Sunday, August 2, 2020

Sunday Reading

Doing Right Isn’t Wrong — Alexander Vindman in the Washington Post.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (Ret.), a career U.S. Army officer, served on the National Security Council as the director for Eastern European, Caucasus and Russian affairs, as the Russia political-military affairs officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as a military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

After 21 years, six months and 10 days of active military service, I am now a civilian. I made the difficult decision to retire because a campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation by President Trump and his allies forever limited the progression of my military career.

This experience has been painful, but I am not alone in this ignominious fate. The circumstances of my departure might have been more public, yet they are little different from those of dozens of other lifelong public servants who have left this administration with their integrity intact but their careers irreparably harmed.

A year ago, having served the nation in uniform in positions of critical importance, I was on the cusp of a career-topping promotion to colonel. A year ago, unknown to me, my concerns over the president’s conduct and the president’s efforts to undermine the very foundations of our democracy were precipitating tremors that would ultimately shake loose the facade of good governance and publicly expose the corruption of the Trump administration.

At no point in my career or life have I felt our nation’s values under greater threat and in more peril than at this moment. Our national government during the past few years has been more reminiscent of the authoritarian regime my family fled more than 40 years ago than the country I have devoted my life to serving.

Our citizens are being subjected to the same kinds of attacks tyrants launch against their critics and political opponents. Those who choose loyalty to American values and allegiance to the Constitution over devotion to a mendacious president and his enablers are punished. The president recklessly downplayed the threat of the pandemic even as it swept through our country. The economic collapse that followed highlighted the growing income disparities in our society. Millions are grieving the loss of loved ones and many more have lost their livelihoods while the president publicly bemoans his approval ratings.

There is another way.

During my testimony in the House impeachment inquiry, I reassured my father, who experienced Soviet authoritarianism firsthand, saying, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.” Despite Trump’s retaliation, I stand by that conviction. Even as I experience the low of ending my military career, I have also experienced the loving support of tens of thousands of Americans. Theirs is a chorus of hope that drowns out the spurious attacks of a disreputable man and his sycophants.

Since the struggle for our nation’s independence, America has been a union of purpose: a union born from the belief that although each individual is the pilot of their own destiny, when we come together, we change the world. We are stronger as a woven rope than as unbound threads.

America has thrived because citizens have been willing to contribute their voices and shed their blood to challenge injustice and protect the nation. It is in keeping with that history of service that, at this moment, I feel the burden to advocate for my values and an enormous urgency to act.

Despite some personal turmoil, I remain hopeful for the future for both my family and for our nation. Impeachment exposed Trump’s corruption, but the confluence of a pandemic, a financial crisis and the stoking of societal divisions has roused the soul of the American people. A groundswell is building that will issue a mandate to reject hate and bigotry and a return to the ideals that set the United States apart from the rest of the world. I look forward to contributing to that effort.

In retirement from the Army, I will continue to defend my nation. I will demand accountability of our leadership and call for leaders of moral courage and public servants of integrity. I will speak about the attacks on our national security. I will advocate for policies and strategies that will keep our nation safe and strong against internal and external threats. I will promote public service and exalt the contribution that service brings to all areas of society.

The 23-year-old me who was commissioned in December 1998 could never have imagined the opportunities and experiences I have had. I joined the military to serve the country that sheltered my family’s escape from authoritarianism, and yet the privilege has been all mine.

When I was asked why I had the confidence to tell my father not to worry about my testimony, my response was, “Congressman, because this is America. This is the country I have served and defended, that all my brothers have served, and here, right matters.”

To this day, despite everything that has happened, I continue to believe in the American Dream. I believe that in America, right matters. I want to help ensure that right matters for all Americans.

Biden’s Big Tent — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

Earlier this week, there was a telling moment when Joe Biden spoke in Wilmington, Delaware, about the need to combat systemic racism and foster racial equality in the American economy. His speech was the latest in a series of public appearances in which the Presidential candidate has rolled out his Build Back Better economic agenda; earlier discussions were devoted to strengthening American manufacturing, addressing climate change, and building up the caring economy. “This election is not just about voting against Donald Trump,” Biden said. “It’s about rising to this moment of crisis, understanding people’s struggles, and building a future worthy of their courage and their ambition to overcome.”

The giveaway was the phrase “not just about.” Since capturing the Democratic nomination, Biden has repeatedly acknowledged, implicitly and explicitly, that, for many Americans, the 2020 election is mainly about getting rid of his opponent. This dynamic was clear during the primaries, when a majority of Democrats told pollsters that their top priority was selecting someone who could defeat Trump. It’s evident today in the endorsements that the former Vice-President has picked up, from groups ranging from the Lincoln Project, an organization of Never Trump Republicans that is running ads attacking the President and supporting Biden, to Indivisible, a group of progressive activists whose home page blares, “BEAT TRUMP AND SAVE DEMOCRACY.”

To the members of these groups, and to many other Americans, Biden’s role is to serve as a human lever to pry a disastrous President out of the White House. Defying the concerns of some political professionals who watched his primary campaign, the former Vice-President is shaping up to be an effective crowbar. Since wrapping up the nomination, in March, he and his campaign team have successfully navigated at least three significant political challenges.

The first was uniting the Democratic Party after a chaotic primary season. To this end, Biden has reached out to the Party’s progressive wing and tacked to the left in some of his own policy proposals. He created a Unity Task Force—including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other supporters of Bernie Sanders—that released a lengthy set of recommendations earlier this month. Biden now supports Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan, which would make it easier for financially strapped people to discharge their debts. He has put forward a proposal to insure free tuition for many students at public colleges, modelled on an earlier Sanders plan. His climate-change strategy sets a target of 2035 for the creation of a zero-emissions power grid, which is just five years later than the deadline laid out in the Green New Deal. Some Sanders supporters are still scornful of Biden, but there has been no repeat of the internecine conflict that occurred in 2016.

The second task facing Biden was to fashion a coherent response to the tumultuous events of 2020. That’s where his Build Back Better plan comes in. The members of his policy team have worked on the assumption that the coronavirus-stricken economy will need substantial financial support for years. They think that this presents an opportunity to make it greener, more worker-friendly, and more racially inclusive. Biden’s proposals include spending two trillion dollars on projects to move beyond fossil fuels; seven hundred and seventy-five billion dollars on expanding care for preschoolers and the elderly; and a hundred and fifty billion dollars on supporting small, minority-owned businesses. He’s also promised to insure that forty per cent of the investment in green-energy infrastructure benefits disadvantaged communities, to expand rent subsidies for low-income households, to facilitate labor-union organizing, and to introduce a national minimum wage of fifteen dollars per hour.

Many progressive policy experts still think that Biden’s proposals don’t go far enough, but some of them are also issuing qualified praise. “When you look at all four elements of his economic platform, I think some of them have been very good—the climate plan in particular,” Felicia Wong, the president of the Roosevelt Institute, told me. Wong also said that the speech Biden gave this week about the economy, race, and the coronavirus was an effective one. “He recognized that people of color suffer the most in economic downturns, and also bounce back last,” she said. “It’s hard for a lot of people to make the race and economic arguments together, and he laid it out eloquently.”

The third challenge that Biden faced was to avoid giving Trump an easy target. The pandemic has made the dodging part easier. Hunkered down in Wilmington, Biden largely has left the President to dig his own hole—which he has done, ably. But Biden has also reached out to Trump Country. The first of his Build Back Better speeches was delivered in Rust Belt Pennsylvania: it included calls to restore American manufacturing and “buy American.” As well as adopting some of the language of economic nationalism, Biden has rejected certain progressive proposals, such as defunding the police and enforcing a complete ban on fracking, that might alienate moderate whites in battleground states.

This is smart politics, Ruy Teixeira, a polling expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me. Despite the changing demographics of the United States, whites who don’t have a college degree still make up about forty-four per cent of the eligible electorate, according to Teixeira; in some places, such as parts of the Midwest, the figure is even higher. “You cannot cede massive sections of the electorate if you want to be successful politically,” Teixeira said.

In 2016, Trump carried the white non-college demographic by thirty-one percentage points at the national level, according to Teixeira’s analysis of exit polls and election returns. Biden has narrowed the gap to twelve points, Teixeira said, citing a recent survey. That is similar to the margin in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain and the Democrats increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. As it is often defined, the Obama coalition consisted of minority voters, college-educated white liberals, and young people. Teixeira pointed out that Obama’s ability to restrict McCain’s margin in the white non-college demographic was also important, and if Biden matched that feat in November, he said, it could be of enormous consequence. “This is not the only thing that is going wrong for Trump,” Teixeira said, “but it is the thing that could give the Democrats the big victory that they need to govern effectively.”

None of this means that Biden is a lock for the Oval Office. Between now and November 3rd, something could conceivably shift the momentum against him, such as a Vice-Presidential pick that backfires, a major slipup in the debates, or a surprising economic upturn. Right now, though, the challenger’s strategy of keeping the focus on the incumbent and pitching a broad tent that accommodates anyone who wants to see the back of Trump is working well.

Doonesbury — Trading Places.

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