Mistakes We Should Not Repeat: Part 1

Mistake 1: Not Looking Back.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris accomplished what we Democrats yearned for over four long dark years: they defeated the most dangerous and destructive president in modern history. Now they face the task of building back, better. It is an enormous challenge that will require support and honest counsel from fellow Democrats, as well as an honest assessment of past mistakes.

Democrats, including us progressives, possess some unhelpful traits. We can be a herd of cats. We can fixate on process and rules, while our opponents amass power. We can create purity-testing circular firing squads, splintering over differences in ways that impede our own victory. We see our struggle as one over policy, without giving due to the tough, seasoned, complex, dark-money-funded apparatus that opposes us.

The traits of victory are the traits we should pursue, and we should take particular warning from recent mistakes. I would flag four mistakes of our most recent administration — the Obama Administration. To the extent those mistakes arose from simple lack of will and aversion to conflict , those are easy traits to overcome. There are innumerable sins to criticize in the grim record of the Trump administration, but lack of will or aversion to conflict are not among them. Perhaps the only useful lesson from the disastrous Trump administration: we can fight a lot harder. When something matters, fight for it like it matters.

1. Not Looking Back.

The newly elected Obama administration decided that it was going to look forward not back, and step out into a new and glad post-partisan future. Republicans laughed as they garroted that effort, and gleefully and immediately dedicated themselves to neutering the Obama administration. But they also breathed a joyful sigh of relief as they realized there would be no accountability for the torture program and the bodyguard of lies surrounding it; for climate obstruction and the falsehoods upon which it stood; for the dishonorable conduct of industry hacks put into positions of public authority; or for the deceit that launched us into a bloody, trillion-dollar war.

This free pass was a message to the future that surely emboldened Trump administration flunkies as they took power and began to work their evil deeds in government. The Trump administration was orders of magnitude worse than the Bush administration in most areas; the only improvement over Bush — and no small one — is that Trump did not start a futile war on false pretenses. The Trump years of corruption have been out of historic bounds and require investigation. No more “no looking back.”

I’m a prosecutor. I am acutely sensitive to the abuses to which prosecutorial power can be put. But well within the lines protecting against that abuse are responsible public investigations that should and must be done. Where do government whistleblowers go with files and stories they were scared to disclose under the dark misrule of Trump? There should be a special legislative oversight committee to accept such evidence and report publicly on misdeeds and on how to improve agency defenses against corruption. The Department of Justice has taken a particularly savage battering. A panel of distinguished federal judges and Department alumni, attuned to the Department’s long-held principles and norms, should assist the new Attorney General in a review dedicated specifically to that unique Department, supported by the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility. How do you build back better without rigorous assessment of the damage that was done? Careful examination and diagnosis improves the cure and the healing.

Why did bipartisan climate action stop in 2010, and who has been behind the devilishly effective campaign of climate denial and obstruction run through so many front groups and identity-laundering intermediaries? It has put our well-being at very grave risk. It was in essence a covert op run in and against our own country. A high-level independent commission should take a deep public look at whether — and if so, how — our government was corrupted by private forces. Civil lawsuits where merited can also yield hidden evidence for the public to see, as can certain regulatory proceedings. All of it needs to be done.

Democracy depends on an educated and engaged citizenry, and nothing is more engaging and educational than to find out how you were deceived and robbed. To walk away from exposing these misdeeds is not an act of responsible bipartisanship, it’s a disservice to citizens who deserve the truth. And it hinders our ability to move forward responsibly and build back better. After the many debacles of the Trump years, there’s no choice now but to look back.

Check back next week for Mistake #2.

U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, the Ocean State.

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