Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Biden Hack Goes On the Attack Against Warren

by Neil H. Buchanan

Ed Rendell is a former mayor of Philadelphia and governor or Pennsylvania, a major Democratic power broker, and a strong supporter of Joe Biden.  He recently wrote: "I like Elizabeth Warren. Too Bad She’s a Hypocrite."  The piece, which carries a dateline of September 11, was for some reason published (or maybe republished) in The Washington Post on September 22.  That timing matters, because Biden is beginning to weaken, and the establishment is panicking.

Since Rendell is all but unknown except to political junkies, I did not use his name in the title of this column, choosing instead to focus on the real explanation behind his empty attack piece.  For what is might be worth, I can say that my original title of this column was: "Ed Rendell Might or Might Not Be a Hypocrite, But He Is Certainly a Hack."

And he is.  Among many other examples, it is worth noting that Rendell in 2013 "wrote a big newspaper piece praising 'fracking,' without disclosing his financial ties to gas-extraction companies that use the practice."  His post-gubernatorial activities fairly reek of the kind of sellout culture that people who hate politics have in mind when despairingly saying that "they're all corrupt."

Here, I will discuss the charge of hypocrisy that Rendell flings at Senator Warren, mostly because it is such a silly and flimsy attack.  More to the point, I will discuss why Rendell would write -- and the Post's op-ed page would publish -- this attack now and what it says about Joe Biden's presidential campaign.

But I do not want to bury the lead.  By this point, there is a veritable sub-genre of political punditry that fits under the title: "... and THIS is how we ended up with Trump."  The silliest low point followed a speech by Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes in early 2017, where she defended the arts and responded to Trump's attacks on foreigners and immigrants by saying that "Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing else to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts."

Cue the outrage. John McCain's daughter Meghan McCain actually tweeted in response: "This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won."  That response merely tapped into the idea that "liberal condescension" explains the rise of right-wing populism, which is but one of many too-easy theories of modern politics.  The larger point is that everyone at some point has a moment when she can suddenly say: "Oh, that's how we got Trump."  Reading Rendell's op-ed was that moment for me.

To be clear, I do not mean this literally or even as a dominant explanation of the 2016 election.  Russian interference and James Comey (but certainly not the now-popular standby, that Clinton failed to campaign in Wisconsin) continue to be more than sufficient to explain what happened three years ago.

I do mean, however, that Rendell is a leading example of the kind of insider political type who can reasonably be called a swamp creature.  If this is who any Democrat would put forward as a spokesman, it is easy to see why voters would be turned off.  To the extent that people view longtime insiders like the Clintons and Biden as corrupt and beholden to corporate money, Rendell is Exhibit A in making that case.  This, I say with tongue somewhat in cheek, is how we ended up with Trump.

In any event, what is Rendell's complaint about Warren?  His feelings seem to be genuinely hurt, because he obsesses over her populist-inflected description of big-money fundraising and seems particularly upset that she used the word "swanky," ending the piece with a faux-friendly comment: "And, by the way, Philadelphia has a lot more swanky restaurants that you haven’t seen yet."  Odd.

To Rendell's enormous credit, he precedes that strange final sentence with this: "So, despite my feelings, Elizabeth, if you’re reading this and you win the Democratic nomination, I will be happy to support you and will campaign for you with all my heart."  That is much better than the people who have been playing coy about whether they will support the ultimate Democratic nominee.  Seriously, that is good news.

But Rendell's piece is about more than just being upset at being called out as a big-money guy.  He is unhappy with Warren's suggestion that the people who attend Rendell's fundraisers and give the maximum donation might be doing so to get federal jobs, contracts, or other favors.  Warren is, of course, doing nothing more than saying what everyone knows, which is that the current system of campaign finance is often little more than legalized bribery.  "Buying access" means something, after all.

Rendell responds in horror:
"Donors who give $2,800 for the most part are doing so because they believe strongly that the candidate would make a great leader, or maybe they believe in the candidate’s values or policies on the important issues challenging the country.

"Are there some people who give or raise money in presidential campaigns with ulterior motives? Sure, but I’m confident that the crowd at the Biden fundraiser gave money to him for the same reason I did. We believe that he will be the best person to lead the country, to restore the United States’ moral leadership in the world, to get things done in Washington, to create opportunity for all Americans and to protect the nation’s most vulnerable citizens."
How does Rendell know this?  More importantly, why does he think that Warren's attack on the big-money system impugns the motives of every single person who writes a check, when that is not what she has ever said?  Rendell basically admits Warren's point -- "Are there some people who...?  Sure, but ..." -- but then says that he is confident that the bad actors are few and far between.  Maybe it is reasonable to share his confidence.  Warren does not, nor do I.

But where does the claim that Warren is a hypocrite come from?  Well, she used to accept big-dollar donations, and she used some of those previous big-dollar donations from Senate campaigns to launch her presidential campaign.  See, Rendell shouts with glee, she took the big bucks, too!  Second, she attacked Biden for taking money from a big fundraiser that Rendell organized.

Both parts of this argument are truly puzzling.  There is an interesting question about what to do when one has received money from a tainted source.  Harvard and various other institutions, for example, are struggling with ethical questions about donations from the sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.  Does one keep the money and use it for good purposes?  Give it to a charity?  Give it back to the donor?

Warren decided to use the money given to her by large donors to try to advance an agenda that will -- if she has her way -- make such donations impossible in the future.  There is a certain poetry to that strategy, but I am not surprised that Rendell fails to hear it.  There is simply no reason why Warren should give the money back to those donors, even though she could have if she wanted to do so.

So yeah, Warren is spending money that she took in before she decided not to continue to take in money that way.  Because she is not now completely pure, Rendell says that she is not just impure but a hypocrite to boot.  That is quite a leap.

The second part of the hypocrisy argument, however, is more interesting in its way, because it is not actually an argument at all.  It is worth quoting in its entirety:
"Second, Warren attacked former vice president Joe Biden for holding a kickoff fundraiser in Philadelphia in April, which she criticized as 'a swanky private fund-raiser for wealthy donors' in an email to supporters the next day.

"Well, I helped organize that affair, and I thought her attack was extremely hypocritical because nearly 20 of us who attended the Biden fundraiser had also given her $2,000 or more in 2018 at closed-door fundraisers in "swanky' locations.

"Warren didn’t seem to have any trouble taking our money in 2018, but suddenly we were power brokers and influence peddlers in 2019. The year before, we were wonderful. I co-chaired one of the events for the senator and received a glowing, handwritten thank-you letter from her for my hard work.

"It seemed odd to some of us who gave her money that Warren was experiencing an epiphany less than 12 months later. It’s one thing to fashion a campaign that relies on grass-roots fundraising, but it’s another to go out of your way to characterize as power-brokers and influence-peddlers the very people whose support you have previously courted."
Again, that is his entire argument, but it is not an argument at all.  At most, it is simply a repetition of the previous claim -- that she should not have kept the dollars raised during an earlier year -- but this second point seems to be even weaker.  Why is it "odd to some of us who gave her money that Warren was experiencing an epiphany less than 12 months later"?

Is that not what epiphanies are?  A person feels grubby for some amount of time, grapples with her conscience, and changes her behavior going forward.  And the people she once courted are no longer people she wants to be around.  That is not hypocrisy.  It is progress.

As I noted above, however, the problem here is that Rendell offers this bit of hackery in the context of having watched his guy, Joe Biden, start to sag in the polls in the face of an impressive surge by Warren.

How to respond?  Emphasize Biden's policy positions from the past?  Too tricky.  Push his policy positions today?  Even for people who know what those positions are, Biden's claim is not that he has good ideas but that he can win.  (Heck, even Biden's wife could do no better than to say that people who like other candidates should "swallow a little bit" and vote for Biden anyway.)  If he no longer looks like a winner, where does that leave him?

It was inevitable that Warren's opponents would attack her.  It was also only.a matter of time before the Democrats' corporatist wing would start to go after the best truly progressive candidate the Democrats have seen in years.  Howard Dean once referred to the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" as a way to distinguish actual progressives from the big-money crowd that Rendell personifies.

Rendell says that he will graciously overlook Warren's supposed hypocrisy if she is the nominee.  How nice of him.  If only he could think of something positive to say about his candidate -- or, failing that, to make an actual substantive argument against Warren's ideas -- he might be able to help his guy without baselessly sliming another candidate.  But Rendell's feelings are hurt, and apparently Warren must now be put in her place.

3 comments:

Greg said...

I wouldn't say that Warren's behavior is hypocritical, but I may think it's foolish.

Maybe I'm a bit cynical, but in my opinion it's foolish not to play by the rules of the game today, rather than by some personal image of what you think those rules should be. There's nothing wrong with taking money from donors and then voting for policies that would limit the influence of those same donors.

The question is if the amount of goodwill and small-donor money you gain by playing by some idealized set of rules is worth more than the large donor money that you lose by doing so. I can't imagine that rejecting the large donors will be a good idea in the general, which runs the risk of looking legitimately hypocritical if she has to court large-donor money in the general after making a big show of rejecting it in the primary.

Fred Raymond said...

It just seems like the Republicans will be largely united behind their candidate, and the Democrats anything but. This is not looking good.

Joe said...

The strong critic of Warren here said if she was the nominee he would support her. This tends to be a standard line -- "blue no matter who."

Right now, against a sitting occupant of the White House, three people are challenging Trump for the Republican nomination. How "largely united" Republicans will be is unclear.