate what they stand for, and they would do well to remember that a house divided is a house that can be conquered.