As Democrats continue to debate whether to initiate an impeachment inquiry, Trump seems to be going nuts from the Democrats’ continuing probe into his possible obstruction of justice, corruption, abuse of power. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim explains Nancy Pelosi’s rise to power within the Democratic Party, her political origins, and what her possible end game strategy is for Trump. Grim also weighs in on the large 2020 Democratic candidate field and talks about his new book, “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted.
JS: There is a very mild, collegial debate brewing among Democrats in Congress: to impeach or not. Calls are mounting for the opening of an impeachment inquiry and the effort now has the support of at least one Republican congressman, Justin Amash, the libertarian politician from Michigan.
Justin Amash: Nonetheless we have a job to do and I think we owe it to the American people to represent them, to ensure that the people we have in office are doing the right thing, are of good character, aren’t violating the public trust.
JS: Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has not shown any sign that she will back such a move imminently and she appears to be opting for a tactic of trying to drive Trump insane. She said this to reporters last week:
Nancy Pelosi: We do believe that it’s important to follow the facts. We believe that no one is above the law, including the President of the United States, and we believe that the President of the United States is engaged in a cover-up, in a cover-up. And that was the nature of the meeting.
JS: Trump then staged his massive tantrum and put on a performance of calling off a meeting with congressional Democrats about infrastructure and marching out to the Rose Garden to denounce the Mueller investigation and Nancy Pelosi, in general.
DJT: I just saw that Nancy Pelosi just before our meeting made a statement that we believe that the President of the United States is engaged in a cover-up. Well, it turns out, I’m the most — and I think most of you would agree to this — I’m the most transparent president probably in the history of this country.
JS: Trump seems to be going nuts from the Democrats’ continuing probe into his possible obstruction of justice, corruption, abuse of power. And regarding Pelosi, the right-wing and Trump backers hit back. A doctored video featuring a slowed-down Nancy Pelosi went viral on social media. Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself shared that altered video. Trump also called Pelosi, “a mess” and Pelosi tweeted back, “When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues.”
Nancy Pelosi is, of course, the top Democrat in Congress. She is the House Speaker, third in line to the presidency. Despite Trump controlling the White House and the GOP with a firm grip on the Senate, Nancy Pelosi is incredibly powerful, and it’s important to understand who she is, how she rose to power, and what her endgame strategy with Trump might look like.
To discuss this, and the current state of the Democratic Party, I’m joined by my colleague Ryan Grim, The Intercept’s DC bureau chief. Ryan has a new book out this week that provides an essential in-depth context for the political landscape that we’re in now. It is called “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”
JS: Ryan Grim, welcome back to Intercepted.
Ryan Grim: It’s good to be here.
JS: Congrats on the book.
RG: Thank you.
JS: Clearly Nancy Pelosi is in the news a lot lately and is going to continue to be in the news around this issue of impeachment and then her clearly getting under Trump’s skin by saying that he’s engaged in a cover-up. For people that don’t know much about Nancy Pelosi — and you cover this in the book as you kind of trace the modern history of the Democratic party — what is the Nancy Pelosi story? How did she end up where she is in the third most powerful position in the U.S. government?
RG: It’s been fun to watch this precise moment because it’s such an encapsulation of her career and not just who she is but like who her entire generation is. And so, she herself has a fascinating background. She was raised by a kind of mob-connected Congressman/Mayor of Baltimore. So, she learned, actual brass knuckles politics from a very early age then moved out west. And so, she has this like fighting, like actual fighting liberal sensibility that’s quite rare. She turned out to have an extraordinary ability to raise money. And so while she was raising five children, she was also acting as a fundraiser for the party and kind of, working her way up through the party ranks in the 1970s and 1980s and she —
JS: She wasn’t in an elected position at that point?
RG: Right, she actually ran for DNC chair at one point and barely lost to the guy who replaced Ted Kennedy in the Senate in a weird coincidence. But no she had not run for any elected office. She was a very much behind the scenes fundraiser/operative and she became very close with a guy named Phil Burton who was also known as a fighting liberal.
He was a guy who, he died early. He died in 1983 but if he had lived, he would’ve kind of changed the course of Democratic history. He was the kind of guy who was not only progressive but wanted to punch you in the face and also, was all about raising a ton of money and screwing Republicans. He basically invented gerrymandering in California and screwed Republicans out of a ton of districts there. Essentially, Pelosi is Burton’s Lieutenant, kind of, an enforcer and a fundraiser back home. He dies in 1983. His wife takes over for him and serves four years. She then dies. On her deathbed, she endorses Nancy Pelosi to take her seat. So, now there’s a special election in 1987. Her top opponent is the vice chair of the DSA, Democratic Socialists of America. Openly gay man running on basically: Reagan is ignoring the AIDS epidemic.
JS: What is the position that Pelosi’s running for at this point?
JS: This is her first run for a House seat?
RG: First run for any elected office and she’s running to replace kind of, her mentor and then her mentor’s wife. And so it’s a real establishment versus insurgent race. Nancy Pelosi likes to say that she’s from the Bay Area and so she understands the left. That’s true in the sense that she beat the left to win her seat. It’s not that she organized support among the left, but she barely won. If they were using the current top two system, I think she would have lost her first seat and there would be no Nancy Pelosi.
But she wins in 1987. She joins Steny Hoyer who’d been there for a while already and a class of Democrats who came in in the late 70s and 80s, just as the party was ending. And in 1980, not only did you have Ronald Reagan elected and have him re-elected in 1984, but in ’80, a whole slew of liberal lions who’d been running for president just four years earlier, who’d been serving five, six terms, famous people at the time like Birch Bayh, Frank Church all upset by these upstart, insurgent Republicans.
And so, you’ve got this rise of the new right. Newt Gingrich elected in ’78 and then Reagan in ’80 and it teaches people like Pelosi that liberalism is going to cost them elections, that if they let the country know how progressive they are, then there’s going to be a backlash. And they learned that lesson over and over throughout the ’80s as Reagan kept pounding them.
They still controlled the House of Representatives, even though they lost the Senate and the White House. And so, what they did is say, “We’ve got the House, let’s go to the banks. Let’s go to corporate America and say look, we’re not necessarily doing a lot for you, but we control the House. So, you’ll pay up.” And that was the way that they figured that they were going to be able to match Republicans.
JS: When you say pay up, are you talking about campaign contributions?
RG: Right, because prior to 1980, big money was not as much of a thing in politics, they had labor support. They had some corporate money and some wealthy donor money, but it wasn’t anywhere near the scale that we have today. And so, they pivoted after 1980 to say — they diagnosed their 1980 problem as Republicans outspent us and outmaneuvered us. So, we need to match them dollar-for-dollar and to do that, we need to use our position in the House of Representatives and extract money from industry. That leads in an obvious direction. It reshaped the party and it ended up with the party of Bill Clinton and the party that we have today.
But as you watch Nancy Pelosi trying to navigate Trump, all she’s thinking about is the Reagan era. If she says that she’s for impeachment, if she says she’s for Medicare for all, if she says she’s for a Green New Deal, that the country is going to recoil at their progressivism and they’re going to be thrown out.
JS: Is it entirely that or is it that Pelosi believes in the policies that she’s worked for her entire career? That she isn’t as progressive as somebody who says “Oh, I’m from San Francisco. I understand the left.”
RG: Right, I mean there is that because she was the right wing candidate in that primary so there absolutely is that. But at the same time, once you’ve been acting out a certain way for 30 or 40 years, the question of what you actually believe becomes impossible to disentangle. It almost doesn’t matter. She’s been doing this since then and whether, what exists in the recesses of her heart, is immaterial really.
JS: So Pelosi gets elected in this special election that you’re describing where her opponent was a Democratic Socialist of America and she barely wins that race. How does she then ascend within the party to any kind of a leadership position?
RG: Well, she had the same abilities that her predecessor Phil Burton had, an incredible vote counter and a tremendous fundraiser. And so, because there was so much emphasis by ’87 on fundraising, she just raised an extraordinary amount of money and would distribute it to colleagues. And because she was also tactically proficient within the caucus, she was able to carve out a place for herself. By 2001, Dick Gephardt is washing out of his career finally and she ends up replacing him around that time to become minority leader. And so, she’s minority leader in 2002, 2004. When they finally take over in 2006, she’s well positioned and nobody can challenge her by then.
JS: And she becomes the first elected speaker of the House that was a woman.
JS: So, as Pelosi and other Democrats are shifting the party in some ways toward big money, toward Wall Street and then Pelosi ends up in this position where she’s minority leader and then ultimately becomes speaker of the House. When you talk about her ability to count votes — for the lay people among us, myself included — explain exactly what that means. Because you hear it now every day on cable that oh, Pelosi is this expert, she’s great with the whip. She’s good with the vote count. What does that mean just to ordinary folks?
RG: And like I said her mentor had it too. And presumably her father, as well. But it means understanding exactly what the other person needs and is also afraid of. And so, it also means having a tactile feel for the district that somebody represents and understanding that a swing district in Iowa is not a swing district in Southern California, or it’s not one in Central Pennsylvania. And just having that knowledge and that ability to listen to that other person and be transactional in what you can offer them, stick by those promises, deliver on them, and if somebody screws you to remember it.
People will tell stories like there’ll be 40 freshmen in a meeting and she’ll go around the room and will point to each one of them and say, “You screwed me on that motion to recommit last Tuesday. I don’t ever want to see it happen again. You hit me on April 3rd with this in committee.” She knows if you voted the wrong way in a committee hearing. And part of that is just this work ethic where she’s putting in these absurd 16, 18-hour days which people have been talking about her and other people like her who just have this kind of maniacal drive.
And so, you combine all those different things and you just don’t want to cross her. I was actually talking to somebody just yesterday about a fight that she’d had with somebody else and his own boss said something like you don’t want to get on the other end of the steely gaze of Pelosi. Like, she just has this like raw kind of power that she’s holding in reserve.
JS: She’s extremely powerful.
JS: I mean, she’s one of the most powerful people in this country without question.
RG: But then when you see her at a press conference, you’re like how is this possible? She can’t put a sentence together. You got a glimpse of it in her, in that one televised meeting with Trump where she kind of shut him down over the wall. It was six months ago or so. You kind of saw that like inside Pelosi coming out with the cameras on her. But that’s basically what it means — a willingness to destroy somebody and an ability to reward somebody and knowing what the reward is that that person wants and kind of an amorality about the whole thing, not getting hung up on whether what you’re doing is right or wrong.
JS: Talk about Pelosi during the Bush/Cheney era because Pelosi was the subject of a lot of protest and anger from the left for a number of reasons. Whether it’s the Patriot Act or the authorization for the use of military force or saying we’re taking impeachment off the table when it came to Bush. What was her role and how did she function during the eight years of Bush/Cheney?
JS: Right, so she’s always been — she’s carried the San Francisco flag in the sense of being broadly anti-war, voted against the Iraq War. But otherwise she was deeply hawkish in private meeting with Bush administration national security officials. When they described to her what waterboarding was like and what they’re doing, she would say, “Well, what else can you do?” Not, wait, this appears criminal. What are you doing? But what more can you do? She was like a lot of Democrats both personally shaken by 9/11 and filled with this like “we’re going to get them” sense of revenge, but also that the fear that they had that they were going to be rejected as too liberal was exacerbated after 9/11. They felt like oh God, now they’re really going to think we’re we’re too liberal because not only are we tax and spenders but we’re weak on defense too.
Because we’ve been at war now for so many years, I think people in our our generation and younger don’t recognize how kind of traumatized that older generation is by the charge that they’re weak on defense, that they’re weak on the military. It would almost be nice if we could say that about Democrats today. It’s no longer remotely true. But that was what Pelosi was was reacting to. That’s why you had so many Democrats that voted for the Iraq War and people like her who supported the AUMF, who supported rendition and all these other war crimes that the Bush administration was participating in which then enabled the Obama administration to continue them.
JS: Let’s talk about the eight years of Bill Clinton and how that impacted the arc of the Democratic Party in terms of a historical analysis. What was the impact of Clintonism on the Democratic party?
RG: Vanquishing the Rainbow Coalition in 1988, Jesse Jackson following Harold Washington before him organized this grassroots movement to say “Look, you don’t have, you don’t need big money. You don’t need to try to get back these Reagan Democrats. What you need to do is expand the electorate, go out and register new voters, confront this rise of the new right with a new left.”
JS: If you’re listening and you have never watched the convention speeches of Jesse Jackson when he was running for president, it’s an incredible moment in U.S. history and you really can see in the passion and the drenched in sweat. But what he was saying and the vision that Jesse Jackson had about multiculturalism and needing to grapple with race and sexual orientation, I mean, he was way ahead of the curve and he lost to the big establishment Democrats and that system churned out Bill Clinton and the response to Reagan and Bush ultimately was a pretty conservative Southern governor in Bill Clinton.
RG: And what people don’t realize because it’s gone down the memory hole, was that Jackson very nearly won. And I write about this in the book —
JS: The Democratic primary?
RG: Yeah, very nearly won the Democratic primary and then he’s running against George H.W. Bush which, who knows? It’s hard to conceive of but who knows? It came very close and the Democratic party had a complete apoplectic meltdown when it appeared like he actually might seize the nomination.
JS: You’re talking about in ’88?
RG: ’88. So, instead, they went with the electable Michael Dukakis. That then opens the way for these new Democrats, Bill Clinton. And Bill Clinton’s famous Sister Souljah moment which this is summer of 1992 where he basically dredges up an obscure rapper. She hadn’t ever been above I think 82 on Billboard.
JS: She follows me on Twitter, Ryan, and has praised my Blackwater book.
RG: [Laughs.] She’s great now and she’s an author and an interesting person. At the time, I think she was like 17.
JS: Yeah, she was a young rapper and this was at the moment too when you had the rise of NWA and other so-called gangster rap that then the Joe Liebermans of the world, the Tipper Gores of the world talked about how this is what’s really destroying white American society is these gangster rappers.
RG: And so, Clinton famously calls her out, compares her to David Duke actually. And what’s important is where he did it. This was at the Rainbow Coalition Conference with Jesse Jackson right there on stage. And so, I think that part has also been missed too that it was not just a signal to Reagan Democrats that he’s like willing to take on these black people who were dominating the Democratic party. It was also a signal to Jesse Jackson and to the kind of, left in the Democratic party. “This is my party now. I’m doing this at your conference.” Jackson demanded an apology from him and he never got it. And that was his way of saying “This is my party now.” People also forget Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote because Ross Perot was in as a third party candidate. So, it’s not like this new Democratic centrism was some resounding success.
And that more than anything else has become a rallying cry for today’s left, that says “Look, if you actually won with this pragmatism, what you call pragmatism, then OK. Then we can have a conversation. If this centrism, if this compromising approach was actually keeping the fascists out of the gates, keeping the barbarians from raping and pillaging the village, then OK, that’s a plausible argument to make but it’s not. You got 43 percent with Bill Clinton. You lost to Bush. The one time you took a chance and nominated the unelectable person, Barack Obama, he wins twice. He then pivots to center and loses a thousand seats and we end up with Trump. So the pragmatism isn’t very pragmatic. And so, the new generation which did not experience the trauma of losing to Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan doesn’t have the fear of the Republican party that the Pelosi’s of the world have.
JS: Right, Clinton wins in the ’92 election and then as you indicate in the midterms then there’s this sweeping so-called Republican revolution that brings Newt Gingrich to the position of being speaker of the House and at the same time you had Bill Clinton and the Democrats adopting very right-wing policies on drugs, on crime you can, I think, argue on race, on all of these things and very hawkish militaristic policies.
But I want to zero in on the Crime Bill and the so-called war on drugs under Bill Clinton because it comes up quite often now because of Joe Biden being a sponsor of the Crime Bill. And then Kamala Harris, really bringing this up a lot and trying to reform her own image because people will say “Oh, Kamala Harris is a cop.” She’s now trying to attack Biden from the left on the Crime Bill while pushing aside the concerns about her own role in the criminal justice system in this country. But for people that don’t have a living memory of it or weren’t around then, explain Clinton’s Crime Bill, race policies, war on drugs.
RG: Right, crime was an actual problem. It was a problem all across the country and partly or significantly because of the hollowing out of the manufacturing industry and the middle class and working classes that Reagan and the deregulating Democrats brought about in the ’80s. So, you do have a bottoming out and you do have a surge in crime and so a response to that, also a response to the Civil Rights Movement, is just getting tougher and tougher and tougher. And there was no political lever to push in the other direction and so, in both primaries, Democratic and Republican, the candidate who could say that they were tougher on crime was the one who was going to win and so it just keeps getting ratcheted up and up and up. Bill Clinton famously calls for a hundred thousand new cops on the street and gets a standing ovation for that.
And that’s a cornerstone of the ’94 Crime Bill. The idea is to just jack up sentences, mandatory minimums, three strikes and you’re out. Lumping together a bunch of different things so, if you sell weed but you also own a gun, then that becomes a violent crime. The sentence is exponentially greater. So, you wind up then throughout the ’90s with crime rates falling yet the prison population soaring. So, you’re like wait a minute, how are there fewer crimes being committed but yet more and more and more people are in prison? And one of the answers that people are in prison for these extremely long sentences. And so, starting in the early 1980s, you just have practically a straight diagonal line up and you go from fewer than half a million prisoners to well over two million.
JS: And then, on the issue of welfare reform, I mean, I’m originally from Wisconsin, at the time the Crime Bill was implemented, I was a student in Wisconsin and I remember Tommy Thompson was the governor at the time, a Republican and he had implemented sweeping so-called welfare reform that was essentially, when you boil it down to it, it was forcing people to choose between having a job where they can’t make enough money to live or accepting state aid and then having to live your life essentially in a police state that is constantly monitoring every expense that you make. This whole notion that in order to get welfare, you have to work was a Tommy Thompson idea that then Bill Clinton more or less nationalized with his omnibus welfare reform package. That was, I mean, it was largely written by Republicans, but it was Bill Clinton who was championing it, shepherding it.
RG: Yeah. And welfare got racialized. Reagan helped very much help do that. When people talk about Democrats going to the center, that’s a euphemism for them distancing themselves from black people and from the Civil Rights era. That’s essentially what they’re talking about. And this was a huge part of that. This was Clinton’s way of saying “Look, that promise that I made on the Rainbow Coalition stage when I called out Sister Souljah, I’m delivering on that right now. I told you I would stick it to them.” He was running for re-election and his advisors told him, you sign welfare reform and you’re basically guaranteed to get re-election. Wendell Primus who was a top HHS official at the time resigned in protest over it. He’s now one of Pelosi’s top aides. And you had a couple others in the White House who resigned, who said this is going to increase poverty and increase child poverty. More or less, it has.
And it has an illogic that says if you’ve received benefits for five years, that’s it regardless of need. And like you said it puts all these draconian work requirements on it. Now welfare itself did need to be reformed because it had a gross kind of, police surveillance aspect to it to where you’d have government agents like raiding your house to try to find out if there was a man living in the house who might be benefiting from this $500 a month that you’re getting. So, it was —
JS: Oh, you still have that in Section 8 housing.
JS: I have friends who are housing lawyers and it’s like they’re still doing that. But yes —
RG: — Not to valorize or glamorize the original welfare program but it’s better than what it was turned into.
JS: I want to talk a bit before we get to the current situation of the Democratic party about Barack Obama’s impact becoming the not just the president, but the leader for those eight years of the Democratic party. Obama launched his campaign and I think, he wanted to give the impression that he was the anti-war candidate, but in reality the speech that he gave in Chicago in October of 2002, which really launched his national political aspirations and campaign was a very carefully crafted speech with lots of ifs and thens in terms of the position. He famously said I’m not against all wars, I’m against dumb wars, stupid wars and essentially making a tactical argument against the Iraq War.
And I often think of that as kind of a metaphor for how Obama governed. He would telegraph one thing and sort of, there would be this perception people would place onto the canvas of Obama, what they wanted to think he was but in reality, he always if you really took his words at their value, was saying I’m not a leftist and I actually am, would be a sort of, moderate Republican of the 90s. That was more or less how Obama, he wasn’t lying or being disingenuous. He was telegraphing exactly who he was. The sense I had was that people wanted to place onto him an identity that Obama himself never even claimed but he did craft his identity — I mean political identity — in such a way that a lot of things were open to interpretation. It was like the sophisticated smart version of Trump saying we’ll see what happens. Obama would allow people to think he was this thing but in reality, he was a pretty right-wing Democrat.
RG: Right. And it very much helped him that he was running against Hillary Clinton too.
JS: In that ’08 primary, yeah.
RG: In that ’08 primary because she voted for the war without the caveats of it being a dumb war. And so, Obama was like you said, he was able to kind of fashion himself as an anti-war candidate even though in the district that he represented back in Chicago anyway, there was no other position for —
JS: When he was in the state government.
RG: For an official to have, that’s an anti-war, rich liberal area like those. They’re not supporting the invasion. But yeah, that’s exactly right and so he runs against Hillary Clinton 2007, 2008 and against her, he does appear — You already want to believe, liberals wanted to believe that he was one of them. He must be. He’s a great writer. He went to Harvard. He was a community organizer. I think that was a huge selling point to a lot of people. He must be a lefty. He’s out there in the streets organizing.
And so then, you just look at it through that prism, then you see him getting attacked by Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s adviser, as un-American and it’s easy to start defending him against all of these unfair attacks. And so, then you wind up with this massive, inspired grassroots army of millions of people ready to transform politics. And he could have brought that army with him into Washington with the sky falling, Wall Street completely collapsing, the economy on the brink. People were talking about the end of the Republican party like what’s going to be the new party that takes its place? It was that low of a moment for them and they signaled right away before he was even sworn in that they were going to oppose him on everything across the board and that was going to be their play.
And still, he shut down the grassroots army, basically folded up what was called OFA, Organizing for America, put it onto the DNC and mothballed the thing. And ordered all the outside groups under threat of them getting their donors called by Rahm Emanuel or Jim Messina to also stop pressuring Republicans and stop pressuring Blue Dogs because he’s got this. He and Rahm are going to like work it out. They’re gonna sit down with Susan Collins. They’re going to figure this thing out. And if you push, it’s only going to cause problems for the Blue Dogs in the midterms. So, just let us handle this. And of course, all those Blue Dogs lost anyway which goes back to the idea that the pragmatism isn’t actually that pragmatic either.
JS: Rahm Emanuel was much more vicious toward left Democrats than he ever was toward the Republicans.
RG: It’s the only time that that legendary ruthlessness is actually deployed in any effective way.
JS: Oh, I remember early on — I don’t remember if it was the first defense authorization bill but early on in Obama’s time as president there was a movement among progressive Democrats to try to hold up defense spending and Rahm — I believe it was your reporting at the time — but Rahm Emanuel is the guy that goes over basically with the baton to start hitting the kneecaps of left wing, the handful of left-wingers that actually exist in the Democratic party.
RG: Right, whenever there would be a peep from the progressive side, they’d either be called into the White House or Rahm would go down. I write about this in the book Rahm would go down to Capitol Hill and break some kneecaps. When the Blue Dogs —
JS: These are the openly kind of right-wing Democrats?
RG: Right wing, kind of the, yeah, the descendants of the Southern Dixiecrats. When they would complain, Rahm would come down to the Capitol say what do you need, boys? You know, what can I do for you?
JS: Can I massage your knee?
RG: Is your knee OK?
JS: Wait a minute, is that Bernie Sanders? Baton! Oh, hello right-wing Democrat, can I just massage the knee a little bit?
RG: And the results matter because they’d say “Well, this stimulus is too big. We want 150 billion taken out of it.” Boom, there goes like one and a half points worth of unemployment that you could have pulled off of the economy and Rahm’s like get it done. Joe Lieberman doesn’t like the way that the public option sounds. Rahm Emanuel’s — get it done. Take it out, get it done. So, his toughness was exclusively reserved for the left. And anytime anybody on the right or the center had any problems, he easily would just meet them almost as if he was fine to do exactly what they were asking.
JS: So, then in 2016, we had it boiling down to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And I don’t want to spend too much time on 2016 for all sorts of reasons but in part, because we’ve also discussed it quite a bit on the show. But one part of 2016 I wanted to ask you about and that is when we talk about the documents, John Podesta’s emails, DNC emails. I don’t want to make this about WikiLeaks right now. What did those documents show that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was doing toward Bernie Sanders and his campaign?
RG: Not a lot, right? I mean they were, I mean, the Clinton campaign was infuriated by the Sanders campaign and felt that it was undignified that she was even having to deal with this socialist from Vermont.
JS: Or anyone for that matter.
RG: Or anyone.
JS: This was a coronation. This was not a primary. This was meant to be a very long coronation and Sanders got in the way of that.
RG: Right, then they started clearing the field as early as right after the 2012 election. All of the women in the Senate except for Warren signed a letter saying “Run, Hillary, run and don’t anybody else run against her.” And Sanders didn’t want to run like he was trying to get Warren to run. He was hoping somebody else would run just so that there could be some competing ideas put out in the primary. So, when nobody would and he eventually was like “Ok, fine I’ll do this. Somebody’s got to make the argument.” But he was very clear from the beginning, he was not trying to win out of the gate. That was sort of an accident, that Clinton was so unpopular, and his ideas were so popular that he almost got to her.
Probably the most damaging thing that came out of there were the Goldman Sachs speeches, speech transcripts. And I didn’t think it would seriously work but I had reached out to the campaign at some point in 2015, I think it was Karen Finney. I said, look, these speeches are going to come out at some point, leak them to me. I’ll do the story right now and I’ll light you guys up because I’m sure it’s ridiculous whatever she said to Goldman Sachs. It’s gonna come out like get it out, get it out now and give it to me. And she’s like ha, no, we’re not going to release these to anybody ever.
In hindsight, they should have taken my helpful advice at that time and put them out in 2015 because then when they finally did come out because WikiLeaks forced them out. Now it’s close to the election and you have the fact of the private speeches married with the years-long effort to keep them private which just imbues them with suspicion which is warranted. And then she comes out and says, I think in a debate, “Look, you say some things privately and you say different things publicly. That’s how this works.” Like oh, I can’t believe you just said that. Well yeah, we were aware that that’s how you operate. But it’s amazing to hear you say it out loud.
And so, it just, it really, she already had the impression that she’d say whatever she wanted to get elected. There was already the impression that she was too close to Wall Street and to wealthy interests. And then that just underlined it for everybody. It was something that you could just understand in one sentence. $700,000, speaking to Goldman Sachs.
JS: Coming out of the 2016 election — I mean, this may be an oversimplification. You can put whatever nuance you want in this but it does seem like there is a very clear split in the Democratic Party right now where on the one hand, you have the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and then on the other hand, you have I mean, you could say the Bernie Sanders wing but really it’s more of a left front that is, sort of, arguing against the Pelosi/Clinton/Obama worldview and trying to do things differently. You have what is it now? Twenty-four people running for the Democratic nomination? Give a kind of overview in the context of the 2020 election of where the Democratic party is today and what are the dynamics within it?
RG: Right, it’s sort of the wing that was represented by Jesse Jackson and then was vanquished throughout much of the 90s and it kind of rises again sort of accidentally through Howard Dean. Howard Dean was not that progressive of a candidate but again, he kind of appeared like it next to everybody else. He was the only candidate who was running on opposition to the Iraq War and because he was from Vermont, people felt like “Oh well, he must be pretty liberal.” And he’s a doctor who talked about universal health care. So, it was check, check, check for a lot of progressives. And so, the blogosphere was just getting going then. Move On was just getting the ability to raise big amounts of money online.
And so, all of a sudden he has a well-funded and organized campaign which falls apart at the very end. Everybody talks about his scream. But actually, if you remember this the thing that undid him was he said something like he didn’t want Saddam Hussein executed. I think there was some comment around Saddam Hussein and the entire Democratic primary electorate was like oh, he’s going to get beat by Bush. Bush is too tough. We’re gonna be too weak and they went into their shells and they’re like “Let’s do John Kerry.” They can’t question his military credentials. But all of the learning and organizing that had gone on around the Dean campaign then fueled other campaigns in 2006 and then also the Obama campaign and it flows into Occupy.
JS: Just one note before you go on with that, one just bookend on Howard Dean. He then goes on to be head of the Democratic National Committee and has just steadily moved himself even further and further and further to the right. He’s taken money from the MEK group that’s agitating for regime change in Iran and had been for many years an officially designated terror organization by the State Department. And Howard Dean helped lobby against that and he’s now just basically a right-wing Democrat attack dog going after anyone on the left of the Democratic party.
RG: He’s a gun for hire.
JS: Yeah, he’s a gun for hire. He’s a Lanny Davis that has managed to get elected to office before but yeah, I mean, he’s in that camp of people.
RG: Right, but the people that tried to get him elected those were actual lefties.
JS: Oh, for sure. I mean, I remember covering him in New Hampshire and elsewhere and it was the same thing you saw with Obama that people were projecting onto Howard Dean everything that they want in a candidate and it’s like the evidence isn’t really there. I mean Howard Dean had promoted the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When I asked him about that at an event in New Hampshire, he said well I said that because somebody in the Clinton team had told me that. Oh well, that really gives you confidence that this is a guy who’s gonna be sifting and winnowing through the intelligence. But in any case, so then we get to 2016. Trump wins the Electoral College defeating Hillary Clinton and you were about to talk more about the big picture of the Democratic Party as it exists today.
RG: Yeah, and what Dean and then to a degree Obama and then Bernie Sanders did is that they created an alternative kind of funding structure. Obama did both. He had a huge small dollar operation and also tons of money from Wall Street and other places. But Obama showed that you could raise an extraordinary amount of money online for a presidential campaign, which was the kind of the promise of the Dean campaign back in ’03. And then Bernie Sanders kind of actualized that and then you see what’s happened in 2020 with the DNC even leaning into it saying everybody needs to have 65,000 small donors to get on the stage.
When we were kids, every quarter, the candidates would brag about how much money they had raised, who their bundlers were, the names of the lobbyists that were bundling money for them and that was a mark of seriousness. That doesn’t happen anymore. They hide that. They don’t publicize who their bundlers are —
JS: Well, Joe Biden is kind of shamelessly sailing toward big money.
RG: Right, yes because he can’t raise small money and the knock on him had been that he was so lazy that he was doing all this pro-corporate work for free basically and that he wasn’t going to be able to raise big money and so he has internalized that. So, he’s like “No, look I really can. These companies will, they will pay. These rich people do like me.”
JS: It’s kind of like political viagra. It’s like “Oh OK, I’ll just go and take the big money.”
RG: Otherwise, the candidates just say, my average donation was this small. I have this many small donors to show that they have this broad base of support and what that’s done is it’s set up an alternative kind of, funding structure for the rival wing of the party.
Jesse Jackson didn’t really have that. There wasn’t an efficient way for people to say, “Wow, Jesse Jackson. We’re almost 40 primaries in and he’s neck and neck for the nomination. I want to give him $30.” There was mail, but there wasn’t really a way for people to express their support for people in the way there is now where you can just tap your phone every time Bernie Sanders gets attacked and you want to fight back. Alright here, take another of my five dollars. And so, that has really changed the calculation and since it was a weird accident that they started taking big money in the first place, it means it’s not part of the DNA, like the party is not built only to take big money. The party could be taken over by small donors.
JS: How do you — I would leave it to you to decide which ones we talk about right now because you’re in the weeds on this stuff and cover it all the time. But I do want to get some thoughts about a variety of candidates from you. Do you want to start with —
JS: Who do you wanna start with?
RG: Doesn’t matter.
JS: All right, Elizabeth Warren.
RG: I mean, Elizabeth Warren, people left her for dead. And they ridiculed her for —
JS: Because of her DNA test.
RG: — The DNA stuff and the campaign’s idea was, “This is going to suck. We’re going to do it now, December, October.” October, they did it so that by the middle of 2019, we can focus more on her campaign and get this Pocahontas thing behind us. And they have doubled in the polls. She’s — The idea of like putting out ideas seems to be working. And it’s not necessarily chipping away at Bernie’s support. You’re seeing Bernie rise as well. If every gain that Warren made was at the expense of Bernie, then it’d be kind of like a zero-sum game for the left and that meant they were just gonna get wiped out eventually. But they both are rising.
JS: Why is it that when you turn on almost any news program now that are talking about this, they’re just talking about how Biden is pulling away. Like what’s going on? They’re like Biden’s pulling ahead. Constantly on CNN, I hear Biden’s pulling ahead. Biden’s widening this lead.
JS: It comes from this basic mental error that people were making that was OK, yes Biden’s polling at 35 percent right now. But when he gets in, he’s going to collapse. And so, he got in and then three days later he hadn’t collapsed. And so everybody’s like oh, we must have been wrong. We were sure he was going to collapse. He didn’t collapse in three days. So, therefore, he’s going to surge and pull away with it. But like the idea that that 35 percent, most of whom are barely paying attention to the election, were going to change their mind within a week of him officially announcing, of that 35 percent, what percent do you think even know that he transitioned from saying he was thinking about running to actually running? Probably not a ton of them. People are not following it close enough.
JS: But what I’m getting at though is that you see this and you see it from a lot of like Hillary camp people online that Biden is just crushing it in the polls. And I’m asking you like what is that all about?
RG: Well, it worked for Hillary. The argument for Hillary was inevitability and electability. And so, you should support her because she’s going to win. And it’s circular. And so, you have to keep saying it. It’s like a balloon that you just have to keep blowing air into otherwise it just sinks. So, that’s really what it is. Because Biden doesn’t have anything else that he’s selling to the Democratic primary electorate other than that “I’m going to win this and then I’m going to beat Trump and I’ll beat him up behind the gym.”
JS: Is the conduct of Joe Biden during the Anita Hill confirmation going to continue to be a problem for him?
RG: Yeah, it is a problem for him. A lot of people remember how badly he handled that and his inability to actually apologize for it means that it’ll just keep coming up. The way that Hillary Clinton you remember was dogged for months being asked to apologize for her vote for the Iraq War and she just wouldn’t do it. If she would just do it then, you can at least move on. Might not help with a lot of people but at least it ends that conversation. But Biden has said he’s never made a mistake in his life. He said I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done is what he says. And so, he goes around defending the Crime Bill. He’s not somebody who’s like I was wrong. The party was wrong at the time. I was doing what I thought was right. I’ve seen the light and this is how we should be doing this now. He says I’ve always been progressive. I’ve always done the right thing and that forces him to defend things that nobody thinks are the right thing anymore.
JS: What about Kamala Harris?
RG: So, I think she benefits from I don’t know if it’s racism or just ignorance on the part of a lot of the press that say Kamala Harris is black, therefore black people will vote for her. It’s kind of a gross oversimplification. And so, she’s actually gonna end up suffering from that in this sense. Like as it becomes clear that that’s not the case, the press is going to say wait a minute, we thought that all black people would support her because she’s black and that’s not happening so there must be something wrong with her candidacy. Well no, that wasn’t, that shouldn’t be the expectation to begin with.
The thing that she’s also lacking is kind of a why. Like why is she running for president? What’s her vision for the country? Because she doesn’t have the obvious — and this is racist also — she doesn’t have the “I’m electable and I can beat Trump.” Because in this country electable and I can beat Trump means I’m a white guy. So, she doesn’t have that. And she also doesn’t have a Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders style, this is my vision for how the country should be governed and transformed. So, you’re left with a well, what? What what’s going on here?
And so, when you’re talked about as a top tier candidate but you continue to hover under 10 percent that chips away at your sheen of kind of, inevitability or electability. She certainly, she gets talked about all the time as vice president for if it’s Joe Biden or something like that. And she has, I’m sure, a big career ahead of her. But what exactly the path is, remains unclear. You’d have to have Biden collapse and her to kind of take over the Biden lane for the Hillary Clinton type aides.
JS: I mean, all politics is performance at some level but I do think that both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are remarkably good lawmakers when it comes to interrogating hostile witnesses. And obviously, Kamala Harris spent a lot of time in law enforcement and as a prosecutor and I personally think it would be utterly fascinating to watch Kamala Harris debate Donald Trump and to see how she would meticulously prepare for that. It’s like in many movies, the prosecutors are the good guys —
RG: It would be interesting if she would say, “there are a lot of people out there that need to be prosecuted. And I have the skills to prosecute those people. We have been letting elites get away with criminal behavior for far too long” and try to use it that way. But she does the same thing with Biden where she says she was a progressive prosecutor which isn’t true. She ran against progressive prosecutors. She was stridently a tough on crime prosecutor. And so rather than kind of owning up to that and saying I was wrong. Times have changed because I don’t believe she does believe she’s wrong which is, that’s totally her right. But that’s why she can’t get to that place.
JS: Why is Beto O’Rourke still in the race? I mean, you write about the incredible success of his failed bid for Senate. But it was an impressive campaign and he came close to pulling off something that that I think almost no one thought could happen prior to that race. But why is he still hanging around? It doesn’t seem like there’s this huge Beto wave nationally.
RG: Well, he enjoys it.
JS: Oh, good. That’s why we run for president now?
RG: When he said — Yeah, got nothing else to do.
JS: I mean, his position that he staked out at that CNN town hall on health care. It’s like, I think a lot of people were just like he doesn’t even have that. You know, why are we here? Why do we have to listen to Beto O’Rourke’s ideas about America?
RG: Yeah and when he famously said in that Vanity Fair article that he was born to be in this. He didn’t mean born to be president. What he meant is he just loves campaigning. He loves going around and talking to people. He did it for two years in Texas and he was bored immediately afterwards and he hit the road again.
JS: It’s like he’s forcing us all to go and report on his Phish tour. He’s just, he’s jamming’ with the didgeridoo with the band and, “Oh yeah, and by the way, I’m also running for president.”
RG: But yeah, so he — The problem is he, I think he believed that he had a much better chance of winning than he did. And as a result of that he discarded the tactics that he had used in his Senate campaign, discarded the actual Bernie people who had organized his Texas Senate campaign and replaced them with Obama people. The very ones who had actively shut down OFA like the officials who were overseeing that project of shutting down his grassroots army. They shut down Beto’s grassroots army believing that Biden wasn’t really serious and that the kind of Obama world of establishment figures would wind up getting behind Beto and he’d be lifted to victory because nobody else was a kind of, they could conceivably see as winning the nomination.
And so he stopped fighting for it. And like you said, he drifted away from Medicare for all. He abandoned his kind of organizing approach that he’d been taking. And it turned out that he was not in the position that he thought he was in. And so, now he’s down to, way down closer to zero.
JS: What about the Hawaii congressperson Tulsi Gabbard, who’s a Iraq War veteran, has come under fire for previous positions on everything ranging from gay rights to expressing support for extremist Hindu politicians and institutions to more recently, the fact that she went to Syria and met with Bashar al Assad and has been very, very opposed to any U.S. military action aimed at unseating Assad. And our colleague Glenn Greenwald recently did a long sit down interview with her where he brought up some of these critiques but the way that she is handled when she goes on major TV networks primarily on CNN, it’s extremely hostile and the way that she’s interviewed seems intent on defending the good name of imperial America. And that’s how it’s presented. But what’s going on with that campaign?
RG: She’s badly undermined by Sanders’ presence in the campaign. She rose to national prominence at the end of the campaign by quitting the DNC and endorsing Bernie which, might not be proper to point out, happened long after the campaign was over. If you date the kind of, end of the Sanders campaign in April or May or so, it’s nice that Tulsi went public with her dissatisfaction with how the DNC handled that and endorsed Bernie, but it didn’t do him any good at that point. It did her an enormous amount of good and all of the Sanders goodwill kind of drifted over to her. If he hadn’t run, she’d have a core of supporters that would be out organizing for her. But her reason to be in is less clear with him in because they agree on — I mean, she certainly makes a bigger deal out of anti-imperialism than he does but they agree on that issue. So, at that point like well, what are you bringing to the campaign that Sanders isn’t since Sanders is kind of the one that brought you to the campaign in the first place?
JS: Well, I mean she would probably say that she was a combat veteran, that she’s a woman, that she represents a much younger generation in politics.
RG: She has far more right to run — well, everyone has a right to run — she has just far more reason to run than at least a dozen of these dudes for the reasons that you mentioned but her lane was always going to be on the progressive side and with Bernie and Warren taking it all up, it’s just really hard to see.
JS: What about what’s going on now with the Bernie Sanders campaign? It’s not a case at this point certainly, that he’s just running away with it and that there is any inevitability to it in part because of Biden being in the race. But I see it more as you have Sanders and Warren and then a handful of other people that are sort of to the left of the Pelosi Democratic Party and then, you have the massive Clinton/Pelosi machine that will produce somebody and that they believe that that person is going to have the nomination and we don’t know who that is at this point. It looks like Biden is the anointed one but who knows what happens but what’s going on with Bernie Sanders given that there’s a field of 24 people? There is Elizabeth Warren. There is Tulsi Gabbard. Is it operating the way it did in 2016? Is he running a successful fundraising operation? Is he going up in the polls?
RG: I think he’s running a much better campaign in 2020 just functionally, operationally than he was in 2016. It’s a much more professional campaign and it’s much more bottom-up, organizer-driven whereas in 2016, for all of its revolutionary talk, it was fairly traditional in the sense that they were raising money — now, not the traditional way — but they were raising money to fund a field program and go up on TV in early states. Like that was, now, their message was different but the strategy was the same. Right now, they’re running a very distributed campaign where they’re trying to empower their organizers all over the country to organize in places where they don’t have paid field staff. They’re raising money at an even faster clip than they did in 2016.
He is ticking up in the polls but the psyche of the Democratic primary voter plays into this in a disturbing way in the sense that they just can’t, a lot of voters can’t convince themselves that a Democratic socialist is “electable.” And so, his 40 plus percent that he got in 2016 relied on some protest vote against Clinton. He was the alternative. O’Malley was just not doing it as the alternative. And some protests against the system and some who were voting for him because they thought he could win and would be president. But by no means was that 100 percent of his base and so the ones that weren’t in that base are now out shopping around for other candidates.
If he can pull off a win in Iowa — that’s the thing about being unelectable. If you show yourself to be electable, it changes everything. Barack Obama’s numbers among black voters before Iowa were in the single digits because they quite reasonably said this country’s not going to elect Barack Obama so I’m not going to waste my vote on somebody that they’re not going to elect. When Obama won Iowa, overnight in the black community, his numbers went from single digits to well into the majority and within weeks, he’d sewed up the black vote. When it became clear actually, these corn-fed kids out in Iowa voted for this guy, he could actually win.
So, if Sanders can win in Iowa and then can win in New Hampshire, the aura of winning can create the impression of electability and the aura of losing — let’s say Biden loses those — it damages the impression of his own electability and so, that really is the only way that I see something like that turning around. Maybe you have a Warren and Ocasio-Cortez getting in behind him at a key moment around that time and creating kind of, a new sense of inevitability around a Sanders presidency. But it’s really threading a needle but he would have to do something about that impression that he can’t win.
JS: But the open hostility toward Bernie Sanders that continues or even is increasing in some quarters of the Democratic party is real. I mean, there is this just fierce hatred for Bernie Sanders in certain sectors of the Democratic party. If Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, what happens to all those extremely angry people who seem to think that Sanders is worse than Donald Trump in some ways? What happens then in the Democratic party?
RG: Right, does somebody like Howard Schultz run just to spoil it for Democrats at that point and get five percent and throw it to Trump? That’s the risk with that. And that’s the threat like, that’s kind of the point.
JS: I don’t think Howard Schultz’s own staff would vote for him. I mean, I’m talking about like are these people even going to vote for Bernie Sanders? Are they going to write in Hillary Clinton?
RG: Well, the good news for Democrats or for Bernie supporters would be that they almost all live in Washington or New York. And so, they don’t live in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Those are the key states that are going to swing the presidential election. And so, whatever Nicole Wallace wants to do, she can do. But the question of can Bernie win those three key states is what decides whether or not he can beat Trump. And if you talk to Republicans, interestingly, Republicans who know those states well, they believe that Bernie is a major threat in a state like, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin because not only does he galvanize the Democratic base support, but he does appeal to the kind of angry independents who just want to cast a screw you vote. They can just as happily cast it for Bernie Sanders as they can for Trump. And so, Republicans ironically, are more convinced of Sanders’ electability in those states than Democrats are.
JS: Ryan Grim, congrats again on the book and thanks for being with us.
RG: Always a pleasure.
JS: Ryan Grim is The Intercept’s Washington DC bureau chief. His new book, from Strong Arm Press, is called “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”