Democrats Take the House – What Now?

TRNN midterm elections panel with Thomas Frank, Eugene Puryear, Jacqueline Luqman, Paul Jay, Khalilah Harris, Lester Spence, Ralph Nader, Danny Glover, and host Marc Steiner discuss what the Democratic party can do now that it re-took the House of Representatives

Democrats Take the House - What Now?

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Thomas Frank is a political analyst who joins us here. He’s written numerous books. Let me just tell you what he’s done. Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist, columnist for The Guardian, written his book that we all know about, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Jacqueline Luqman is next to him. Luqman is co-editor of the social media outlet Luqman Nation. Good to have you with us, as well. Eugene Puryear is with us; he’s joined us many times here on The Real News as a journalist and founder of Stop Police Terror DC and DC’s Movement for Black Lives Matter. Paul Jay, of course, is with us. He’s editor-in-chief here at The Real News Network. And Dr. Khalilah Harris, who is an attorney and educator and executive producer here at Real News. Good to have you all in the studio.

So let’s begin. We know from the news that the House has been taken by the Democrats. Let’s start there, what that means. We saw this blue wave. We’ll come to the blue wave issue in a moment. Some claim this is a trickle, some say it’s a stream. The wave may not have happened, but they are taking the House.

So, Thomas Frank, let’s start there. So what does it really mean that they’re taking the House? I mean, because it also looks as if a lot of the progressive candidates that people thought were going to win did not win. But the Democrats still took the House.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, look, the important thing is that there is a check on President Trump. That’s the critical thing, OK, because now they control- the Democrats will control committees. That means they have subpoena power. That means said he can’t evade them. I mean, for example, you’ll see his tax returns now. I mean, those will come out. He won’t be able to just ignore, you know, the sort of oversight of Congress anymore. That’s really important.

On the other hand- that’s the good side. And I’m very pleased about that result, by the way. It was a little, you know, it’s been a little scary for me watching this guy as president with basically no congressional oversight; you know, where they’ll let him do anything. I mean, we can all rattle off a dozen examples that have pissed us off personally.

But here’s the other side of the coin. Some wave, right? I mean, you talk about wave elections. 2010- by the way, which is a wave that should never have happened- the Republicans took 63 seats. 1994 they used to call, remember Newt Gingrich, the Republican revolution, they called it. They took 54 seats. In ’74, which was the Whitewater- sorry. I’m so old. The Watergate-

MARC STEINER: Watergate, Watergate. I remember Watergate. Watergate, yes. Watergate.

THOMAS FRANK: The Democrats took 49 seats. You go back to 1938, the Republicans took 81 that year, and still didn’t get control because the Democrats still had such a towering majority that it wasn’t enough.

But this is not of that- this is not on the same scale. And for all- think about where we are historically, OK. You’ve got history on the Democrats’ side this time around. They got money. By the way, this is something we need to talk about.

MARC STEINER: Way outspent the Republicans.

THOMAS FRANK: I’ve never seen that before, that the Democrats outraised the Republicans in a midyear, or in a midterm election. They’ve got- I’ve never seen the media so united behind the Democrats, or certain factions of the Democrats, I should say. And this is it? This is what they get? You know, the Republicans still control the Senate.

MARC STEINER: So let me say-

THOMAS FRANK: I feel like it should have gone farther.

MARC STEINER: So, Jacqueline, let me let you jump in there. What do you expect, then, from this, from this movement where the Democrats take the house? What do you expect to happen?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Tax returns. That’s that’s pretty much it. Tax returns, and subpoenas of Trump; more investigation into his family’s financial dealings. That’s what they’re going to do as far as stopping Trump is concerned. But legislating policy for people that they’re supposed to represent, we’re going to see more of nothing. And that was the problem with the Democrats. That’s why this wasn’t a blue wave, because they did not campaign on policies for people. They didn’t address issues that people are dealing with. They campaigned on stopping Trump. And that’s pretty much what we’re going to get, sort of. At least until 2020.

MARC STEINER: Paul?

PAUL JAY: Well, I think it’s … There’s going to be a fight in the Democratic Party. Especially- maybe not as much in the House, but certainly the fight that’s going on outside in the party between the progressive wing and the people called corporate Democrats.

The Dems can use the House, clearly, to investigate. They have committees. They can force the media to watch, to cover these things. It’s going to be a good drama. They certainly have most of the media already on board for attacking Trump, because it’s driving ratings. So other than Fox they’ll have MSNBC, and CNN will get all over the hearings. But what are they going to use the hearings for? If the hearings are just to trash Trump- and I’m not suggesting the Democrats, in their interest, and the truth is they should have those kinds of corruption investigations, and so on.

But they could use the hearings to have a hearing on what’s the best solution for healthcare. Have a hearing on how do you end mass incarceration. Have a hearing on what’s a real solution to the opioid crisis. Most importantly, have hearings on climate crisis. Like, use the hearings to change the public discourse to what’s actually important and not just the secondary crap they’ve been doing, because here’s the evidence. They’ve been trashing Trump, and look at the results. Where’s the blue wave? After CNN, MSNBC, and much of the print press have been playing along with this, you know, the Mueller stuff, the Russia stuff, not focusing on substantive policy stuff, they don’t get their blue wave. And I think to a large extent they don’t get it because they’re not giving a vision for the future.

So if they use the House for that, maybe that amounts to something. But that’s going to be a fight, because the tendency of the corporate Democrats is not to go there. Because a real vision for the future doesn’t play to the billionaire class that helps control the Democratic Party.

MARC STEINER: Eugene?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah. I mean, I think there are a number of different issues here. First and foremost one thing that I think is relevant about this is it really reflects the bottom falling of the Democratic Party during the Obama administration and the loss of so many statehouses, because the impact of gerrymandering, voter suppression- I mean, really going back to the year 2000. This was a big issue in Florida. Obviously coming up here. I mean, so many of these different districts- I mean, you look at a place like Virginia 5, that’s my home district, which everyone said, oh, this is definitely one that the Democrats are going to take. They got crushed there.

And so many of these districts are drawn in such weird, strange ways to make the sort of come-from-behind factor so significant that I think especially for voters of color that’s going to be a huge conversation. Going into, I think, the rest of this week is has the Democratic Party done enough to respect the black vote, the Latino vote, especially at the state level in many of these red states where essentially they gave up the game, gave the ball away for years; essentially just walked out.

I mean, you look at a situation like the Senate race in Mississippi tonight which could go the Democrats’ way, at least from Mike Espy’s piece. They barely even have a Democratic Party in a state like Mississippi. Same thing with Alabama. Even though Doug Jones won, there is really no centralized campaign. It was a surge of individuals. I think that’s going to be a huge question about the role of the Democrats. But I certainly agree that the Democrats have no narrative. I mean, in some of the places they win they are relying on an anti-Trump politic. In a handful of places some progressive candidates were able to, you know, become the, to gain the ballot line because of progressive movements in that area that helped them. But by and large- and Nancy Pelosi actually said this issue going into it, that we have no plan and we’re telling the candidates to just run whatever race they can.

One thing I would just put in here that I think it’s very interesting. I suspect that even though they aren’t talking a lot about it that Trump and the Democrats will start to work together on two major issues: infrastructure, which is already both sides have signaled to each other that they want to do that, and also prescription drug prices, where there’s also been some signaling already across the aisle. Those are big things that Trump ran on. And if he’s thinking towards 2020, that’s a big- that would be big wins for him to be able to come with, things that people really care about that are in many ways progressive wins, that are also things that he campaigned on, which would help him in 2020. That doesn’t do much for the Republicans as a brand, but it certainly helps President Trump. And I think that will be an interesting conversation among Democrats. Do you obstruct Trump, or do you work with him to get some of the things that you claim that you want, and that certainly many people in your base do as well?

MARC STEINER: Khalilah?

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: I think what everyone said has been important. I want to go back to the point you were just making, Eugene, about gerrymandering, and how important it is for the House to have flipped Democratic. I don’t want to let that point go by, because in order to remediate some of what you said about the losses during the Obama administration, it’s going to be critical for some of those lines to be redrawn. And that would not have happened if the House remained red.

The other piece is the distinction between within the Democratic Party around progressives versus the establishment. And we saw a lot of candidates who were running their own races, but really pushing against that establishment. If we look at Maryland with Ben Jealous running and not having the establishment come down for him and really dig into it and support his candidacy, that sends a message to people. And so the question of who people of color are looking to to provide leadership- and frankly, many people of color saying while there may not be a Blexit, there will definitely be a push on the Democratic Party to either reform itself, or shift to other other parties like the Green Party, for example.

So I think that’s critically important in this race. It’s something that deserves to be underscored because all of those individual races are critical for the local contexts, but when you look at the national landscape it is going to be important for districts to be redrawn and for the Democratic Party to really support its its base in a way that they have not been doing, frankly. And it shows here without the wave. We got a break.

MARC STEINER: So there’s a lot to cover here. So let me just- so if, as we’ve seen in the House, the majority of people who we thought were progressive did not really win in these races where Democrats took the House. You look at races that people were pushing really hard in the media, especially in Georgia and Florida and Texas, looks as if none of those are going to come to fruition at this moment, though it’s very tight in Florida. We’ll see what happens there. They could challenge that race. I’m sure that’s going to end up happening.

But this is something. This could say a lot to the establishment Democrats who run Congress and run the infrastructure of their party, saying OK, we still have the power. We don’t have to listen to this push from the left, we don’t have to listen to this push from communities of color. They didn’t win. We still have this. So what does that mean, what about in that context? I mean, what does that tell you?

THOMAS FRANK: I think that’s exactly right. By the way, Blexit? I have not heard that term before.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Ah, it’s not important. [Laughter]

THOMAS FRANK: No, I want to know. It sounds really interesting.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It’s really not-

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: It’s a silly concept of black exit from the Democratic Party that someone that doesn’t seem too bright came up. And so-

THOMAS FRANK: How can you say that? That’s a fascinating idea. [Crosstalk] But here’s, here’s- but I think, I think that’s exactly- Marc here’s … The Democratic Party, the machinery of the Democratic Party is going to look at the results and say, whew, we did it. We delivered. You know?

MARC STEINER: We delivered without you.

THOMAS FRANK: Done and dusted.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: But if there’s an exit it’s not going to be to the Republican Party, which is why that other concept seems very misguided.

THOMAS FRANK: But you remember the, the saying from the 1990s; they have nowhere else to go. And that’s- they say that, all of us sitting around this table here. They’ve got nowhere else to go. And they, now they will be able to say that to themselves as they drift off to sleep tonight. They have fended off any possibility of that happening.

And here’s what I worry about, is that this is a small chapter in a longer-term story that goes back to the late ’60s, early 1970s. You know, the rise of Richard Nixon, our governor of Maryland at his side, you remember? God, I’m blanking on his name, now.

SPEAKER: Spiro Agnew.

MARC STEINER: Spiro Agnew. Spiro Agnew.

THOMAS FRANK: The man who invented the liberal media bias thing, you know. And this is a story that goes back to then, and that initial backlash against the 1960s. And it is still rolling today. And what I haven’t seen- and it gets worse. It gets worse every couple of years. You know, first there was Nixon, then there was Reagan, then there was Bush. And then there was Trump. And in between you had Gingrich, and you know, you had all of these characters. And we’ve all seen what they’re doing.

Where is the plan for putting this whole thing into reverse? Where’s the plan for instead of just being like, OK, I’m the- we’re the not Trump party, or we’re the ones that are going to slow Reagan down a little bit, you know, where is the plan for rebuilding a real, genuine party of the left?

MARC STEINER: Well, let me take that, let me take that notion from a different angle here and see what … So if you are- right now, the difference between now and let’s say 1968, or ’70 or ’72, is that most of the radical activists were working through the Democratic Party and running in these elections. A lot of them lost. Everybody got all excited because Ocasio-Cortez won. You know, that was going to be a wave that didn’t happen. So what does that mean for all the activists inside the Democratic Party, Eugene, that were pushing all this, and now they’re not quite on the inside. If they had been on the inside and won they’d have a different push inside that party. But we’re looking at something very different here.

EUGENE PURYEAR: I think this is the challenge of sort of using this Democratic road to power, or solely Democratic road to power philosophy. I think that you trap yourself in a situation that if you don’t get the short term wins, everything blows back against you. The establishment, the money, the consultants. All the people who were looking with a little bit of egg on their face, especially after 2016, are unable to sort of resolidify their message. And there’s a certain disingenuousness to it, because many of their candidates also did not do very well. I’m sure if we look at the DCCC red to blue list, you know, as we go throughout the week- in some of these races that will take time because of absentee ballots- I’m sure we will see many of those people not really succeed.

So I think that there’s a logical fallacy there. But I think that it speaks to the reality of the Democratic Party as an institution, which is … I mean, I think the Republicans have a huge advantage in politics. No matter how far to the right you go, if I’m a major corporate donor, even if I think the Tea Party is too disruptive, or whatever, there’s still basically saying zero regulation, zero taxes, you’re going to make a ton of money, everything is going to be fine. On the Democratic side the further you go to the left, the more the people who pay for things- so you’re looking at a complete and total overhaul of the way a party is structured. You’re looking at billions of dollars of sort of corporate lawyer media-buying complexes that would be totally out of business if the Democratic Party was to make this shift.

And I think people should ask themselves not whether you can win isolated elections as a Democrat, which I think the answer is 100 percent true. But can you transform a party in and of itself? I’m skeptical of that, and I think that this, to some degree, speaks to that because you look at a candidate like a Kerry Eastman, no real support from the Democrats. Jess King, who got some support right there towards the end, I mean, they went out of their way. Ben Jealous, the Maryland establishment basically openly abandoned him from day one. I mean, to the point that he didn’t-

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Right. He didn’t go to their beach, their yearly beach party, and they said he was the worst candidate they’ve ever had.

MARC STEINER: So we just, we just got news in that it looks as if Gillum lost and DeSantis won in Florida. Abrams seems to be behind in Georgia. Ben Jealous lost here in the state of Maryland, where we’re broadcasting. So I mean, let’s talk a bit about that for a moment. I mean, and Beto lost, apparently, in Texas. And so this has a lot to do with the South. And especially in the black vote and black candidates. So let’s talk about what that means, too, because this also has an effect on what Democrats may or may not do and what they may or may not push, given those losses. Paul, you want to say something? Jump in, go ahead.

PAUL JAY: I want to just back up a step. I don’t think we should talk about the Democratic Party as just like this thing in itself. It’s a class alliance, as the Republican Party is. You know, you have a billionaire class that control most of the party machinery. You have an alliance with trade unions who kind of to a large extent play ball with Wall Street, but they also represent workers. You have sections, a whole section of the urban population that’s quite sophisticated, wants progressive legislation.

So the party’s a whole bunch of warring factions. The problem with- people talk too much about the Democratic Party as if it’s an ideological struggle. It’s a struggle of interest. There’s different classes. There’s different people want different things out of this political process. Whether you … I personally think that right now we are in the heartland of the empire. Let’s be realistic about what’s possible in this country, which with fabulous riches to throw at, stimulate the economy- like that they come up with $700 billion for the military, but they also come up with $450 billion or something for domestic spending. They can throw money at the situation. They don’t even feel it. And all of a sudden no one cares about the debt anymore.

So what’s realistic? Given the state of politics in the country, a war in the Democratic Party by people with progressive values right now is the only thing with momentum. Can you transform the Democratic Party? No, because it’s it’s practically- not practically. It essentially is the arm of the state. It’s like can you transform the FB? No. But if you had a progressive fight in the FBI, I think it’s a good thing. You can you transform the Army? No. But can you have a progressive fight amongst soldiers who don’t want to go off to win a war?

So we’ve got to be realistic about what’s possible here and this fight in the Democratic Party. And let’s just add this whole thing is about 2020. I mean, everything- they can’t change any legislation in the House. They’re not going to get passed by the Senate. Trump isn’t going to sign anything. So it comes down to what’s the propaganda value of taking the House? And it’s going to be part of a wider fight. You know, if they … There’s a civil war that’s going to start tomorrow in the Democratic Party. And that’s- we’ll see, because the danger is if the corporate Democrats do win in 2020, and it’s hard to believe- although after seeing tonight, who the hell knows what’s going to happen. The problem is that if there if this progressive fight doesn’t unfold in a big, broad way, then even if the corporate Dems win in 2020, look out for the next one, because the next Trump ain’t going to be a clown.

MARC STEINER: There’s a lot here to jump into. I want to, I want to get to that, because one of the factors in this race had to do with looking at Trump and the people in the Republican Party as this right-wing, racist, [inaudible] group that was seizing political power in this country, which is what was supposed to have united people to come into this fight. But I want to come to that, because I think it’s really critical. Because that defines a lot about what this battle is going to be in America in the next several years. But before we do that, joining us right now by phone is Ralph Nader. And Ralph Nader, good to have you … Oh, OK. I thought he was coming up. He’s not there yet.

So let’s jump into this. I mean, that that was the argument people used about why uniting with the Democrats in this race, was because of the danger of this right-wing, racist, nationalist coup in America, which is not far-fetched.

PAUL JAY: No, not at all.

MARC STEINER: So how does that play into this? I mean, Jacqueline?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is, it seemed to me to be almost like a disingenuous argument from the Democratic Party. And I don’t, I don’t want to- what we’d never do too much of on Luqman Nation is focus so much on the Republican Party. Because they’re obvious, right? I mean-

THOMAS FRANK: It’s too easy.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah. It’s like- there’s nothing to figure out with what’s wrong with the Republican Party. They’re very open about their whatever it is, their racism, they’re very open about their sexism, they’re very open about their xenophobia. And they’re not ashamed of it. So why are we wasting time talking about what’s wrong with them? We know what’s wrong with them.

The problem is that we have not focused on how the Democratic Party has been complicit in advancing some of those narratives in some of their policies. I mean, we’re talking about a Democratic Party that used to be the party of the working class and supporting labor unions, and supporting women, and gays, and black people. But all of a sudden in formulating this third way kind of neoliberalism they abandoned what they they called ‘identity politics,’ which really is just legislating for the relief of oppressed people, of specific groups of people who are oppressed. And they started focusing on attracting the votes of middle-class, moderate, Republican white men.

So their message became middle-class, moderate, Republican, white kind of ideology; what is important to those people. And in doing that during the Clinton administration- because that’s where third way Democratic policies came from. That’s how he won the White House, from appealing to middle America.

MARC STEINER: Wait, wait, wait. It wasn’t that he was the first black president?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: [Laughter] Last time I checked that’s not quite how that works. I mean, look, we come in all kinds of shades, but [crosstalk]. That was a shock.

MARC STEINER: I couldn’t resist. I’m sorry.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I mean, if playing saxophone badly on Arsenio Hall with shades on qualifies you as black, wow. We’ve a larger population than we think we do.

But I mean- so the Democratic Party has abandoned, truly has abandoned its base. Not only in the current election cycle, but going all the way back to- and it actually started before Clinton.

PAUL JAY: I’d like to push back on that.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: OK.

PAUL JAY: Because I don’t think the Democratic Party ever was the party of working people.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: [Crosstalk] that’s a good argument.

PAUL JAY: I think … I think Roosevelt and the New Deal was an anomaly caused by deep, deep crisis. And from Truman on, Democrats and Republicans have been undoing the New Deal.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: That’s true.

THOMAS FRANK: Oh come on, be nice to Harry Truman.

PAUL JAY: He was the man of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Crosstalk].

THOMAS FRANK: I know. But the New Deal, he was- he kept pressing for that. He wanted national healthcare. You know, he was the first one to press on civil rights. That was good.

EUGENE PURYEAR: He was worried that Henry Wallace was going to become the president.

THOMAS FRANK: That’s right, exactly. And Wallace believed in it even more. [crosstalk]

PAUL JAY: But Truman is there to overthrow Wallace. So I mean, in the context you’re starting at the height of the New Deal. You don’t just undo the whole thing right away, and keep your support within the Democratic Party.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And also left- when we’re talking about the New Deal, let’s, let’s-.

THOMAS FRANK: I’m sorry I got you guys off midterms.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: No, no, it’s OK. But when we’re talking about the New Deal, now that you bring that up, since we’re talking about the abandoning of people of color, of voters, of poor people by the Democratic Party, even the New Deal excluded those, some of those very people. So the very party that’s supposed to be for the downtrodden and the oppressed pretty much left the downtrodden and the oppressed behind.

PAUL JAY: One quick point. It’s not about the Dem- I don’t think it’s about the Democratic Party being evil or bad, or this or that. There’s a much bigger picture here, which is financialization of the economy. Starting in the beginning of the 20th century, really, the banking sector takes off. There’s a dip during the crisis, there’s a dip during World War II. But from World War II on, a percentage of GDP, that’s finance, takes off like a rocket ship. That power of finance, the power of Wall Street, is controlling both parties. For a while the United States is cleaning up after World War II, has so much riches they’re even willing to share it with the upper stratum of the working class. Then you get globalization, and they say, well, screw you. We can produce in China, so all you unions and all you upper stratum of the workers, ciao. And now we are where we are.

What I’m getting at is it’s not just some change of mind of the Democrats. There’s a real process going on within the system.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Sure. And I agree with that, but I also see that even in when we’re talking about globalization and the financialization of both parties, especially the corporate focus of the Democratic Party, there is still a reality that’s facing the bottom half, the bottom section of this society, that blacks and Latinos will have zero wealth in 2053. Zero. I mean zero. And we have a political party- we don’t expect the Republicans to do anything about that. But if we’re talking about a political party that’s been telling us that we have to vote for this party to stop the damage of the other party, then why isn’t this party stopping this damage that’s been happening to us all this time?