Welcome to Hack Watch from the Revolving Door Project. This (hopefully) weekly newsletter will document the conflicts of interest, perverse incentives, and just flat-out wrong analyses endemic to the 90’s types whom the mainstream media turns to for quotes about the economy far too frequently.
Rhode Island Is Famous For Her
Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I have a column idea for Tom Friedman.
It’ll give him a chance to refute the assumption, held by myself and others, that he’s basically a mindless parrot for whatever the last rich person who called him up happens to think. He’ll get to show that he’s not a tool who’s incapable of fact-checking, lacks the basic skepticism required of a reporter, and takes an awfully high number of unverifiable taxi rides where the cabbie just happens to agree with him on international legal doctrine.
Here’s the story: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo completely misrepresented herself to the public last month, and Friedman knows because she contradicted the reasons he all but endorsed her for President in 2019.
At a Hamilton Project event in September, Raimondo told her version of how she helped pass the CHIPS and Science Act, which boiled down to her saying the word “bipartisan” a lot. But Raimondo also declared the following: “I said this when I became governor of Rhode Island, I said this when the President asked me to take this job, and I know the President believes in this, which is if you pursue an economic strategy of simply cutting taxes, reducing government, and deregulating, it is a failed economic theory that will lead to long-term poor results, less growth, more inequality, more fragile supply chains, and political division.”
This is practically the opposite of what Raimondo actually said when she became governor of Rhode Island, and what she actually pursued in office.
In her 2015 inauguration speech, Raimondo said companies want “clear and streamlined regulations and a predictable tax structure,” — that is, no regulations and low taxes. She said that “our [state] government has become larger, but less effective,” and called on Rhode Islanders to “commit ourselves to eliminating our structural deficit over the next several years to put our state on sound footing.” She asked the state legislature to support “effective training opportunities for workers of all ages that align with the jobs that are in demand,” and “to redesign government, modernize hiring practices and instill accountability for results.” These are code phrases for trickle-down economics — “training opportunities” refers to the mythical skills gap, and “redesigning government” is a twist on “reinventing government,” which is code for privatizing it.
Raimondo went on to pass one of the least equitable, most corporatist agendas of any Democratic Governor in the 2010s.
- She sold out workers — As Rhode Island Governor, Raimondo pushed her state’s pension fund into ultra-risky hedge funds, which shriveled benefits for retirees but netted her plenty of Wall Street campaign contributions. The American Legislative Exchange Council, the ultra-libertarian Koch front that has demolished democratic representation in statehouses nationwide, gushed over her policy.
- She sold out the sick — Raimondo gave Rhode Island nursing homes total legal immunity as seniors died during a COVID-19 surge. In July 2020, she sat down for a “Mission Accomplished” interview with Politico about beating Covid-19 through “uniquely American public-private partnerships.” One month later, Rhode Island set a new one-day record for Covid-19 cases.
- She sold out the poor — Raimondo cut Rhode Island’s Medicaid budget by $58.7 million in 2020, in part to bail out insurance companies, then tried to break state law to cut the budget even further. Before any of that, She put Deloitte in charge of the state’s SNAP and Medicaid benefits, and they left 24,000 beneficiaries without access. Raimondo renewed the program.
- She sold out abortion-seekers — Raimondo’s Rhode Island budgets required the state’s Obamacare exchanges to have multiple options that excluded abortion coverage. Under her leadership, 9,000 families were shifted onto plans that excluded abortion. NARAL Pro-Choice America gave Rhode Island an “F” on abortion access under her leadership, and Gloria Steinem endorsed her primary challenger. Worse, Raimondo did this while under absolutely no federal obligation. Federal law required an option that excluded abortion coverage, but she promulgated several others of her own accord.
In a sane world, this would have been disqualifying for a Cabinet position. Instead, Raimondo became Commerce Secretary. We have heard that she now hopes to be promoted to Treasury Secretary, the most powerful economic position in the Cabinet. It’s hard to overstate how disastrous this could be for the country.
Raimondo has plenty of corporate backers — more donors on Wall Street than in Rhode Island, actually — but she likely would not have gotten to Washington if she wasn’t absolutely adored by the “white male baby boomer with a New York Times column” demographic. Biden unfortunately cares a lot about courting this demo. He gave his first interview as president to David Brooks.
In 2019, Friedman called Raimondo “my kind of Democrat,” and pointedly contrasted her against his fears at the time that the Democratic presidential primary was veering too far left. In 2020, his colleague Frank Bruni said he’s “always liked” that Raimondo is “blunt and contrarian.” In 2021, their colleague Bret Stephens said she’s a “powerful contender” to replace President Joe Biden atop a Democratic ticket. And this year, Washington Post columnist James Hohmann said she’s “on a path to something bigger someday.”
Of course, if anything, centrist Times columnists endorsing a candidate is inversely correlated with that candidate’s popularity. The University of New Hampshire found Raimondo polling at 0 percent support in a hypothetical New Hampshire primary earlier this year. This is mostly due to lack of name recognition, of course, but among Democrats who had heard of her, she sat at -2 percent favorability (9 percent favorable, 11 percent unfavorable).
And Rhode Islanders, the voters who know her best, despise Raimondo. In 2019, she was the least popular governor in the nation, with a 56 percent disapproval rating. Before Raimondo won some love for her fights with then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (more on that later), the best polling numbers of her governorship were in the summer of 2018, when she sat at 44 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval.
Has Raimondo improved since joining the Biden administration? Of course not. On Covid-19, the most consequential issue of Biden’s first year, Raimondo was reportedly the greatest insider advocate for putting Big Pharma’s profits ahead of human lives. The Washington Post reports that the Biden administration was only able to agree in principle to waive intellectual property restrictions on Covid-19 treatments once Raimondo was kept out of the room. The administration never signed on to India and South Africa’s actual IP waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization, to its lasting shame. To put it bluntly, Raimondo (along with the German government, among others) was a key cause of the world permitting many thousands of unnecessary Covid infections and deaths in the developing world, and she entrenched Big Pharma’s power over vaccine technology even further.
On Big Tech, another flashpoint issue, Raimondo has openly defied her own President’s agenda. She’s called for the European Union to halt its efforts at regulating algorithms and curbing Big Tech’s market power on the grounds that this hurts American firms — the same American firms which the President and Raimondo’s party want to bring to bear on these issues. This drew scorn from Senator Elizabeth Warren, which Raimondo shrugged off. We’ve sent FOIAs multiple times requesting her official calendars. Each time, we’ve heard that the Commerce Department will post these records online at some point in the future, which has never happened. Our requests for a timeline have gone similarly unaddressed. Meanwhile, much of Raimondo’s senior staff are former Big Tech lobbyists and officials.
Congress apparently loved working with Raimondo on the CHIPS Act. But when Politico’s Alex Burns asked her at the Hamilton event how she’d apply this experience to other issues — particularly the care economy — Raimondo stumbled for a bit before declaring “the level of economic inequality in this country, which I believe feeds our political division, does threaten our national security.” That’s true, and also a complete non-starter of an argument with Republicans. It’s easy to be a bipartisan deal-maker when the deal you’re making is to give money to giant companies.
So why has this person, whose only core competence appears to be giving money to corporations, gotten so much esteem from New York Times columnists?
The question kind of answers itself. A cynic would say Raimondo’s policies, which injured ordinary Rhode Islanders for the sake of attracting rich people to the state, are why the Times pundits gush over her. And perhaps there’s some truth to that. The Times set loves to praise Raimondo’s “toughness,” which in this context doesn’t mean standing up to actually powerful people in society, but rather making life harder for lower-income people.
However, and this is just a gut instinct, I’d guess that a bigger reason these pundits love Raimondo is just their laziness, egos, and disinterest in, you know, reporting. A powerful woman calls up Friedman, Bruni, or Stephens, appeals to their tastes for brashness (but not too brash, ivory-tower types that they are), and they find themselves inclined to support her.
Take Bruni. His 2020 column fawning over Raimondo playfully compared her early Covid-19 policies to Cuomo’s, since Raimondo banned New York vehicles from entering Rhode Island early that year. Bruni said both Governors had become reassuring presences to their constituents in the pandemic, and joked that “I hate it when my fellow Italian-Americans squabble.”
As stated previously, Rhode Island later faced some of the largest lethal COVID surges in the nation. In the middle of one of them, Raimondo sought to illegally cut social safety net programs for the most affected Rhode Island communities. Cuomo, of course, went on to build a media persona as a swaggering Covid warrior, and when he covered up thousands of deaths that punctured that narrative, investigations into the cover-up exposed his years of massive sexual harrassment.
It would be unfair to expect Bruni to have uncovered Cuomo’s behavior before writing about him — but honestly, not that unfair, since it was something of an open secret in the New York press corps. However, portraying Covid policies as familial bickering among one’s heroes, instead of institutional choices that decided the fates of millions, is the kind of simplification and blind faith that Times superstars like Bruni scoff at when they see it in peer outlets.
Stephens, of course, was hired as the Times’ token libertarian neocon once even David Brooks couldn’t bring himself to associate with the Republican Party anymore. I frankly don’t expect any better of Stephens than endorsing Raimondo. His entire professional niche is about refusing to have an ounce of empathy or a shred of post-micro 101 economic reasoning, but writing about it in presentable enough sentences that Times readers can nod along and say “well, he’s entitled to his opinion.”
Which brings us back to Friedman. Will he ever write a column exposing how his favorite corporatist isn’t a progressive? No. See, that would require Friedman to admit someone (very easily) played him.
Friedman is most famous for swallowing corporate lobbyists’ arguments for untrammeled free trade hook, line, and sinker. He infamously proclaimed that corporate-led globalization would save us from conflict because “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” Today, Russia and Ukraine, which both had McDonald’s, are in a world-destabilizing war with each other. (Yes, McDonald’s pulled out of Russia in response to the war last summer…then just rebranded and got back to burgers as usual.)
Friedman has written tedious columns for decades about a rising economic tide lifting all boats and a larger economic pie meaning those with smaller slices still get more. Raimondo appealed to those tired cliches when she told him “I am a ‘pro-growth Democrat.’ I am for growing the pie as long as everyone has a shot at getting their slice.”
“That’s a simple message that can connect with enough Democrats — as well as independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women — to win the White House,” Friedman gleamed. It is certainly a simple message. It’s also the only thing which both parties have tried to do for four decades, and it brought us to our current multi-catastrophe.
That Friedman can’t seem to grasp that Raimondo’s proposal was old hat, failed, and nakedly sucking up to his ego brings to mind a different famous quote by a very different journalist: “It is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
PHOTO CREDIT: “Gina Raimondo” by Jones7224 is licensed under CC-A-SA 3.0.