Playing the Odds of March

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 31, 2019 - 06:26:00 PM

My Chronicle this morning included a photo of a billboard ad at 4th and Townsend for Elizabeth Warren exhorting us to “Break Up Big Tech”, complete with a texting address where you could add your assent to this sentiment. Unfortunately, this only adds to my conviction that Senator Warren was surely a great law professor, is an excellent senator and would be a terrific president, but she’s not the world’s most skillful politician.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve taken at least one of the courses and read at least one of the books and enough reviews of said books to convince me that anti-trust law is A Good Thing in principle. I could construct a narrative something along the lines of “anti-trust scrutiny of IBM made way for Microsoft and Microsoft’s anti-trust scrutiny made way for Google, but now Facebook seems to need some observation as an irresponsible monopoly” and so forth…but I won’t.

I could also argue the other side: that telephone service has gone to hell since the breakup of The Real AT&T (as opposed to its ineffectual namesake which is really Bell South) , and that AT&T’s monopoly position allowed Bell Labs to become a remarkable research center…but I won’t do that either.

Let’s just say that “Break Up Big Tech” is an excellent theoretical position with which I might even agree, but it’s a lousy South of Market billboard slogan. Many of those who will see it, Democratically inclined folks who work for those Big Tech companies and don’t know much about antitrust theory, might perceive it as a threat to their jobs. Many more might just wonder what it’s talking about.

If you have billboard bucks to burn, how about “Health Care for All”? Or “End Student Loan Debt”? or “Affordable Housing Now”? or “Free Child Refugees”? . “Break Up Big Tech” is not a wedge issue. 

Speaking of possible game changers, Senator Warren was one of the first Democrats to land on the impeachment bandwagon with both feet. I must confess I can’t exactly remember what her twitter said and don’t want to look it up, but it was something about no one being above the law, as I recall. 

I agree that the Mueller report supplied ample evidence of laws being broken, especially as regards obstruction of justice. Mueller’s heavy hints, backed up by his recent press conference, pointed toward impeachment as the appropriate remedy. 

Where he (and she) left me was the assumption that Justice Department policies carried constitutional weight—that the U.S. Constitution says anything about prosecuting a president. What I remember from law school many years ago is that the Constitution trumps (sorry) administrative regulations. 

What seems to be going on with Mueller and Barr is the influence of the Old Boys Network, a phenomenon not covered by antitrust law, though it should be. Mueller is an old-school upper class Republican, a classmate at the toney St. Paul’s boarding school of Senator John Kerry and other privileged notables. He appears to be reluctant to openly break with his similarly situated old friend Barr—he’s someone who’d prefer Congress to deal with the dirty laundry. 

For whatever reason, the Justice Department won’t act, so Congress has to do it. I get that. But marketing and timing are everything. Nancy Pelosi, a wizard at both, is right on this one. 

Consider an old vaudeville routine, an early prototype of Ted Talks. A guy appears on stage with a donkey, under a sign: “Teaching Donkeys to Read”. He picks up a big stick and whacks the donkey on its behind, eliciting a loud hee-haw. A lady in the first row jumps up saying, “Why did you hit that poor donkey?” 

“First you have to get their attention,” the guy explains. 

As someone who spent 16 years in Small Tech selling an arcane technology to people who had no idea why they wanted it, I can attest to the truth of that analysis. 

The voters are like that donkey. Currently, the polls do not support impeachment, so in order to win the 2020 election, first you have to get their attention. 

There’s ample ammunition in the Mueller report for shooting down Trump, but the most effective way to get the electorate engaged is through lengthy televised hearings into all the sordid particulars. Consensus among thinking people (those, i.e., who agree with me) is to open an impeachment inquiry first, only following up with the impeachment itself after the dark deeds have been illuminated , preferably close to election time. 

Remember, impeachment given the current Senate will not get rid of Trump—only the election will do that, unless he resigns. But he is no Nixon, who with all his flaws was pretty smart and might even have had a slight sense of shame, the remnants of his Quaker upbringing. Trump won’t be guilt-tripped into quitting. 

All the rest of the contenders for the Democratic nomination have nonetheless come out for impeachment—Senator Warren is no worse than the others. What she lacks in political acumen she makes up for in brains and temperament. 

She’s one of the three contenders I’ve met in a small group environment with plenty of time for questions. When she was first running for Senate I saw her in a LeConte neighborhood garden, the home of someone who’s run for City Council a couple of times but lost to more progressive-signalling candidates. Many hard questions were asked, and her answers hit them all out of the park. She’s one smart, articulate woman. 

I met Kamala Harris when she was running for Attorney General, at the home of a Claremont African-American power couple, at least one of whom was part of a very big-time national law firm. She is absolutely loaded with charm, but the attendees were on their best behavior at question time, so I couldn’t evaluate her rhetorical prowess. But she looks pretty darn good in the Senate. 

Bernie Sanders has another brand of charm—he’s the grandpa you always wish you had, though few do. You expect his pockets to be loaded with peppermints. 

I met him long ago, when he was diving for dollars. All Eastern Democrats come to the Bay Area to raise money, especially to Berkeley. I suppose he needed the money for his senate campaign, though his whole state has fewer people than San Francisco. 

Hosts at an elegant luncheon were Tom Bates and Loni Hancock—can’t remember which was Mayor and which was in the legislature at the time, since they rotated the family seats. The venue might surprise you: Chez Panisse restaurant, as I remember co-hosted by the proprietress herself. For all his populist affect, ol’ Social Democrat Bernie knows which side the baguette is buttered on. 

What will beat Trump? Brains, charm, political acumen? Where does an impeachment vote fit into the calculus? 

If I knew the answers to those questions, I’d let you know. I’m glad the primary is not until March, so I can make up my mind who and what to support. 

On the other hand, and I think I’ve said this before, I’d gladly vote for any one of the 20-something announced Democratic candidates, or, still, for my old yella’ dawg if he gets the nomination. The current president is a raving lunatic, so there’s nowhere to go but up.