Dem Bums: 50 Shades of Blue

Glitchy red ink flowing into blue; concept of Republican party flowing into Democratic. Image Description: Glitchy red ink flowing into blue; concept of Republican party flowing into Democratic.

Summary: You can’t do the big things if you can’t do the little things. A friend of mine used to say this all the time. And it reminds me of the Democratic Party—a party that can’t seem to move the needle on the big, meaningful stuff because they’re always fighting about procedural issues that prevent the nation from moving forward. Has the right wing lost its fucking mind in this country? Sure. But they’re not the reason Democrats are so dysfunctional. The Democratic Party is riddled with self-inflicted wounds, some of which we expose in today’s episode, including a profile of one of the party’s worst actors: Josh Gottheimer.

The longer we do this, the more obvious and pronounced certain patterns become. The steady messaging on the right halting social progress and economic measures that would benefit the working class and majority of the country. The oppressive use of force both home and abroad. Issues of class and race are at the heart of policy discussions, both covertly and overtly.

These forces, or patterns, manage to obscure the path forward and our pursuit of logical and widely accepted structural changes to our system and politics. I mean, the things we need are fairly basic and pretty straightforward. When you strip away all the bullshit, they become self-evident in a maddening way. One can imagine an alien or, I don’t know, a Canadian or New Zealander, who somehow managed to avoid the chaos of the discourse in this country and having only precious few details about us, trying to work through these scenarios.

If all you knew is that we had a mature democratic system of representation, the most resource rich territory on the planet, a fully literate population and nearly 30% of the world’s wealth with 5% of the world’s population, then core socioeconomic and justice questions would have straightforward answers. Armed with these facts, this person would assume that this population had access to healthcare, would be interested in preserving the planet that feeds and enriches it, offered a robust educational experience to its citizens and protected its elders.

Given these inputs and expectations, this person would be surprised by national rankings found in The United Nations Human Development Index, a composite of three key metrics: life expectancy, education and gross national income. We’re ranked 17th, behind Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Iceland, Germany, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Belgium, New Zealand and Canada.

We like to pretend that we have a functioning democracy, but when pressed, it’s clear that we have some pretty fundamental flaws. But, like a friend of mine always says, you can’t do the big things if you can’t do the little things. In this case, the little things that get in the way of massive, life altering policies are structural in nature. Getting rid of the filibuster. Campaign finance reform to get dark money out of politics. Direct child tax payments. Early childhood education. Lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Fairly drawn and representative districts. Voting rights and access. Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to trade on inside information. And so on.

In many ways, the right wing in this country certainly stands in the way of achieving such basic measures of democracy and human rights. But that doesn’t account for the periods when Democrats are fully in charge, like, oh I don’t know, right now! So it leads to a more cynical view of democratic obstructionism.

From the Clinton years forward, the increasingly radicalized agenda of the right wing has done more than prevent basic and decent measures to move forward. It has provided cover for moderate and conservative Democrats. And, when you put them together, they represent the majority bloc in Congress and at the state legislative level, making progressives who promote rational and decent causes look increasingly untethered from reality.

Chapter One

Meet Josh

I want to put someone on your radar, if he’s not already. Sort of a walking, talking emblem of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party. But first, let’s talk money for a second. We know Congress is a big money game, and the higher the profile one has, the more money they attract. And the more contentious and at risk the district, the more outside money pours in. That’s how it works. Representatives in safe districts, who are relatively safe from primary challenges, and who maintain a low profile, don’t typically hold all that much cash on hand.

For some perspective, AOC is currently sitting on about $6 million. The House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, has $8.2 million cash on hand. Lauren Boebert has about $2 million, and Matt Gaetz has around $4 million. Some of the biggest fundraisers in Congress—according to Open Secrets—are the Republicans who supported overthrowing the election. Representatives like Jordan, Scalise, Boebert, Gaetz, MTG and Stefanik have hauled in millions of dollars since the insurrection.

On the other side of the Capitol, the numbers change. For example, Raphael Warnock is sitting on about $22 million because of the stakes of his reelection bid. Senators who aren’t running typically don’t hold that much cash, however, but the fundraising machine will crank up as their terms draw closer to closing out. For example, Mitt Romney’s next election isn’t until 2024, so he’s sitting on less than a million. That all changes quickly when it’s go time.

Point being, considering there are 535 of these fuckers across the country, the total figures add up pretty quickly. This is a big money game, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and all since the Supreme Court decided to treat corporations as people, allow for secrecy through dark money PACS and take the limits off contributions.

So, with some perspective on individual candidates and fundraising, I want to turn your attention to Josh Gottheimer, Democratic Congressperson from New Jersey’s fifth district.

Before winning his seat, JG had a pretty tight resume. A speechwriter in the Clinton White House, counsel for the FCC, executive at Ford and Microsoft. Gottheimer is articulate, well connected and ambitious. And he did something pretty impressive in 2016. Not a great year for Democrats, if you recall. He unseated Republican Congressman Scott Garrett, who had held the seat since 2002. Since then, the district has been in Gottheimer’s hands and been reliably blue, though this year will be a test. Well, theoretically.

The four remaining Republicans in the primary to face Gottheimer collectively maintain $685,000 in cash on hand as of the March filing. In other words, the RNC has given up on this district. This is probably for two reasons. The first is the amount of money that Gottheimer already has and his increasingly high profile within the state. The second is that the district is changing when the new redistricting maps are in effect next year. For the next decade, the district will be very safely democratic.

Okay, so why Josh?

First off, there’s the money. Now that we’ve demonstrated what normal fundraising and cash on hand looks like across the country, Gottheimer is somewhat of a standout. As of the last filing, Gottheimer, who is running unopposed in the primary and whose Republican opponents barely cobbled together a little under $700 grand combined, has more than $13 million on hand. That is a fuckton of money for a Congressperson in a relatively safe, blue district even the RNC has given up on. That, alone, should tell you a couple of things. Not the least of which is that he’s going to be a fucking player in the future. So you should know his name.

More to the policy point, Gottheimer has quietly wielded outsized influence over Democratic policy in the last couple of years. For example, while progressives and establishment Dems were gnashing teeth over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills being paired, Gottheimer emerged as what many considered to be a voice of reason.

The problem is that, in practice and in session, Gottheimer’s voting record aligns pretty far right on the ideology spectrum. In terms of where politicians fall on their ideology-leadership chart, Gottheimer is the furthest right of all Democrats and firmly in the Republican camp in terms of his record.

One of Gottheimer’s major initiatives was the repeal of the Trump-era state and local taxes (SALT) cap, which many saw as a punitive measure against high income blue states that went against Trump in the 2016 election. Essentially, the SALT cap limited all other tax deductions to $10,000. This was highly contentious, and journalists like David Sirota did a great deal of work pulling the curtain back to reveal that, while indeed punitive toward states like New York and California where property taxes often exceed $10,000 even in middle class areas, the cap impacted about 13% of the nation’s population. And of this 13%, the effect was negligible, because this segment of the population already has other deductions like mortgage interest to take advantage of. In the DOA Build Back Better, there was a compromise to raise the limit to $80,000, which would have provided a tax benefit to most of the 13% of anywhere from $20 to $400.

Conservative Democrats were more in favor of a full repeal, which would have given almost all of the benefit to those who earn more than a million dollars per year. In other words, another break to the 1%.

New proposals from reps like Katie Porter and Bernie Sanders would tie the cap to income instead, but the bottom line remains that the biggest push for the repeal wasn’t coming from Republicans. It was coming from Democrats. And, leading the charge was Gottheimer, who was willing to hold up the Infrastructure (Itsfuckedforsure) Bill and Build Back Better to see his wealthiest constituents in New Jersey and outside donors benefit the most. There are many within the progressive caucus who believe that Gottheimer and his allies were just as responsible for scuttling progress on Build Back Better, even though a version of it ultimately passed the House, than the more notorious figures in the Senate like Manchin or Sinema.

Yet, despite his ascension to internal public enemy number one to the progressives, no one has emerged to challenge his position on the left, leaving him unopposed in the primary.

When you drill further into JG’s finances, a clearer portrait emerges. For example, his top contributor—sending a total of $81,624 his way—is the Blackstone Group. That’s the group that continues to invest in fossil fuel technology such as oil rigs and coal fired power plants and is now the largest private housing owner in the country, the symbol of the burgeoning rental crisis in America.

The list of his contributors such as Blackstone, KKR, Apollo Global and his top industries, which are investment firms, real estate, law firms, insurance companies and pro-Israel organizations, read like a who’s who of Republican donors. And yet, Gottheimer is a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Chapter Two

No Labels

Much of Gottheimer’s strength comes from a coordinated donor base that aligns with a PAC that got some attention in 2018, though most Americans wouldn’t be familiar with it. It’s called No Labels. The PAC received funding from notable billionaires such as Louis Bacon, James Murdoch and Nelson Peltz, a major Trump supporter.

No Labels is the brain trust behind one of the caucuses we’re going to look closely at today. The Problem Solvers Caucus. More on that in a bit. The group tapped Gottheimer to co-chair the group, which was billed as a bipartisan group in Congress organized to break through the toxic partisan divide.

On the surface, the PAC is well funded, but far from a juggernaut. The money it raises and spends wouldn’t necessarily raise any red flags, but some quality shoe leather in 2018 uncovered ties to a number of other PACs, such as United for Progress, United Together, Govern or Go Home and Forward, Not Back. It was originally the Chicago Sun Times that put the pieces together, linking donors, organization addresses, shared treasurers and other indicators that essentially showed that they were all connected.

It was a way to spread the money around and divide and conquer on certain issues cloaked in secret dark money accounts. But the agenda was clear, do the bidding of billionaires. In that same year, Wisconsin Congressperson Marc Pocan wrote an op-ed in HuffPo, saying:

“Look, I get it. No Labels is slick, and I got duped. But no other current or newly elected member of Congress should fall for its shtick. No Labels is a centrist, corporate organization working against Democrats with dark, anonymous money to advance power for special interests. Period.”

Here’s where the money meets policy through obstruction.

In the summer of 2021, in the throes of the debate over pairing the Itsfuckedforsure and Build Back Better bills, The Intercept reported on a No Labels donor call with elected officials. According to The Intercept, the call included wealthy donors such as Howard Marks, Andrew Tisch, Gordon Segal and former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, among others. The leader of the call, Nancy Jacobson, spoke openly about rewarding members with “hard dollars” if they maintained solidarity against any increase in taxes on the wealthy. To be clear, this is illegal, though it’s unlikely this avenue will ever be pursued.

Hard dollars, by the way, are direct donations to candidates to use at their discretion. These differ from dark money dollars that place ads separate and apart from a candidate. Later in the summer, Jacobson apparently dangled hard dollars in front of two No Labels members to skip one of Nancy Pelosi’s fundraisers as well. This type of direct interference is bold by any standard.

Ultimately, the No Labels members prevailed by getting key tax provisions eliminated and the larger bills uncoupled. Something that Gottheimer celebrated in a Zoom call with No Labels donors, saying, “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.”

No Labels routinely puts out bullshit propaganda through YouTube, though it should be noted that virtually no one looks at these videos, and they’re all fucking terrible. They include videos talking about the heroism of elected officials like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, to give you an idea of the type of candidates they prefer.

If you’re still not convinced that this is a shitbag organization, in 2016 they gave Donald Trump an official award. Cringeworthy and pointless propaganda aside, No Labels does have a knack for maximizing its investment in candidates. But, apart from the big money players they represent, perhaps the most damning aspect of the organization is the brains behind it. Here’s where the web gets even more tangled.

No Labels founder Nancy Jacobson, the one who pledged those hard money dollars to protect her billionaire donors and friends, is married to Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign in 2008. Once again, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim connected the dots and drew a straight line from No Labels to Penn. Grim characterizes Penn as the “metaphorical devil on the shoulder, whispering toxic advice into the ears of Democratic candidates.” For example, it was a Penn invention to paint Barack Obama unpatriotic and more Indonesian than American due to his upbringing.

As it turns out, Penn isn’t just tied to No Labels, but to the network of secretive PACs associated with it and a few others that should raise an alarm.

Chapter Three

Caucus, Meet Money. Money, Meet Caucus.

There was a time when the Blue Dog coalition was a bigger deal, though they maintain a presence today. The Blue Dogs are a coalition of elected Democrats organized in 1995 to “represent the common sense, moderate voice of the Democratic Party, appealing to mainstream American values.” These were moderate Democrats who claimed they were “choked blue” by party extremists on both sides of the aisle.

One of the legislative accomplishments they like to take credit for, though it’s a dubious claim at best, is the passage of PAYGO legislation that required all new spending bills to demonstrate that they would be paid for. That hit the dustbin, thankfully, when Biden was elected, as it was one of the stupidest and most abused aspects of legislative policy. In addition to all sorts of fiscally conservative measures, the Blue Dogs are mostly known for being strong advocates for military spending. And, on this, they’ve been much more successful.

Blue Dogs aren’t as influential as they once were, but they are a keen reminder of Clinton-era Democratic policy that was shrouded in conservatism but sold as progressive. Today, the dwindling membership includes fucknuggets like Senator Charlie Crist, who is once again running for governor of Florida, his former position. Forget the fact that DeSantis is going to mop the floor of It’s a Small World with Crist, if he even wins his primary; this fucking guy has no center or compass. My man was in favor of the border wall, against same sex marriage, in favor of capital punishment and has switched parties.

Another stellar example of a Blue Dog is our buddy Henry Cuellar. We talked enough about him a few weeks ago, but I thought I would bring him up as a reminder to support his primary opponent Jessica Cisneros.

Oh, and of course, Josh Gottheimer is a Blue Dog as well.

But the Blue Dogs are kind of a yesterday thing. There’s a much bigger and more organized coalition called the New Democrat Coalition. But don’t worry. Cuellar, Crist and Gottheimer are members here as well.

This 98 member coalition IS the Democratic Party. They vote as a bloc. Hold center to center right positions that align with leadership. Raise money as a bloc. And pretty much run the Biden agenda, and not the other way around. Healthcare? Fine as is. Military budget? Totally appropriate. Immigration? We really should look at that someday. Listening to anything progressives have to say? Puh-lease.

So you’ve got the old guard, Clinton-era war and budget hawks in the Blue Dogs, the middle of the road, beige colored puke Democrats in the New Democrat Coalition and then you have these fucking guys: The Problem Solvers Caucus.

This caucus, emphasis on the cock, pulls together asshats from both sides to produce meaningful, bipartisan legislation intended to keep the country right where it is. Here’s a list of the people they brought together to work on criminal justice reform: Van Jones, Jared Kushner and Grover Norquist. This resulted in a bill called the First Step Act, which overlooked studies on recidivism, included funding for algorithms that unfairly target people of color and rely on an incentive system that puts more power in the hands of attorneys general.

The caucus supported the Securing Our Schools Act of 2018, a bill opposed by Civil Rights organizations because it would create deeper ties with law enforcement and schools, promote anonymous threat tips from students that would disproportionately target students of color and strengthen the school to prison pipeline instead of prioritizing mental health and safety.

Their big initiative on healthcare is to lower prescription drug prices, boasting support from Senators Susan Collins and Joe Manchin. But, despite this bipartisan support and this being a priority for the Biden administration, curiously, nothing has gotten done. As far as the rest of the healthcare system is concerned, it’s fine as is. Nothing to see here. Move on.

And if you’re wondering where the anti-China push in Congress is coming from, look no further. On China, the caucus dedicates a fair bit of ink. They’re very concerned about the Uyghurs, want to increase our military presence in the Pacific, and pursue more aggressive competitive stances.

Of course, The Problem Solvers Caucus is just an extension of No Labels and the brainchild of Mark Penn, the man Esquire Magazine called the Typhoid Mary of bad political strategy and Patient Zero of terrible political ideas. “This guy couldn’t get Jesus elected to a parish council.”

And, yet, that’s what we’ve got. The beating heart of the Democratic Party being influenced by a Clinton flunky and determined to keep America in neutral by protecting the interests of the billionaire class.

Chapter Four

Bring It Home, Max.

I want to leave you with an example in real time; fuckery taking place right before our eyes that illustrates how broken the system is on the left. Although, even by the standards of the asshat caucuses we just covered, this one is beyond ridiculous.

There’s a new Congressional seat up for grabs in Oregon as a result of redistricting. Based on everything else we know about Oregon and the way the district is drawn, it’s more than likely going blue. And the progressives actually had a horse in the race—current state rep Andrea Salinas, daughter of a Mexican immigrant who has the support of Latino groups in the state. Hand picked candidate of Democratic Governor Kate Brown, supported by the Planned Parenthood, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Service Employees International Union. No brainer.

So Salinas is the favorite of Dems in liberal Oregon, home to one of my favorite progressive nerds, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, and has the endorsements of pretty much every organization near and dear to progressives. By the way, I want to live in Blumenauer’s America.

I’m telling you, from legalizing weed to climate and housing justice, Earl Blumenauer is one of the most under-covered and under-appreciated voices in progressivism. This bowtie wearing old white man is the kind of progressive nerd that we need more of in our lives.

But I digress.

Back to Salinas. Well, turns out, Salinas has been overtaken in the polls by a newcomer named Carrick Flynn. Now, according to Ballotpedia, Flynn has a decent amount of money, but nothing eye popping like Gottheimer, for example. And yet, the market has been saturated with ads for Flynn, courtesy of a PAC called Protect Our Future, which has already spent more than $7 million to elect this kid.

(Here’s a link to the most recent disclosure form from Protect Our Future, so you can see what one looks like if you’re curious.)

And what kind of future is this PAC trying to protect, you might ask? Apparently, one where crypto currency reigns supreme. Protect Our Future is backed by a Bahamas-based cryptocurrency billionaire—yes, with a “B”—named Sam Bankman-Fried. Wait. It gets better.

He raised another $1 million from a new PAC called Justice Unites Us. And who’s behind that, you might ask? Dunno. Because it’s something called a “Pop-up PAC.” Created before it’s necessary to reveal it in filings, so we won’t know who’s behind it until after the fucking primary.

Hang on, I’m not done. In the spirit of “follow the money” and “fuck the progressives,” a Democratic PAC most closely associated with Nancy Pelosi decided to pile on and give Flynn another million dollars to back him in the primary instead of holding it to beat Republicans in the fall.

So this odds-on progressive favorite has been upended by a dark money “pop-up” PAC that just dropped in a million bucks, on top of millions more from a PAC funded by a Bahamas-based crypto billionaire, and now another one million from Pelosi’s pet PAC. All to support a no-name candidate who has raised precious little within the state, but has saturated the airwaves with messaging bought and paid for by outside money.

This is how stacked the deck is against progressives and why it’s so fucking difficult to beat the establishment, and so fucking necessary to do so at the same time.

The answer is campaign finance reform. To get money out of politics. But, as you can see, wealthy donors have lined pockets on the right, left and center to ensure that reasonable measures like campaign finance reform are never even considered. The only people who can fix this problem are the ones benefiting the most from it. Because, as long as crypto billionaires can buy their own congressperson and billionaire financiers can control an entire voting bloc, we’re fucked. We need numbers. We need Salinas. Cisneros. Fetterman. You name it. We can’t take on the right until we cut the heart out of the Gottheimer left.

The Democratic Caucus is more Cock than Us.

Beware the ascent of Gottheimer.

Earl Blumenauer rules.

Here endeth the lesson.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).