Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

The Foreign Policy Debate Missing From the Democratic Race

Liberals may have snickered at the recent Twitter battle between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush over George W. Bush’s national-security record, a debate CNBC said was “so dumb it’s genius.” But as childish as it seemed, at least they were debating national security, something on which the Democrats have made few firm proposals. This was most evident in the Democratic debate, where the word “Israel” was mentioned just once and where candidates harped on their records more than concrete ideas.

It’s not like there’s nothing to talk about. The same week as the debate, Obama announced his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through next year—meaning the next president will likely be the third commander in chief of a war that has proven to be as indefinite as it is costly.

Obama’s move has received bipartisan support, with many of the Republican candidates and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporting his decision. If progressives remain quiet, we’ll start seeing soldiers fighting in a war that started before they were born.

And just last week, a major leak detailing the administration’s secretive drone program raised serious questions about the U.S.’s missions in undeclared war zones. The Democratic candidates may now face questions on other overseas interventions, most of which involve no boots on the ground.

On October 15, The Intercept, a website run by Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden in his massive data leak two years ago, published a series of leaked documents and reports, provided by a “second Snowden,” detailing the administration’s drone program. “The Drone Papers” provided one of the most revealing glimpses into the secretive program.

Fraught by unreliable intelligence signals and deceptive foreign partners, drone strikes have been less precise than officials liked to claim. One leaked slide revealed that 90 percent of those killed in drone attacks over one five-month period in 2012 were not the intended targets.

While the moral question of drone strikes has been divisive, the tactical question—Do drones work?—becomes much more important in light of The Intercept’s reporting, and the two leading Democratic candidates’ thoughts on the issue should be made clear, and brought up in the next debate.

Among the Democratic contenders, Clinton’s foreign policy record speaks the loudest, from her vote for the Iraq war to her support of NATO intervention in Libya (which has become an unmitigated disaster today). In last week’s Democratic debate, Clinton stood by the administration’s NATO-backed intervention, calling it “smart power at its best.” Similarly, in a speech at Brookings in September, Clinton outlined a much more hawkish Middle East agenda than either her Democratic rivals or the current administration. In particular, Clinton called for increasing military aid to Israel, sustaining a “robust” military presence in the Gulf, and keeping military intervention on the table should Iran violate the nuclear deal. At the same time, Clinton has been less clear about her positions on drone warfare or the War in Afghanistan.  

The positions of the other candidates remain murkier still. Lincoln Chafee, who is attempting to set himself apart as the Democratic anti-war candidate, is the only one to have a clear campaign position on drone strikes, stating his commitment to ending the program on his campaign website. The other four do not make mention of drones on their campaign pages, and queries to Sanders’ and Clinton’s campaign offices after the “Drone Papers” release amounted to reflexive referrals to their websites. The candidates have either explicitly stated or implicitly suggested that they would continue the program. Sanders, for instance, on a recent Meet the Press episode, gave his unequivocal support for drone warfare if it isolates an important terrorist, adding, “When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive.”

If the drone program becomes a progressive wedge issue, it is only because it raises larger questions about the Democratic candidates’ foreign policy proposals. If they sound like their hawkish Republican counterparts, it’s because they are, or are dangerously close. Clinton has gone as far as proposing a Syrian no-fly zone. And though Sanders has stated his opposition to that stance, he has given little push-back to others. On the Israel-Palestine debate, for instance, Sanders has largely toed the line during his tenure in Congress.

For now, we haven’t heard many concrete positions beyond general platitudes of “war as a last resort” from Sanders. His opposition to the war in Iraq is not a new policy proposal, and though he told Chuck Todd he was “very concerned” about his Republican colleagues’ “war talk,” it’s difficult to see what this might mean in concrete policy terms.

For now it’s still remarkably difficult to draw clearer distinctions on foreign policy between Clinton, the Republicans, and Sanders.

Black Lives Matter Calls for Additional Democratic Debates

Earlier today, the Black Lives Matter national network released a statement petitioning the Democratic National Committee to add more debates to the 2016 Democratic primary schedule, including a debate targeted specifically at addressing racial justice and #BlackLivesMatter.

The DNC has scheduled only six debates for the 2016 primary season, with the next taking place on November 14. The petition (which can be read in full at Color of Change) argues that black voters “who (reluctantly) give our votes to the Democratic Party deserve more robust forums on issues of particular concern to our communities, at home and abroad.”

The activists cite a 2014 report from the Center of American Progress as evidence of the political importance of black voters, noting that “in 2012, Black women voted at a higher rate than any other group, across ethnicity, gender and race.” As the CAP report details, Barack Obama captured the White House in 2012 with 55 percent of the total women’s vote—despite the fact that only 42 percent of white female voters chose him. Report author Maya Harris found that women of color help Democrats in off-year elections as well—Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe won 91 percent of black women’s votes in 2013, significantly more than the 38 percent of white women’s votes he captured. The petition also notes that black men vote at relatively high proportions—a claim supported by census data from the 2012 election.

The release of the petition is largely fueled by less-than-enthusiastic responses from black activists in the days after last week’s first Democratic debate. Activists were particularly frustrated that racial justice had very limited time in the spotlight at the debate, and that the candidates failed to offer specific policy proposals aimed at racial justice. In his post-debate commentary, Jamil Smith of The New Republic wrote, “Black voters aren’t looking for inspiration on this issue as much as we are substance,” calling the debate a “squandered opportunity.” 

It appears that the petition’s signatories agree with Smith’s assessment. In a statement to Buzzfeed, Elle Hearns of the Black Lives Matter network and GetEQUAL said, “What we’re demanding [from the candidates] is for more substance, not just rhetoric, because we know that a lot of the candidates are depending on black voters.” Buzzfeed noted that Hearns also suggested that the Democratic candidates expand the range of issues they discuss to include “black trans women, incarceration rates, police violence, ‘economic disenfranchisement,’ and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.”

Last week, I wrote that “activists still have a lot of work to do” when it comes to making racial justice a significant issue in 2016. With today’s campaign, Black Lives Matter activists are showing that they are up to the challenge. 

Here's What Was Missing From the Democratic Debate's Discussion of Race

Activists have been a strong force in the Democratic presidential race.

After a confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists in July, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders quickly released racial justice platforms. Hillary Clinton is expected to release her highly anticipated racial justice platform soon, but in the meantime she has worked to keep activists sated through a series of closed-door meetings (including one that took place just last Friday).

But releasing policy platforms and openly debating issues on a nationally televised stage are two different things, and many were waiting for Tuesday’s debate with bated breath. So did their hard work pay off? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

For those eager to have race and criminal justice reform discussed at all, the candidates’ willingness to openly say “Black lives matter” and call for structural change to the criminal justice system was a slam dunk. As the dust began to settle in Las Vegas, Wednesday was full of feel-good headlines like “A New Emphasis on Race and Gender in Democratic Debate” (The Washington Post), “The Democratic Debate Proved that Black Lives Matter is Making a Difference” (Mic), and “The Future Democratic Presidential Nominee Thinks Black Lives Matter” (The Huffington Post). The Prospect’s Nathalie Baptiste pointed out that addressing such issues demonstrated the power of disruptive protest in effecting change.

But for those looking for specific policies intended to address racial justice, the limited debate of these issues on Tuesday night left something to be desired.

“Black voters aren’t looking for inspiration as much as we are looking for substance,” The New Republic’s Jamil Smith wrote on Wednesday. “I doubt black liberation activists have worked this hard to get these Democratic candidates merely acknowledging racial justice and making vague promises.”

Others echoed Smith’s frustration. Over at Buzzfeed, news reporter Darren Sands noted that “some activists expressed disappointment that the issue of police brutality failed to come up in a meaningful way during the debate”, while The Guardian added that outside of one question about the Black Lives Matter movement “issues related to race were only broached on a handful of other occasions”.

Anyone hoping that the limited time spent on Black Lives Matter would be partially mitigated by an expanded conversation on criminal justice reform was equally let down. Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project was especially disappointed in Clinton’s response to a question on marijuana legalization, calling out the Democratic frontrunner’s claim that “we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana” as being overly reliant on a “fallacy about who, exactly, is filling prison beds.” Criminal justice experts have thoroughly debunked the assertion that the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders is the leading factor in the growth of mass incarceration, although that hasn’t stopped other candidates from saying it.

To be fair to the candidates, the first Democratic debate should be seen as a warm-up of sorts, so it is entirely possible that more aggressive policy proposals  aimed at racial justice and dismantling the prison system will make an appearance in future debates. But even with questions on O’Malley’s legacy of zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore and Jim Webb’s dislike of affirmative action in the mix, race and criminal justice reform stood out as areas where a surprisingly scant amount of actual debating took place. Looks like activists still have a lot of work to do.

Did Hillary Win the Debate or the Media Coverage?

Last night’s debate was a much-needed respite from the GOP clown car that has taken up too much of our bandwidth and time. Instead of talking about Carly Fiorina’s face or Donald Trump’s tweets, we heard the Democrats debate on foreign policy, social welfare, criminal justice reform, and other issues.

Some did better than others (Lincoln Chafee was “feeling the chafe”). But while Hillary Clinton reasserted her dominance, Bernie Sanders and even Martin O’Malley showed they will continue to share the stage.

For that reason, the immediate declarations from larger outlets that Clinton was the landslide “winner” seemed puzzling. Matt Yglesias of Vox wrote that the four other candidates “simply aren’t close.” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine predicted “The Hillary Clinton Panic May Have Just Ended.” And Slate proclaimed, “Hillary Clinton Won.”

Beltway wonkdom has often been accused of disconnect from regular voters. Last night was no different. Focus groups favored Sanders by large margins. He had strong support among younger voters in a Fusion focus group, won handily in another for CNN, and was called “strong” and “smart” by those in a Fox News group.

This is not to say Clinton didn’t perform exceptionally. She handled questions about her flip-flopping and her hawkish foreign-policy record with finesse and cheer. And she got a huge boost (barely containing her glee) when Sanders insisted that the debate move on from Clinton’s “damn emails.” For all the negative coverage of her in recent weeks, this debate certainly was “the best day for Clinton’s campaign,” as Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put it.

But journalists and analysts could perhaps just as easily say Sanders had his best day, too. For example, when asked whether voters would be willing to put a “socialist” in the White House, Sanders, refusing to identify as a capitalist, asserted, “I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” The answer earned generous applause, not the burning at the stake that pundits predicted.

O’Malley, Chafee, and Jim Webb also had their moments. For many voters, last night was probably the first time they had seen or even heard of them. O’Malley spoke crisply and succinctly (and even garnered new followers, if not for his policies, at least for his charm). For those three candidates (one of whom, Chafee, is running his campaign out of his personal sedan) CNN’s Tuesday Night Lights put them on the map.

This of course doesn’t mean those four candidates “won,” either. Chafee and Webb were crowded out of much of the discussion, and Webb was a bad sport about it. Sanders had to go on the defense about his gun-control record, and when asked about Russian intervention in Syria, looked like a deer in headlights. But pundits highlighted Clinton’s defensive moments as strengths. Yglesias claimed Clinton responded to the Glass-Steagall attacks with specific policies while Sanders didn’t, though one could just as easily argue that naming one bank to regulate and hurriedly referring to shadow banking is just as vague as saying we need to break up big banks.

But the media elite had already made up their minds. As Paul Waldman wrote on The Week, our opinions are inevitably shaped from the top down. Focus groups, though hardly scientific, can at least help inform media coverage. Ignoring that information made instant announcements of winners appear premature. Perhaps an entirely different debate aired for the punditocracy, or perhaps they are stuck in a feedback loop that reinforces the idea that Sanders is simply unelectable, no matter how the audience reacted. 

The Democratic Debate Was Proof That Protests Work

Last night, five Democratic presidential candidates took to the stage for their first debate hosted by CNN. The candidates—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee—fielded questions from Anderson Cooper about a wide range of topics, including economic inequality and national security. However, one of the most telling moments during the two-hour debate was when Don Lemon read a question from a Facebook user: “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?”

In July, at Netroots Nation—the largest gathering of progressives in the country—Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the presidential town hall during Sanders’s speech. He fumbled on stage and left angrily. O’Malley fared even worse when he said, “All lives matter.” Clinton, who did not attend Netroots Nation, had the privilege of firming up her answer beforehand and later said “Black lives matter” in a Facebook Q&A.

Many Sanders supporters took to Twitter after Netroots to express their distaste for the protesters. Some said interrupting the candidate’s speech was rude or “not the right way” to go about addressing the issue of racism and police brutality. Others said that the protests discredited the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. The message from those (mostly white) critics was very clear: Black people, stay in your place.

After Sanders’s poor handling of the protesters and the subsequent criticism from Black Lives Matter activists on his inability to stray from his pet issue of economic inequality and actually address systemic racism, Sanders released a racial equality platform. O’Malley also sought to do damage control by unveiling his plan for criminal justice reform.

Last night, Sanders answered Cooper’s question with an emphatic “Black lives matter!” Not all of the answers from the other candidates were thoughtful or encouraging, including Jim Webb, who came close to saying, “All lives matter” when he responded with, “Every life in this country matters.” But for the first time, the issue of police brutality and institutional racism made it onto the stage at a presidential debate in a substantial way—proof of the power of disruptive protest. 

Tamir Rice's Killing Is Called "Reasonable" Because He Was Black

Last November, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun at a park in Cleveland. A person in the park called the police to report that a black male was pointing a gun at people. Cleveland police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback responded to the call and, within two seconds—two seconds—Loehmann shot Rice. On Saturday, two experts found that the shooting of Tamir Rice was “reasonable.”

The two reports were written by S. Lamar Sims, who is senior chief deputy district attorney in Denver and former FBI agent Kimberly A. Crawford. “For all of the reasons discussed herein,” read the report written by Sims, “I conclude that Officer Loehmann’s belief that Rice posed a threat of serious physical harm or death was objectively reasonable as was his response to that perceived threat."

The fact that Loehmann’s actions were found “reasonable” has activists in Cleveland worried that the grand jury will decline to charge the officer. “It will be read, understandably, as a tragic foreshadowing of where the case may be headed: no arrest, no charges, no indictments,” Rhonda Y. Williams, the director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland told The New York Times.

Plenty of white adults with real guns, like defiant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his merry band of protesters—managed to point their weapons at police and survive. And in Ohio, which is an open-carry state, white people can casually walk around with assault rifles slung over their backs without being killed. Though the guns are real, their skin relieves them of the burden of being a threat. Only in a country where black lives aren’t valued is killing a 12-year-old boy because he has a toy gun “reasonable.” 

This Just In: We Are Officially in a New Gilded Age

Yesterday, The New York Times dropped an investigative bombshell that confirmed in detail what most of us already know: The ultra-rich are in control of our electoral process. 

As the Times reports, just 158 families have contributed nearly half of all the money raised so far for the numerous presidential campaigns. “Not since before Watergate,” the story states, “have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago.”

Not surprisingly, these donors are overwhelmingly white, male, old, Republican, and rich—very, very rich. These are the people who have made their wealth by cashing in on the under-regulated frontiers of fracking and speculative finance. And they are backing candidates who will ensure that their interests are kept at the front of the agenda.

“[R]egardless of industry, the families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right, contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programs. While such measures would help protect their own wealth, the donors describe their embrace of them more broadly, as the surest means of promoting economic growth and preserving a system that would allow others to prosper, too.”

Most of these donors are concentrated around only nine cities, and if you combine the neighborhoods—elite, mostly white enclaves—that these political benefactors live in, it would be roughly equivalent to the area of New Orleans. Here’s a great breakdown of just where these donors come from, and how they’ve made their fortunes.

We’ve known for some time now that the mega-rich, who have a very specific political agenda, have captured the campaign-finance system. This investigation serves, however, to turn that notion from an abstract to a very tangible concept and brings these political power-players out from the shadows. 

To Protect Public Housing, Maxine Waters Calls For Greater RAD Oversight

Earlier this week, Maxine Waters, the Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee, sent a letter to the GAO requesting a review of the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD). RAD, as I’ve written about previously, is the Obama administration’s plan to save public housing by injecting private capital. Currently 185,000 public housing units across the country are being transferred to the control of private developers, who will receive tax breaks and subsidies in exchange for repairing and rehabbing the units, and keeping their rents low.

Waters has criticized RAD in the past. In December 2014, she sent a letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider the program, saying she believes it “may very well do more harm than good in diminishing a crucial public asset.” She urged him to allocate more funds directly to public housing authorities and to “renew [the government’s] commitment to serving those most in need by demanding the full amount of funding that the public housing program so desperately requires.”

Now, nearly ten months later, Waters is calling for a more formal federal review. In her letter to the GAO she outlines her concerns that tenant rights will not be properly protected through RAD conversions, that public assets will be privatized, and that long-term affordability is not guaranteed. (My previous reporting looks more specifically at all of these concerns).

Waters asks the GAO to examine some critical questions about RAD conversions, such as how are the housing authorities proposing to maintain public ownership over the long haul, and are those proposed mechanisms sufficient to actually protect the properties? What are HUD’s plans for public housing units not converted under RAD? Have any tenants been displaced? How have tenants been educated about and involved in the RAD conversion process?

According to HUD, the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units need at least $25.6 billion in capital repairs. While many experts feel that RAD may be the best available option to preserve public housing given the austere political climate, answers to Waters’ questions are still sorely needed. The details of these real estate transactions are not well understood, and the few details that have emerged raise many questions.

Given that some of the failures of the Clinton-era HOPE VI program were poor recordkeeping and tenant displacement, Waters’ call for more rigorous oversight is a welcome development. 

On Voting Rights, Carson is Actually the Sane Republican

Yesterday, at a campaign event in Iowa Republican contender Jeb Bush said he didn’t think the Voting Rights Act—a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement—should be reauthorized by Congress after the conservative Supreme Court gutted it in 2013. 

Here’s exactly what he had to say: “If it’s to reauthorize it to continue to provide regulations on top of states as though we’re living in 1960, because those were basically when many of those rules were put in place, I don’t believe we should do that. There’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting, exponentially better improvement, and I don’t think there’s a role for the federal government to play in most places.”

On this issue, Jeb is not only straying from his brother’s position—given that George W. Bush signed reauthorization of the VRA in 2006—but he’s also outflanking the Republican’s resident crazy-talker, Ben Carson.

As the CNN reported yesterday, a policy divide has emerged within the party on the issue of restoring and protecting voter rights. "Of course I want the Voting Rights Act to be protected. Whether we still need it or not or whether we've outgrown the need for it is questionable," Carson told CNN. "Maybe we have, maybe we haven't. But I wouldn't jeopardize it."

For The Nation, Ari Berman explained exactly why Jeb Bush’s notion that the VRA is no longer necessary is an absolute abomination. From 1965 to 2013, the section of the VRA that was struck down by the Supreme Court had stopped 3,000 discriminatory voting changes from happening. One only needs to look at what Alabama did last week to refute Bush. Berman also notes that in the past four years alone, 468 new voting restrictions have cropped up in 49 states—one of the most severe was in Jeb’s home state of Florida.

“It’s sad, but not surprising, that the same guy who said African Americans just wanted ‘free stuff’ from the government is now claiming that the VRA, the country’s most important civil-rights law, is no longer necessary,” Berman writes.

McCarthy's Exit Sparks Liberal Schadenfreude and GOP Disarray

At about noon today, political Twitter and news junkies were offered a gift: Representative Kevin McCarthy, the presumed successor to House Speaker John Boehner’s throne, abruptly withdrew from the leadership contest.

McCarthy’s election was by no means certain—just yesterday, the conservative Freedom Caucus decided to back Representative Dan Webster instead—but things were looking pretty good for the California Republican. “How the dusty, deep red Bakersfield, California, shaped his life—and might shape his speakership,” said the subtitle for a Politico magazine story posted today, anticipating the outcome of today’s Republican conference vote (which Boehner has now postponed).

There’s been a few ideas as to why McCarthy made the sudden decision to drop out of the race, from unsubstantiated rumors of an affair to the Freedom Caucus decision. And of course, there was McCarthy’s ill-advised comment last week, which seemed to acknowledge that the Benghazi committee was a political tool meant to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The decision left some Republicans “audibly crying” in the cloakroom and gave liberal observers cause for glee.

Clinton demonstrated her own delight in the news, by posting this video:


Journalists and Twitter users highlighted the chaos of the Republican Party and its failure of leadership, and some typically wild speculations:


But John Nichols of The Nation had a particularly stirring condemnation of the GOP and the politics of “no” that have led to the party’s unsurprising disarray:

But the greater surrender is that of the Republican Party. It has given up on a premise as old as the party itself: that Republican speakers (like the best of Democratic speakers) would lead the whole House and seek to keep the chamber functioning. … But [Boehner’s] tepid regard for governing was too much for his caucus. And for a party that has no real need for a speaker of the House because it has lost interest in what Republicans historically understood as governing.