Money gets a bad rap in some quarters. It’s said that it “isn’t everything,” that it cannot “buy you happiness,” that loving it is “the root of all evil.” But if there’s one thing that money is absolutely stupendous at doing, it’s solving problems. Naturally, the more money you have, the more problems you can solve. Which is why the fact that we’ve allowed a large portion of an otherwise finite amount of wealth to become concentrated in the hands of an increasing number of billionaire plutocrats is something of a crisis: Since they have all the money, they call the shots on what problems get solved. And the main problem they want to solve is the public relations problem that’s arisen from their terrible ideas.
Naturally, the ultrarich put on a big show of generosity to temper your resolve to claw back their fortunes. Everywhere you look, their philanthropic endeavors thrive: They’re underwriting new academic buildings at the local university, providing the means by which your midsize city can have an orchestra, and furnishing the local hospital with state of the art equipment. And a sizable number of these deep-pocketed providers have banded together to create “The Giving Pledge,” a promise to give away half of their wealth during their lifetimes. It all sounds so pretty! But as a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies finds, these pledgers aren’t following through on their commitments—and the often self-serving nature of their philanthropy is actually making things worse for charitable organizations.
As the IPS notes, the business of being a billionaire—which suffered nary a hiccup during the pandemic—is booming. So one of the challenges that the Giving Pledgers face is that the rate at which they accrue wealth is making their promise harder to fulfill. The 73 pledgers “who were billionaires in 2010 saw their wealth grow by 138 percent, or 224 percent when adjusted for inflation, through 2022,” with combined assets ballooning from $348 billion to $828 billion.
According to the report, those who are making the effort to give aren’t handing their ducats over to normal charities. Instead, they are increasingly putting their money into intermediaries, such as private foundations or Donor Advised Funds, or DAFs. As the IPS notes, donations to “working charities appear to be declining” as foundations and DAFs become the preferred warehouses for philanthropic funds. (As TNR reported recently, DAFs are a favorite vehicle for anonymous donors to fund hate groups—while also pocketing a nice tax break.) This also has spurred some self-serving innovations among the philanthropic class, “such as taking out loans from their foundations or paying themselves hefty trustee salaries.” More and more of the pledgers are conflating their for-profit investments with their philanthropy as well. And wherever large pools of money are allowed to accrue, outsize political influence follows.
The shell games played by billionaire philanthropists are nothing new. The most common of these are the two-step process by which the ultrarich make charitable donations to solve a problem that their for-profit work caused in the first place. It’s nice that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Integrative Cancer Research exists, but it’s soured somewhat knowing that the $100 million gift David H. Koch seeded it with was born from a profitable enterprise that included the carcinogens sold by Koch subsidiary Georgia-Pacific. In similar fashion, Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “handed out over $3m in grants to aid the housing crisis in the Silicon Valley area,” a problem that, Guardian contributors Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom note, Zuckerberg had no small part in causing in the first place.
And at the top of the plutocratic food chain, a billionaire’s charitable enterprise can become a philanthropic Death Star. This week, The Baffler’s Tim Schwab took a deep dive into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and discovered that the entity essentially exists as a public relations stunt to justify Gates’s own staggering wealth. One noteworthy highlight involved Gates reaching out to his upper-crust lessers during the Covid pandemic, seeking additional money on top of the foundation’s own commitment, creating a revenue stream that could tie an ethicist into a knot. “During a global pandemic, when billions of people were having trouble with day-to-day expenses even in wealthy nations,” Schwab asks, “why would an obscenely wealthy private foundation start competing for charitable donations against food banks and emergency housing funds?”
As the IPS study notes, perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that ordinary taxpayers essentially subsidize these endeavors: According to their report, “$73.34 billion in tax revenue was lost to the public in 2022 due to personal and corporate charitable deductions,” a number that goes up to $111 billion once you include what “little data we have about charitable bequests and the investments of charities themselves,” and balloons to several hundreds of billions of dollars each year “if we also include the capital gains revenue lost from the donation of appreciated assets.”
The IPS offers a number of ideas for reforming the world of billionaire philanthropy to better serve the public interest. There are changes to the current regime of private foundations and Donor Advised Funds that would ensure that money flows to worthy recipients with greater speed and transparency. Regulations could ensure that such organizations aren’t just another means by which billionaires shower favors on board members—and that would give foundation board members greater independence to act on their own ideas and prevent the organization from being used as one rich person’s influence-peddling machine. But for my money, the one way we could solve this problem is to institute one of the most popular policy positions in the history of the United States, and tax the rich to the hilt.
Josh Hawley is at it again. Over a brief career in Washington, the elfin senator from Missouri—when he’s not egging on and then fleeing from insurrectionists—has attempted one pseudo-populist or culture-war gimmick after another to propel him to a higher level of celebrity than he currently enjoys. Alas, while his ideas have gained some prominence on the right, Hawley’s own star isn’t ascending at nearly the same rate. But he is nothing if not undaunted, and this week he unveiled a plan to “overturn Citizens United.” I’m putting that in scare quotes for a reason. Hawley’s latest legislative burlesque is wholly fake—and threadbare even by his gutter standards.
There are many—mainly on the left—who’d like to somehow overturn Citizens United v. FEC, the execrable 2010 decision that unleashed a tidal wave of funny money into our politics and demonstrated that the Supreme Court didn’t need to have a 6–3 conservative tilt to cock up the entire country. It would be great if we could pass a law and set things right, but here’s the rub: Congress can’t fix it, sorry! As MSNBC’s Jordan Rubin explained, overturning the decision would require one of two unlikely events: the Supreme Court choosing to reverse itself or the successful enactment of a constitutional amendment. “That’s because the 2010 case was decided on constitutional grounds—under the First Amendment—as opposed to statutory grounds,” writes Rubin.
The fact that Hawley, even with the assent of Congress and the president, literally cannot “overturn” Citizens United makes this matter done and dusted. But it’s still worth prodding his proposal to assess the full measure of his ambitions—which turn out to be appropriately deceptive. You see, for all of Hawley’s bluster, he’s only targeting one sliver of the boodle that the Supreme Court’s allowed to come sluicing through the gates: corporate money. For all this posturing, Hawley would leave unchecked the flood of dark money.
If you’re authentically aggrieved by the Citizens United decision, this is where the profound misrule lies: Political nonprofits—mainly 501(c)(4)s—can accept unlimited donations and don’t have to disclose their donors, even when the nonprofit then sends the money to super PACs, which do have to disclose donors. As Open Secrets has documented, contributions from shell companies and dark money sources have ballooned in the last two election cycles, with more than $612 million flowing into federal political committees in 2022. Rubin reports that “the nonprofit One Nation donated $53.5 million to the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, the largest political contribution of any organization that election cycle.”
“Safe to say,” Rubin concludes, “leaving nonprofits out of the equation wouldn’t solve the dark money problem.” But this is what Hawley’s proposal pointedly does.
It really doesn’t take a ton of spelunking to get to the bottom of what Hawley’s trying to do with this sudden stance against Citizens United: This is just a new layer of the senator’s song and dance against what he terms “woke” corporations, and of the broader project of conservative nationalism that TNR contributing editor Osita Nwanevu characterized as “Trumpism for intellectuals,” in The New Yorker back in July 2019.
TNR’s Matt Ford saw a similar level of playacting in a previous Hawley proposal to belatedly jump into the right’s war against Disney with a stunt bill purportedly aimed at reducing the value of the entertainment conglomerate’s valuable copyrights. As Ford pointed out, however, not only was that proposal extremely unlikely to pass constitutional muster, it would very likely “lead to taxpayers giving a multibillion-dollar payout to Disney for its property losses” if it was successfully enacted.
It’s extremely unlikely that Hawley doesn’t understand the fatal flaws in the ideas he’s going to such flamboyant lengths to promote. The senator, after all, has degrees from the two schools that are locked in tight competition to be America’s Slytherin—Stanford University and Yale Law. As Rubin notes, Hawley also used to clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, so surely he understands the difference between constitutional and statutory grounds.
But even if Hawley’s anti–Citizens United measure is a complete joke, he’s probably getting exactly what he wants out of the effort: favorable headlines from credulous media outlets such as Real Clear Politics, which announced “Sen. Josh Hawley To Introduce Bill Reversing Citizens United,” or Above the Law, which took the cake with “Unlikeliest Of Heroes Josh Hawley Takes On Mitch McConnell To Get Big Corporate Money Out Of Politics.” Even some liberals fell for it: a DailyKos poster titled their blog post, “I agree with … Josh Hawley?” (Don’t worry, “Greg from Vermont,” you really don’t!)
The political press has been on a recent tear of ignominy lately. Media Matters’ Matt Gertz caught multiple outlets selling the GOP’s recent proposal to pay for the proposed Israeli aid package with deficit-ballooning cuts to the IRS as an “offset” this week, in another example of a framing that could have been avoided if anyone bothered to acquire some basic literacy about the legislative process and operating budgets. That Hawley’s sham of a bill has no chance to “overturn Citizens United” doesn’t take a deep dive into the particulars to figure out. To be honest, many of the ruses perpetrated by George Santos, who survived an expulsion vote on Wednesday, were a lot harder to penetrate than Hawley’s latest caper, if only anyone would bother to try.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
What does the future hold for Kyrsten Sinema? The Arizona senator, who’s best described as a dull person’s idea of an interesting person, famously flounced from the Democratic Party last December. While she’s remained a part of the Democratic caucus since then, she’s now seeking reelection outside of its auspices and against a more institution-minded member of her former party, in the form of Representative Ruben Gallego—who’s not been subtle about his antipathy for the incumbent. So for the first time in a long while, Sinema’s been forced to consider the possibility that her time in Washington may be coming to an end.
But if remarks attributed to her in a new book by McKay Coppins are any guide, she seems sanguine about her future and determined to go out with her trademark delusions of grandeur. As Insider reported this week, Sinema makes a cameo in Coppins’s Romney: A Reckoning, in which she’s totally not mad about her dim reelection prospects. “I don’t care. I can go on any board I want to. I can be a college president. I can do anything,” she apparently told Mitt Romney. “I saved the Senate filibuster by myself. I saved the Senate by myself. That’s good enough for me.” She is, sadly, correct about her chances of cashing out. But the idea that she “saved the Senate” raises a rather obvious question: “From what, though—and for who?”
Beyond the fact that Sinema’s claim to have been the sole savior of the filibuster is significant Joe Manchin erasure, depriving the West Virginia senator of the recognition he’s earned for hurting West Virginians, children, and the planet, she’s incorrect on the merits: You can’t simultaneously be a Senate institutionalist and support the filibuster, which is a parliamentary aberration that flies in the face of the Framers’ designs. The fact that so many have come to think of it as some sort of legitimate Senate tradition is the constitutional equivalent of the Mandela effect, where people end up convinced that their false memories, such as the famously incorrect collective belief that Sinbad starred in a movie called Shazam!, are real.
As The New Republic’s Matt Ford has explained on multiple occasions, Sinema distinguished herself in one way regarding the filibuster: for her willingness to provide a continual stream of ahistorical and utterly gobshitted rationales for why supermajority rule in the Senate actually serves some noble purpose. But chief among Ford’s observations was that the filibuster almost exclusively impedes the Democratic Party from governing: “For Democrats to achieve any of their policy priorities … they have to navigate a 60-vote gauntlet and the assent of 10 GOP senators. Republicans, on the other hand, can cut taxes, slash the federal budget, and stuff the courts with right-wing judges with a simple majority.”
There’s the answer to the question of who she saved the filibuster for. As for the matter of what she accomplished by doing so … well, there we find more disrepute. Among Sinema’s more vaunted accomplishments is her role in blocking Democrats from passing a measure to shore up voting rights during a time when Democratic voters were facing a well-funded, nationwide effort by Republicans to deny them the ability to participate in our democracy. As Ford pointed out, her rationale in this instance was wholly illogical from the standpoint of self-preservation: “Sinema’s refusal to let her party wield its majority power may, ironically, hasten the end of that power—including her own as a senator who’s up for reelection in 2024. Who knows how many of her voters will be disenfranchised by then?”
Sinema cannot lay claim to having been left behind by a party that moved to a radical new place, either, given that the intensity of her opposition to the Democratic Party’s designs hit a fever pitch once a dyed-in-the-wool centrist took charge of the White House. Even as Biden brokered truces with progressive lawmakers, Sinema broke away, taking a leading role in helping to water down the Build Back Better Act. Worse still was her hand in helping to kill off the pandemic-era expanded child tax credit, where her steadfast opposition to taxing corporations and the wealthy cut off the one funding mechanism that Manchin was willing to countenance to keep it running.
A Sinema aide has disputed the accuracy of the remarks attributed to her in Coppins’s book, but the fact that she comes across as being self-aware about becoming a fully vested sellout who’s now eligible to level up her buckraking game completely tracks, seeing as she spent the twilight of her Senate career denying children a fraction of the largesse that the country’s plutocrats have carted off for themselves. Her evolution, famously characterized by the Associated Press’s Brian Slodysko as from “Prada socialist to corporate donor magnet,” has long been on full display, as has her comical antipathy to actually communicating with her constituents.
With all that in mind, no one should really be surprised if the Arizona voters who put her in power come out next year to kick her to the curb. In the end, Sinema’s career in Washington was hampered by the fact that she was stuck having to represent the Grand Canyon State in the Senate, instead of just being what she clearly wanted to be: the personal valet to hedge funders and the private equity industry on Capitol Hill. May the voters now send her on her way to serving these masters.
By the time you read this, the House of Representatives may have a new speaker. It also might not have a new speaker. I can’t say for certain what world you’ll be living in, sorry.
The new speaker won’t be Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, whose gangly effort to crowbar his way into the role was sunk after multiple efforts to secure enough votes from his own caucus this week. It’s probably a safe bet that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy won’t be making an all-is-forgiven return to the role—though it can’t be completely ruled out. It could be that North Carolina congressman and current fill-in Speaker Patrick McHenry will end up the anointed one, but that’s looking less likely as well. For that to happen, however, McHenry would have to be formally and further empowered, as the speaker pro tempore position he’s currently holding has very limited constitutional authority, owing to the fact that no one really imagined a temporary speaker doing much more than presiding over the chamber as it selected an actual speaker. Republicans will take another shot at doing this next week; Tom Emmer, who may or may not be a maniac, is considered the frontrunner.
Alas, not for the first time, we must observe that among the many things the Framers could not have foreseen is the state of today’s Republican Party: devoid of any respect for institutions and hell-bent on writing blank checks to the biggest extremists in its midst. That the GOP has made a farce of such a basic task as electing a leader should really come as no surprise to anyone. It’s been quite some time since Republicans have shown any kind of interest in performing the basic functions of a majority party in the legislature.
Forget their weird lust for government shutdowns and debt ceiling breaches; this gang of freaks can go months without putting their majority to any productive purpose at all. So let’s be realistic about their current struggles. The Republicans’ basic problem isn’t that they broke the House of Representatives—the problem is that they’ve finally perfected their approach to (not) running the joint.
That so many of the people who claim to cover politics seem surprised at the way Beltway Republicans have ended up here only demonstrates what short memories they have. Anyone who was paying attention during the Obama era knew that the brine that the GOP of today soaks in was already well into its fermentation stage then. And long before McCarthy’s pale eminence seized the gavel, an older version of his antagonists was doing then-Speaker John Boehner dirty. As Ryan Lizza wrote for The New Yorker, way way back when Ryan Lizza was on staff at The New Yorker:
[Boehner’s] tenure was marked by an increasingly futile effort to control a group of conservatives that Devin Nunes, a Republican from California and an ally of Boehner’s, once described as “lemmings with suicide vests.” In 2013, to the bafflement of some colleagues, Boehner supported the shutdown, in the hope that the public backlash would expose the group as hopelessly radical. It didn’t work. The group continued to defy Boehner. He tried to regain control as speaker by marginalizing its members, and they decided that he must be forced out.
Savor the memory of Devin Nunes being lumped on the reasonable side of the GOP, because it didn’t last! He and Boehner alike were among the casualties of the Republican Party’s long-running project to indulge and empower the fringiest members in their midst. With the aid of their brightest think tank minds and the deepest-pocketed donors, the Tea Party movement helped numerous far-right ideologues make their way to Washington, which in turn begat the Freedom Caucus—and all of the showdowns, shutdowns, and near misses on the way to a debt ceiling apocalypse that became their stock-in-trade. This miasma of extremism and dysfunction ultimately crescendoed with the advent of Trumpism and the full flower of that authoritarian project.
Jim Jordan, whom Boehner once assailed as a “legislative terrorist,” is as pure a product of this political project as you can find anywhere—a 180-proof distillation of the GOP’s turn toward nihilism and unhinged self-regard. (It’s little wonder that his attempt to ascend has come with the threat of political violence toward his opponents that has become so au courant in the Trump era.) Despite his stated belief that “America wants him” to be speaker, Jordan owes his existence in Congress entirely to the fact that he can’t be held accountable by Americans: He’s stuffed into a ridiculously gerrymandered district and hasn’t had to deploy any kind of political skill to retain his seat in years. For all intents and purposes, he’s the electoral equivalent of a welfare queen.
The Ohio congressman brings little more to the table than utterly lycanthropic rhetoric, an extreme lack of legislative prowess, and a gaping void where an interest in governing should be. I’ve written previously on his only accomplishment of note: his creation of a perverse House subcommittee that’s entirely dedicated to backfilling the Fox News Extended Universe of weird culture-war lore with something that resembles a threadbare factual basis. (A task at which, I might add, he has failed spectacularly.)
I have found it darkly hilarious to hear so many Republicans whine about their struggle to elect a speaker, given that this episode is just a big demonstration that their rickety-ass, claptrap version of “governing” is going exactly the way they designed it to work. It’s the exact same feeling I get watching so-called “Never Trump” Republicans express extreme disaffection with the state of their party, as if they didn’t have a strong hand in the creation and cultivation of the shitty and cynical political project that’s now firing on all cylinders.
So many Republicans are scuttling around the news cycle, full of worry that their failure to emerge from the speaker chaos will result in a slew of bad outcomes. Nothing might get done legislatively. There’s a strong possibility of a government shutdown. The longer the House can’t function, the greater the chance that the economy gets wrecked or the United States loses standing around the world with our allies and partners. Well, let me give Republican lawmakers some much-needed succor: Their party is going to accomplish all of these things whether they elect a speaker or not.
This article was adapted from Thursday afternoon’s edition of Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
I’m not the sort of person to wager money on Supreme Court rulings based on the tenor of oral arguments, but TNR contributor Matt Ford was one of many high court observers who thought there was reason to believe the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—which has served as an advocate for ordinary Americans against a slew of fast-fingered corporate crooks—may just survive its day in court. Should the CFPB prevail, it will buck some significant trends: one being the recent Supreme Court’s antipathy toward Democratic governance and the administrative state in general, the other being the longer-running winning streak that corporate interests have enjoyed at the high court for as long as anyone can remember.
But whether we’re poised to celebrate the CFPB’s unlikely survival or soon to mourn its demise, it’s worth reflecting on the agency’s mission and urging Democrats not just to continue it but to make the idea of protecting ordinary people from corporate thieves and cheats even more central to the party’s identity. Obviously, that work will only be more difficult if the CFPB goes down—should the Roberts court do the deed, liberals must add its demise to the larger portfolio of complaints that have driven public esteem of the court to new lows. But even if it emerges unscathed, a passion for protecting the little guy from a universe of crooks should be fomented and channeled with renewed vigor, as should a commitment to making consumer protection a vital avenue of the party’s policymaking zeal and its political fury.
As the Public Interest Research Group recently recounted, the CFPB has some hefty accomplishments to its name. The agency, which is often referred to as Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild, has recouped $17.5 billion worth of consumer money. This year alone, it’s prevailed against a slew of foes, from big banks to shady data brokers, and offered guidance to help ordinary people avoid pitfalls and hang onto their hard-earned money. These are victories that Democrats should savor and tout, in the same way cops do when they force scofflaws to do a public perp walk, their seized assets left on a table as Instagrammable trophies.
There’s a simple idea here: It should be politically toxic to rip people off. One suspects that everyone who opposes the CFPB’s mission is aware of how it looks to throw in with plutocratic con men, which is probably why Big Business has confronted the agency in crab-walk fashion, sidling up to the supposed cracks in its constitutional edifice rather than challenge it frontally by going to bat for every unreliable fiduciary and financial scam artist in Christendom.
It’s somewhat significant that in this most recent case, it’s the ultimate financial bottom-feeders serving as plaintiffs: payday lenders, who I once described as being fit for only two purposes—“to encircle the working poor in inescapable cycles of crushing debt, and to continually generate plausible-sounding reasons for why a civilized society should continue to allow [them] to exist.” I suppose you can add “front-running for the entire financial services sector against the country’s consumer watchdog” to that brief—an advantage seized from having a toilet reputation in the first place.
Democrats, of course, haven’t always walked the right side of the street where consumer protection is concerned. Scofflaws of all varieties, from payday lenders to big banks, have found allies on the left side of the aisle far too often. This needs to change: The CFPB is an important part of the Democratic Party’s legacy. The taxpayers who ponied up billions of dollars to bail out the banking industry after the 2008 financial crisis got little thanks and almost nothing in return for their generosity. The CFPB is the only monument to their sacrifice; the only gift they got in return.
This is a ripe time to renew this past promise. Democrats will go into the 2024 election seeking once again to define Trump as an illiberal force bent on soiling our civic fabric, thus building on the pro-democracy message of the 2022 midterms—which pundits pooh-poohed but voters embraced. Democrats will also likely make hay out of the GOP’s antipathy to abortion rights and the post-Roe dystopia it engendered and is now trying to avoid talking about. But there’s room for Democrats to diversify their portfolio of enemies, and consumer protection allows them to take on targets that are less partisan but just as political—adding some “right versus wrong” to a message that’s already full of “left versus right.”
Moreover, consumer protection is a cause that provides ample opportunity to freeze Republicans in disadvantageous positions: It’s pretty effective politics to campaign against the crooks who are plundering everyone’s American dream one dime at a time. If Democrats invite Republicans to weigh in on whoever ends up in the consumer protection crosshairs, they can either agree and help Democrats forge bipartisan consensus or they can disagree and get implicated as enablers. Democrats can tether their consumer protection zeal to their pro-democracy arguments as well: Certainly the clear consequences of a Trump win will be an executive branch that’s not just hostile to consumer interests but likely to pervert the cause of consumer protection as a weapon against its political enemies.
As former TNR contributor Brian Beutler noted, in a recent edition of his Off Message newsletter, Democrats have recently struggled to recover the “confidence and combative energy they’d developed by the end of George W. Bush’s second term,” their “fighting spirit” replaced by a data-driven, poll-tested “spirit of timidity.” Well, the quickest way to get back in the ring is to start naming foes and picking fights. President Joe Biden has seeded the terrain by making the purveyors of junk fees one of his administration’s enemies. But this is a fun fight everyone should join.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
There’s a new senator in Washington, D.C., this week: Laphonza Butler, a former president of Emily’s List, was tapped by California Governor Gavin Newsom to fill out the term of the late Dianne Feinstein. Butler’s path to the Senate—where she will be the lone Black woman in the upper body and the first to call that chamber home since Vice President Kamala Harris—was partly due to a set of baroque promises Newsom made in advance of Feinstein’s death: to select a Black woman for the post and to not select any of the Democrats already running for the seat in 2024, so as to not play favorites.
It is perhaps in furtherance of that latter pledge that Newsom roamed rather far afield to tap Butler, who resides in Maryland as opposed to California. But his apparent intention to pick a placeholder seems not to have been made clear to Butler herself, as she has not ruled out running to retain the seat.
So that’s something of a whoopsie! But it’s not the main reason that Newsom perhaps should have put his finger on the scale: The California primary for U.S. Senate has become a black hole of Democratic donor money, to the exclusion of what could be more consequential races.
Opportunities to become California’s senator have been in short supply in recent years, so it’s not a surprise that this race, in a state known for pricey political contests, was expected to become the most expensive Senate race in history. But now, as a result of Feinstein’s death, there will be not just the usual primary and general election next year but also special elections—meaning that donors normally constrained by maximum allowances will be permitted to double-dip for their favored candidates.
California Representative Adam Schiff already has raised what I would charitably call an unreasonable—perhaps even unspendable—amount of money. Axios reported in July that Schiff had almost $30 million in hand—“more than any other federal candidate, including for president.” After that figure ticked up slightly in the most recent fundraising quarter, Aaron Kleinman, the director of research at the States Project, made a canny observation: “In other words he has more cash on hand for a race Democrats are guaranteed to win than every single Democrat running for the Virginia House (which either party could control after November) has combined.”
The importance of the Virginia elections is clear: Democrats could stop the political career of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin—who is term-limited in the Old Dominion and said to be weighing a presidential run based on how Virginia Republicans fare in November—in its tracks. Democrats also have a generally daunting Senate map in 2024, and a highly competitive gubernatorial contest in Kentucky on the wing.
This is not to say that the California primary isn’t worth Democrats’ attention. People have some passionate, principled, and well-informed opinions of who among that field—which Schiff has largely led over Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, according to the scant polling that’s been done—should be Feinstein’s successor. I’ve no doubt that I could develop my own ideas on the matter if I took as much time as those with a vested interest. That doesn’t really change the fact that Democrats are going to retain this seat and that the differences between these candidates will largely fade into the grayscale once a winner is seated.
Which is why I wish Newsom, who seems to harbor ambition about becoming a national leader of his party, had taken a stab at ending this primary himself. He could have given the nod to Schiff and called a halt to the implacable donor arms race. Barring that, he could have just fully honored his commitment to upping the representation of Black women in the Senate by tapping Lee, who was already running. That might not have sent a strong enough signal to turn off the money spigot, but it would have sent a worthy message to the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Realistically, Newsom is too calculated to have seriously considered doing all that. His pledge to stay out of the fray was probably less about keeping the spirit of fair competition alive than about not wanting to stick his neck out, only to have California voters chop it off. But those who are, or aspire to be, Democratic standard-bearers ought to be thinking about the party’s needs across the country, and that means not encouraging a donor sinkhole in their own backyard. There are more critical elections and bigger prizes on which that boodle is better spent.
Democrats have, in recent years, demonstrated the tendency to dream a little too big and pile untold sums of campaign cash in the coffers of a litany of no-hopers. That’s not what’s going on here. But if Democrats are not careful, they could screw up from the opposite direction, denying critical resources to winnable races in the service of a seat they’re destined to get anyway. It’s time to stop emptying your wallets on this Senate primary and let these wannabe senators from California fend for themselves.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tends to get a lot of grief whenever she offers her opinion about how the country needs a “strong Republican Party,” but I think that what’s currently happening on the GOP side of the House of Representatives is probably what she had in mind. There, the scene has devolved over the past week into the parliamentary equivalent of a Superfund site. It’s become rivetingly clear that Kevin McCarthy’s charges are hurtling toward a spectacular self-own—and a government shutdown. A slew of inconveniences and vaporized economic activity are about to land, hard, on ordinary Americans.
If history is any guide, it also means that political woe is on the way for the GOP. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters this week, shutdowns have “always been a loser for Republicans—politically.” But McConnell, who is clearly still capable of dispensing effective strategic advice in between his harrowing health episodes, is likely to go unheeded.
What help can be offered to a party that can’t help itself? Democrats partially powered their 2020 presidential campaign on the notion that Joe Biden cast a long, collegial shadow over Washington and was just the figure to help a wayward Republican Party break the fever that had engulfed it during the Trump years. But as Biden became more familiar with the Republicans he’d be working with, his opinions on the matter shifted rather dramatically. He ended up helping to author a successful midterm message that captured the GOP as they are: autocratic and beyond redemption. As McCarthy’s untamed hooligans steer the ship of state toward the chop, Democrats would be wise to stick with this instinct. They’re already doing the best thing they can do in this situation—nothing at all.
If there’s anything that Democrats should emphasize about the looming government shutdown, it’s the essential Republican-ness of it all. This shutdown is the pure product of the modern GOP, packed with antisocial weirdos and redolent of their inability to govern themselves or anyone else. Here, Democrats may have to joust with a media that vastly prefers to pin this kind of dysfunction on mushy concepts like polarization, or point the finger of blame—more nebulously—at “Congress,” as The New York Times did in a limp headline last week. More recent reporting has, happily, hit the ball more squarely, properly identifying “Republican infighting” as the proximate cause of the impending calamity.
To say that the GOP has lost the plot is perhaps an understatement. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen pointed out this week, the debate that Republicans are having with themselves has lapsed into pure abstraction, in which members of the party are now “arguing with each other over how much funding to cut in a one-month stopgap continuing resolution—not the budget itself.” Meanwhile, every sentient life-form knows that cuts of any kind make it a nonstarter with Democrats in the Senate, and the Oval Office.
But the prospect of Republicans troubling Democrats with some fruit of their legislative labors is a long way off, as their blockheaded negotiations have yet to yield anything that’s not a nonstarter with one another. Here, the GOP has flopped in operatic fashion: a Freedom Caucus–wrought deal immediately got spiked this week as a “giveaway to Joe Biden” by other members of the Freedom Caucus. How, exactly, is a budget proposal that Biden would veto instantly a “giveaway” to him? Don’t worry: No one in the GOP knows the answer to that question!
This entire exercise in self-torture really has little to do with line items on a budget spreadsheet. This is all just a primate dominance ritual: a steroidal sequel to the government shutdowns of the Obama era, in which Republicans convinced themselves that bringing Washington to a crashing halt could break the White House’s will. The only new twist on this old formula is that I’m pretty sure that, as far as the Republicans driving us into a ditch are concerned, Joe Biden is a secondary concern, if not an afterthought. Republicans are well and truly into their Lord of the Flies era, fully engulfed in the internecine purity-test battles I predicted were on their way. But not even McCarthy promising an impeachment inquiry was able to buy him enough goodwill to simply keep the government running.
It’s hard to see how any of this ends. Republicans seem bent on playing stupid games for the privilege of winning stupid prizes, with the most stupid prize of all being the poisoned chalice of the House speakership. Yes, Kevin McCarthy may finally be forced out of what has become the worst job in all of Washington—and the biggest problem that those threatening to knock McCarthy from his perch face is that one of them will have to take his place.
What Democrats should do now is simple: Do not interrupt this. There’s no need to get involved. What Republicans are enduring can’t be solved by rational people appealing to better natures that don’t exist. The only way out is for the GOP to eat shit, every day, until their bellies are full. Yeah, it’s possible that some dumb pundit will come along, afflicted with a terminal case of what Dayen calls “Washington brain,” to try to convince Democrats to “blink and offer concessions to avoid a shutdown.” The only thing Democrats should throw Republicans’ way is the old military acronym, KMAGYOYO—Kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own.
It would appear that anti-abortion conservatives are starting to come around to the realization that when the Supreme Court gutted Roe in its 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Republican Party became the protagonist in the classic tale of “The Dog That Caught the Car.” As The Hill contributor B.J. Rudell put it, the pro-life movement had it pretty good for about 50 years, residing “in a self-made and self-contained cocoon, operating with equal parts political savvy and practical ignorance.” As long as its great dispute was a live issue—a political Schrödinger’s box that would remain a potent electoral motivator so long as it stayed closed—the movement could reap the benefits of its unrealized vision.
But once Samuel Alito and his fellow travelers peeled the box open, the world got a good long stare at the dead cat inside. The post-Dobbs landscape has been a regularly scheduled litany of dystopian one-offs—here’s a woman forced to travel 1,400 miles to deliver a skull-less fetus; there’s a woman who nearly died because she could not obtain a medically necessary abortion—peppering the steady, ambient worsening of the world: the obstetrics positions going unfilled, the measurable rise in health inequity, the “ominous health trends” that rose up, spawned in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to undo the modern world.
And did I mention that on top of all of this, the Dobbs decision is implicated in the consistent way that Republicans keep getting rinsed at the polls? It’s no wonder that elite conservatives have recently decided that the real problem here is the need to rebrand the term “pro-life,” not the myriad horrors that have been unleashed since the movement that sallied forth under that banner 50 years ago finally got all the things it wanted.
Right now, this “rebranding” effort is at the stage where various Republicans say staggeringly obvious things with the absolute wonder of a wee child. “What intrigued me the most,” said North Dakota Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, “was that ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ means something different now; that people see being ‘pro-life’ as being against all abortions … at all levels.” Wow, no shit—that truly is a remarkable state of affairs! His Senate colleague Josh Hawley choked out some similarly incredulous words in a recent interview: “Most voters think [‘pro-life’] means you’re for no exceptions in favor of abortion ever, ever, and ‘pro-choice’ now can mean any number of things,” he said, adding, “So if you’re going to talk about the issue, you need to be specific.”
But as TNR’s Tori Otten pointed out, we can actually be excruciatingly specific about what Republicans want, and it’s pretty much entirely indistinguishable from “no abortion, ever, ever,” and not so much something that a few hasty marketing summits among GOP bigwigs is going to be able to obscure. “Since Roe was overturned,” Otten reported, “Republicans have banned abortion completely in 14 states. In many other states, Republicans have limited abortion access with cruel laws to the point that the procedure is effectively banned anyway.” The would-be rebranders are lagging badly behind the curve: Across the country it didn’t take long for the right to push hard for draconian bans after Dobbs was handed down. The plain truth is that when the next Republican trifecta hits Washington, many of them will be pushing hard to pass a nationwide abortion ban.
This is the biggest problem that those who are so desperate to “rebrand ‘pro-life’” face right now: This is a movement that’s largely defined by the zealots in its ranks. You’re not going to be able to exert control over a nation of anti-abortion radicals with a Central Committee to Temper Our Excesses and Lessen the Completely Foreseeable Consequences of Our Actions. Wherever those fanatics hold a little bit of untrammeled power, they’re doing headline-grabbing things to get attention and advertise exactly what they want the post-Roe landscape to look like.
Take, for example, the extremists who’ve brought so-called “abortion trafficking” laws to several counties in Texas. As TNR’s Melissa Gira Grant recently reported, political leaders in these jurisdictions have breathed new life into laws over a century old, in the service of incentivizing vigilantes to patrol Texas highways, looking for women who might be seeking to leave the state to receive abortions, in order to detain them for cash rewards. Or take the “pro-lifers” in Oregon who, far from getting their cues from Washington elites urging circumspection for the sake of winning elections, are plowing ahead to the next frontier and looking to ban contraceptives next—just as one could have predicted (and did).
Josh Hawley, Kevin Cramer, and the rest of the people trying to slap a new name on “pro-life” are simply not going to cow this movement into submission with a PowerPoint presentation on the value of adopting a more palatable brand identity—not after they’ve already spent a wild-eyed half-century howling for an unpopular set of draconian policies to be imposed on the country. And so the Republican Party will continue to be defined by its militants, not its marketers. Yes, this could contribute greatly to future Democratic wins at the polls, as an agitated public sends more protectors of abortion rights to office. But this should give us pause nonetheless—because wherever the pro-life dead-enders can hold on to even a little bit of political power, they will continue to advance their tyrannical vision, inch by inch, and in their wake damage the lives of a yet-to-be-counted number of ordinary Americans—leaving a trail of ruin that no rebranding can redeem.
Donald Trump may have spent the past year creaming his wan Republican competition in the polls, but the news has not been all wine and roses for the former president—at least not in America’s legal venues. He has collected a scavenger hunt’s worth of indictments and faces a formidable calendar of dates as a professional defendant. What Trump is about to endure has few historical precedents—limp comparisons to Eugene V. Debs notwithstanding. This is shaping up to be a strange campaign, fought on large patches of undiscovered country.
But even as we fantasize about the consequences catching up with Trump, it must be said that once again he has us right where he wants us: at the center of a newshole that he is dominating. The Man Who Ate the Discourse is back, devouring whole news cycles, his attendant Gorpmans and Bleemers hopping in and out of the headlines. And with the news that the Georgia trial will be televised—for months on end—the potential for a feeding frenzy seems likely. But should this become a demented spectacle, remember: It’s not the fault of those who are seeking to hold the former president to account.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the media will either catastrophize the effort to hold Trump accountable or turn the justice-seekers into the villains of the story. The campaign trail is long and dull, and this time out it will wind through numerous courtrooms, in which Trump will be arrayed against a constantly shifting cast of “opponents.” Ever on the hunt for the mythical “balance” that they believe defines pure, mountain-grown political coverage, the press may well endeavor to cover these trials neutrally, as opposed to fairly—that is to say, to locate some imaginary middle ground between a criminal and his victims to defend, instead of considering the substance of the matter.
In a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal, Peter Funt convincingly argues that the transparency gained from televising the trials offsets whatever media circus is created. But along the way, he identifies a litany of concerns that we might soon hear spilling out of the hyped-up mouths of the hand-wringers on your local cable news panel—that the substance of the cases against Trump will be lost amid the grandstanding, cheapening the whole affair and thus contributing to an overall erosion of faith in the judiciary.
As Funt reminds, some fairly dubious theories about Trump have already been marshaled to argue that this moveable media feast will prove disastrous, such as the belief that the former president is some kind of inimitable maestro of the televisual arts and the idea that all of these indictments are a secret boon to his campaign. I am sorry to use this particularly overused term, but these notions are all just vibes. None of it is tethered to a quantifiable reality. It is clearly preferable to not get indicted, four times over, if you want to run for president. And Trump’s reputation for being some kind of teevee trickster all stems from the fact that he has benefited immensely from promiscuous cable news coverage.
Trump’s also already benefiting from some early carping about the media circus that’s lying over the horizon. Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat complained about the logistics of Trump’s federal trial—the one in which he’ll face charges for conspiring to overturn the 2016 election. At issue was Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s decision to begin proceedings on March 6 of next year, the day before Super Tuesday. This, to Douthat’s mind, was an “extremely suboptimal convergence.”
“If you take the judicial process seriously,” he wrote, “then clearly under ideal circumstances the trial of a major presidential contender would be completed before voters begin passing judgments of their own.” Well, sure? But what is Judge Chutkan supposed to do about this? As writer Tom Scocca pointed out in his newsletter, Chutkan had to fit her obligations into a calendar already crowded with Trump trials: “The only way to keep one or another of Trump’s trials from happening during a sensitive part of the primary season is by pushing things back into a sensitive part of the general election season.”
Yes, it’s true, these are suboptimal choices, all the way down. Court dates are mashing up against court dates, which in turn are abutting important dates on the primary calendar. I think one thing that maybe every party involved in these matters can agree on is that none of this is ideal. But who, then, should fill the blank space that Scocca locates in Douthat’s argument, the person to whom the “blame, formless and insinuating,” should attach?
Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s Trump’s fault! Trump’s allies keep darkly muttering, “If they can do this to Trump, they can do it to you too.” And my response is: “Well yes, that’s the whole point!” My one neat trick for avoiding indictments charging me with trying to overturn an election is to not try to overturn an election. And in the parallel universe where Trump had offered a dignified concession, no one’s worried about whether his federal trial is too close to Super Tuesday. It was a failure of accountability that gave rise to the media circus that’s coming down the pike. Maybe a strong dose of it will actually end this spectacle once and for all.
Last weekend, I stumbled across a viral tweet thread that provided a rather thorough debunking of one of my big bugbears: the insipid shoplifting panic that’s been coursing through the media the past two years. Over several posts, WBAI radio host Rafael Shimunov punctures what’s become a classic “too good to check” story and discovered that many of the foundational ideas behind what’s been sold as a bona fide crisis were falsehoods—and not particularly well-constructed ones at that.
Once the evidence was sorted and the numbers run, Shimunov estimated that the total cost of our shoplifting horror show amounted to “seven cents per 100 dollars in losses.” The real “shoplifting crisis,” in fact, may be simply the way this nonstory has become so indelibly imprinted in the zeitgeist: Shimunov, after all, was pulling his evidence largely from a Los Angeles Times article from 2021, one of many pieces that explored these claims and found a hoax at the center instead. What will it take, then, to dislodge this falsehood from the public consciousness? Perhaps what we need here is a better enemy—and if the public wants a pound of flesh from a gang of conniving thieves, I’ve got one: corporate America’s runaway wage theft.
Unlike shoplifting, this is not a penny-ante crime, and it’s carried out every day with the ruthless efficiency of the boardroom. An L.A. Times column of a more recent vintage, courtesy of Michael Hiltzik, tells a fuller story. He enumerates many ways in which employers pull their own coordinated smash-and-grab jobs on their employees’ paychecks: “They may pay workers less than the legal minimum wage, fail to pay overtime, deny workers legal meal breaks or rest periods, divert workers’ tips, or require them to work off-the-clock to prepare for their shifts or to perform duties after their shifts have ended.”
And those are some decidedly old-school techniques. The “one neat trick” to screwing workers in today’s gig economy is simply to misclassify them as independent contractors, “thus sticking the workers with expenses that would be covered for employees.” All in all, the true cost of wage theft amounts to something substantially north of chump change: A 2014 study from the Economic Policy Institute “a nationwide epidemic that costs American workers as much as $50 billion a year.”*
Moreover, a 2021 study from the Center for Public Integrity found that while firms that “hire child care workers, gas station clerks, restaurant servers and security guards are among the businesses most likely to get caught cheating their employees,” wage theft is a way of life at “many major U.S. corporations.” One such scofflaw that gets top billing in Hiltzik’s column is Home Depot, which in June settled a class-action lawsuit over wage theft to the tune of $72.5 million. That the firm’s former CEO Bob Nardelli was recently on Fox Business hyping up the threat of shoplifting is enough to make a cynic wonder: Is he fomenting public fear over an urban legend to distract from the real thieving?
Fortunately, in some quarters, wage theft is being treated with the seriousness it deserves. Just this week, ProPublica produced a blockbuster report on wage theft in New York City, finding that from 2017 to 2021, “more than $203 million in wages had been stolen from about 127,000 workers in New York.” And Documented, which partnered with ProPublica to produce the piece, this week launched its Wage Theft Monitor, which allows anyone to dig down into the data of who got ripped off and who did the stealing.
Under Biden, the Labor Department—whose acting secretary, Julie Su, made her name helping workers keep their hard-earned money from being pilfered by their bosses—has been frisky in the fight against wage theft. Last October, the agency reversed a Trump-era rule that permitted gig-economy employers to misclassify their workforce. A month later, an agency investigation led to Krispy Kreme paying $1.2 million in damages and back wages to more than 500 workers who’d been denied overtime. And this week, the department extended overtime protections to 3.6 million workers, the estimated equivalent of an additional “$1.2 billion in employees’ pockets, both in the form of more overtime pay and also salary increases by employers to ensure their white-collar workers will be exempt from the new rules,” according to the L.A. Times.
Naturally, we’ve a ways to go before all of the money that corporations have absconded with is back with whom it belongs. Perhaps the biggest policy change we could make in support of that effort, as TNR contributing editor Osita Nwanevu has written in the past, is to pave the way for worker ownership of firms. In the meantime, however, whenever you hear about a shoplifting crisis, remember that the actual theft isn’t occurring in the aisles of your nearby chain stores; it’s occurring in their boardrooms.
* This article originally linked to the wrong EPI study.