With eight official entrants, the GOP presidential race looks like the running of the bulls. Seven more candidates are expected; eight if you count Donald Trump. If they all run, it’ll be the biggest presidential field in any political party in American history.
Last Wednesday Rick Santorum got in. Like most politicians now, he shuns policy specifics in favor of long riffs on his own life, or his parents’ lives. Presidential candidates live privileged lives, so we hear a lot about hardships their parents suffered. Santorum’s dad was a coal miner; Marco Rubio’s was a bartender; Mike Huckabee’s a fireman. George Pataki got in on Thursday. His dad was a mailman and his mom a waitress, but he went to Yale and got a law degree at Columbia.
Republicans tell tales of humble origins in hopes of relating to a humbled middle-class. Santorum and Huckabee once connected with wedge issues sharpened by the religious right, but when that stopped working, they moved on. Odd as it may seem, both men now present as tribunes of working families, posing as populists the only way they can, by conflating their own and their parents’ life stories.
Santorum’s speech lasted 23 minutes. The first five minutes were about his family. The next 13 minutes were about the economy. He was three quarters of the way through when he let slip an abortion reference that was barely a dog whistle: “As president I’ll stand for the principle that every life matters: the poor, the disabled and the unborn.” He mentioned the issue just once more, but savaged big business and corruption no fewer than 10 times. He never mentioned same-sex marriage.
Santorum’s prescriptions are, to say the least, vague. He’s against government and undocumented aliens. He’d cut taxes and social services but ramp up defense spending. He never says ‘climate change.’ He may not hang with his old pals on the religious right but he’s hot for a new culture war based on xenophobia. He says he’d “bomb ISIS back into the seventh century.” It’s not policy. It’s hate speech. ISIS controls a swath of Iraq as big as England. Its soldiers are embedded in civilian populations. Its tentacles reach across the region. Not even Santorum can think it can be killed by an air strike, even one as barbarous as he suggests.
Santorum will march with Huckabee, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz in this year’s GOP kook parade. Pataki seems sane by comparison but his agenda’s as daft as theirs. In fact it’s the same as theirs. After spending a quarter of his speech on Thursday rhapsodizing about his family he said he’d halt illegal immigration, cut taxes and social services and grow the defense budget. As for bombing ISIS or even sending ground troops, he made it crystal clear he’s good to go.
The Democratic contest is a more staid, intimate affair. On Saturday ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley became just its third entrant. Hoping to snag Elizabeth Warren’s devoted fan base, he styles himself a populist, but it’s a late vocation. It’s said he was the model for Tommy Carcetti, the ruthless Baltimore mayor in HBO’s The Wire. (Show creator David Simon says only that Carcetti was “reflective” of O’Malley.) In another year he’d have run to Clinton’s right.
Absent a Clinton meltdown of Ed Muskie-like proportions, O’Malley may be the last one in the Democratic pool. Joe Biden has run twice before. In 1988 he was chased out of the race before it started. In 2008 he made it as far as Iowa. A Q poll has him at 9 percent. Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee may be naïve enough to run, but his candidacy’s a nonstarter. Enigmatic Jim Webb would be fun to watch, but he’s polling at 1 percent and taking far too much time to decide if he’s in or out.
Bernie Sanders was in Vermont Tuesday to kick off his campaign. He’s truly the anti-politician. Under sunny skies with a Lake Champlain wind at his back, he skipped family hagiography and got straight to the point, laying out a cogent fact-laced analysis and a litany of specific proposals: a $15 minimum wage; a trillion dollar public works program; a carbon tax to help “transform our energy system away from fossil fuels”; a new trade policy; a raise in social security benefits; universal pre-K.
At the tail end of his remarks Sanders related a little family lore but began with a sly joke, “As some of you know, I was born in a faraway land called Brooklyn, New York.” He briefly described his “solidly lower middle class” life as the son of a paint salesman and a mother who died young and what it taught him: “As a kid I learned in many, many ways what lack of money means to a family.”
Republicans hate all of Sanders’ ideas. Clinton hasn’t endorsed any of them. A few years ago they’d have sparked a big debate. Not today. America needs a big debate but it can’t seem to mount one anywhere. Three issues of grave constitutional as well as practical concern are before Congress: The Trans Pacific Partnership, the president’s request for authorization to wage war against ISIS, and extension of the Patriot Act. Its dereliction of duty as to all three is tragic and profound.
The TPP would rob Congress, the states and every American of the right to enact laws protecting our health, safety and welfare. It does it by granting international tribunals closed to both states and private citizens the power to override any law they deem a barrier to trade. The Constitution vests authority to approve the pact in Congress but at the behest of multinational corporations Congress may soon relinquish its right to amend it without ever having read or disclosed its contents.
The Constitution also grants Congress the sole power and sacred duty to decide whether America wages war against another people. Yet we are now in a war against ISIS Congress never authorized. Obama brought it under color of a 13-year-old Iraq war authorization. He now asks Congress, very belatedly, for post facto authorization. He even implies he does so for appearance’s sake. The language he proposes fails to restrict the cost, duration or geographical extent of the conflict. Due to an unholy combination of cowardice and calculation Congress may not even take up his request. If it fails to act he’ll go right on waging war without it. The public barely knows of the resolution’s existence, let alone its contents or the veiled machinations that will determine its fate and ours.
The right to privacy is so basic to our freedom it may be said to precede as much as flow from our Constitution. Modern information technology threatens it as nothing short of absolute dictatorship ever has. In the battle over renewing the Patriot Act specious claims of national security shroud the facts. In a ploy reminiscent of the ‘mushroom cloud’ Condi Rice imagined rising from Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs, a “senior administration official” this week accused critics of “playing national security Russian roulette.” Yet last week FBI Inspector General Michael Horowitz said an investigation by his office turned up no evidence the program had deterred a single terrorist plot, but it did find that managers took seven years to provide basic safeguards to protect the privacy of all the millions of Americans it surveils.
I can’t recall a time when Congress treated its constitutional duties in so arrogant, slovenly or secretive a fashion. Even more painful to consider are the matters that should be before it but aren’t, including income inequality, corruption and above all, climate change. It’s hard to believe the session will pass without a meaningful word spoken about any of them. With Congress in a coma it would be great if the presidential race provided a forum for real debate, but that system’s broken too.
The Republican race will be one long Obama insult-fest. It’s amazing that so many candidates can have so few differences. Rand Paul’s a hawk on privacy and a dove on defense. Jeb Bush is for corporate education ‘reform’ and as much immigration reform as he can hang onto. Other than that they’re all Santorum and Pataki. All will stop immigration, cut taxes and any program that helps an old, poor or sick person and give the Pentagon everything it wants. Santorum and Huckabee may lob a grenade or two at big business but they won’t mean it. All will vow to put Putin, China and the entire Islamic world in its place. And that’s about it.
In the primaries all the Republicans will act crazy but in the fall their consultants will give their winner the same sort of advice the Democratic consultants will give theirs. Ask about the economy and he’ll vow to cut taxes and red tape. Ask about the budget and he’ll tell a story about something wise his dad said on a fishing trip. If a vital issue is somehow clarified in a fall debate it’ll be a first.
The Democratic race is where a real debate may happen. It won’t happen on its own. One reason is that Clinton doesn’t want one. I’m amazed she’s managed to maintain radio silence on an issue as big as the TPP. I blame the press as much as her. Her bland evasions should have sparked a revolt by now. Instead we get more stories on her encounters with ‘everyday Americans’ and the conflicts of the Clinton Foundations. The latter may be important but the conflicts between her and Sanders are the ones the nation needs to resolve. They pertain to the fundamental relationship between commerce and democracy and the just distribution of power and wealth. If Sanders can engage Clinton in a real discussion of such issues, their debate will be one for the ages.
Sanders prides himself on never having aired a negative ad and likes to say he’s running for the Democratic nomination, not against Hillary. But he knows better than most that a debate can be civil and substantive. I hope he knows the time for one is right now. In a few months the TPP and Patriot Act may be moot points. It will be a shame if O’Malley finally comes out swinging on issues that suck the air out of the room but don’t provide the kind or quality of debate we deserve. Progressives should help get things going. The AFL-CIO calls trade its top priority. It should sponsor a debate like the one Al Gore had with Ross Perot over NAFTA. Cable networks would surely air it. The press might even begin to see policy debate for what it is: the heart and soul of a political campaign.