A Shameful “Endorsement”

February 07,  2020

On January 19, The New York Times’s Editorial Board broke with tradition by endorsing two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. As usual, the vapid media commentary on this double endorsement missed the most important points. Like the Democratic Party establishment, with which the Times is aligned, these editors are badly out of touch with the mood of the voters, and oblivious to the day’s most fundamental political reality: that the American political system is thoroughly broken. Unwilling to accept this tragic fact, the Editorial Board crafted an “endorsement” so slanted in favor of Klobuchar that one wonders why they bothered to mention Warren at all.

The editors revealed their distance from reality in their endorsement’s most crucial paragraph: “There are legitimate questions about whether our democratic system is fundamentally broken. Our elections are getting less free and fair, Congress and the courts are increasingly partisan, foreign nations are flooding society with misinformation, a deluge of money flows through our politics. And the economic mobility that made the American dream possible is vanishing.” Let’s unpack this paragraph to reveal what it says about the editors’ mindset.

“There are legitimate questions” say the editors, about whether our democracy is broken. Really? Legitimate questions? The facts show unambiguously that our political system is broken and that the American people know it. There is no “legitimate question” about this. How else can we explain how a morally depraved buffoon, with no prior political experience and a laughable policy program, could secure the presidential nomination of one of our two major parties, and go on to win the White House? In a functioning, healthy democracy, Donald Trump’s candidacy would have remained what it was when he first launched it, namely a punchline.

The editors go on to observe – correctly – that our elections are “getting less free and fair,” but the hyperlink from this phrase leads only to an editorial about the failure of Congress to  pay for new voting machines to prevent hacking. In that editorial, the Board blames both parties for Mitch McConnell’s persistent inaction on these bills, accusing Democrats of “hardening partisan divisions” by offering bills which require campaigns to notify federal authorities of any offers they receive of foreign assistance. The editors object that such bills are a “rebuke of President Trump,” which is an odd comment, considering that Trump’s campaign actively welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 election, an offense for which he deserved to be impeached. And the editors think that it constitutes “partisan bickering” to rebuke Mr. Trump for this shocking conduct? In the eternal journalistic quest to appear even-handed, the Editorial Board almost willfully overlooks one of the ugliest realities of today’s politics: that the GOP has been working overtime to rig elections by taking the vote away from Americans who might not support them, by taking partisan gerrymandering to new levels, and through the rapidly proliferating tactics of voter suppression.

The editors then comment that “Congress and the courts are increasingly partisan,” as if “partisanship” were some kind of mysterious virus that afflicted members of both political parties at random and in equal measure. In fact, however, the country’s dangerous partisan divisions are largely a Republican project. To take just one example, led by Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans and Mr. Trump have systematically packed the federal courts with ideological conservatives. Not content with rigging elections, the GOP is thereby deliberately making elections less important, inviting extreme conservatives to legislate from the bench without ever having to face the voters. The hyperlink leading from the editors’ comment on partisanship brings the reader to an editorial about how the Supreme Court has blocked the federal courts from intervening in cases of extreme partisan gerrymandering. While the Times’s editors are right to rebuke the Court for this destructive ruling, they conclude their remarks by complaining that this means “entrenched state Republican and Democratic majorities” will engage in unacceptable gerrymandering. Yet although there has been one recent example of aggressive gerrymandering by Democrats in Maryland, the wave of extreme partisan gerrymanders since the 2010 census has overwhelmingly been a Republican project, as have been the scores of new laws restricting access to the ballot. Here the Times Editorial Board has committed two grave sins: pretending that both parties are equally at fault (so that the Times can appear unbiased), and ignoring a terrifying larger pattern: that the GOP has been mounting a concerted assault on our democracy, not only by rigging elections and packing the courts, but by persistently lying to the voters (e.g. about climate change and impeachment), and by supporting a would-be dictator in the White House.

One terrible irony about the Times editorial endorsing Klobuchar and Warren is that even as the editors give a pass to the GOP for their divisive and antidemocratic behavior, so that the editors can present themselves as unbiased, they have written a pseudo-endorsement so biased against Warren – and at times so grossly dishonest – that it would have been better had they not mentioned Warren at all. The Editorial Board presents Klobuchar and Warren as emblematic of two competing visions within the Democratic Party: “Some in the party view President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible. Then there are those who believe that President Trump was the product of political and economic systems so rotten that they must be replaced.”

The second sentence in this passage refers to Warren and misstates her views so dramatically as to border on an outright, deliberate lie (or “damned lie,” as the saying goes). Warren, who rightly describes herself as “capitalist to the core,” has never suggested that our economic system needs to be “replaced.” Rather, like earlier reformist Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, she merely argues that business needs to be better regulated, so as to prevent abuses, and that we should use taxes and social welfare programs to distribute more fairly the wealth that our capitalist economy produces. As for our political system, while Warren correctly observes that it has become “rigged” in favor of corporations and wealthy individuals, she suggests no changes more dramatic than finding a way to overturn Citizens United, so that our government need no longer be for sale to the wealthiest campaign donors. While her campaign finance reforms are too timid – more on that below – they certainly do not amount to “replacing” our political system.

Although the Editorial Board misrepresents the character of Warren’s platform, the editors do accurately capture Klobuchar’s naïve optimism, a stance with which the Times evidently agrees. The editors put Klobuchar – and by implication Biden and Buttigieg – among the Democrats who “view President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible.” These so-called “realist” candidates offer no significant change in our political system, and constantly peddle nonsense about bipartisanship, about how they will “work across the aisle” to “get things done.” The Editorial Board shares these candidates’ childlike faith in bipartisanship, as they demonstrate when they tout Klobuchar’s small-bore legislative achievements. Where have Klobuchar and these editors been for the last ten years? Barack Obama bent over backward for eight years in his quest for bipartisanship, and all it got him was obstructionism, abuse, and racist challenges to the legitimacy of his presidency. The editors are mightily impressed that Klobuchar secured bipartisan support for a measure which helped pay to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits. Meanwhile, our infrastructure is crumbling, we have no immigration policy, health care is too expensive, economic inequality stands at scandalous levels, and the planet is on fire. Do Klobuchar or her fans at the Times really believe that the GOP will cooperate in a meaningful effort to address these problems? If the editors believe this, they might consider that addressing any of these serious challenges, much less all of them, will require massive increases in revenue, which can only come from steep tax hikes on the corporations and wealthy individuals who currently pay for most politicians’ election campaigns, including those of Klobuchar, Biden and Buttigieg. And this problem brings us to the most fundamental of the political realities which the Editorial Board has overlooked: that our government is for sale to campaign donors, and that until we fix this problem, our country cannot address its many problems, nor can the American people’s faith in our democracy be restored.

To Warren’s credit, she – like Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer – has at least called attention to the problem of money in politics, by pointing out that the political system is “rigged” in favor of the wealthy. But she still has not explained to the voters how the system got rigged, nor how we can fix it. Luckily, it would not be difficult to remedy both deficits in her message. The system got rigged because election campaigns got very expensive, which has given enormous power to the corporations and wealthy individuals who donate money to these campaigns. The solution is equally simple: make the voters into the donors who really count, so that politicians will listen to the voters and serve their interests. We make the voters into the donors via a mechanism that has been called “democracy dollars:” the federal government gives every registered voter $50 of campaign cash for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters cannot withdraw this cash for personal use, and instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. This system would make it possible for every serious candidate to fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely with money that comes from the voters, and any candidate who chose to rely mainly on large private donations would be publicly shamed and likely lose their election. This simple change in how election campaigns are financed would restore the power in our political system to the American people, which is, after all, the way it is supposed to work in a democracy.

If Warren would make democracy dollars a leading issue – and if she would abandon her unpopular stances on health care and on this nonsense about decriminalizing border crossings – she could be the Democrats’ strongest candidate, and could unify the party around an issue that deserves to be at the center of this year’s elections: saving American democracy from big money, antidemocratic GOP policies (e.g. voter suppression), and Donald Trump. This is an issue that would turn out the Democratic base, while appealing to independents and moderate Republicans in the crucial swing states.

To sum up my critique, the Times’s endorsement of Klobuchar and Warren demonstrates that the editors of the world’s finest newspaper – together with the Democratic Party’s establishment, with which the Times is aligned – fail to understand the most important realities of American politics today. The most fundamental of these realities is that our political system has been for sale to campaign donors for several decades, eviscerating our democracy and producing policies (e.g. climate change denial and tax cuts for the wealthy) that run counter to the interests of most Americans. Although few voters understand the essential role of campaign cash in this national tragedy, all Americans understand that they have been disenfranchised and that the political system is broken. This is why we have an incompetent moral monster in the Oval Office: because Trump was an outsider, because he ridiculed and humiliated every professional politician he ran against, because he promised to “drain the swamp” and overthrow a corrupt political establishment, and because he boasted of financing his campaign with his own money (and thus not money from donors who could corrupt him), Trump plausibly appeared to offer fundamental change to our political system. Since this promise of change has proved hollow, Democrats could win a sweeping victory – and overcome Republican obstructionism – if only they would show the American people a realistic path to fundamental change, to restoring our broken democracy. Among the Democratic candidates, only Sanders and Warren have even talked about fundamental political change, though neither has shown the voters how that change might be accomplished, even though the needed reform – democracy dollars – has been hiding in plain sight. And Warren is the only plausible candidate, since Sanders’s age and the poisonous socialist label disqualify him.

The Editorial Board has evidently intuited enough of these realities to see that they had to include Warren in their endorsement. However, they remained blind enough that they couldn’t stop themselves from dishonestly characterizing the nature of the voters’ choice: “Both the radical and the realist models warrant serious consideration.” By “radical” they mean Warren, yet in policy terms she is no more radical than was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By “realist” they mean Klobuchar, which means they clearly are endorsing her over Warren – who is going to vote for a candidate whose views are “unrealistic?” Yet in what sense of the word is Klobuchar a realist? In her absurd fantasies of bipartisanship, of working with Mitch McConnell? In her persisting in a campaign which no one thinks she can win? Unable to see or unwilling to accept the harsh realities of American politics, the editors of the Times have driven themselves into an analytical dead end so painful that it compelled them to be dishonest, something they may well have never done before. They operate our finest newspaper, a national treasure that remains a bulwark of our democracy, but in this particular case we must say to them: shame on you.