Democratic Candidates for President in 2020

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Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders: Change We Can Believe In

W.J. Astore

Yes, it’s much too early, but I count at least fourteen Democratic candidates for president in the 2020 election.  Here are a few impressionistic words on each of the candidates.

The True Progressives

1.  Bernie Sanders: Bernie is principled, sincere, honest, and dedicated to helping working people.  Yes, he’s a “Democratic socialist,” which is scary to the mainstream media.  The establishment of the Democratic Party is against him.  Advantage, Bernie.

2.  Elizabeth Warren: She identifies as a “capitalist,” but she’s proven she’s willing to take on Wall Street, the big banks, and other special interests.  She’s intelligent, sharp, and committed.  Her weakness: a lack of charisma and the whole “Pocahontas” angle, i.e. her identifying as Native American on past occasions.

3.  Tulsi Gabbard: A military veteran who’s strongly against regime-change wars, a vocal critic of the military-industrial complex, Tulsi has demonstrated poise, thoughtfulness, and coolness under pressure.  The DNC and media are against her because she’s independent-minded and refuses to bow down before special interests.  A dark horse candidate who may catch fire.  (I’m so excited I’m mixing metaphors.)

The Usual Suspects (Milquetoast Centrists)

1. Cory Booker: A water-bearer for Big Pharma, Booker has a pleasant demeanor but takes few chances.

2.  Kamala Harris: A former prosecutor, Harris seems to love prisons more than schools.

3.  Kirsten Gillibrand: Rumor has it she asked her friends on Wall Street whether it was OK for her to run.  They apparently said “yes,” so she announced her formal candidacy today.

4.  Amy Klobuchar: Already with a sad reputation for abusing her staff and making ill-judged jokes about it, Klobuchar is an uninspiring centrist.

5.  Beto O’Rourke: A millionaire who married a woman who will apparently inherit billions, Beto showed up in Iowa speaking in platitudes about the wonders of democracy in the USA.  His only firm principle is that he believes he deserves to be in the race, perhaps because he looks a little like a Kennedy if you squint really hard.

The Governors

1.  John Hickenlooper: A governor from Colorado, Hickenlooper made his money by opening a micro-brewery.  At a campaign appearance in Iowa, somebody broke a glass, and he helped to clean it up.  Though he was afraid to say he was a “capitalist” on TV, Hickenlooper may have some potential.

2.  Jay Inslee: Governor of Washington State, he’s made fighting climate change the central issue of his campaign.  He’s got one of the big issues right, so advantage to Inslee.

Wild Cards and Also-Rans

1.  Andrew Yang: A former venture capitalist and unconventional thinker, Yang has caught people’s attention by talking about a guaranteed income for all.  A possible anti-Trump in the sense he’s a successful financier with brains and heart.

2.  Pete Buttigieg: A gay mayor who’s also a veteran, Buttigieg got some air time recently by referring to Trump as a “porn president.”  Comes across like a young Mr. Rogers.

3.  Julian Castro: Formerly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama.  And that’s all I know.

4.  John Delaney: I just saw his name today.  The end.

The Ultimate Centrist and Establishment Man

1. Joe Biden: Hasn’t yet announced, but it looks like he will.  The presumed front-runner based on name recognition and his loyal service as Obama’s VP for eight years.  Will have the full support of the mainstream media, the DNC, and the Washington establishment.  A decent-enough man, Biden is effectively a moderate Republican.

Bracing Views, in all its power, fully supports Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, real progressives who want to effect real change.

Which candidates do you like, readers?  And which ones don’t you like?  Look forward to your comments!

Update (3/19/19): Apparently two more candidates are waiting in the wings: Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum.  Both are candidates of color who recently ran close but unsuccessful races in Georgia and Florida.  Perhaps not presidential material (due to lack of experience on the national stage), they may emerge as strong candidates for a VP slot.

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Big Walls, Fruitless Wars, and Fortress America

W.J. Astore

At one time, not too long ago, a great symbol of America was the Statue of Liberty.  She lit her torch to guide immigrants yearning to breathe free.  America saw itself as the land of liberty, the land of opportunity, open to (nearly) all, even to the most humble and most desperate.

And there was, I think, some truth to these symbols and myths.  My father’s parents, immigrants from Italy, came to America prior to World War I.  My mother’s ancestors came earlier, of English and Swedish ancestry, also seeking the promise of America.  Sure, the streets weren’t paved with gold; sure, my parents ended up working in a factory for low wages, but that’s also where they met, and eventually my dad did earn a civil service job as a firefighter that lifted my family into the lower end of the middle class.

Unless you’re Native American, we’re all recent immigrants to America, some of us forcefully brought here against our will, most notably African slaves.  Despite all the harsh realities of U.S. history, such as periodic bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, the inhumanity of slavery, murderous labor strife, and so forth, America nevertheless had an ideal, however imperfectly realized, of openness.  Of newness, freshness, inclusiveness.

But that ideal, in decline, I believe, since the 1950s and the creation of the permanent war state, is now dead.  America today is the land of walls and wars, a land of “Keep Out” signs.  A fortress mindset prevails today, a lockdown mentality, justified in the name of safety and security, to keep “them” out.  You know: the undesirables of the moment.  Mexicans.  Muslims.  “Foreigners.”  Maybe, in the future, you.

All this is on my mind as I’m reading Greg Grandin’s insightful new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Grandin traces the idea of frontiers in America and more generally the idea of limits.  I was struck again while reading his book of Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism: his talk of there being no limits in America, his rejection of border walls, even his encouragement of immigrant labor and visas, calculated though such positions were (i.e. winning more of the Hispanic vote in key states like Texas).

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Forget about “It’s morning again in America,” a slogan under Reagan.  Under Trump, it’s crime, it’s gangs, it’s drugs, it’s bad hombres pouring over the border, bringing death and mayhem to America.  Only walls and weapons can stop them.  I was struck by a reference Grandin makes at the end of his book to Trump saying that barbed wire “can be a beautiful sight” when it’s used on America’s southern border to keep out asylum seekers from Central America.  I remember spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties being sung about as beautiful in my youth, but not barbed wire or Trump’s big “beautiful” wall.

When did it all go wrong?  Grandin provocatively connects America’s failing wars and fading empire to its fortress- and prison-favoring mentality today.  You might call it the real closing of the American mind.  And perhaps the shuttering of our hearts as well as our minds.  Grandin doesn’t mince words about America today: “But it’s hard to think of a period in the nation’s history,” he writes, “when venality and disillusionment have been so sovereign, when so many of the country’s haves have nothing to offer but disdain for the have-nots.”

I’ve just begun to plumb the meanings of Grandin’s book, which is another way of saying its lessons run deep.  In this America that I live in today, a land in which big walls are celebrated to keep the huddled masses out, a land constantly and needlessly at war around the globe, a land defined more and more by a fortress mentality rather than one that favors liberty, I find myself increasingly estranged, even lost.

An Anti-War Democrat Can Win the Presidency in 2020

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Isn’t it time to get behind the peace flag?

W.J. Astore

How can Democrats win the presidency in 2020?  The answer is simple: field a candidate who’s genuinely anti-war.  A candidate focused on America and the domestic health of our country rather than on global empire.  A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard, for example, who’s both a military veteran and who’s anti-war.  (Gabbard does say, however, that she’s a hawk against terrorism.)  Another possibility is Bernie Sanders, who’s beginning to hone his anti-war bona fides, and who’s always been focused on domestic issues that help ordinary Americans, e.g. a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care for all, and free college education at public institutions.

Many Democrats still don’t recognize that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because she was more hawkish than Trump on foreign policy and wars.  (As an aside, the burdens of war are most likely to fall on those people Hillary dismissed as “deplorables.”)  Most Americans are tired of endless wars in faraway places like Afghanistan and Syria as well as endless global commitments that drive a “defense” budget that stands at $716 billion this year, increasing to $750 billion next year.  Throwing more money at the Pentagon, to put it mildly, isn’t the wisest approach if your goal is to end wasteful wars and restore greatness here at home.

Many of Trump’s supporters get this.  I was reading Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Forgotten, which examines the roots of Trump’s victory by focusing on Pennsylvania.  Bradlee interviews a Vietnam veteran, Ed Harry, who had this to say about war and supporting Trump:

“We’re tired.  Since I’ve been born, we’ve been in a state of war almost all the time.  When does it stop?  We’re pissing away all our money building bombs that kill people, and we don’t take care of veterans at home that need the help.”

Harry says he voted for Trump “because he was a nonpolitician” rather than a liberal or conservative.  Trump, the “nonpolitician,” dared to talk about America’s wasteful wars and the need to end them, whereas Hillary Clinton made the usual vague yet tough-sounding noises about staying the course and supporting the military.

Again, Democrats need to listen to and embrace veterans like Ed Harry when he says: “All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of the people.”

I’d like to cite one more Vietnam veteran, Richard Brummett, who was interviewed in 2018 by Nick Turse at The Nation.  Brummett, I think, would identify more as a liberal and Harry more as a conservative, but these labels really mean little because these veterans arrive at the same place: arguing against America’s endless wars.

Here’s what Brummett had to say about these wars: “I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this.  All these naive 20-year-olds, 18-year-olds, are getting chewed up by these wars–and then there’s what we’re doing to the people of all these countries.  The list gets longer all the time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria.  Who is benefiting from all this agony?  I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died–as a really old guy–the obituary would read: ‘America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.'”

If Democrats want to lose again, they’ll run a “centrist” (i.e. a pseudo-Republican) like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris who’ll make the usual noises about having a strong military and keeping the world safe by bombing everywhere.  But if they want to win, they’ll run a candidate who’s willing to tell the truth about endless wars and their incredibly high and debilitating costs.  This candidate will promise an end to the madness, and as a result he or she will ignite a fire under a large and diverse group of voters, because there are a lot of people out there like Harry and Brummett who are fed up with forever war.

The Syrian Troop Withdrawal That Wasn’t

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Stability operations?

W.J. Astore

After calling for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of Syria, President Trump is now in favor of keeping a “small…stabilizing force” there.  What a shame.  Trump is the ultimate flip-flopper, bowing to the neo-cons and the Washington establishment whenever it’s expedient for him to do so.

What, exactly, is America’s national security interest in Syria?  Trump says these U.S. troops will help to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, but surely Syria, Turkey, Russia, and other countries in the region have more incentive — and far more capability — to keep the Islamic State down and out.  But let’s say the Islamic State did make a comeback in Syria after all U.S. troops left.  In that case, couldn’t U.S. troops just redeploy there?  Why are “boots on the ground” needed in perpetuity in Syria to monitor the dead carcass of ISIS?

Once the U.S. commits troops to a region or country, they seem to linger — and linger.  In rare cases when troops finally are withdrawn and something bad happens, you instantly hear how it’s the fault of those who called for troop withdrawals, as if U.S. troops bring stability wherever they go.

It’s a strange belief.  The U.S. celebrates its troops as warriors, trains them in kinetic operations, outfits them with the most destructive technologies, and then deploys them to bring stability and peace to regions those troops barely understand.  For a different vision of the “stability” American troops bring, one might ask the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, to name only three recent examples.

It’s high time, America, that we bring the troops home.  Our national defense is not advanced by worldwide troop deployments in the name of “stability.”  Trump once seemed to recognize this, however fleetingly, as a candidate.  As president, however, he’s become yet another pawn of U.S. military interventionists and neo-cons.  As Trump would say, sad.

Jared Kushner’s Top Secret Clearance

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On his majesty’s secret service

W.J. Astore

Word is that President Trump intervened to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a “top secret” security clearance.  So what?  That’s the president’s prerogative, and Kushner needs this clearance to perform all the magic he’s apparently capable of, such as reinventing government, negotiating with Mexico, solving the opioid epidemic, and bringing peace to the Middle East.

Top Secret security clearances are quite common in America: more than one million people have them, and at least another three million have secret/confidential ones.  Of course, not all TS clearances are created equal.  They all require background investigations, but some are “special,” and some are SCI, which stands for compartmentalized information.  In other words, just because you have a TS clearance doesn’t mean you can access all TS information.  You have to have “a need to know.”  You have to be “read in” to certain programs.  And some programs are so secret that only a few people have access to them.

One would assume Kushner needs access to top secret intelligence in his job as a “peace envoy” for the Middle East.  Lacking such a clearance, Kushner would have to be fired, but as Trump’s son-in-law and as a special friend to the Israelis and Saudis, Jared is not about to be fired.  Trump apparently lied about intervening to approve Jared’s clearance (“The president was equally forthright a month ago when he unequivocally denied that he intervened in any way to get a permanent security clearance for his son-in-law,” notes The Guardian), but Trump lies a lot.  It’s a little like breathing for him.

What’s the real issue here?  For me, as I wrote about back in 2015, it’s how the government uses classification schemes to keep secrets from us, the American people.  Apparently, either we or they can’t handle the truth.  To cite myself:

Our government uses security classification not so much to keep us safe, but to keep the national security state safe — safe from the eyes of the American people.

As The Guardian reported in 2013:

“A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned in December that rampant over-classification is ‘imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public’ and, worse, ‘enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance’. In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20m filing cabinets filled with text.”

Nowadays, seemingly everything is classified.  And if it’s classified, if it’s secret, we can’t know about it. Because we can’t be trusted with it.  That’s a fine idea for an autocracy or dictatorship, but not so fine for a democracy.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people?  Impossible when nearly everything of any importance is classified.

America, Trump or Jared’s loose lips aren’t the problem.  The problem is a government shrouded in secrecy.

Trump and North Korea

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All aboard the “peace train”?

W.J. Astore

This week Trump is off to Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.  Revealingly, the bar is already being set very low for what may be accomplished at this meeting.  Trump’s original goal was denuclearization, meaning that North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons program and remove whatever atomic bombs or warheads it has.  But North Korea isn’t stupid.  They know what happened to Qaddafi when he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Libya.  For North Korea, nuclear WMD is a sort of insurance policy — a rational arsenal to deter the U.S. from launching a regime-change war.

Coming out of the last summit in Singapore between these men, Trump essentially declared “peace in our time,” even though North Korea has yet to make any significant changes in its nuclear weapons program.  Again, why should North Korea surrender its weapons?

If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.”  It’s encouraging that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, and that Kim Jong-un is no longer approving launches of missiles in the general direction of Hawaii.  But is there any treaty being negotiated with substantive details of verification?  Do the North Koreans truly have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons?  I’d say the answer to both questions is no.

Interestingly, at the request of the Trump administration, the Japanese government has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his attempted rapprochement with North Korea.  Perhaps Trump’s peculiar brand of diplomacy may ease tensions with North Korea.  Detente may be followed by a negotiated settlement and an end to the rancor produced by the Korean War.  Such an ending would indeed be prize-worthy.

Trump’s quixotic efforts seem more vanity project than a well-considered project for peace.  Yet perhaps a vain wannabe dictator like Trump has an edge in understanding a vain and very real dictator like Kim Jong-un.  Trump, after all, did speak of a special bond he has with Kim, one that’s akin to falling in love.  And doesn’t love conquer all?

Trump, sadly, is probably being played by North Korea.  But who cares if lives are saved?  Facing possible famine, the North Korean people could surely use food and other aid.  Let’s hope the U.S. is able to give them some in exchange for promises, however vague, of denuclearization, however defined.

At this point, I’m tired of thinking of countries and national egos.  I’d rather think of saving lives.  Why not start in North Korea?

Of Historical Statues and Monuments

This week, a Polish journalist wrote to me about this article and America’s squabbling over statues and monuments. Here is my reply to him. I start by agreeing with his suggestion that statues and monuments are arguably more important today for their sense of permanence in our increasingly digital and ephemeral world:

The past is always with us, isn’t it? And statues are a manifestation, a physical reminder, of that past. They have a sense of permanence that the digital world lacks. So I think you’re right: What makes them memorable, in part, is their very physicality, their sense of permanence, in a world of impermanent tweets and instant selfies.

They also serve as a marker, a reminder, to what we collectively believe is important. But part of what makes history fascinating is that we’re always arguing over its meaning. The USA today is especially disputatious, as politicians like Donald Trump appeal to statues and memorials as a way to rally supporters against changes in American culture. These statues serve as powerful symbols and convenient rallying points. Their public presence is not just a manifestation of memory, but a discourse about or display of democracy and its meanings in America.

And that’s what Americans are grappling with now. Think about Trump’s motto, “Make America Great Again.” Well, “greatness” is allegedly shown in our statues. These were “great” people; that’s why we built statues and monuments to them. In light of Trump’s motto, should we be returning to the times of men like Lee, Jackson, and other Confederate worthies? Is that what greatness means? Or does it have a much different definition, and also one that has shifted over time, as America has itself shifted and changed? If so, should we then be changing our statues in light of these shifts?

Bracing Views

vietnam To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.

W.J. Astore

Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.

Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.

For me, statues and…

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