Kyrsten Sinema's long march through the institutions

So Kyrsten Sinema is now pushing an income tax on billionaires. 

It’s fun to think that Sinema has actually never left the days when she was an anarcho-curious, black bloc protester committed to tearing down the power structure, and this whole absurd, indecipherable parade of hostility to anything that would help the poor or slightly inconvenience the rich has all been an act, part of a long march through the institutions with the end goal of revolution. 

Back on earth, though, the fact that Sinema is proposing her own tax policies -- which comes after she has promised colleagues she won’t blow up their reconciliation bill -- is the most encouraging sign yet that a deal is forthcoming. And if it does actually take a bite out of billionaire wealth, all the better. Her proposal, which would hit unrealized gains over a billion dollars a year -- or over $100 million for three straight years -- would finally do something non-trivial about economic inequality, and it would redistribute that hoarded wealth downwards. It would also set a nice precedent, similar to how the original income tax only hit the richest of the rich. (It’s estimated the tax would hit about 700 people, yet still raise a ton of money.)

What Sinema might be finally recognizing is that the politics she’s been pursuing the last few years are the politics of the party’s past. I have a new story on that below, which compares her fundraising haul over the past three months with other Democrats in swing states and finds that people like Mark Kelly, Raphael Warnock and Maggie Hassan are badly out-fundraising her, calling into question just what the hell it is she thinks she’s accomplishing. 

We also have a new story on the many federal investigations that probed Manchin’s close allies through his rise in West Virginia politics. The whole story is worth a read -- I also learned that his uncle was JFK’s sherpa in West Virginia for his famous 1960 primary victory there -- but one of the most significant revelations is that Manchin, as governor, instructed his chief of staff to work with lobbyists who were pushing for an electricity rate increase that would bail out a power plant that was the main buyer of his coal. This is a follow up to our earlier investigation into his coal empire, by Daniel Boguslaw, who appears on Deconstructed as well, along with Rep. Ro Khanna, talking about reconciliation negotiations

Kyrsten Sinema might be on the young side for a senator less than half the age of some of her colleagues — but she represents the Democratic Party’s past. Think of her and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as the dead hands reaching out of the grave, grabbing at the party as it tries to move on from them. They might have managed to claw back spending on the Build Back Better Act, but the reality that their time has passed is clear. And the way you can measure this most directly is in terms of dollars.

For Sinema in particular, her approach to the negotiations — to push against social spending and tax hikes on the rich and corporations — has cost her badly in the polls at home and hasn’t had much of an upside when it comes to campaign cash. Her model of politics is outdated, though it has been the dominant form for most of her life.

In the 1980s, in response to the Reagan Revolution and the ongoing realignment that broke what Democrats thought was a permanent stranglehold on Congress, the party developed what was called at the time a “PAC strategy” but today is just called fundraising. Republican candidates in 1980 had heavily outspent Democrats, who believed that their name recognition and long record — they implemented the New Deal, won World War II, enacted the Great Society, and so on — meant that the GOP was wasting money on television. When that turned out not to be the case, Democrats realized that they needed comparable money of their own, and the fundraising idea was that since Democrats still had durable control of the House of Representatives — they could cling to it for 14 years after Reagan’s 1980 election — businesses that had interests before Congress needed to start ponying up for access.

Access quickly turned to alliance, and the party drifted heavily in a pro-business direction. These “New Democrats” argued that the party had to beat back the power of special interests — and by special interests, they meant civil rights advocates, environmentalists, and labor unions. The presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988 pushed back against this hegemonic approach, but without a way to aggregate grassroots enthusiasm into the money needed for a national infrastructure, the threat was neutralized. Starting with Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race, it finally started to look possible that a candidate funded by a large number of small, individual donations could compete with one funded by the rich and corporations. Technology was making it possible for people to quickly translate their enthusiasm not just into a honk and wave on a highway overpass, but also into actual money.

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama showed the promise of small dollars in 2008, but he also raised an insane amount of money from Wall Street — and, once in office, he abandoned the network of small donors he had built and went with the big money. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., nearly toppled the Clinton machine with his famous $27 contributions. In 2018, the small-donor revolution spread to normie Democrats, with anti-Trump, #Resistance liberals throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at congressional Democrats, enabling them to retake the House. In 2020, small donors did it again, and the resource-rich Democrats took both the House and Senate.

ONE OF THE people who noticed this shift was Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., once known as Wall Street Chuck. But thanks to all of these small donors, he now serves as Senate majority leader. A lot of people have chalked up Schumer’s pivot toward progressives as fear of a primary challenge from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and no doubt that’s part of what’s going on. Another factor is that Schumer is used to delivering for donors so that they keep the spigot flowing. And Schumer’s donors are now rank-and-file Democratic activists throwing in $27 at a time. In 2020, 41 percent of the money raised by Democratic Senate candidates came from donations of less than $200. What they want is to see Democrats fighting for what they ran on, so Schumer is happy to give them that fight.

Schumer also knows that raising corporate money is not actually that efficient, because each one of these lobbyists or rich people requires coddling, demands intimate access, wants internships for their kids, wants a dinner and a speech and photo, and on and on. Small donors just want you to win and then deliver what you promised. They don’t expect to ever meet you unless they’re volunteering at a headquarters where you happen to stop by.

Over the summer, Sinema showed just how much work it is. For the past few months, we were treated to endless stories about Sinema skipping important events in Washington to be at this or that fundraiser and even leaving the country to go to Paris to raise money. For all that trouble, Sinema broke her fundraising record, reporting $1.1 million in fundraising in third quarter.

And it’s true that’s her record since she became a senator.

But when she was a candidate running for Senate — back in the third quarter of 2018, when Democratic voters thought she was a progressive and wanted to help her flip a Republican seat — she raised almost $7 million.

That’s not a fluke. You might think that 2018 was a special year and that Democratic small donors are no longer fired up since President Donald Trump is out of office and kicked off Twitter. That argument falls apart when you start looking at individual candidates. Fellow Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is totally fine with the full $3.5 trillion proposal for the reconciliation bill, voted for a minimum wage increase, supports passing parts of the labor reform legislation called the PRO Act, and generally supports all kinds of reforms that Sinema is battling. Kelly, who’s up for reelection next year, raised $8.2 million this past quarter, while the Republican candidate expected to win that primary raised just over half a million.

OK, you’re thinking, maybe Kelly just has a ton more rich friends than Sinema. Well, the way to test that hypothesis is to look at the Federal Election Commission records for how many of the contributions were itemized, how many were unitemized, and how many were from PACs. Unitemized means that it was less than $200, and PACs are generally corporate PACS, but they could also be labor unions, and Kelly probably did well from them after supporting the PRO Act.

In the last three months, Kelly raised $3.4 million from small donors, according to his FEC report. In other words, he raised three times more than Sinema just from small donors even while Sinema was making a corporate-loving spectacle of herself and traveling the world to raise money. He made nothing from PACs. And his $3.8 million in itemized contributions shows that a Democrat in a swing state can back the Biden agenda and still raise money from big donors.

Sinema raised $914,000 from itemized contributions — those are big donations — and just $31,653.71 from small donors. She also raised $192,000 from PACs.

The fundraising profile that looks the most similar to Sinema’s is Manchin’s. Like Sinema, he’s up for reelection in 2024. He did better than Sinema in the third quarter, raising almost $1.6 million. But just $10,448 of that was made up of donations of less than $200. Of that, $1.3 million came from large donations, and $250,000 came from PACs.

Manchin, though, is distinguished from Sinema in that he can plausibly claim to be in a different political environment back home, a state that Trump carried in 2020 by nearly 40 points while losing in Arizona.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin is perhaps the best comparison, since she serves from Wisconsin, which Trump won in 2016, Biden won in 2020, and will be hotly contested in 2024. The last quarter, she raised $640,000, about half of which is from small donors. So if that’s Sinema’s game — selling out the entire Democratic agenda to do slightly better than Baldwin in the fundraising race — I guess congratulations are in order.

Over in Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock put Sinema’s haul to shame, raising $4.7 million from small donors in the third quarter on his way to raising $9 million overall. Maggie Hassan, the New Hampshire senator up for reelection this cycle, also raised more than Sinema: $2.5 million last quarter, more than $800,000 of which was from small donors.

And how did Sinema compare to a House member without a serious challenger?

Ocasio-Cortez raised just over $1.6 million to Sinema’s $1.1 million. In fact, she raised more from just small donors than Sinema raised total.

The simple fact is that Sinema’s style of fundraising just isn’t the best way to raise large sums of money anymore. And most politicians ultimately follow the money, which means that they’re now going to follow the people, especially if they’re in swing states that millions of people care about. So if you believe that politicians are corrupt and only do what their donors tell them to do, this is actually good news about the future of the Democratic Party. For now, however, the party’s past still has a death grip on the present.

Ladies and gentleman, we got him

Or, How Gottheimer's gambit failed

Josh Gottheimer never had a doubt in his mind. At the end of August, the New Jersey Democrat and a gang of House members that dubbed themselves “the unbreakable nine” used their leverage to force Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on September 27. The group of conservative Democrats hoped to cleave it off from the broader reconciliation package, which includes steep tax hikes on the rich and robust social spending. 

The goal was to pass the infrastructure bill, and then be able to train their fire on the bigger bill. Free the hostage, then blow up the insurgents. 

Following Pelosi’s concession, Gottheimer and some of his allies huddled with donors to and leaders of the dark-money group No Labels, which finances their campaigns and was instrumental in organizing the opposition. “You should feel so proud, I can’t explain to you, this is the culmination of all your work. This would not have happened but for what you built,” Gottheimer told them, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by The Intercept. “It just wouldn’t have happened — hard stop. You should just feel so proud. This is your win as much as it is my win.”

Rep. Kurt Schrader, former chair of the right wing Blue Dog Coalition, celebrated the victory’s ability to let them focus next on fighting the reconciliation package, which he told the group he opposed. “Let’s deal with the reconciliation later. Let’s pass that infrastructure package right now, and don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money that we don’t really have at this point,” Schrader said. 

But House progressives quickly responded, vowing to block the bill -- to hold the line -- if it came to the floor without the broader spending bill. Gottheimer remained confident over the next several weeks, saying privately he was sure progressives would fold. On September 27, it was clear there weren’t enough votes to pass the bill, and Pelosi pulled it from the floor, rescheduling it for a September 30 showdown.

That’s the topic of this week’s Deconstructed podcast, featuring an interview with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, who played an unsung role in last week’s showdown.

On CNN Thursday, Gottheimer gave the bill a “1,000 percent” chance of being passed that day. He never got close, and the bill was pulled again, leaving Gottheimer to meekly argue that the House had not been technically adjourned. Friday would still be the same “legislative day,” he tweeted, and negotiations were ongoing and he was grabbing Red Bull and Gatorade and...hey, where’s everybody going?

By Friday evening, pumped full of Red Bull, he was publicly attacking Pelosi.

The journey of the Congressional Progressive Caucus from punchline to counterpuncher involved decades in the wilderness, followed by a rapid consolidation of power that took Congress by surprise this week. (I wrote a book about this history, if you missed it.)

The roots stretch back to the 2009 and 2010 fight over the Affordable Care Act, when an outmatched CPC was forced to swallow a bill that fell short of red lines they had drawn. More than 50 members of the caucus had signed a letter vowing not to support any health care reform bill that didn’t include a “robust public option,” but all of them did just that in the end. 

Two things were clear: the House and Senate needed Democrats who were more progressive, and those progressives needed to be better organized. A few new organizations popped up in an effort to bring that into being. One called itself the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — its abbreviation a troll of the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which it was designed to counterbalance. Separately, then-bloggers Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald organized a political action committee to back progressive challengers in primaries. 

After the midterm wipeout of 2010, many of the electoral fights took place with little media coverage. Two of the first progressive battles of the new era came in 2012, when a coalition of groups, including the PCCC, intervened in open primaries in San Diego and New Mexico. 

In San Diego, progressives backed Lori Saldaña over right-wing businessman Scott Peters. In New Mexico, they were for Eric Griego against the conservative Michelle Lujan Grisham. They lost both narrowly, and the losses reverberated. Earlier this month, Peters cast one of three votes against a committee measure to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. Lujan Grisham has become governor of New Mexico, where she battles progressives from her statewide perch. 

But, thanks in significant part to the organizing around Griego’s campaign, which evolved into a statewide effort, Rep. Deb Haaland ran for Lujan Grisham’s vacant seat and won as a progressive. When she was elevated to interior secretary earlier this year, the primary campaign wasn’t left versus center or left versus right, but who was the most progressive. Even in a race dominated by party insiders, it went to Melanie Ann Stansbury. 

This week, the newly sworn-in Rep. Stansbury publicly vowed she would hold the line with the progressive caucus, and block the bipartisan bill unless both moved together. Adding rank-and-file members like Stansbury to their public list in some ways was more valuable than compiling a list of the usual suspects, showing Pelosi the opposition wasn’t just deep, it was broad. 

Throughout the 2010s, the ability of Democrats to raise small dollars gradually expanded, punctuated and driven forward by the Senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren in 2012 and then the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016. Though he fell short, he showed that there was a major base of support for his democratic socialist agenda, in terms of both people and money. That same year, Pramila Jayapal, an antiwar organizer from Washington state whose inspiration to enter electoral politics was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., was elected to Congress. 

She and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin set about transforming the progressive caucus from what former co-chair Raúl Grijalva had described as a “Noam Chomsky book reading club” into a cohesive unit capable of wielding influence. The caucus set an internal agenda, but didn’t have any requirements for joining. In 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset New York City Rep. Joe Crowley, her suggestion of a “sub-caucus” that could be more nimble as a bloc was seen internally as both a hopeful sign and something of a challenge. If the caucus didn’t get itself organized, it would be supplanted by something else. 

During the next Congress, progressives withheld their votes in committee in a fight to strengthen HR3, the bill that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Donald Trump was president, so little that the House did was going to become law, but it was a preseason win of sorts that showed the tactic could work. Ahead of this Congress, the CPC tightened its ideological requirements for membership and shifted to a single chair to become more nimble. In early 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer used CPC intransigence to persuade Sen. Joe Manchin not to push too hard for deep cuts to unemployment benefits, telling him progressives would take the American Rescue Plan down in the House if he did. At the same time, Jayapal shied away from a showdown over the $15 minimum wage after only 42 Democrats voted to override the parliamentarian.

Over the summer, the number of progressives willing to hold the line on the infrastructure bill continued growing, particularly as the holdout senators refused to even lay out what they were for and against. But it wasn’t a certainty until this week that the progressive bloc could hold strong. Ocasio-Cortez said she doesn’t blame Gottheimer for miscalculating. 

“Honestly I see why he was so certain, CPC never stood up like this until this week,” she said. “Until this week, the most we could scrounge together for a showdown was like 14 members.”

Relatedly, I want to make a delicate point that isn’t intended as an I-told-you-so, even if it comes off that way. Back in December, there was a big online debate over whether the Squad should use the leverage it had over the vote for Speaker of the House to demand a vote on Medicare for All on the House floor. Without rehashing the whole thing, I argued that was a bad idea, for a variety of reasons, significantly among them that the vote would go down in flames, and the headline that Medicare for All lost 315-120 or so wasn’t worth picking a prolonged fight with not just the incoming Speaker but the entire House Democratic caucus, which had already voted to elect Pelosi and was ready to move on the next day to trying to win the Georgia Senate races. Others passionately disagreed, and wanted to have that fight at that moment. 

Some of the advocates of that play, which they called #ForceTheVote, are citing the progressive ability to hold the line last week as evidence their tactic was the right one. But a closer look at it shows the opposite. It was actually Gottheimer who deployed a version of their strategy. He and 8 colleagues held up the entire Democratic caucus for days and challenged the Speaker, and in the end won the concession of a floor vote. They forced the vote. Except nothing they did changed the underlying structural conditions that had already made their position weak. So when the moment for the vote they had forced came, they were smashed. And now Gottheimer and his gang have been badly weakened in the House. The progressive wing, meanwhile, was able to successfully use their leverage because they had a gameplan, numbers on their side, and an achievable end goal. I don’t say this to try to dunk on any of the people I was arguing with last year, but only to help make the position they thought was indefensible a bit more understandable. Sometimes, if you do it poorly at the wrong time, using your leverage can backfire. Just ask Josh Gottheimer. 

How vaccine politics could play out

I’m sending this email from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where we’ve come for Aunt Mimi’s 70th high school reunion, a gathering of the Hazleton High School class of ‘51. (If you missed the email earlier this year about how Mimi’s Hazleton roots are entangled with Joe Biden’s, that’s here and it’s a fun one. Mimi is pictured here with her classmates top-right.)


Republicans are already saying they will sue to stop Joe Biden’s new workplace vaccine mandate -- which, to be entirely clear, is not a vaccine mandate, because it allows people to take a weekly test in lieu of the vaccine. They may be successful, because courts have generally blocked OSHA from doing much of anything under emergency orders if companies complain. But the real value in the announcement could be that it triggers a surge in vaccinations. The mandate doesn’t need to be in place forever, it only needs to be in place long enough to make a dent in the unvaccinated population. There are currently some 80 million unvaccinated, but millions of those have already been infected, so have antibodies, and, devastatingly, some 10,000 of them are dying every week. 

That’s a number that’s hard to get our heads around, and it doesn’t include the downstream consequences of jammed-up ICUs, emergency rooms and surgery tables. Free advice from yours truly: this is not a good time to have a stroke or a heart attack.

It may be crass to talk about the politics of a plan intended to end a situation where 10,000 people are dying every week, but this is a politics newsletter, so: There is obviously some risk of blowback, and it’ll be interesting to watch the California recall results with that in mind. But slightly longer term, there is a real chance this winds up being smart politics for Democrats. If all you did was watch cable, you’d think the country is divided 50-50 on the vaccine, but people are overwhelmingly supportive of the vaccine, and strong majorities are even in favor of mandates (even without a testing exemption). It just happens that the anti-vaxx side is extremely loud, and the media’s need to balance its coverage creates an illusion of a greater divide than truly exists. If Biden’s mandate, which came with a scolding of the unvaccinated, triggers the most extreme anti-vaxxers to become the loudest voices of the GOP resistance to the vaccine, Republicans run the risk of isolating and marginalizing themselves. If -- and this is a massive if, given the variable of the variants out there -- the numbers are waning and restrictions are easing by next summer, then being anti-vaxx will look terrible, and being anti-mask and anti-lockdown will be boring, because there won’t be mask mandates or lockdowns, so there’ll be nothing to grab on to. But like I said, lambda or mu might have something to say about that. 

Meanwhile, Biden is pushing ahead with his $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which now includes major pieces of the PRO Act and also plans to include elements of immigration reform. A provision that just cleared the Education and Labor Committee in the House is particularly noteworthy: The measure says that nobody will pay more than 7% of their income toward child care, which will be a game changer to many middle and even upper middle class parents. Centrists had attempted to make the benefit less generous and means-test it more strictly, but House progressives, through the Congressional Progressive Caucus, threatened to take the whole thing down if it was watered down, and the centrists caved. Committee Chairman Bobby Scott acknowledged to Politico the pressure is what did it. “I believe that the underlying bill is more than generous in terms of benefits,” Scott said. “And the reason that I’m giving credence to this amendment is because, without it, the members of the committee are threatening to jeopardize the entire bill.” 

While progressives are strengthening the bill from the left by threatening to take it down, Joe Manchin and a handful of others are working to weaken it by doing the same. Manchin loves being in the middle of these negotiations, and with heightened visibility comes more scrutiny. At The Intercept, we dove into his background as a coal broker. Few people in Washington know that he remains the owner of a significant coal business, one that has netted him some $4.5 million since he came to the Senate. The companies, which he founded in the 1980s when he was a state legislator, are now officially run by his son, Joe Manchin IV, but he remains an owner. That story, by Daniel Boguslaw, is here. 

His daughter, meanwhile, Heather Bresch, has made her own fortune as CEO of Mylan Pharmaceuticals. I published a story this week revealing new evidence that Bresch herself was directly involved in a scheme with Pfizer to corner the EpiPen market, then followed up by eliminating their single-pack EpiPen, forcing customers to buy two, thus doubling revenue. Along the way, she raised prices by more than 500%. 

This week’s podcast takes a long look at Manchin’s career, and features an interview with Stephen Noble Smith, founder of West Virginia Can’t Wait and a 2020 candidate for governor in the state.

Josh Gottheimer walked into a bar. It didn't go well.

In a moment I want to share my favorite Josh Gottheimer story ever, and there are a lot of good ones, so you know this one’s special. But first, last week, author Anand Gopal was a guest of mine on Deconstructed and the episode is very much worth listening to. I’ve mentioned him before in this newsletter, and several of you told me you read his book on the war in Afghanistan, No Good Men Amongst The Living, on my recommendation and were glad you did so. I really can’t recommend it highly enough -- it’s truly one of the best, if not the best, non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Right up there with Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, which I also can’t recommend enough. So it was quite a privilege to have him on to discuss the situation on the ground there (where he was just last month). I also interviewed Army Major Richard Ojeda, who has some astounding stories from there to tell as well. (If you’re a cable booker reading this email, you should be having him on regularly. Happy to share contact info if you need it.) 

The big Washington story of the week involved my new favorite character in town, Gottheimer, whose attempt to upend the progress of Biden’s sweeping domestic agenda fell apart. It gave me a chance to tell this Gottheimer story:

In January 2017, when Gottheimer was a first-term Democrat representing a wealthy northern New Jersey district, he had an invitation to the 80th birthday party for a senior member of his state’s delegation. The region Rep. Bill Pascrell represented abutted Gottheimer’s, but it couldn’t have been more socioeconomically different, containing the working-class city of Paterson and a stretch of the Jersey Shore. Pascrell was hosting the party at a favorite hometown bar in Paterson, something of a dive on the outskirts of town called Duffy’s.

Paterson wasn’t the type of area where Gottheimer spent much time, but it wasn’t an actively dangerous spot. Not only was the bar a regular haunt of the local congressional representative, it was owned by Terry Duffy, a town freeholder, the state’s version of a county council member.

Gottheimer agreed to brave the journey to Paterson to celebrate his colleague. But when he arrived, it was clear that he’d taken a confounding set of precautions: Gottheimer was accompanied by an off-duty police officer and showed an unusual amount of bulk under his shirt.

“Are you wearing a bulletproof vest?” Pascrell asked his first-term colleague. Gottheimer acknowledged that he was but went on to say, by way of explanation, that he had been doing a ride-along earlier with the officer and had worn the vest as a result. The explanation, even were it true, failed to explain why he was still wearing the vest at the party. A round of heckling and wisecracking ensued, drawing the attention of Terry Duffy.

The freeholder was not amused. He threw Gottheimer out of his bar. (I talked about this on Rising this morning.)

Gottheimer’s foray into Democratic caucus politics this week wasn’t much better thought out and didn’t end much differently from his foray into Paterson. After Senate Democrats approved both a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill on August 11, along with a budget resolution instructing Senate committees to write a $3.5 trillion package that would be passed using the rules of reconciliation — meaning that Republicans couldn’t filibuster it — Gottheimer announced a demand for an “immediate” vote on the infrastructure bill. That day, he got eight other Democrats to join him in signing a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining the demand. The dark-money organization No Labels, funded by a bipartisan set of billionaires and millionaires with opaque policy interests, soon began calling them the “unbreakable nine.”

On Monday night, Gottheimer succeeded in holding together his rebellion and even gained another dissident in Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla. This forced Pelosi to pull a vote on the resolution, which was bundled with a procedural vote on the infrastructure package and a voting rights measure. But by Tuesday morning, the resistance was broken. The demand for an immediate vote was placated by a promise of a vote by September 27.

The jockeying by Gottheimer was the latest effort by conservative Democrats to regain leverage over a process that has gotten away from them. The first effort to do so was the bipartisan deal itself. Though that legislation, which picked up 19 Republican votes in the Senate, is heralded as evidence that the Senate can still work despite the obstacle of the filibuster, it was the threat of passing a major piece of legislation via reconciliation — requiring a margin of 50 votes only — that galvanized the bipartisan crew to get to a deal. The hope was that the latter deal would drain support for the former. That didn’t happen, and Democrats pushed ahead with their $3.5 trillion project.

In an interview with Punchbowl News, Gottheimer said he wanted to pass the infrastructure bill quickly to get “shovels in the ground,” but his real motive became clear as negotiations unfolded. Pelosi offered the Gottheimer rebels a vote on the infrastructure bill by October 1, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested that the House could finish work on its final reconciliation package by then. It would be a tall order, but not impossible. Seeking to win back the leverage the conservative faction had recently lost, the Gottheimer group then shifted its demand to sometime earlier in September.

Gottheimer and his allies’ true motivation for insisting on an earlier vote was always baffling, according to Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “I honestly really don’t [know] because we cannot spend infrastructure money until after the new fiscal year,” said Schakowsky, who serves in the Democratic Party’s leadership as senior chief deputy whip. “I’m mystified,” she said. “I can’t figure this out.”

Earlier on Monday, Democratic leaders painted a bleak picture of the consequences if enough lawmakers were to side with Gottheimer against the rest of their party. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland warned the caucus that defections would result in “mutually assured destruction.” That could be disastrous for the party’s agenda, because if Democrats lose their majority in 2022, they may not get it back “for 40 years,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.

The $3.5 trillion bill is the legislative vehicle that Democrats are using to pass President Joe Biden’s most ambitious goals: a Medicare expansion to include hearing, vision, and dental; paid family leave; universal preK3 and preK4; an extension of the child tax credit to 2025; and billions of dollars for clean energy and other climate initiatives. With Republicans in stark opposition, Democrats are relying on the budget reconciliation process that allows Congress to pass spending and revenue measures with a simple majority.

Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pelosi can hardly afford any desertions since Democrats hold only a slight majority in the House and Senate. Anticipating hesitation from centrists, they devised a two-track strategy to attach the $3.5 trillion package to a smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill that funds new projects for roads and bridges that moderates have long championed.

While Gottheimer may have won a face-saving victory by securing a date, his win didn’t change the underlying dynamic that gave progressives leverage in the first place: Pelosi can promise Gottheimer a vote, and might even deliver on it, but she can’t promise enough votes to pass the bill. Democrats in the Congressional Progressive Caucus have pledged to oppose the infrastructure bill if reconciliation isn’t ready, and many of them reiterated those promises on Tuesday, even as members of Congress filtered off the House floor, having just approved the procedural motion 220-212.

Following the vote, the Chamber of Commerce, an ally of No Labels and Gottheimer during the fight, applauded the crew for having “decoupled” the infrastructure bill from reconciliation by winning the promise of the vote.

Liz Morrison, co-executive director of No Labels, echoed that sentiment in a memo (italics in the original) that the group circulated privately to allies, obtained by The Intercept. Wrote Morrison:

Speaker Pelosi has now guaranteed a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill by no later than September 27. This means the infrastructure bill will likely be voted on first and before any vote to pass a reconciliation bill. This is not what Pelosi wanted as both she and the Progressive Caucus had previously insisted that the Senatevote to approve the full reconciliation bill before the Speaker would bring the infrastructure bill to the floor. 

The Unbreakable Nine have now broken this link as Pelosi can no longer use the infrastructure bill as leverage to force Democratic moderates to vote for a reconciliation bill. It will now rise or fall on its own merits. This is why Politico Playbook—which is the most read political newsletter in DC—just wrote that Pelosi “grossly underestimated” the Nine and that they “planted a flag in the ground for the fights to come.”

BUT, the Nine had to give up something too. They agreed to vote yes on the budget resolution that authorizes debate to begin on reconciliation. This is essentially the same thing all 50 Senate Democrats did a few weeks ago. It is just a vote to begin debate and in the end, any of the Nine can still vote against a final reconciliation bill.

But have “the Nine” really decoupled the two measures? If progressives still have the votes to sink the infrastructure bill without the accompanying reconciliation package, then the bills are not decoupled. That’s not a fundamentally different dynamic than prevailed last week.

“It has to be both, they have to be together,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Intercept that the caucus’s insistence on coupling the two measures had not changed. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., agreed. “The bills will only move together,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., chair emeritus of the CPC, saying the caucus has “a strong chunk of members who will see to it.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, one of the “unbreakable nine” — who became 10 before being broken — told The Intercept that he wasn’t worried about progressives voting down the infrastructure bill if it broke onto its own track on September 27, because he expected to pick up Republican votes. “We’ve got at least 10, 12 Republicans,” he said, and the progressives will fall in line. “They’re going to support the president, I feel very confident.”

Gottheimer had felt equally confident. In an interview with The Atlantic, he explained that his move was an attempt to fulfill Biden’s agenda and that the White House was supportive of the effort. Asked if that was the case, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said simply: “No.”

Surrender or withdrawal? The Kabul contradiction nobody will talk about

At the heart of the criticism of the way the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has unfolded is a contradiction that nobody in the American media or public policymaking space wants to grapple with. 

As President Biden acknowledged Monday afternoon, the images coming out of Kabul are indeed gut-wrenching, and they are also what Donald Rumsfeld once called, in a different context, “untidy.” But the only way for there to have been an orderly transfer of power in the wake of the U.S. departure was for the process to have been negotiated as a transfer of power. And to negotiate a transfer of power requires acknowledging -- and here’s the hard part for the U.S. -- that power is transferring. 

Therein lies the contradiction: An orderly exit required admitting defeat and negotiating the unutterable -- surrender to the Taliban. 

Instead, the U.S. preferred to maintain the fiction that it was handing over power to the Afghan government, whatever that was, and to former President Ashraf Ghani. We would rather risk the chaos we’re now witnessing than admit defeat. After all, it’s mostly not our lives on the line anymore, but rather the lives of Afghans who helped us over the past 20 years. 

And no amount of time and preparation would have fully resolved that problem, because the U.S. immigration bureaucracy, in league with the State Department’s special visa program, is not designed to work. It can take an average of 800 days for an application to process, by which time Biden may no longer even be president. And those are the successful applications. We are not a country that places any value on helping desperate people migrate to our shores, and to paraphrase Rumsfeld again, you retreat from war as the country you are, not as the one you might wish to be.

The same Catch-22 applied to all the military hardware. Biden has been criticized for letting it fall into Taliban hands, but he was turning supplies and weapons over to the Afghan National Army. Had he instead shipped it all home, the army would cry foul, and it would send a signal that things were falling apart. The same with refugee evacuation -- shipping out refugees in droves would signal that the U.S. had lost complete confidence in the government, which would then hasten its downfall. Maintaining the fiction that the Afghan government was a real and going concern required treating it like that. Like any confidence game, it lasts only as long as people believe in it. 

In other words, to avoid the scenes we’re now seeing, the U.S. would have had to negotiate the terms of a surrender to the Taliban. Nobody in the national security establishment was recommending any such thing, and if they weren’t, then they have no grounds to speak after the fact. The contrast with the post-Soviet period is instructive as to what we were actually building in Afghanistan -- or not building. 

In the 1960s and 70s, Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul were all major stops on what was known then as the Hippie Trail. It wasn’t unusual for hippies looking to see a new part of the world to spend a few months there.

In 1973, after Timothy Leary escaped prison, the DEA found him in Kabul. It was a cosmopolitan, forward-looking scene, and its politics reflected that attitude. Outside of the city centers, life went on much as it had for centuries. In 1978, a radical element within the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or the PDPA, which was the local communist party, staged a coup and took power. The Soviet Union was alarmed, lacking confidence the party was ready to govern. What a lot of people don’t understand about the Soviet Union after World War II is that they spent much of their time urging their allies around the world not to get too crazy. The Soviets were partial to the moderate wing of the PDPA and counseled against a number of mistakes they ended up making. As journalist Christian Parenti has written, the Soviets rejected 13 requests from the party to come in and help. As one Soviet official replied: “We have carefully studied all aspects of this action and come to the conclusion that if our troops were introduced, the situation in your country would not only not improve but would worsen.”

(We had Parenti on Rising yesterday to talk about all this.)

But it was an assassination that eventually brought them in. In 1979 President Taraki was assassinated on the order of prime minister Hafizullah Amin. The Soviets thought Amin had gone too far -- they invaded, cornered him, and killed him, installing a new leader. 

The United States, fresh off its loss in Vietnam, saw an opportunity to inflict a Vietnam on its enemy, and ramped up its support to the mujahideen. In February 1989, the Soviet Union finally left. The next month, the united mujahideen made their move to take over the country, and the Afghan government fought them off, sending them into disarray. The Soviets hoped the US would help forge a national reconciliation, and some elements of the Bush administration wanted to do that, but others argued instead for bleeding the Afghans as much as possible. So we continued funding the war against them. 

Yet the PDPA, now under Mohammed Najibullah, held strong for another 3 years before finally falling to our mujahideen. The PDPA, for all its many faults and abuses, had not been kleptocratic and had genuinely invested in development.

Once Kabul fell, the lights literally went out, and the country descended into civil war, which the world was content to ignore. The Taliban eventually emerged from this Civil War as the victorious faction, and took over in 1996. Their imported extremism wasn’t popular, but their ability to actually govern in areas they controlled, and their reputation for anti-corruption, gave them a base of support. They found Najibullah holed up in a UN compound in Kabul, grabbed him, tortured him, castrated him -- and killed him. The Taliban’s rule would only get worse from there, as our one-time asset Osama bin Laden set up shop in Afghanistan and began plotting the work he’s now remembered for. 

When the US invaded after 9/11, the Taliban quickly offered to surrender, and also offered to turn Osama bin Laden over to a third party to be tried. For years, when conflict had ended in Afghanistan, one side surrendered and was brought back into society. That’s how it works in a civil war, when your opponents don’t have a country to go home to. That’s how it worked here for our Civil War. But the US said no, and rejected the surrender, preferring all out war instead. In the face of the American onslaught, most Taliban fighters faded from the battlefield, and ceded the country to the warlords that had previously been in power. Those warlords, however, were not tasked by their American overseers with creating an inclusive government that provided for the material or cultural benefit of the Afghan people. Instead, the main task given them was to find and hunt Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, to help with drone strike targeting, and to help build up an Afghan National Army that, theoretically, could stand on its own once the US left. But there weren’t many Taliban left, and there were close to zero Al Qaeda, so the warlords largely manufactured enemies, siccing the US military on internal rivals. Instead of any serious development, the warlords stole the reconstruction money and funneled it to bank accounts in Dubai, where many of them are now headed. 

It’s easy to see why the U.S. preferred chaos to acknowledging that reality. 

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