Political Animal

Is Biden-Abrams a Brilliant or Desperate Move?

Jonathan Chait found nine reasons why it’s a great idea for Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams to join together at the outset of the Democratic primaries and run as ticket. As I read his piece, I found myself nodding along in agreement on point after point. They really do complement each other nicely: “old/young, white/black, male/female, North/South, experience/potential.” Biden needs help covering for his vulnerabilities and Abrams can do this for him very effectively. She would get instant credibility and months of time to prove herself on the big stage as someone who is more than a veteran of the Georgia State Assembly.

What Chait doesn’t mention though is the wisdom of floating this idea in public before it has been decided upon as a strategy. What if Biden decides to listen to the detractors who don’t see this as a brilliant plan? What it he decides not to run with Stacey Abrams after all? How is that going to help Biden overcome his “cringe-inducing and sometimes ghastly history of retrograde positions on segregation and criminal justice,” and demonstrate that he’s a “different kind of politician with different policies than those he advocated in the 1970s and 1980s”? It seems to me that Biden isn’t in a position where he can really afford to spurn Abrams, which argues against using a trial balloon in this case.

One obvious downside of the move is that it would remove the suspense surrounding the veep pick should Biden win the nomination. Chait correctly points out that this concern is dwarfed by the imperative to win the nomination in the first place, but he could have at least kept this a tight secret and then made a big splash with the announcement.  If he goes ahead with it now after people have been discussing it for weeks, it won’t have the same impact.

To me, the mistake here is that we’re talking about something that hasn’t happened. If it doesn’t happen, Biden will be badly wounded. And if it does happen, there will be a lot of yawning.

Nonetheless, the most important thing is whether it would help Biden win the primaries and if it would be a formidable ticket that could win in November 2020.  I think the answer to those are questions are “yes” and “yes,” although just because something helps doesn’t mean it will serve as some kind of magic trick.

I’ve said repeatedly that Biden is in a stronger position that most people are giving him credit for, but if he was really that confident he wouldn’t be looking at gimmicks like naming his running mate at the outset.  He knows he  has a mountain to climb and he doesn’t sound like he’s ready to do it alone.

Maybe that’s a sign of self-awareness and a sound strategy. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a sign that he’s got no real chance of reaching the summit.

The Trump Administration’s Losing Streak in the Courts

One of the things that has become clear about Donald Trump is that he is obsessed with winning. During the 2016 campaign, he regularly went off on a riff like this:

Trump actually suggested that he would be winning so much that his supporters would get tired of winning. But according to the Washington Post’s Fred Barbash and Deanna Paul, he is actually on a historic losing streak with the courts.

Federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration at least 63 times over the past two years, an extraordinary record of legal defeat that has stymied large parts of the president’s agenda on the environment, immigration and other matters…

Two-thirds of the cases accuse the Trump administration of violating the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), a nearly 73-year-old law that forms the primary bulwark against arbitrary rule. The normal “win rate” for the government in such cases is about 70 percent, according to analysts and studies. But as of mid-January, a database maintained by the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law shows Trump’s win rate at about 6 percent.

On almost every major initiative other than tax cuts for the wealthy, this president hasn’t been able to work with Congress to pass legislation. So instead, he has issued executive orders and attempted to roll back regulations. All of those have been met with court challenges, and the administration is losing most of those battles.

Contrary to what Trump would have you believe, that losing streak is not simply the result of “liberal judges.”

Democratic appointees, many of them tapped by presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, are responsible for 45 decisions. Republican appointees dating back to President Ronald Reagan issued the other rulings. Magistrate judges, who are not appointed by presidents, made three of the decisions.

On major issues on which multiple judges have ruled, there has been little disagreement among them, no matter where the judges are located or who appointed them.

As the quote above indicates, this administration’s losing streak is primarily a result of their failure to follow the Administrative Procedures Act (APA)

The Administrative Procedure Act, sometimes called the “Magna Carta of administrative law,” is a 1946 statute that governs hundreds of federal agencies…It requires that agencies go through a process known as “notice and comment” before issuing, amending or repealing “substantive rules.” As part of that process, the agency must publish proposed actions in the Federal Register and then give the public at least 30 days to submit feedback. When it finalizes its proposal, the agency must respond to issues raised by the public comments and must explain why it settled upon the course of action that it chose. The explanation must show why the agency’s action is reasonable and not “arbitrary” or “capricious.”

As many people predicted early on with this administration’s attempts to roll back environmental regulations, these court losses have particularly hampered their efforts in that arena. So while there has been a lot of chatter about Trump rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan and new auto emission standards, nothing has actually changed, because those efforts have been tied up in the courts.

To get some idea of how adherence to APA will continue to prove problematic for the administration in rolling back environmental regulations, it is important to keep the historical record in mind. Back in 1963, the Clean Air Act was signed into law, establishing the role of the federal government in regulating contributions to air pollution. The 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts vs EPA affirmed that greenhouse gasses are air pollutants and allowed states to sue the EPA for failure to adequately regulate them. Based on solid scientific evidence, the Obama administration announced the Endangerment Finding in 2009, which declared that “carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases constitute a threat to human health and welfare,” allowing the EPA to regulate those emissions. The Endangerment Finding was the basis for both the Clean Power Plan and higher auto emission standards. Since that finding was announced, the scientific evidence for it has grown stronger.

In order to follow the requirements of APA in their efforts to roll back environmental regulations, the Trump administration would have to not only open their intentions to public comment, they would have to address the issues raised and demonstrate to the court that their actions are not “arbitrary” or “capricious.” In other words, they would have to take the historical record of congressional actions and court rulings into account and ground their actions in scientific fact, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to do.

One of the metrics often applied to Trump and his administration is to evaluate the extent to which their actions spring from malevolence or incompetence. More often than not, it is a combination of the two. When applied to their performance in the courts, the original intent of the policy under consideration might be grounded in malevolence, but their losing streak is clearly a result of incompetence.

What People Don’t Know About Gentrification

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition focuses a lot on gentrification. In December 2016, the NCRC published a report on how communities can “prevent displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods.” In March 2018, it issued findings that showed how housing discrimination in the 1930s shaped gentrification. And over the course of the last two years, it has highlighted how gentrification has impacted specific parts of the United States, like Philadelphia.

That’s why it was interesting when the NCRC issued a report on Tuesday showing that, in most places, gentrification isn’t a problem. According to the group’s findings, moderate levels of gentrification were present in just eight percent of cities and towns. Intensive gentrification occurred in only three percent. Just seven cities accounted for nearly half of the gentrification found nationwide. All but one of them is located on the coasts.

Jesse Van Tol, the chief executive of the NCRC, told the Washington Post he was surprised to find that gentrification was rare in small and medium cities in the country’s interior. But he shouldn’t have been. There’s a mountain of evidence demonstrating how America’s richest metropolitan areas have, economically speaking, pulled away from their peers. In 1978, for example, the per capita income in metro Detroit was almost the same as that of greater New York. But today, greater New York’s per capita income is 38 percent higher. It therefore makes sense that super cities like New York are experiencing lots of gentrification, while most other metros are not.

The NCRC study acknowledges as much. “The study lends weight to what critics say is a concentration not only of wealth, but of wealth-building investment, in just a handful of the nation’s biggest metropolises,” its authors write. But the report is still largely spent highlighting places either undergoing intense gentrification or at risk of doing so. Its proposals, like community land trusts and better zoning laws, are almost all local in nature and tailored to cities where this process is highly prevalent.

This is understandable. The report, after all, is about gentrification. And the NCRC did find that gentrification “is often accompanied by extreme and unnecessary cultural displacement.” Neighborhood rents rise, making life less affordable for existing tenants.

But it’s also indicative of the selective ways that liberals think about housing problems. We tend to emphasize the challenges facing very wealthy, dynamic cities and neglect the problems experienced everywhere else. One NCRC member living in an impoverished, high-crime Baltimore neighborhood had a different interest in gentrification. “When can we get some of that in my community?” she asked. (Ironically, the NCRC report found that Baltimore was experiencing some of the highest levels of gentrification in the country.)

It’s a question that might baffle progressives, who often regard gentrification as presumptively bad. That was evident in parts the NCRC report. “Most low- to moderate-income neighborhoods did not gentrify or revitalize during the period of our study,” the authors wrote. “They remained impoverished, untouched by investments and building booms.” Nevertheless, the authors were still worried about how gentrification might impact these neighborhoods. Their takeaway from this finding was that these places are “vulnerable to future gentrification and displacement.”

That’s unfortunate, because many American cities, like heartland metros with chronically high vacancy, could benefit from the influx of educated professionals currently directed towards the coasts. Indeed, their struggles are the flip side of rising rents in super cities. Both reflect the same issue: the clustering of talent and opportunity in a select few metros (and in both places, it’s minority communities that pay the heaviest price for this problem). But to solve both sets of problems and restore geographic equality, it’s not enough to have better zoning laws in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Washington’s Shaw. We need to get a handle on this nationwide problem.

Thankfully, history provides an answer: strong competition policies. During the 20th century, the federal government used powerful antitrust laws to prevent large corporations headquartered in a handful of metros from snatching capital and talent away from the rest of the country. Meanwhile, the Civil Aeronautics Board kept the price of flying from one city to another the same on a per-mile basis, ensuring that people and businesses in midsize cities could affordably access bigger markets. As a result, the per-capita income of different U.S. regions and cities converged.

But in the 1970s and 80s, politicians and judges began unraveling these regulations, convinced by laissez-faire economists that the free market would keep the playing field even. Ever since, money has flowed out of interior metros and toward a small collection of largely costal cities with a high degree of political and economic power. These are the cities that now struggle most with rising rents. (I wrote at greater length about this inequality—and its political ramifications—in my story for the current issue of the Monthly.)

To reverse course, policymakers should resurrect the same laws and rules that helped generate relative equality between America’s metro areas. That means blocking mega-mergers that increase the concentration of wealth in already wealthy cities. It means breaking up companies that dominate markets, as Elizabeth Warren’s tech proposal would do. And it means re-regulating the airline industry to provide midsize metro areas with more affordable flights.

These measures will help prevent already wealthy cities from being flooded with even more white-collar workers—thereby, limiting further displacement. They will also distribute more economic opportunity to heartland cities where there isn’t enough.

Trump and His Enablers Are Busy Pre-Spinning the Mueller Report

It is becoming obvious that Trump and his enablers are gearing up their efforts to respond to the Mueller report. Their overall two-pronged strategy has been clear for a while now: assume that the special counsel will abide by Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president shouldn’t be indicted, and (2) claim that the president has been exonerated because he hasn’t been indicted.

As Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn pointed out over a year ago, that means a political, rather than legal fight.

Trump’s plan is to forcefully challenge Mueller in the arena he knows best — not the courtroom but the media, with a public campaign aimed at the special counsel’s credibility, especially among Republican voters and GOP members of Congress.

“The public strategy has now subsumed the legal strategy,” said a source who has worked with the president’s lawyers.

It is in that context that Trump unleashed this load of nonsense today.

The president just:

  1. blamed former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia probe well before Mueller was hired;
  2. suggested that Rod Rosenstein, who was nominated by Trump to be the deputy attorney general and confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 94-6, was “appointed” to his position;
  3. said that Mueller was appointed, not to investigate, but to “write a report;”
  4. said that he won “the greatest election of all time in the history of this country” which, even if true (it isn’t), has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation;
  5. referred to Mueller as “a man out of the blue who writes a report;”
  6. said that we have the greatest economy we’ve ever had, which, even if true (it isn’t) has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation.

In other words, he’s throwing out every lie he can think of to discredit Mueller and his findings. But behind closed doors, here is what the president is planning.

In fact, Trump has told his inner circle that, if the report is underwhelming, he will use Twitter and interviews to gloat over the findings, complain about the probe’s cost and depict the entire investigation as an attempt to obstruct his agenda, according to advisers and confidants.

The president’s campaign and pro-Trump outside groups will then likely amplify the message, while his advisers expect the conservative media, including Fox News, to act as an echo chamber. A full-throated attack on the investigation, portraying it as a failed coup, could also be the centerpiece of Trump campaign events, including rallies, they say.

Trump’s enablers at Fox News are already on it. Glenn Greenwald joined Laura Ingraham on Tuesday night to assure her audience that “the wheels are falling off the cart of the Mueller investigation” and that Democrats don’t have the integrity to admit that they have no evidence.

Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson devoted his entire opening monologue on Monday night to a series of lies about what might be coming. Obviously the president, who tweeted out the video, approved.

Let’s take a look at some of the lies Carlson threw out there to confuse his audience.

  1. The Russia investigation is just like birtherism. Yeah, he said that.
  2. The Clinton campaign—through Fusion GPS—attempted to publicize the Steele dossier, but when responsible news organizations refused to publish it, they took it to the FBI. The opposite is actually true. Christopher Steele shared some of his findings with the FBI in July 2016. In October, when the New York Times published an article headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” Steele became concerned and started sharing his findings with reporters.
  3. The Steele dossier launched the investigation. Concern about what Russia might be up to began when the intelligence services of our allies began reporting suspicious contacts to the CIA. Then the Trump campaign began hiring people with ties to Russia and Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Hillary Clinton. All of that, combined with the Steele dossier, is what launched a formal investigation.
  4. The investigation destroyed our relationship with Russia. Tucker actually said that one too, as if their attempt to interfere in our election had nothing to do with it.

Carlson ends his segment by clutching his pearls with concern about how all of us who have been duped into thinking that the Mueller investigation was valid will respond when his report provides no proof of collusion.

My response to Carlson would be to thank him for his concern. I’m sure it is genuinely heartfelt. But based on the fact that everything he said during that segment was a lie, I can guarantee that, no matter what Mueller finds, folks like him will be spinning it to suggest that it doesn’t prove collusion.

The truth is that neither Carlson nor anyone else knows what Mueller’s investigation has uncovered. I would simply remind you that one of the most explosive things we’ve learned—that Trump’s campaign manager met with a known Russian agent during the campaign and shared voter data with him—was made public by an error on the part of Manafort’s lawyers. Beyond that, there are the secret indictments already on file at the D.C. federal courthouse and the fact that Michael Cohen has already implicated the president in illegal activities. Finally, as my colleague Martin Longman pointed out, there is the overriding question of whether the President of the United States has been compromised by a foreign power. I’m content to wait and hear what Mueller says about that.