Rothman At-Large

Joe Biden's Kickoff Video Made Me Appreciate Mayor Pete All the More

April 28, 2019

Charlottesville. Neo-Nazis. Kluxers. Joe Biden homed in on Trumpish grotesqueries in the video kicking off his presidential bid—as if to say, “You need me to return us to the good old days of yore.” No one except bigots or Republican hacks would deny the cosmic-level threats here, or President Trump’s crooked and traitorous ways.


Why, then, did Biden’s well-crafted video disappoint me and make me grateful that more promising Democrats are running for president?


Simple. Albeit outstanding artistically, the video just reinforced a common perception of the 76-year-old Biden as more rooted in the past than eager to move on to the future. Ahead I’ll opine on my favorite of his primary rivals so far, the more forward-looking Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, while not glossing over Buttigieg’s own flaws. But first back to Uncle Joe.


A smarter video still could have reeled in viewers via Charlottesville images, but only briefly for the sake of contrast. We would have cut to Biden in a factory churning out clean electric cars, then to him on a hilltop overlooking a pastoral scene of windmills, then to Joe in a high-tech hospital room, then to him talking to workers at a bridge construction site, then to teachers at a multiracial, multi-ethnic school. All this time he would have been discussing the related issues—the environment, jobs and energy sources for the future, healthcare reform, infrastructure, education, race and immigration. Timely bread-and-butter appeals worked just fine for many Democrats during the 2016 congressional elections. America, on the other hand, is sick of Trump, even attacks on him. I love the idea of continued investigations leading perhaps to impeachment. But it’s most telling that even the Mueller Report, for now, hasn’t claimed its full due of public indignation toward the president.


The Charlottesville fixation wasn’t the Biden campaign’s only mistake in the anti-Trump video. Inflation-adjusted wages for working people have been more or less stagnant for years—before millions of young voters were even born. Is this the glorious past Biden wants to return us to? The same messes that commentators have rightly said helped give us Trump in the first place? Similarly, racism has long been a part of the American scene; and in an increasingly diverse Democratic Party, reflecting the country’s changing demographics, a 76-year-old white dude’s nostalgia just isn’t going to fly even though he says he has evolved. Same in regard to gender matters and me-too issues.


No, millions of voters have not been so enamored of America, either in recent years or going back to the late 20th century. Corporate-friendly politicians opened us up to free trade without adequate protections for workers through job retraining or decent payments to see them through the transition. The weakening of labor unions didn’t help, either.


Likewise, in past statements, Biden has unwittingly come across as too much of a creature of the Northeast, as opposed to someone in touch with the country as a whole. In 2017 at the University of Pennsylvania, Biden complained: “You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about that guy working on the assembly line making 60,000 bucks a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess in a restaurant.” Please, Joe. The real median household income in the U.S. in 2017 was a mere $61,372, well below the $92,000 in the Biden scenario.


Now, compare Biden to Democrats more in touch with America’s current and future concerns. In Pete Buttigieg, we have a relatively young Rhodes Scholar and gay veteran of Afghanistan who has wreaked miracles in turning around South Bend, Indiana. High-tech start-ups there are thriving in a former Studebaker plant, and condos are springing up downtown. Even Buttigieg’s homosexuality, in the end, may be a tailwind rather than a headwind. The most gung-ho homophobes will probably go for Trump anyway. And even some conservative voters on the fence may be swayed by Buttigieg’s brains, military service and religiosity.  


On top of everything else, the man is just plain likable. Buttigieg projects an air of calm, open-mindedness, empathy and optimism—a stark contrast to the self-absorbed, callous and grumpy Trump. Here is a devout Episcopalian willing at least to try to engage the evangelicals. He is “normal” and above-normal enough in various ways to counter the demonization of LGBT Americans. That, in turn, chips away at the credibility of Pence-style bigots, not just on gender issue but also others. Buttigieg exemplifies the competence that gender-related discrimination, just like racial and ethnic kinds, can cost the country in an era of stepped-up global competition.


Granted, Buttigieg comes with his own negatives, such as the controversy over the firing of a black police chief. Furthermore, many African-Americans in South Bend apparently regarded the mayor’s urban renew efforts as a form of at least accidental “Negro removal,” to use an old expression. If a Huffington Post article is right, that’s far from his only lapse in regard to the poor and minorities (the result not of bigotry but rather of classic technocratic lapses, such as not considering all data). What’s more, I agree with critics calling for more policy specifics from him, even though it’s clear he’s a fast learner capable of picking up ideas from others to complement his own.


The good news is that the defects are repairable—in part through the policy papers and other documents that Buttigieg has yet to share. Take race. Elizabeth Warren drew applause from black women after she came up with a plan to deal with the outrageous rate of maternal mortality among African-Americans. I want to see Buttigieg catch up in such crucial areas. As somebody interested in libraries as poverty reducers, I would urge Buttigieg to propose multiplying the number of K-12 and public librarians from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially people of color. Thousands of school librarians, particularly in minority communities, have lost their jobs in recent years amid mean-spirited budget cuts. Not the best way either to reduce poverty or help assimilate immigrants. I doubt that illiterates make the best medical technicians or computer coders.


For further inspiration, Buttigieg and his policy team should scrutinize The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, by his rival Andrew Yang, which brilliantly lays out problems and possible solutions, such as a guaranteed income for all, including the millions of Americans whom automation will displace while enriching billionaire shareholders. Even National Review, albeit with caveats, has taken notice of Yang as a useful tracker of present and future crises.


How much better to look ahead with a fresh perspective rather than just talking over and over again about the same tired old nostrums dear to the Biden generation. Of course, if Biden can surprise us and beat Buttigieg to the punch, thereby disproving my current belief that he isn’t future-minded enough, that would be wonderful. But don’t count on it happening.

So go, Pete! Just please show us that you’ve learned your lessons from South Bend and can use policy papers, not just rhetoric and campaign glad-handing, to prove you’re sincere.

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Nancy Pelosi vs. Female Misogynists?

January 31, 2019

In a scenic mountain town in Trump country, a professional woman in her 50s scanned the front page of the local daily.


She read a headline about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump—at odds over the partial government shutdown and The Wall.


America’s oldest kindergartner had vowed to hold federal workers hostage until funding came for his monument to bigotry. FBI agents, air traffic controllers and others in crucial jobs could not do their work without worrying about getting paid. Clerks with cancer wondered where the money would come for their chemotherapy.


But guess who the professional woman sided with?


“Can you believe this?” the woman told a friend nearby. “She won’t let him give the State of the Union speech? How petty. I don’t like her.”


The friend, anti-Trump just like the newspaper reader, agreed.


Well, as it happened, Nancy Pelosi was more savvy than petty. She knew that as part of her powers, she could prevent Donald Trump from addressing the House of Representatives. And so she did—forcing Trump to reopen the government, at least temporarily. If this is “petty,” let’s see more of it. And now a question—the main one I’m addressing here: Just why do the two women and so many others hate Nancy Pelosi almost as much as they loathe Donald Trump?


No mystery about many men’s hostility toward her. They find such a powerful woman emasculating.


But what about women? The political junky who overheard the Nancy-hating in the mountain town marvels to me: “Here is a woman who has helped engineer landmark legislation, who has no scandals, who is highly successful at her job, who embraces her role as mother and grandmother, yet she is reviled by many. So she has money—I’d say most of the people in Congress do. We’re fine electing women to serve our country, but when they rise to the top of the power platform, that’s going too far. It’s too much of a threat. To get there, she must be catty, back-stabbing, bossy and bitchy, because as many women believe, that’s what you have to do to rise in your profession. So she must be that way, many think.”


Two words, in my own opinion, sum up much of the problem. Selective misogyny. The adjective is a “must” in many instances. Women can be perfectly enlightened on gender-related issues on the whole but still apparently show a touch of gender self-hatred or at least doubt in certain contexts. The newspaper reader mentioned at the start of this commentary supports the Equal Rights Amendment. What’s more, she is a career woman, a hardworking, well-regarded professional. So we’re not talking about a 19th-century level of conservatism here. Still, the misogyny factor is why, in my previous column in the Georgetown Dish, I said the Democrats cannot win in 2020 with a female at the top of the ticket. As a VP candidate? Very possibly, I’d hope. But not at the top, given the composition of the Electoral College, favoring conservative rural states. I cited research showing that ambitious, power-seeking men did well but that people often resented similar traits in women. Not just males but also females.


My own theory is that the main cause is cultural. So many women, even highly intelligent ones, at times put their brains on autopilot and often let others, especially the men in their lives, do the thinking. That’s what their mothers were expected to do, so why not? They see Nancy Pelosi as a disruptive threat to their core beliefs.


The fact that Pelosi is from the West Coast greatly compounds the perceived crime. Never mind that she grew up in Baltimore. Her mostly liberal politics, her age and her interest in power don’t help. Remember, a lot of people felt this older woman should step aside for someone younger. Would they have been so vehement if Nancy Pelosi had been a man? Hard to say. I myself worry that the Democrats have not opened up enough opportunity for younger people, but I would apply this concern to men as well as women. Still, we’re endlessly lucky in Pelosi’s case that experience triumphed; could rivals for the speakership have fared so well against Trump? Score one for the Speaker and consider anew whether her gender, not just her 78 years, got in her way when she was vying for her old job.


A redeeming trait in some people’s minds might be Nancy Pelosi’s ability to be very female in her outspokenness. She is the mother of five and is perfectly capable of scolding Trump as if he is an out-of-line preschooler. As reported in the Washington Post, she “told colleagues she was ‘trying to be the mom’ in the room when she and Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were at the White House to discuss the wall with the Trump. When the occasion calls for this, she can be subtle about it in a female way. Her daughter Alexandra has said: “She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding. That’s all you need to know about her.”


Permanent relief from the shutdown isn’t assured, but if Nancy Pelosi wins, this will be another reminder of the dangers of misogyny and the related dissing of women. As CEOs and as investors, women have done better than men. And if Pelosi is typical, then, in the wake of the electoral victories of so many new female politicians, we might be a better country.

That’s my take on such matters. It’s all very much in the realm of opinion, and I’d love to hear from others even if they think I’m full of malarkey. How do you feel—especially in regard to why so many women, not just men, hate Nancy Pelosi?

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Love Elizabeth Warren's Ideas - But Fear For America If She's The Democratic Presidential Candidate

January 6, 2019

Elizabeth Warren, in so many ways, is catnip for progressives as fed up with the status quo as I am.

“How did we get here?” she asked in a New Republic interview. “Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie, and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice. They crippled unions so no one could stop them, dismantled the financial rules meant to keep us safe after the Great Depression, and cut their own taxes so they paid less than their secretaries and janitors.”

I love Sen. Warren’s policy recommendations, such as requiring major corporate boards to include some representatives of workers. Her philosophy is the same as mine. Let’s keep capitalism alive by making it fairer.

Sen. Warren’s character appears sterling. She went overboard in playing up her tiny speck of Native American blood, but in the larger context of her life, this is simply an unfortunate aberration. Here is a self-made woman who came out of Oklahoma City to become a Harvard law professor in time, then a U.S. senator—after undergoing the same travails that millions of cash-strapped Americans still suffer. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her major legacy, is a work of policymaking and legislative art.

Why, then, do I fear for the Democrats and even the country as a whole if the party runs her for president? Because, unfairly, so many voters in blue states will see Elizabeth Warren as Hillary Clinton II and perhaps open the way for the reelection of Donald Trump if our aspiring dictator is able to seek a second term. Just 30 percent of participants in one national poll regarded her favorably, while 37 percent were unfavorable. Another poll shows her far behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Iowa.

No mystery here. Sen. Warren’s very positives, especially her passion and intelligence, could be the biggest political negatives for a woman in states more conservative than her own  Massachusetts. She could win a popular majority just as Clinton did. But unless Democrats can miraculously will away the existence of the Electoral College, which tilts in favor of heavily rural states full of misogynists and too many women who defer to them, the barriers most likely could be insurmountable in a general election.

Unfair! I’m a huge believer in Senator Warren not only as a high-level thinker but also as a populist orator. Her economic message will resonate with so many voters in economically besieged places like Appalachia and rusty factory towns. But she likely will still lose out to the misogynists and their trusting wives and girlfriends. Almost three-fifths of Republicans everywhere—forget just the conservatives states—don’t want a female president even though most Americans are open to the idea. What’s more, the Atlantic tells of a disturbing study where the subjects reacted to made-up biographies of male and female state senators described as “ambitious” and having a “strong will to power.” Both sexes regarded those traits as positives for the men, negatives for the women.

Remember, this apparently wasn’t a geographically specific study. Now add in the traditional Southern and rural attitudes toward gender, and factor in the evangelical influences in conservative states. Evangelicals aren’t all alike. But more than a few believe that men, not women, are biblically destined to be the leaders. In fairness to the South and rural states, I also need to add that woman-haters are everywhere, Manhattan included. But in conservative red states, the misogynists are much larger in number and carry far more influence.

One counter argument might be that most of the misogynists wouldn’t vote anyway for Bernie Sanders or other male alternatives to Sen. Warren. But remember, there are degrees of misogyny. And this could matter in battleground states where just a few votes could tip the scales.

Paradoxically, then, with the stakes so high for foes of sexism and with the Electoral College counting so much, women would be better off with a male Democratic candidate in 2020.

Forever? Of course not. We just need to wait for enough of the old-fashioned misogynists to die off.

Alas, the same concerns may apply to two other impressive female Senators from coastal states, California’s Kamala Harris and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, if they run. Sen.  Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota may be an easier sell to heartland voters, but even she would face tough headwinds—her state is still far more progressive than, say, Kansas.

Next consider the math of the Electoral College.

A voter in predominantly rural Wyoming counts several times more than one in heavily urban California. That’s why Donald Trump won the election. He received 61,336,159 votes compared to 62,568,373 for Hillary Clinton, but 306 members of the Electoral College chose him and only 206 favored Clinton. A huge gap. Even a female candidate more likeable than Clinton could be in trouble.

I endlessly admire Elizabeth Warren and think her campaign will be useful in popularizing a much-need vision for America. I just don’t want her to win the nomination. Better that she use leverage from her campaigning—assuming she does better than she is now in Iowa—to convince a more viable candidate to appoint her to a cabinet post where she can work toward her admirable policy goals. Please, Sen. Warren. Cherish your ideas more than any political office, however high.

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