I have a pet theory about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that it is to wider trends in world affairs what off-Broadway is to Broadway. A lot of stuff seems to get perfected there, from airline hijackings to suicide bombings, and then moves to bigger stages.
Israel has held two national elections since April, but the country is so perfectly divided that it still hasn’t been able to produce a governing coalition. There are three trends worth noting, though, after these elections.
First, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu deployed openly racist tropes against Israeli Arabs to motivate his base to get out and vote. Israeli Arabs finally had enough and in the second election in September, they voted in huge numbers and created the third-largest party in Israel, weakening Netanyahu’s ability to form a new government. You never know whom you’re arousing when you start using dog whistles.
Second, Bibi was everywhere on television and on Twitter, Facebook and Israeli websites. In contrast, his main opponent, retired Gen. Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, was nowhere nearly as visible.
Thousands of Israelis got sick of the noise and switched their votes between the first and second elections, making boring Benny’s party the biggest party in Israel, instead of Bibi’s Likud.
Finally, a good number of left-wing Israelis did not vote for the usual left-wing parties that favor a two-state solution with the Palestinians. They voted instead for Gantz’s centrist party, which offered no peace plan. They feared that another term of Netanyahu – with his divisiveness and nonstop attacks on the media and key institutions, like the courts and police – would rip apart Israel’s democracy. They feared this more than they did the Palestinians. They wanted someone who not only could beat Bibi but who could also be an antidote to him, someone to heal the country’s divisions before taking on a giant social engineering project like a two-state solution.
Israel and America are very different. But I think there are messages in what’s playing off-Broadway that are worth reflecting on as Democrats choose their presidential candidate.
Case in point: I have no idea whether Michael Bloomberg can win the Democratic nomination, but I’m glad he’s joined the race. (Disclosure: Bloomberg Philanthropies has contributed to Planet Word, the museum my wife is building to promote reading and literacy.)
“Billionaire” has become a dirty word and a disqualifying status for many in the Democratic Party. That is as nonsensical as dismissing Elizabeth Warren as a communist who wants only to confiscate your money.
Bloomberg is not just some wealthy man who made his money betting on derivatives on Wall Street and now pops off about the need to cut taxes.
Bloomberg is someone who risked everything he had to start a business that took on giant incumbents and outperformed them and boosted productivity. He is a three-term mayor of New York City, with a record of accomplishments and, yes, controversies, most notably “stop and frisk.” And he is someone who has taken forthright progressive stands on, and put huge funding behind, major public issues like gun control, gay rights, women’s reproductive rights and climate change.
It was “billionaire” Bloomberg who funded the most radical and progressive green agenda of this era.
“Bloomberg’s Beyond Coal partnership with the Sierra Club broke the mold for environmental philanthropy,” notes Carl Pope, former head of the Sierra Club and now a partner with Bloomberg on Beyond Coal. “In 2010, 500 coal plants provided half of America’s power, at the price of more than 10,000 lives, staggering volumes of water pollution, and one third of total carbon dioxide emissions. The Sierra Club pitched Bloomberg that they could shut down a third of those plants with a three-year campaign, using grassroots community mobilization and aggressive regulatory interventions.”
Attracted by the combination of lives saved and climate impact, Pope added, “Bloomberg ponied up. Now, nine years and several renewals later, coal provides only a quarter of U.S. power, and retirements of more than half those coal plants have been secured. These retirements are largely responsible for U.S. climate progress over the last decade.” The steady fall in the price of gas and renewables was critical in undermining coal, “but Bloomberg’s $500 million for climate mitigation projects was also critical – as was his insistence that the green group, while using its own tool kit, measure its results rigorously.”
There is no question that capitalism is not working for enough people in America. We cannot sustain a middle class, and the democracy it upholds, without finding better ways to redistribute the pie.
We need to redivide the pie to better grow the pie. We need to raise taxes to invest in infrastructure and in increasing the capacities of our workforce, starting with universal pre-K, so every citizen has the tools to adapt to the accelerating pace of change.
But growing the pie, and broadening the middle class, also require celebrating and growing entrepreneurs.
I want a Democratic candidate who is ready to promote all these goals, not one who tries to rile up the base by demonizing our most successful entrepreneurs.
Sure, some deserve demonizing, and some don’t. But can we please remember that our growth and good jobs are driven by risk-takers in the private sector starting new companies and creating more taxpayers? Increasingly, the Democratic left sounds hostile to that whole constituency of job-creators. They sound like an anti-business party, in ways that will hurt them with moderate Republicans, independents and suburban women, too many of whom supported Trump in 2016, then shifted to the Democrats and delivered them the House in 2018, and will be vital for defeating Trump in 2020.
So I’m glad Bloomberg is in the race because he will put a Democratic pro-growth, pro-innovation, pro-business agenda on the table, while also pushing ahead on major social issues.
But two other things, at least, are required. The successful Democratic candidate will have to give voice to the anger and angst in the base of the party while channeling that energy in positive, productive ways that also create enthusiasm around the candidate. Not easy. Trump’s base is enthusiastic about him. (It helps when you can say anything and tell any lie.)
The Democrats also need a candidate who can project strength. When people are stressed and frightened, they want a strong leader.
Bloomberg is a long shot. But I believe his entry into the race will highlight some of these issues that are vital to Democrats’ success.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.