Musings on an Election When It Might Finally Hit the Fan
by Skip Kaltenheuser
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Greetings from Washington, DC! Tasked with castaway political thoughts for this photo essay, I see the real roadside attractions looming large are the presidential contenders. There’s peril waxing wise in this arena. Look back to the starting gate. How silly the oracles’ certitudes look now. So this political meander is of quick and dirty drive-by shootings. Allow me to lean on a few prior scribbles with shelf life to flesh my points out. I’ll also refer to a few other quick reads.
A disclosure (no such thing as “full disclosure”). And a writer’s query. How much has my political perspective changed much since I came to Washington in ’79? Not much. Before getting into topics tangential to finance sector influence, I should say I’m not dispassionate. I’m writing up a personal experience to expose what even so-called community banks now get away with. It’s not pleasant, discussing my family upended by hogs in suits. My near-99 year-old mother recently lost her Iowa family farm, and much more, and I’m committed to write about it. The farm disappeared at the intersection of egregious bank misconduct and of jaw-dropping government indifference.
I take no pleasure noting Democrats are in the vanguard of Potterville as much as Republicans. The troubling saga includes what I believe to be compromised government officials running interference for a bank. It’s topped off by a greedy bankruptcy trustee who, with the imprimatur of DOJ, turned bankruptcy protection into an oxymoron to further his own gain. What I believe most people outside bureaucracy’s bubble would recognize as corruption was then covered up by the US Trustee Program. What’s really going on out there for the little guy in the bankruptcy system? Interested media, reform groups and legislators, get in touch.
Also, I’m considering a larger project, perhaps a book, giving voice to families derailed by deceptive banks that got away with it. No promises, I suspect the numbers are large, but folks with stories of what predatory banks did to them while government went ho-hum, drop me a note.
They say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. Not if mugged by a bank. Help throw some light on what’s happening across the country under media’s radar.
Back to risky political observations that could fly apart at any moment.
First off, everything old is new again. We repeatedly hear how much has changed in the Republican race. Here’s a column assessing a Republican primary debate in 2012, scribbled for an international lawyer crowd.
It was all there before – the Muslim-baiting, the kowtow to Sheldon Adelson, the bellicosity to Iran, the bought and paid for ideologies. What’s really changed, other than some cast members – the Not Ready for Primary-Time Players – and an American knockoff of Berlusconi demonstrating how to do mischief right? How wondrous freeing oneself from fear of misspeaking must be. Other contenders envious of Trump’s free and easy must crave just a little dab of Tourette’s to slide over that hump. Wait, I hear Cruz’s tower of Babel slipping into gear.
As for takeout ideology – the Tea Party, the CATO Institute, etc… It distracts us from the aims of the elite that ordered it, just as magicians get us to watch the wrong hand. Here’s a scribble trying to make sense of the Tea Party in 2010. <http://www.ibanet.org/Article/Detail.aspx?ArticleUid=F9BFA8BD-DAD1-49FA-AF1A-CC663E804342>
Since then Jane Mayer has detailed how it’s done in her insightful new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Catch the book, but at least catch this review by Bill McKibben. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/03/10/koch-brothers-new-brand/>
I’m tempted to update update this imaginary Washington, DC carnival, where Donald Trump made an early appearance. It’s an exorcism of the last presidential race, though many players are still in play. How would you update it in your imagination?
This is the carnival DC ought to emulate. Catch satire and a slideshow from Basel, Switzerland.
Trump this! I admit to guilty pleasures when Trump pops out a truth, as with the Bush administration’s deceptions backing the invasion of Iraq and our being asleep at the switch before 9/11. After Republican boos came forth, I wished Trump had hopped on a talk show recalling what the Bush White House did to Ambassador Joe Wilson and to his wife Valerie Plame, then a CIA agent. Wilson refuted Bush Administration claims on Saddam’s use of Niger yellowcake, his report one of at least three major reports drawing the same conclusion, all ignored and buried. Trump could point to the obvious animosity Saddam held toward Al Qaeda, that he’d have nothing to do with them. And he could refer to a Pulitzer-winning book by Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which underscores the government’s bumbling and negligence.
Instead, Trump started shuffling back. Who knows what comes next? In a world that loves irony, what if Trump the Performance Artist known as The Donald becomes President Trump and decides to prove he’s not a paper tiger? His own bit of shock and awe, abroad or at home?
I’m curious as to what Trump will do to Rubio, the establishment’s most recently anointed contender. Hypocrisy can’t lay a glove on the shame-proof Trump, but If Rubio has such skeletons in his closet, he’d best lock them up tight before Trump, skilled at timing, dances them onto the stage when the establishment least expects it.
Whether or not Trump runs aground, the takeaway on his success is that large swaths of Republicans are so rattled by the slings and arrows of misfortune that it doesn’t matter if Trump’s brand of populism is a shape-shifter, his certainties mercurial. Fans will still see in him what they want to see, a champion who’ll tell the power brokers to toss off their power levers. Other Republican contenders aren’t convincing when they warble about it. Trump’s fans like hearing what they know, that the fix is in, that they’ve been played for chumps by an elite with a stacked deck. If Trump ends up playing them for suckers too, at least he brings entertainment value.
But the rank and file ought to be reminded that while Trump says he isn’t beholden to special interests, he is a special interest. Think this billionaire wants to pay more taxes so they can get some relief?
Does the Republican establishment really think Romney, with his family’s past off-shore holdings and enviable tax rates, is the messenger to speculate on Trump’s taxes? Mr. “Self-Deport” should be the walking cue card warning of xenophobia? Maybe Romney fantasizes being drafted if other candidates vaporize.
When I first tuned into Trump, I wondered what’s behind what seems information processing delays. Odd, matched with a demeanor that’s a little speedy for a near-septuagenarian. Thinking on his enthusiastic ambiguity, he reminds me of speech patterns of con artists who let their marks fill in the blanks with what they want to hear. That’s likely still a part of it, but Timothy Egan in the NY Times recently made a great case for sleep deprivation. Interesting.
Or maybe Trump’s a master craftsman at brainwashing, the dark side of the populist force at work. Something’s working for him. Take notes, Charlie Sheen, you could’a been a contender. Winning!
In the independent realm, Mike Bloomberg’s sounding the political depths. Some of his issues deserve respect, but hasn’t Wall Street enough champions running? He doesn’t like losing, or improving Trump’s chances, so thin odds he’ll run just for amusement. At least he’s training his media guns on discrediting Trump. Expect more pieces like this, on the fizzle of Trump’s international sizzle.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Bernie is threatened by the death of a thousand slice-and-dice talking points 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 boil 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. 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. <http://www.ips-dc.org/billionaire-bonanza/>
An article in Scientific American notes that contrary to what most Americans think, American 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.
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.
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. In 2016, the cost of the presidential election alone is expected to exceed $5 billion, doubling that of 2012. 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 text.
When Hillary was First Lady, I wrote admiringly of her after watching her in the basement of a row house in Adams-Morgan as 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.
I wish Hillary would share those emerald-embedded platinum words. So far she won’t. 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.
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 Q. 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 last mid-April. 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?
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.
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 <https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/clinton-money/>, 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 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 Clinton’s largest contributor over the years, donating and raising many millions for Bill and Hillary, and millions more for the Clinton Foundation.
Several 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. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/us/politics/21harman.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss>.
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.
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?…
Hillary’s African-Amercan 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 is 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 always creeped me out 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 to 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.
One tip, Bernie. Don’t knock on Al Sharpton’s door for an endorsement. He stuck to script way too long in the Tawana Brawley hoax, derailing the lives of the families of police officers and of a prosecutor accused of rape and kidnapping, all of them innocent. Until Sharpton publicly apologizes, it’s painful to see candidates provide him a shred of credibility. Stick to class acts like Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee, and to people who speak from real tragedy.
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,…
Here’s a fine recent 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.
A BIT OF TOURISM, AS THIS IS A TRAVEL SITE. Peruse the DC tourism site at <www.washington.org>. Show up early for the free nightly 6 PM offerings at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. Most performances are archived for online viewing. I took my daughter to 240 or so before she said “Tilt”. Gurgle your aorta with soul food at the Florida Avenue Grill. Try the new cuisines that have proliferated in DC, befitting what is now a truly international city, such as Gary Lee’s Las Canteras Peruvian Restaurant and Bar in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood. Cheap but tasty and healthy? The Amsterdam Falafelshop there. That neighborhood also has lively music offerings from Madam’s Organ, the Bukom Cafe and others, but endless tunes also reverberate throughout the city, including the U-Street and H-Street corridors. Seek out eclectic local bands like the ska-styled The Captivators, <www.thecaptivatorsband.com>. Explore the vibrant small and regional theater scene.<http://dctheatrescene.com/> And so much of DC is free – museums, etc… – you can’t beat it for a busman’s holiday.
Book review: If you seek a rollicking dark view of Washington, frighten yourself with “Presidential Puppetry” by venerable journalist Andrew Kreig. You’ll hide under the bed. <http://www.presidentialpuppetry.com/>