Salon Staff

Super PAC money has become an existential threat to Democrats — and democracy

During the election cycle that just concluded, progressive congressional candidates faced unprecedented amounts of super PAC spending, with over $53 million spent in Democratic primaries that often pitted candidates from the party's more progressive wing against moderates.

Aside from a few big wins — like the victory of Summer Lee, who overcame millions of dollars in attacks from outside groups to win a House seat in Pennsylvania — candidates who challenged the Democratic establishment struggled across the board, causing progressive groups and leaders to re-evaluate their electoral strategies.

Several progressive groups convened outside spending strategy sessions for candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., declared "war" on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) super PAC and wrote an open letter to Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison, asking him to reject super PAC spending in Democratic primaries. Amid deafening silence from Democratic Party leadership, progressive commentators wrote pieceafterpiece breaking down how progressives should respond to our super PAC problem.

The reality, though, is that super PACs aren't just a progressive problem. They're a problem for any member of Congress who wants to side with working families over corporate interests, and that includes members of the Democratic establishment. Party leaders has a clear choice: Do they want to surrender control of their candidates and their policy agenda to billionaires, or do they want true campaign finance reform?

The first sign this cycle that the Democratic establishment had lost control of its super PAC allies came when AIPAC's super PAC started spending in the Democratic primary in Maryland's 4th congressional district — not against a progressive outsider, as usual, but against Donna Edwards, a mainstream Democrat who had been endorsed by everyone from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Hillary Clinton. While AIPAC spent an unprecedented $6 million against Edwards, Pelosi pulled out all the stops, including recording a supportive video ad. Edwards was crushed by the spending and lost to AIPAC-supported Democrat Glenn Ivey, a well-connected Washington attorney. Pelosi — who has been endorsed by AIPAC for years and reliably attends their conferences — refused to comment on Edwards' loss. (Maryland's 4th is one of the safest seats in the country, and the winner of the Democratic primary was certain to be elected.)

Shortly before Election Day in November, AIPAC's super PAC — which had previously only spent in party primaries — made its first-ever expenditure in a general election, this time in support of a Republican. This was in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, where the above-mentioned Summer Lee, a Black progressive state legislator, had won the Democratic nomination over an AIPAC-backed opponent. Although AIPAC proudly lists its endorsement of 44 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in this case it began officially spending to defeat the Democratic majority, backing Republican Michael Doyle over Lee. Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic campaign chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (who lost his own race in New York), all endorsed by AIPAC, said nothing. Lee ultimately got more than 55 percent of the vote in her Pittsburgh-area district, but it was progressive groups, not Democratic leaders, who propelled her to victory.

Super PACs are often funded by billionaires with bottomless pockets, and their spending decisions can be guided by the whims of their funders. Democratic leadership's silence in the face of the deluge of spending against their allies speaks volumes: If the billionaires who fund these super PACs one day decide that they'd prefer Republican candidates or Republican policy positions, would Democratic leadership be ready to capitulate on everything from prescription drug prices to climate change to gun control to foreign policy?

Many bedrock Democratic positions, including student debt relief, gun control and caps on drug prices, are not likely to please the billionaire class — but they're overwhelmingly popular with the American people. Democratic candidates who embraced these issues raised millions this cycle in online small-dollar donations. Democratic U.S. Senate candidates John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina were blasted with Republican super PAC spending, but all three comfortably outraised their Republican opponents quarter after quarter, driven in part by these online small-dollar donations. Fetterman was the only one of those three candidates whose super PAC allies outspent his opponent's — and was also the only one of those three to win his race. (Although Barnes came agonizingly close.) Those races might well have ended differently if a ban on super PACs had allowed Beasley and Barnes to outspend their opponents using their small-dollar war chests.

The Democratic Party must come to grips with the fact that the explosion in super PAC spending driven by the Citizens United decision isn't just a problem for progressives. Ultimately, it's an existential problem for the party that claims to stand for the interests of working people. It's a pretty tough sell to tell working-class voters that candidates who are funded by billionaire super PACs and corporate donations will fight hard for their interests. If Democrats want to retain any credibility on this issue, party leadership must prioritize campaign finance reform, ban super PACs and support a bill for public financing of political campaigns.

As Bernie Sanders said in his letter to Jaime Harrison, "A super PAC is a super PAC, whether it is funded by Republican billionaires or Democratic billionaires." It's time for the Democratic Party to embrace democracy and become the party not of supposedly liberal billionaires, but of working-class people of all backgrounds.

If what Putin’s army is doing to Ukraine right this minute isn’t terror, what is it?

By fumbling and bumbling and hesitating and stalling and arguing and fiddling and politicking and treating the world like everything was peachy keen, Europe and the U.S. and the NATO alliance missed its chance to include Ukraine as a member, and now they are all alone against the third or fourth biggest military in the world.

Numerous comparisons have been made by historians and experts between Putin's invasion of Ukraine and Hitler's taking of the Sudetenland in 1938. Hitler claimed repeatedly that ethnic Germans in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia were being mistreated and attacked and that the region had to be taken over "to protect Germany." "It is the last territorial claim which I have to make in Europe," he said in September of 1938. The Sudetenland was ceded to Germany less than a month later.

Putin claimed on Monday that "Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood. … It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space." He went on raving that Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine were being subjected to "genocide…the killing of civilians … the abuse of people, including children, women and the elderly, continues unabated," he said. "There is no end in sight." He made the case that the Russian speaking people of Donetsk and Luhansk aren't really Ukrainian, they're Russian and they want to be part of Russia.

Hitler had ambitions to take over all of Europe. Within a year, he had taken Poland, and the rest, as they say, is history. Putin has made clear his view that the breakup of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th Century." He hasn't yet said he wants to restore the Soviet empire, but tell that to the Ukrainian people under bombardment in Kharkiv, the families fleeing west from Kyiv, and tell it to the citizens of the Baltics and Poland who are watching the destruction of Ukraine and its sovereignty with great trepidation that they will be next.

Putin is holding Ukraine hostage and daring the West to intervene. He's looking Europe in the eye and saying, let's play chicken. Just how crazy do you think I am?

Russia has seized most airports in Ukraine, civilian and military — and all of them in the eastern and central regions — and achieved air superiority over the entire country, completely cutting off the air-bridge by which the West could have supplied the Ukraine military with more weapons, ammunition, helmets, combat vests, all the equipment necessary to fight the Russian invaders. What Ukraine has right now is what they will have. If and when they shoot off all their Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, that's it. When they fire their last 105mm and 155 mm artillery rounds, that's it.

Ukraine is now in the same place Afghanistan was when Russia invaded in 1979. Any and all military resupplies the Ukrainian military or resistance receives will have to be smuggled across borders from the West. Whether Poland, Hungary and Slovakia will allow this remains to be seen. I'm sure those countries are calculating that if they allow their territory to be used as a refuge for the Ukrainian military and resistance fighters, it will piss Putin off, and they will be next.

The worst situation we could have imagined is here. Ukraine is fighting Russia all by itself. Putin is blackmailing the West by rattling his nuclear weapons with his statement that "interference" by outsiders will "lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history." By listening to his lies that he had "no intention to invade Ukraine" and just sitting back, the West has allowed Putin to gain the advantage and put himself in the position where he can do whatever he wants in Ukraine while the world must stand back and watch it happen on CNN.

The sanctions Biden announced at a press conference on Thursday won't do any more to change Putin's behavior than the sanctions we and the rest of the West imposed after he seized Crimea and moved his troops into Eastern Ukraine in 2014. The sanctions cover more banks and more oligarchs but were, in a word, disappointing. Biden said his new sanctions will "limit Russia's ability to do business in dollars, euros, pounds and yen to be part of the global economy." That's all well and good, but why just "limit" the banks? Why not totally and completely ban them from operation in the world's banking system? It was announced on Friday that the EU has agreed to freeze the assets of Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the U.S. Treasury followed close on their heels by doing the same thing.

But Biden and NATO and the rest of the civilized shouldn't stop there. We should lock Russia down within its borders. Biden and the West must immediately shut down all landings by Russian aircraft, commercial passenger flights, cargo and otherwise. Russia has seized Ukraine's airports. Close airports everywhere in the West to flights out of Russia. The FAA announced a "no fly" zone over Ukraine and Belarus and the airspace 160 miles into Russia. Why limit our flights over their territory? Why not limit their flights over ours? Why not turn the world into a no-fly zone for all Russian aircraft? Shut down the ability of Russian aircraft to take off by refusing them places to land.

Ban visas to every Russian citizen, not just the billionaires "close to Putin," as the saying goes. (We tried that. It doesn't work.) Declare Russia a terrorist state and issue a "travel ban" to and from Russia. If what Putin's army is doing to Ukraine right this minute isn't terror, what is it? I've already seen footage of Ukrainian office buildings and apartments with their fronts blown off, streets filled with rubble, bridges damaged by airstrikes. What is the difference between buildings brought down by a "terrorist bomb" or an airplane flown by terrorists and what's being done at this very minute by the Russian military?

Biden and Western nations must not allow movement of people, goods, services, money or anything else from Russia to the rest of the world. They must order the seizure of the assets of Russians in the West — all of their assets: apartments, condos, beachfront properties, office buildings, bank offices. Seize all their money and other paper investments. This must not only apply to "oligarchs." There are plenty of Russians who own property in New York, Miami, London, Paris, Monaco and elsewhere. Take what they own outside of Russia from them — not just the billionaires.

Bar imports of any goods from Russia. Bar all exports to Russia of any technology, right down to the hammer and the common nail. Include in the ban "luxury" goods such as European and American automobiles. Bar the export of televisions, laptops, cellphones, everything Russian citizens have gotten used to owning and using. Shut down Russian access to social media sites like YouTube and Instagram and Facebook and to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu and Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video. Turn Moscow and the rest of the country into a social media and entertainment wasteland.

Russians have gotten used to being a modern country like Europe and the rest of the developed world. They buy Western goods like Levis and Prada bags and Hermes scarves and Gucci shoes. Ban the lot. Ban travel from Russia to Paris and Rome and London to shop and eat at the great restaurants of the civilized world. Take from them all the privileges of wealth, all the rights of civilized citizens to travel and enjoy themselves and their money by spending it outside of Russia. I understand that it wasn't ordinary Russians who ordered their army into Ukraine, but Putin did it in their name. These kinds of sanctions that will affect Russians who are not wealthy and corrupt will cause pain, but it's nowhere near the kind of pain their army is causing next door in Ukraine, where people are being killed, being turned into refugees fleeing their homes and losing their businesses and incomes. What's worse? Not being able to spend your money, or having your home and your job — your entire country — taken from you by force?

The fall of the Soviet Union allowed Russia to come out from behind the Iron Curtain and join the rest of the world. Drop a new Iron Curtain around Russia and send them back.

Putin is waging old-fashioned warfare against Ukraine. He is rolling his tanks and his cannons and his missile launchers into a country with the aim of seizing its land and installing a "friendly" puppet government that will follow his orders and do what he says.

NATO and the West have closed off the option of responding with force to Putin's invasion of Ukraine, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. This is our opportunity to wage truly modern warfare by locking Russia down within its borders and denying the country and its citizens the things and privileges of modern life they have come to enjoy over the last 30 years.

If we're not going to put NATO troops into Ukraine to help them fight the Russians, then we should cause them to suffer an amount of pain equivalent to what they are wreaking on Ukraine. Already there are shortages of food and gas and other necessities in Ukraine. Why shouldn't Russia be suffering the same shortages of the same goods and services? Why shouldn't Russia feel the same pain they are causing to their neighbor?

One of the major mistakes we made with Vladimir Putin was to assume that he and Russia would go along with post-Cold War norms that started with, but were not limited to, respecting the sovereignty and borders of other nations. Putin has broken those rules, so far without consequence. It's time to make him pay.

We have to learn to treat countries as what they are when they speak with bullets and bombs and missiles. Vladimir Putin has turned Russia into the world's largest terrorist enclave, and we should treat it that way. Russia is now an outlaw country. No civilized nation should allow Russian money, Russian people, Russian businesses, or elements of the Russian government through its borders.

The West has left Ukraine all alone to fight the invasion by Russia. Putin wants to take Ukraine and turn it effectively into part of Russia, and to one degree or another it looks like he will succeed. Well, let's see how Putin and Russia and its people like it when they and their new "republic" are all alone, cast out by the world of civilized nations.

Trump's early COVID-19 response even more politicized than previously thought: new documents

Documents released Friday reveal how in early 2020 the Trump administration downplayed the deadly danger posed by the nascent Covid-19 pandemic, silencing and sidelining top health officials who tried to warn the public and destroying evidence of political interference while issuing rosy declarations that the outbreak was "totally under control" and would soon be over.

The emails and transcripts—released by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis—show that as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) became aware that the highly infectious virus that causes Covid-19 was spreading rapidly, agency officials requested to hold briefings about mask guidance and other issues. Their requests were denied.

Top Trump officials also moved to block the CDC from publishing information about the pandemic and tried to alter the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) to reflect former President Donald Trump's unrealistically optimistic Covid-19 messaging—which infamously included such claims in January and February 2020 as "we have it totally under control," that the outbreak is "going to have a very good ending," and that infections would "be down close to zero" with days.

Abbott offers to staff his own armed force with fired Border Patrol agents if Biden punishes horsemen for inappropriate conduct

Even as a dual pair of infrastructure and spending bills dominated the Sunday morning cable news shows, the situation at the southern U.S. border took up a hefty amount of oxygen on Fox News Sunday — particularly during an interview with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Host Chris Wallace asked Abbott at one point what he thought of recent images of border patrol agents on horseback this week physically intimidating migrants seeking asylum from Haiti, prompting Abbott to double down on his vision of the border as an apocalyptic, lawless place. He even offered to thumb his nose at President Joe Biden's authority by staffing his own law enforcement force on the border with employees the administration fires for inappropriate conduct.

"If he takes any action against them whatsoever — I have worked side by side with those Border Patrol agents — I want them to know something. If they are risk of losing their job by a president who is abandoning his duty to secure the border, you have a job in the state of Texas. I will hire you to help Texas secure our border," Abbott said.

Wallace followed up by asking if that exceeded his authority as governor — a criticism echoed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland this week, after he threatened to sue Abbott over the state's border policies.

Despite the legal threat, Abbott did not moderate his response.

"Because the Biden administration is refusing to do its duty to enforce the laws of the United States, they have left Texas in no position other than for us to step up and do what we have to do," Abbott said. "I'm going to step up and do whatever I have to do to make sure that I protect the people of Del Rio, as well as all these other communities in the state of Texas that the Biden administration is ignoring."

Regardless of the Texas governor's rhetoric, the Biden Administration appears to be holding the course on its immigration plans, despite a recent influx of new asylum seekers hailing from Haiti.

During a separate interview on the same program, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the most recent spike in migrants was "nothing new," and cautioned people from using the sort of alarmist rhetoric parroted by right-wing media outlets in recent months.

"This is nothing new," Mayorkas said, responding to Abbott's comments. "We've seen this type of irregular migration many, many times throughout the years. I don't know if Governor Abbott said the same thing in 2019, when there were more than a million people encountered at the southern border.

Wallace did at one point ask — prefacing the question with "forgive me" — whether or not the administration would be better served reprising the Trump Administration approach of building a "wall or a fence."

"It is the policy of this administration: we do not agree with the building of the wall," Mayorkas responded. "The law provides that individuals can make a claim for humanitarian relief. That is actually one of our proudest traditions."

In addition to his questions on the topic of migrants, Wallace also grilled Abbott on his bizarre pledge to "eliminate" rape — a vow he made in response to criticism of a recent, near-total abortion ban he signed into law that does not carry any exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

"Is it reasonable to say to somebody who was the victim of rape and might not understand that they are pregnant, you know, until six weeks, 'Don't worry about it because we are going to eliminate rape as a problem in the state of Texas?'" Wallace asked.

"There's multiple things I have to say in answer to this but the first thing obviously is that survivors of sexual assault, they deserve support, care, and compassion and Texas is stepping up to make sure that we provide that by signing a law and creating in the governor's office a sexual assault survivors task force — separately from that, Chris, I got to point out about the ways that I have fought to go to arrest and apprehend and try to eliminate rape. I sought the death penalty."

Wallace tried — repeatedly — to pin Abbott down on the question of whether he would sign an exception to the current law for rape or incest if such a bill were to come across his desk.

Abbott never gave a definitive "no" — saying only that the law was "consistent" with the Supreme Court precedent, which asserts "states have the ability to make sure that we protect the health and safety of both the mother and the child."

"Chris, you're making a hypothetical that's not going to happen because that bill is not going to reach my desk," he said. "Again, the goal is to protect the life of every child with a heartbeat."

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