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Op-Ed | American Prospect | July 23, 2021

It's Big Business As Usual For Biden's Ambassadorship Picks

2020 Election/TransitionForeign PolicyRevolving Door
It's Big Business As Usual For Biden's Ambassadorship Picks

Anti-monopolists are rightly celebrating their mounting victories as the Biden administration continues the process of making personnel appointments—which, yes, is still going on six months into the administration. As the Prospect’s Alex Sammon and David Dayen laid out, the New Brandeis movement has rocketed from a niche group of opinion leaders and legal theorists to leading the highest levels of the federal government in just four years, completely upending Washington’s thinking about industry concentration in the process. Of all things, antitrust law is sexy now.

So it’s bizarre that, just a day after the administration nominated Jonathan Kanter as assistant attorney general for antitrust, it also nominated one of monopolism’s most vociferous and shameless defenders to a different, much more relaxing job. David Cohen, Comcast’s longtime lobbyist and chief political fixer, was tapped on Thursday as the next ambassador to Canada.

Cohen is someone who even the even-handed Associated Press has no problem calling a “power broker” and a “consummate Washington insider.” It’s largely thanks to his political salesmanship that Comcast, America’s largest cable corporation and its overall most hated company in 2017, has secured both the mega-mergers and regional monopolies that sustain it. Cohen successfully shepherded the firm’s 2009 purchase of NBCUniversal through federal approval, in part by dangling a new internet service option for poorer customers that Comcast was going to launch anyway. That deal made Comcast the largest broadband internet provider in the country and gave it control of NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, and Telemundo. (Comcast was almost immediately accused of repeatedly violating the consent decree that allowed the merger to proceed.)

Cohen also led Comcast’s aborted attempt to take over Time Warner in 2014, which would have merged the number one and number two cable providers in the country. And he’s had plenty of involvement in Comcast’s harsh efforts to kill municipal broadband efforts nationwide, the full extent of which Comcast concealed from its shareholders for years.

In a 2014 Washington Post article, Cohen was unrepentant about his use of all of D.C.’s dark arts, including donating millions of company dollars to not just re-election campaigns, but think tanks across the political spectrum like the Aspen Institute, Brookings Institution, and American Enterprise Institute.

“To effectively advocate for the company, you need to have a presence, you need to have relationships, and you need to participate in the fabric of what goes on in Washington,” Cohen said. Another political operative quoted in the story, Michael Meehan, is even blunter. “Shoe leather lobbying gets you only so far. Then it’s think tanks that write white papers, and white papers are taken by shoe-leather lobbyists into the congressional offices.”

These tactics have rightly attracted press attention and outrage when Big Tech has utilized them in recent years. But as with many things attributed to them, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple did not actually innovate how to pull Washington’s strings.

Like any capable corporate lobbyist, Cohen has also donated to both Democrats and Republicans. The same day that the White House announced Cohen’s ambassadorship, the Post reported that (surprise!) Comcast cares about its bottom line more than democracy. Three months after it declared Georgia’s racist, Jim Crow–style voting restriction law “inconsistent with our values,” Comcast resumed donating in full force to state GOP leaders, including Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. (Up until this week’s nomination, Cohen was still an adviser to Comcast.)

If Biden is emerging as an anti-monopoly president, then why is he rewarding Cohen, a fixer for one of the go-to examples of monopoly power in America? More importantly, if he hopes to redeem American democracy from Trumpism, why is Biden rewarding the political strategist for a company that does not care about basic voting rights, especially for Black people?

As with all things Biden, there’s a personal angle. The same day that he announced his presidential candidacy in April 2019, Biden attended his first high-dollar fundraiser at Cohen’s house in Philadelphia. Cohen went on to become one of Biden’s most generous bundlers, the high-dollar donors who not only max out their own contributions, but persuade all their rich friends to max out to a candidate too. Cohen and Comcast are both based in Philadelphia, which resonates for the Scrantonite Biden … and let him follow the letter of his pledge not to take money from federal lobbyists at that day one fundraiser, since Cohen was technically only registered to lobby in Pennsylvania.

So Biden is rewarding a lobbyist he’s known for years. But Cohen’s nomination is also part of a troubling trend. Biden is continuing one of the oldest forms of patronage in American politics—offering cushy ambassadorships to well-connected political allies.

Alongside Cohen, Biden announced Jamie Harpootlian as ambassador to Slovenia. Harpootlian’s husband Dick is a state senator and former Democratic Party chair in South Carolina, and a longtime Biden ally. The couple donated extensively to Biden’s campaign and his Unite The Country super PAC. Even more striking was when Biden nominated Obama interior-secretary-turned-Big-Oil-lawyer Ken Salazar to be ambassador to Mexico. Salazar was also a major Biden campaign bundler. Under his watch at Interior, Salazar approved dozens of new offshore oil rigs, even in the middle of the Deepwater Horizon crisis when deadly gallons of oil poured into the Gulf shared by the United States and the nation he’s newly dispatched to. (The oil drilling approvals on public lands have increased under the Biden administration, much to everyone’s surprise.)

For the most part, political ambassadors are sent to closely allied nations, so there’s less danger of some rich idiot jeopardizing global politics. (Although Canadians might want to watch out for any trade deals coming their way.) What this means, however, is that the American public ends up subsidizing what’s essentially a multiyear vacation for the well-connected under the guise of patriotic service to their country. It’s a much-desired status symbol among the donor class, who’ve prompted a number of articles about their frustration with Biden’s slow pace of doling out the goods.

It’s hilarious to read anonymous socialites get huffy at the president the same way they get huffy at a barista taking too long to finish their sugary lattes. But that does little to alleviate the harms to faith in government caused by such a system.

As I wrote for the Independent Media Institute in May, the most satisfying realpolitik justification for these ambassadorships I’ve heard is that it’s a least-bad outcome: If big donors and influential allies won’t show up in the next election cycle unless they get some sort of a reward, better to have them enjoying beachside dinners as ambassadors than extracting actual policy in the Capitol … or worse, making it from a Cabinet post.

But that’s a false choice, one that treats our money-driven and cliquish political culture like it’s immutable. Biden could, in other words, just not give Cohen, or Harpootlian, or Salazar anything. He might risk their financial support in the next election cycle, but our leaders are supposed to care about higher ideals than that (furthermore, it’s unclear that, above a certain threshold, differences in fundraising make that big a difference—Trump, after all, outraised Biden). Elizabeth Warren actually proposed exactly that policy in the 2020 primary, writing, “I won’t give ambassadorial posts to wealthy donors or bundlers—period.” She called on the other candidates in the race to make the same pledge. Biden did not.

Cohen’s nomination is thus as unsurprising as it is infuriating. And while the U.S. ambassador to Canada may not have much power over anti-monopoly policy, Biden’s failure to see a contradiction between appointing an antitrust crusader like Kanter and a Comcast lobbyist within two days may be a worrying indication that he sees the antitrust revival as a narrow “tech issue,” rather than a broader critique of American political economy. That Cohen’s nomination comes before Biden has named someone to fill the vacant seat on the Federal Communications Commission only compounds the concern.

In any case, if we’re going to have purely political ambassadorships, Biden could at least lean into it. Let’s make Marianne Williamson ambassador to the Netherlands or something. If ambassadors are just rich people we hire to throw parties all day, we might as well pick someone who’s fun.

PHOTO: “City Year Summer Academy – 2010” by cityyear is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2020 Election/TransitionForeign PolicyRevolving Door

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