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Blue The Nation | April 19, 2014

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Why is Ro Khanna REALLY Running For Office?

Why is Ro Khanna REALLY Running For Office?
Jonathan Nathan

Silicon Valley’s latest fiscal-conservative Manchurian candidate is Ro Khanna. Khanna is challenging longtime Representative Mike Honda. Both are Democrats on paper, but Honda has an actual track record of progressive votes; Khanna has a track record of being very close to the libertarian-leaning tech industry, and uses many of the well-worn code phrases of the Republican Party when talking about social spending or the economy. Khanna is a social liberal, but it’s easy for him to be a social liberal. It’s not like it takes guts to be in favor of marriage equality when you live in the Bay Area.

The narrative that Khanna has been pushing has been noticeably light on issue-based substance and heavy on puffery. He talks a lot about Ro Khanna, rather than about issues, lovingly painting a portrait of himself as a post-partisan unifier in the mold of Barack Obama (conveniently forgetting that post-partisan unity didn’t work when Barack tried it.) And when he does talk about the issues, he does so in language that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever had to slog through a conversation with some techie about his startup. Long on buzzwords, short on substance.

His henchpeople, however, have been much less polite. It’s hard to find anything on the web that’s critical of Khanna, but when you do, you’ll be struck by the quickness with which his army of commenters descends to defend the honor of their man. It’s very clear that they’re being paid to do this, and are probably Khanna campaign staffers, because they use the same talking points over and over in a way that real grassroots supporters never do. I mean, I have yet to see a Khanna supporter with poor grammar and spelling. If every single one of your supporters has impeccable command of the language, you’re astroturfing.

Their talking points invariably involve attacks on Mike Honda for not having sponsored much legislation that was passed and vague ideas about how “new blood” is needed in Congress. Occasionally, in some of the older comment threads, one of them would veer off-message enough to admit that Khanna isn’t a progressive, but they don’t do that anymore. But it gets me thinking: why, exactly, is Ro Khanna running for office? And why are his supporters backing him? Let’s take a look at where his campaign website says he stands on the issues and compare it with Mike Honda’s record and statements.

“When I am in Congress, I will work to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare benefits promised to those who already receive them – or who are going to receive them – will not be reduced.”

On the surface, this sentence seems solidly in line with the Democratic Party platform, but it’s oddly constructed. Notice that Khanna has to go out of his way to include “or who are going to receive them,” because otherwise the sentence reads very Republican. Talking about “benefits already promised” is a code phrase that means “we should keep Social Security and Medicare for current seniors but phase it out for future generations.” Khanna makes a deliberate choice to construct his sentence this way; on the one hand, he gets to use the code phrase, but he also gets to distance himself from it. Unfortunately for him, what he actually says out on the campaign trail never includes that second piece. Over and over again, he talks about “benefits promised” but doesn’t talk about benefits for future generations.

In fact, in the very next sentence, he betrays his true colors: “Even as we work to ensure the long-term financing of Social Security and Medicare, it is not fair to change the rules on those who paid into those programs for years and who are counting on those benefits to see them through their retirement years.” (emphasis added)

He’s not talking about me. He’s not even talking about people in their forties. He’s talking about senior citizens. He’s talking about preserving Social Security for the people who currently vote based on issues like Social Security. He reiterates this again when he criticizes–rightly, but for the wrong reasons–the Obama “chained CPI” plan: “This would reduce benefits for current recipients, which I oppose.” Again, he opposes reducing benefits for current recipients. The idea is that if you phase out Social Security for future generations, they’ll never miss what they never had to begin with and you won’t be punished for it. It’s a classic Republican approach.

Mike Honda, on the other hand, has a progressive voting record on Social Security and Medicare. Per VoteSmart.org, he has logged numerous votes against measures to cut the programs and for measures to bolster, strengthen, and protect them. So right off the bat, we can see that Ro Khanna wants to run for office so he can cripple Social Security for future recipients. But why do his supporters, who presumably do not grasp this, agree with him on this issue? On the one hand you have a reliable progressive vote on these issues already in office; on the other hand you have a guy who, even if you take his words at face value, certainly isn’t saying anything that his opponent isn’t saying.

“Global economic competitiveness begins not in the marketplace, but in schools.”

Khanna, like many education “reformers,” places a high value on the STEM subjects (basically math and science.) He proposes “tax incentives and federal support for those who choose to become math and science teachers,” and even claims that such programs could teachers out of people who would otherwise have gone on to lucrative private sector careers. This is a ludicrous notion, but kind of adorable. He then pays lip service to the idea of bolstering arts education as well, but it should be noted that he offers no actual proposals for how to do so, which suggests that he doesn’t really care about arts education. This is disappointing, but not shocking, and he’s hardly alone in that.

But it’s one casual bit of phrasing that is most troubling here. Just after the part where he talks about expanding the pool of educators by incentivizing careers in education, he offers this: “We also should insist that they have the proper credentialing and are reviewed by their peers.”

It’s the “reviewed by their peers” that’s problematic. That’s straight out of the playbook of people like Michelle Rhee and that guy who made that documentary (which was later debunked) about how public schools suck and charter schools are great (37% of charters perform worse than public schools and 46% perform at basically the same level.) This more conservative code-phrasing, and what it really means is “Let’s tear apart teachers’ unions, the tenure system, and any semblance of job security for educators.”

Honda, on the other hand, has long been a strong ally of organized labor, and the teachers’ unions are no exception to that alliance. Additionally, he voted for the College Student Relief Act of 2007, which would have reduced interest rates for student borrowers, and he’s co-sponsored numerous bills on student privacy, student loan rates, and student aid.

“Ensuring the Internet remains an open platform means that America must re-double its commitment to combating censorship, preventing cyber-attacks, and protecting privacy rights.”

Pretty hard to argue with any of this. Which is why Mike Honda doesn’t. He was an outspoken critic of SOPA and PIPA and has been a more staunch advocate for net neutrality than almost anyone. His voting record on the subject bears this out. Obviously Khanna can’t compete with a voting record, nor would anyone expect him to be able to, but this again begs the question: why are people supporting a challenger who, even when his words are taken at face value, has not distinguished any of his viewpoints from those of the incumbent?

“As a Board Member of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, I strongly believe that all women should have access to reproductive health care.  We should stand up for choice, birth control, and sex education.”

As I’ve said before, it’s easy to be a social liberal in the Bay Area. It doesn’t take guts to support women’s rights when you live around here. That said, there’s certainly nothing objectionable in Khanna’s women’s rights viewpoints, but yet again, that doesn’t set him apart from the incumbent. Mike Honda has a 100% rating on his voting record from Planned Parenthood. You can’t get more pro-choice than that, as a Congressman.

“LGBTQ individuals deserve full and equal rights.”

Of course they do. And Honda has done quite a bit to help them get those rights. Khanna’s minions often decry the incumbent for not writing a lot of legislation that has gotten passed, but this demonstrates a lack of understanding of how Congress actually works. A member does not have to write, introduce, or co-sponsor a certain number of bills to be influential. Many of the most influential members almost never do any of that, because they’re too busy with actual leadership. A guy like Steny Hoyer isn’t going to have a lot of time to write bills because he’s the Minority Whip.

So it is with Mike Honda, who has been one of the central figures in the fight to get the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed. He also took point on fighting the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. As for writing legislation, he was the guy who wrote the Reuniting Families Act, which would extend immigration-related rights and privileges to LGBT couples.

“We need to keep moving forward, however, until care is universally available, with a higher assurance of quality and with more control on costs.”

On health care, Khanna engages in his usual equivocation. He espouses progressive ethics but when it comes time to address solutions, he’s got a lot of big ideas that lack real definition. Still, there’s nothing specifically objectionable here except that he doesn’t support a single-payer system. Mike Honda does, and has co-sponsored a bill to establish such a system numerous times. Advantage: Honda.

“I firmly believe that all government action involving the environment must face the scrutiny of a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.”

I’m not sure I like the sound of that, but to be fair, it’s the only piece of Khanna’s environmental policy statement with which I find fault. But yet again, he’s a day late and a dollar short when compared with a sitting Congressman who has an actual record upon which to run. Honda’s done a lot on environmental issues. Khanna is, at this point, just talk.

“We should make sure that anyone with a graduate degree in engineering or technology, or anyone starting a company, gets a green card.  It’s that simple.”

That’s all well and good, but what about everybody else who wants to come here. Khanna says absolutely nothing about other prospective immigrants. Why should anyone be denied a green card, provided he or she is not a danger to society? Why do people with the resources and privilege to have a graduate degree in engineering or technology have more of a claim on Americanness than other potential immigrants? Khanna does mention currently undocumented immigrants and deigns to offer them a “path to citizenship.” I think I’ve adequately explained, in the past, why I dislike that term and disagree with those who advocate for it.

“We cannot afford partisan gridlock and the same old ideas about our economy.”

Ah, yes. At long last, we arrive at the real reason Ro Khanna is running for office: economic deregulation. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the tech industry, which is where almost all of his material and moral support is coming from. The tech industry has become obsessed with “market disruption,” which usually means skirting or breaking the law. Think Uber and Lyft, which openly flout laws designed to protect riders from shady operators, substandard vehicles, and straight-up violent attacks. Think about all the tech-industry-backed food trucks that keep trying to circumvent regulations that protect consumers from unsafe food preparation.

This is what the tech industry has become: a cult of Ayn Rand devotees who see themselves as “makers” unfairly burdened by “takers” and government regulators. Google’s Larry Page recently remarked, “There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal, or they’re not allowed by regulation.” And no less a conservative luminary than Senator Orrin Hatch told TIME’s Michael Scherer, “[Techies] are terrific human beings, but a lot of them, because their wives are pro-abortion, think they have to be Democrats.” In other words, they’re social liberals and fiscal conservatives.

When Khanna decries “partisan gridlock,” he’s again using code phrasing, this time taking a page not from the Republican playbook but from the Blue Dog Democrat playbook. Conservative Democrats love to take the “blame both sides” angle, pretending to be above the partisan fray when in reality they’re just on the other side of it. Khanna knows he can’t just go to Congress and magically make people get along; Congress doesn’t work that way. John Boehner won’t allow a vote on a bill unless it has support from a majority of his Republican caucus; Ro Khanna can’t deliver that kind of support and he knows that. What he’s saying when he talks about “partisan gridlock” is that he’ll be a reliable vote for the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests.

“We need to recognize that other nations are offering tax incentives, free land, and free rent,” Khanna concern-trolls, “to lure away American businesses and manufacturers.” Well that’s very nice, sir, but I can’t help but notice that you never talk about tax relief for the middle class. You never talk about expanding the social safety net, at least not with new government spending. You’re all for spending taxpayer money on businesses, but you’re not as interested in spending it on the actual taxpayers who need help.

“We should provide tax incentives for long-term capital investments in innovation, start-ups, and manufacturing,” Khanna continues. Gee, I thought the incentive to invest in things was that there might be a return. How much better do we have to make it? Is it really that hard for techies to find investors to spend money on their dumb ideas? There were enough investors to start BarTrendr and Pinchit, for Godsakes.

And on and on and on. “Pro-growth agenda.” “Innovation.” “Entrepreneurship.” You know the drill. It’s all a bunch of stuff that sounds nice if you don’t know what it really means. And I think it’s very interesting that Khanna’s thoughts on his “pro-growth agenda” make up by far the largest entry in the “Issues” section of his campaign website. That’s because this is the real purpose of his campaign.

Ro Khanna wants to be a Congressman because he wants to defeat a reliable liberal Democrat and replace him with a reliable techie libertarian. Plain and simple.

  • Philip Bralich

    pbralich is running for CA’s 17th against Ro Khanna and Mike Honda, see his platform at http://uncleverne.com

    • JonathanNathan

      Why is Philip Bralich talking about himself in the third person?

      • Philip Bralich

        Just for ease of reference to my twitter acct @pbralich.

        • JonathanNathan

          I have to say that while I don’t necessarily disagree with much of your platform, I view the central issue of this race as being the need to keep Ro Khanna out of Congress. Mike Honda represents the best chance to do that.

          • Philip Bralich

            Honestly, I PRETTY MUCH agree with you. If I were not running I would vote for Honda myself as he is a quiet but very effective, main stream democrat, and we need a LOT more of them. However, Ro Khanna is only one small instance of a very serious problem in SIlicon Valley. I am the man for that. Honda is not 25 anymore. Jimmy Panetta, a connected and talented DA is looking at 2016. Let me do the shake up, Honda retire, and Panetta take the 2016.

  • Philip Bralich

    I am going to have to stop breezing thru your stuff and start reading it more thoroughly. It is very well written, insightful and informative. I think it also provides a sound argument against Khanna tho I am unsure if it will go out far enough in the 17th. I wonder if you might take a look at my posts on abortion, devil weed, heterophobia, and women in the workplace at http://www.uncleverne.com/241558696.