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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Who runs the Democratic Party?

 At least since the 2022 election, it seems to me, average Democrats have made clear to pollsters that they would prefer a different presidential candidate to 81-year old Joe Biden.  I have written before that Biden's rise to the White House tells a lot about what is wrong with American politics.  During his very long Senate career, Biden combined a cozy relationship with corporate interests--many of whom headquarter in Delaware for legal reasons--with the ability to make appropriately liberal noises on a variety of issues.  He eventually tried twice for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008, and demonstrated no appeal to primary voters on either occasion.  Then, however, Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.  Like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore--three of whom had also tried and failed to win their party's nomination for president--Biden immediately emerged as a very serious presidential candidate.  I have speculated before that the vice presidency confers both national name recognition, and access to leading donors.  Being first lady did the same thing for Hillary Clinton.  This week, the New York Times printed a remarkable story enlightening me as to how important donors can be.  

The story focused on Jeffrey Katzenberg, a very successful ex-studio head in Hollywood, described in the piece as "one of the most prolific cash generators for Democratic presidents for a generation." The story, by Peter Baker, does not tell us how he and Biden got to know each other, and it doesn't say anything about Katzenberg's role in the 2020 primary campaign.  Perhaps it was enough that Biden succeeded Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Democratic establishment.  Both Biden and some of his staffers, we learn, talk to Katzenberg, a dynamo, several times a week.  He helped put together the State of the Union address.  The real point of the story is this:  a number of other major contributors, apparently, shared average Democrats' concerns about Biden when he announced his candidacy for re-election last year.  Katzenburg took on the mission of persuading them that Biden was up to the job, partly by bringing them into the oval office to see him in action themselves.  And that apparently worked.  None of them backed another possible candidate, and none ever emerged.

Before 1960, leading politicians in both parties, not campaign contributors, played the most important role in deciding who their candidates would be.  Franklin Roosevelt carefully cultivated Democratic leaders around the country while he was governor of New York from 1929 through 1932, and that secured him the critical 1932 nomination for president.  Theodore Roosevelt was far more popular than incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, but he could not overcome the opposition of party leaders and win the Republican nomination.  (The party professionals paid dearly for supporting Taft in that case, as the Democrats won control of the government  handily.)  Richard Nixon owed his career to his cultivation of Republicans around the country.  In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to convince local party leaders like Richard Daley in Illinois and David Lawrence in Pennsylvania that a Catholic could win the election and would not hurt their local parties in order to get the nomination.  These party professionals were in day-to-day contact with ordinary voters.  Today's contributors are not.  The only national politician with a sincere, devoted following among the electorate is, of course, Donald Trump.

Presidential primaries were introduced in some states early in the twentieth century, and by 1932, when Roosevelt won a number of them and lost two others, they had some influence.  They seem to have fallen out of favor between `1932 and 1960, but they allowed Kennedy to prove that he was electable even in overwhelmingly protestant areas like West Virginia, and by the 1970s they had become the mechanism for choosijng almost all the delegates. That was supposed to put the power to select the nominee in the hands of the people, but it hasn't.  The only candidate before Trump who used primaries to defeat the establishment's choice was Barack Obama in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, and even then, the establishment split and parts of it went over to him before the race was over.  Thanks to various Supreme Court decisions, money is more powerful in US politics than ever.

It is hard to believe that Katzenberg's influence does not also extend to policy, and he and Biden reacted publicly to the October 7 attacks in exactly the same way: by condeming Hamas and expressing unequivocal support for Israel.  That, however, is much less important to me than contributors' power to choose party's presidential nominee, based mainly on  how the nominee treats them.  Let me be clear: I do not expect any drastic campaign finance reform to change this situation.  This is where history has taken us.  Following up on last week's post, I have written this one to to change the world, but simply to understand it.  That's a paraphrase of a famous man, and I wonder if anyone will recognize it.

Sunday, June 09, 2024


 My birthday, which has just passed, always coincides roughly with the end of the academic year, which even though I am no longer living on an academic calendar still always provokes reflection.  There has been plenty to write about in the last two weeks, starting with Donald Trump's conviction in New York, and including the continuing war in Gaza and a story in today's New York Times on the spread of Islamic terrorism in West Africa--a further step in the catastrophe of US foreign policy that began in Afghanistan and Iraq and spread to Syria, Egypt, and Libya under the Obama administration.  The influence of inflatoin upon the election is also very much in the news.  Yet for the time being I seem to have lost my appetite for analyzing these milestones on our uncertain road.  The enterprise of American journalism, like the enterprise of American history--which has taken up far more of my time--has relied from the beginning on the belief in progress and a story which, while full of twists and turns, is always neaded for a happier ending.  I now find this very difficult to believe. In addition, pointing out what has gone wrong has usually had a corollary: suggesting how we might fix it.  I don't have much faith in solutions that I might propose.

Thus, yes, Donald Trump in my opinion was clearly guilty of the offense of which he was charged, and after reading the judge's charge to the jury I thought that the legal argument behind the case was a lot stronger than many continue to argue.  The evidence clearly showed that he falsified records to make it possible for him to win the election.  Yet months before he did so, his nomination had confirmed the bankrupt collapse of the Republican Party,which had not been able to find a candidate that could defeat him.  Shortly thereafter his victory over Hillary Clinton showed that the Democratic Party suffered from the same problem.  And now, eight years later, Trump leads Biden in the polls and has established himself, I think, as the most personally powerful politician in the country since Ronald Reagan.  And the biggest reason, I think, is that he, unlike any established political figure, has exploited the weaknesses of the establishment order that has dominated our politics at least since Clinton.  Recent focus groups show voters favoring him because they think that we need drastic change, and that only he will provide it.  Is that so wrong?  The conviction will not change their minds.  And whether he is guilty of various charges or not, who can deny that the various trials are indeed an attempt by the establishment to do what it has not been able to do in the broader court of public opinion--to eliminate him as a political factor?

Our establishment's embrace of the global free market, which took its biggest steps under Clinton, with NAFTA, and Bush II with China's accession to the WTO, has probably done more than anything else to discredit it in the eyes of millions of hardworking Americans.  That however was not all.  Barack Obama accepted the view of his Boomer advisers that the crash of 2008 did not reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our economy, and that it could be weathered merely with a massive influx of liquidity from the Fed.  The Democrats abandoned the New Deal solutions of putting people to work to fight unemployment and restructuring mortgages to save homes and farms.  The establishment also relies completely on the Fed to fight inflation.  Inflation has dramatically influenced US politics for generations.  It was the biggest reason for the Republican Congressional sweep of 1946.  It hurt Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and in 1971, Richard Nixon, unlike Joe Biden, saw high inflation as a critical threat to his re-election, and actually imposed wage and price controls.  He eventually lifted them, and further inflation helped bring down Gerald Ford in 1976 and crush Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Biden and the Democrats have been in denial over inflation for three years now and I haven't seen a single mention of possible wage and price controls.  We no longer expect our government to act to help ordinary people against it.  The same is true about our housing crisis, apparently the worst since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  Then the federal government took a number of serious steps to encourage the construction of new, relatively low-cost housing around the country.  The housing stock expanded so rapidly that even black Americans, who had to cope with segregation, increased their percentage of homeownership dramatically in the decades after the war.  Now we are hearing nothing from the government about the problem.  In those days the country felt a debt to the young adults who had won the war for us and their families.  Now we have already forced millions of young adults to mortgage their futures just to attend college.  And last, but hardly least, we have lost the common values, the sense of common purpose, and the common identity that in the past allowed us to achieve great things.  

It has been two weeks since I posted something here, and I have very busy weeks ahead.  I may be moved to post again in a week or two, or it may be longer.  Believe me, these observations are very painful to record, but I can't ignore them.  I hope to get to a different place for myself and my faithful readers of 20 years standing, but I don't know exactly where that place will be.  Meanwhile, as Orwell had his garden, I have music, family and friends, and the continuing drama of athletic competition to keep me fully engaged with life.