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The ghost of Al Franken and the mystery of the Gillibrand campaign’s failure to launch

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HANOVER, N.H. — Meg and Tavis Doucette couldn’t recall what happened to Al Franken.

“I have it somewhere in my memory. I sort of recall that,” Meg said, as she waited in a college bar on a Friday night in June to hear Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — whom many Democrats have held responsible for Franken’s political exit.

“Yeah, that’s not even on my radar. I didn’t even really know to be honest,” her son, Tavis, added. “Now I feel bad. I have to go research that.”

Franken, the former senator from Minnesota, may not be on the Doucettes’ minds as they weigh 2020 Democratic candidates. But some high-powered donors and party heavyweights, whose opinion tends to play an outsize role at this stage of the primary, have not moved past Franken’s 2017 resignation. Gillibrand herself, at times, has seemingly been at pains to do so.

After Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly call for Franken to step down, setting off a wave of over two dozen other Democratic senators to also call for his resignation, many elite donors who had once supported her hesitated. Some said they viewed Gillibrand’s actions as opportunistic and self-serving, especially as the presidential election neared.

For months, the common explanation about why the high-profile senator from New York long seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party has failed to break through in the presidential primary has centered around this dynamic.

Many political insiders have viewed Gillibrand’s low fundraising and polling numbers — she hovers at a half percent in polling averages — as evidence of a backlash. Democratic voters and donors, the thinking goes, were upset after Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly pressure Franken to resign after multiple women accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Gillibrand’s campaign itself pointed to Franken to explain why she was raising significantly less as a presidential candidate than she did in her Senate re-election race last year. In a memo obtained by The New York Times, her campaign reportedly said that there was “no question” that Gillibrand’s first-quarter fundraising was negatively affect by those “who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.”

Still, in conversations with voters in early primary states, many say they aren’t thinking of Franken when it comes to making a decision on who to support in the primary.

“What was interesting about Gillibrand is she immediately wanted to talk about Al Franken and how she responded to that. For me, as much as that is important, it wasn’t what I was super interested in hearing about,” said Emily Van Kirk of Iowa, recalling an event featuring Gillibrand she attended at the beginning of the year.

“I am a long way away from picking my candidate, and I will certainly be considering a handful of them, including Gillibrand. That’s why I’m here — so I can get more than just the soundbite,” George Sykes, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said at a coffee shop meet-and-greet with Gillibrand earlier this month, adding that he doesn’t have an opinion about the Franken resignation. “I didn’t particularly pay attention to it.”

Gillibrand says she has backed away from her initial strategy of explaining her thought process on Franken, recognizing that most voters aren’t interested in hearing about him. His name hardly comes up anymore, she said recently.

“No, not really, to be honest,” Gillibrand said in a phone interview with NBC News just ahead of the first Democratic debate last week, when asked if she hears from voters about Franken. “It seems to be something that some elite Democrats, elite Democratic donors, care about. But no, when I am on the campaign trail people ask me about how to get access to health care, they ask me about how they can get better public schools or free college, or how we can get better job training.”

While Franken could help make sense of Gillibrand’s low fundraising numbers from big-dollar donors who once supported her, it still does not fully capture why she has failed to garner more grassroots support and continues to lag behind candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has sworn off big donors all together.

The diagnosis for Gillibrand’s campaign headaches is more than just an Al Franken hangover. But many Democratic strategists and party leaders say they’re left puzzled.

“I just really don’t know. I am kind of at a loss for words right now,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist, as she grappled to explain Gillibrand’s struggling candidacy. “I think her campaign is a little confused, too.”

Some party leaders say Gillibrand’s problems started back home in New York. As other Democratic presidential candidates locked down home state support, Gillibrand struggled to get endorsements from the New York delegation. Some even publicly questioned the viability of her candidacy.

“I think that there was some lack of institutional support early on that contributed to a narrative that her run might be more quixotic than others,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and the former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, adding that this dynamic “contributed to a low enthusiasm with her at the start.”

Others say that Gillibrand’s decision to brand herself as the feminist candidate in the race has fallen flat, especially in a Democratic primary where voters expect all candidates to speak to issues such as women’s reproductive health care and paid family leave.

“She had a very mom-centric launch, which isn’t as effective when you are in a race against other moms that are talking about more than just that,” Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said in a phone interview with NBC News.

On the campaign trail, voters echo this sentiment.

“Women’s issues are very important to me,” said Cass Olsen, a New Hampshire retiree, after attending a meet-and-greet with Gillibrand. “But they can be — and they are being — addressed by men and other women as well. So I don’t know how it plays out with her. I am still unsure.”

And Gillibrand’s stump speech, which is centered around the importance of female representation in politics, has left some progressives with a sour taste in their mouths. Gillibrand, they say, has not always practiced what she preaches.

“She has really advanced the feminist causes throughout the country … but it’s troubling to see that she hasn’t gotten off the sidelines more for women in New York,” said Katz, who worked for Cynthia Nixon during her gubernatorial primary run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, pointing out that Gillibrand endorsed both Cuomo and then-Rep. Joe Crowley over their female Democratic challengers last year.

Her campaign pushes back on that idea, saying that donations surged in the weeks immediately following the release of her Reproductive Rights Agenda, and continued to surge after she called on Fox News for lying about abortion during a town hall, arguing that it helped her reach the required level of donors to make the debate stage.

Many voters and party leaders say that what’s holding Gillibrand back is lack of exposure. She’s had good moments — from launching her campaign outside of Trump Tower to being one of the first candidates to visit Georgia in the wake of the state’s near-total abortion ban — but none have managed to stick with the public, the way Kamala Harris grabbed the spotlight when she shared the stage with Gillibrand at last week’s Democratic debate.

“I don’t know how people get the name recognition,” said Karen Zurheide, 63, at a women’s health care roundtable with Gillibrand. “A lot of people have gotten a breakout moment and she just has not had that.”

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, sounded a similar note.

“It’s a really big field and so there are a lot of people not making a dent in the polls,” he said. “It can feel like a vicious cycle: You’re not covered so you don’t move up in the polls, and you don’t move up in the polls so you aren’t covered.”

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Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair questions Trump’s coronavirus strategy

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LONDON — Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair questioned U.S. President Donald Trump’s approach to the coronavirus crisis and warned of “terrifying” economic consequences if global lockdown measures continue as they are.

“The countries that locked down fast and that are building, testing, tracing and tracking capability fast, that then enables you to be more bold on the economy,” he told NBC News on Friday.

Trump’s government has been accused of bungling the response to the pandemic by first downplaying the threat and not moving quickly or efficiently enough to deal with the growing crisis.

“I think the problem that you have in most Western countries today is that people are now very well-informed about the risks of the disease,” Blair said from his home in the United Kingdom where, like much of the rest of his country, he’s spent the last eight weeks with his family under lockdown.

“I think they are not sufficiently well-informed about the risks of economic collapse,” he added.

The pandemic and the consequent lockdown has slammed the world economy. In the U.S., the first quarter of 2020 saw the steepest decline since the Great Recession.

As prime minister from 1997 to 2007, Blair became an important figure on the world stage and was a key ally of U.S. President George W. Bush. Under his leadership, the U.K. joined the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Asked about Trump’s widely condemned comments on whether the coronavirus might be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body, Blair said, “I think most people would understand what I would think, but it’s probably better sometimes not to say it.”

He added that he was less worried about individual comments and more concerned about what he called “the absence of global coordination.”

He then went on to compare Trump to his predecessors.

“If I think back to the times when I’m dealing with Bill Clinton or George Bush, Barack Obama as well, the most important thing at a time like this is to say, ‘How do you bring the world together?’”

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

That included working together to find a vaccine, accelerating the development of therapeutics and testing capability and making sure economic measures are in place to ease what will be a massive economic problem for the world, he said.

“It’s that global coordination, the absence of which means that each individual country’s less effective at dealing with the disease. That’s the thing that worries,” he said, suggesting that the U.S. may have lost its desire to influence the global agenda.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak.

During his time in office, Trump has strained the United States’ traditional allegiances and withdrawn from agreements, such as the landmark Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement. Most recently, he threatened to make the freeze on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization permanent, accusing the organization of an “alarming lack of independence” from China.

In comments that will add to the debate about how quickly to end the current global lockdown, Blair also advocated for an easing of restrictions, albeit with measures in place.

“We needed to terrify people sufficiently to get them to obey the lockdown, but you’ve got to also help people to understand that there is a limit to how long you can go on with this,” he said.

Blair — who now heads the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a nonprofit organisation — added that his family members are all well and healthy.

“I’ve been enjoying not traveling all the time,” he said during the internet call. “That’s been good to be in one place, and probably much more healthy as a result.”

He said he was especially concerned about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions in Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion people, where, according to official data, the disease has had very limited health implications with just over 3,000 deaths.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

Blair said lockdown measures were disrupting programmes that help treat and limit the spread of malaria, diarrheal diseases and HIV/AIDS.

“The risk is the African countries end up suffering many more deaths because the lockdown around COVID is imposing barriers on them treating their people,” he said.

Food insecurity and lack of work in the informal economy were also placing a huge burden on the continent.

Blair said people must now recognise that the economic fallout globally could be far worse than the health implications.

“You’ve got to say to people, ‘Yes, look, I can’t tell you that there is no risk, whatever, if you send children back into primary school, but what I can tell you is that the evidence from around the world is that the risk is very small.’”

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'Beyond audacious!' UK accused of 'fanciful demands' in EU talks – trade deal at risk

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THE UK has been accused of making “fanciful demands” of the European Union during post-Brexit trade talks, in a move described by one political expert as “beyond audacious” and a strategy that could completely derail already-fragile negotiations.

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Trump’s Michigan voter fraud comments reveal America’s desperate need for reforms

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Last week, President Donald Trump took his attacks on voting by mail to new heights as he threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan and Nevada if they continued to implement vote-by-mail in their states.

“The threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and, I think, something that is unacceptable,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told “CBS This Morning.” Other observers saw shades of Trump’s attempt to withhold military equipment from Ukraine to extort that country into opening a criminal investigation into his leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. This action led to Trump’s impeachment.

With his recent broadside, Trump is building on his continuing false charges that voting-by-mail would lead to widespread fraud — despite the absence of any evidence to support his baseless claims. In fact, both red states and blue states have instituted the practice without problem.

Trump’s actions suggest he is interested in suppressing the November vote. Why? Perhaps because he thinks that the more eligible Americans he can prevent from voting, the better his chances of being re-elected. If you make it easier for more people to vote with absentee and mail-in ballots, Trump said on “Fox & Friends, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

This could also be the reason that some Republicans have been pressing to restrict voting-by-mail. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican state legislature blocked the Democratic governor’s efforts to mail ballots to all voters and the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court overruled his effort to move the April primary to June. This backfired, however, when a Democrat won an upset election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

This isn’t a purely political issue, it’s a question of safety. Voting-by-mail during this pandemic means that citizens will not have to choose between their votes and their lives.

But Trump looks to be up to more than suppressing the vote. He could be attempting to set the stage to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he loses — by claiming widespread voter fraud in the mailed ballots. Let’s keep in mind that even when Trump won in 2016, he challenged the election results, claiming without a shred of evidence that three million to five million votes were illegally counted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This is the reason, he insisted, that she won the popular vote.

Much needs to be done to provide for safe and secure voting. State and local election officials need substantial amounts of federal funds to administer the vastly increased number of mailed-in ballots that will be cast in the November elections in the face of the coronavirus. Money is also required to make the adjustments necessary for safe in-person voting.

The House recently approved these essential funds with the HEROES Act, stimulus relief legislation, which includes $3.6 billion for the November elections. This money is needed to pay for crucial additional expenditures — ballot printing, postage, drop boxes for absentee ballots and appropriate security, secure electronic absentee ballot request technology, ballot tracking, improvements to absentee ballot processing, additional facilities for both ballot processing and storage, additional staffing to support absentee ballot processing, polling facilities that meet public health standards and increased poll worker support.

The act also provides $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has an essential role to play in effective voting by mail and which has major financial woes. Trump regularly attacks the Postal Service, has installed a political crony as postmaster general and prevented the service, to date, from receiving the federal funding it needs to properly function.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. R-Ky., has been slow walking this next round of stimulus legislation. Throughout this Congress, he has also blocked adequate funding for the states to conduct the November elections. And McConnell has prevented Senate consideration of all legislative efforts in this Congress to protect against foreign interference in our elections.

Negotiations on the next round of stimulus relief are now expected to begin in June, with a deal expected sometime in July. But the longer it takes to get money to the states, the more difficult it will be for them to conduct a safe, secure, and fair election in November.

But even when the election is over, we will still have a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and an endangered democracy.

The current campaign finance system is dominated by influence-seeking billionaires and millionaires, Super PACs, dark money nonprofit groups, bundlers, lobbyists and powerful special interests. The current voting system is rife with barriers that discriminate against minorities, suppress voting and leave tens of millions of eligible voters unregistered.

Partisan gerrymandering often results in officeholders choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representative, denying the American people fair representation. The ethics abuses and corrupt practices of Trump and his administration are unmatched in U.S. history. Trump’s refusal to give up ownership of his businesses, for example, have created enumerable domestic and foreign conflicts of interest. Ethics problems exist in all three branches of government.

We will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress.

Assuming the current polls hold up in November, we will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact arguably the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress. It is designed to repair our political system, reform our campaign finance laws and revitalize our democracy.

This legislative package, known as H.R. 1, passed the House in March 2019. McConnell, however, has blocked its consideration in the Senate.

Unrigging the system in Washington is a prerequisite to achieving the substantive changes that could be pursued in the next Congress and future years. Democratic congressional leaders — and their members who unanimously supported H.R.1 — have correctly recognized that Washington’s rigged system must be ended to pave the way for solving the nation’s problems.

Biden has said, should he win, a first priority for his administration will be to push through the kinds of reforms found in the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. D-Calif., prioritized the critical need for democracy reform by making it the first order of business in this Congress. She has committed to doing the same in the next Congress. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has committed to making the bill one of his first three priorities if Democrats control the Senate in January 2021.

H.R 1 has been carefully crafted to obtain the support it needs to pass Congress and cannot become a Christmas tree on which to hang other substantive or systemic reforms without dangerously jeopardizing its enactment.

In contrast to earlier decades of bipartisan support for democracy reforms, congressional Republicans in the last 10 years have almost universally opposed these reforms. At the state and local level, however, bipartisan democracy reforms have been enacted. Most important, the American people object to Washington’s rigged system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

McConnell has now spent decades using either obstructionist filibusters by the minority or his scheduling powers in the majority to block Senate consideration of democracy reforms. But a new Senate Democratic majority would no longer allow this.

The Senate filibuster rules may not be eliminated. But after McConnell has used an exception to the filibuster rules to pack the federal judiciary with conservative and right-wing judges, there is bound to be room for a second exception to allow a majority to determine the rules of our democracy.

It looks like we are on the cusp of enacting an historic package of democracy reforms to repair our political system and restore our democracy. The constitutional system of representative government given to us by the Founders is on the line.

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