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Opinion My big problem with Andrew Yang

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in Washington on Jan. 16. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

When talking about changes in the economy, their impact on American workers, the failure of government to address myriad problems facing the country and his proposals to address them, Andrew Yang is as clear as he is adamant about his ability to get things done. But when it comes to race and its impact on his ambitious goals, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is disappointingly silent. And when I pushed him on it, he was stunningly naive.

Yang sat for an hour-long interview on Jan. 16 with The Post’s editorial board where he held forth on his “Freedom Dividend.” That’s Yang’s proposal to “put $1,000 a month into the hands of every American adult.” My ears perked up when he said the Freedom Dividend would be given “as a right of citizenship.” Perhaps I was especially sensitive to that phrasing because I had just interviewed Jonathan Metzl about his book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland.”

Using compelling data and focus-group interviews, Metzl argues and shows how white people are willing to die rather than be connected to or finance policies which they believe are giving resources to people they view as undeserving. The point of my question was to get Yang to talk about race and the racial divisions that President Trump gleefully exacerbates. And I wanted him to address how he would surmount the obstacles those divisions present to get his agenda passed.

Yang just wouldn’t go there. Instead, he engaged in some magical thinking about the power of his election and the power of $1,000. Read his entire response for yourself and then I’ll say more on the other side.

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Read or listen to the full transcript of the Editorial Board’s meeting with Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang: Sure. So none of you had heard of me eight, 10 months ago, I’d imagine. And I’m sitting here having outperformed half a dozen sitting senators, governors, members of Congress. And so you have to ask yourself, how did that happen? And it happened because I’m laser-focused on the real problems that Americans see around us every day, many of which led directly to Donald Trump being elected. Right now, I’m fifth in the polls, rising, fastest-growing candidate or campaign in the race.
So if we follow this through, I surprise in Iowa, perform extraordinarily well in New Hampshire, I become president of the United States in 2021, everyone would know that I won on the Freedom Dividend because that’s my signature proposal. Americans decided that $1,000 a month in cash is pretty great. And so then as president, I’m there celebrating with Democrats and progressives because they’re just thrilled we’ve beaten Donald Trump. They realized it was a bit of a bet, but it worked. And here we are.
And then the Republicans and conservatives in Congress will look up and say, “Wait a minute, how do I feel about this dividend? A lot of people in my district seem very excited about it. The one state that’s had a dividend for almost 40 years, Alaska, is a deep-red conservative state and it was passed by a Republican governor. This is a big win for rural areas that are struggling and red states on the interior that have gotten blasted by automation.” And so we just need some of these Republican congressmen to say, “I am for the dividend because I’m for economic freedom.” And if you get a majority, then you can pass it. Now, can you get all of them? Almost certainly not. But this is a law like any other. So you don’t need a supermajority. You just need a congressional majority to pass the bill.
Jonathan Capehart: I mean, one could argue that when President [Barack] Obama came into office, he was laser-focused on getting health care to as many people as possible. And Obamacare passed, but those Republicans, no Republican voted for it in the House. I’m having a hard time seeing how you’re going to break the fever that President Obama thought he was going to do in 2012 simply by your election. How are you going to convince the Americans who are literally willing to die or or stay in dire economic circumstances simply because policies that you’d want to put into place and others want to put into place would benefit someone else?
Yang: I think that the attitude you are describing, while it does apply to a certain subset of Americans, applies to a very, very low proportion of them. And I’m confident of this because when I campaign around the country, at every event I go to, someone comes up to me in the line afterwards and says, “I voted for Donald Trump. This time I’m voting for you.” One survey in New Hampshire said that 10 percent of the voters who voted for Trump would vote for me over Trump in the general election. Another survey said that 18 percent of college Republicans would choose me over the president. Now, this is not everyone. But this is enough. You don’t need to convert 80 percent of the president’s followers. You need to convert, let’s call it 20 percent. So this attitude that you’re describing is very real. But I believe that it does not contain 100 percent of the folks who voted for Donald Trump. And I know this because, again, they come to me at my events every single time and say, “You’re my candidate this time.”.
I also believe I’m somewhat different from some of the other Democrats in the field. And I can’t speak to Obama, but I’ve been on Fox News any number of times. I’ll talk to anyone. And one friend of mine, whose mother is an avid Fox [News] viewer, said that Yang is the only Democrat I would support because he is the only one who does not seem to be judging me. That is enough for us to get a critical mass of Donald Trump supporters to get around a solution that would dramatically improve their way of life. They can see it.
The second argument I’d make is that cash is much, much harder to demonize than health care. If you go to a conservative in Kentucky and say “the government wants to take over your health care,” you can get people very, very upset about that. If you say, “hey, this cash is going to hurt you,” it’s going to be tougher. I mean, there might be some someone there who’s like, “yeah, the cash is going to hurt me,” but others would be like, “Wait a minute, they do this in Alaska. If I got that money, I think I’d be very productive with it. Sure, some of my neighbors less so, but, you know, first things first.” So we can get Americans on board because it’s such a simple, straightforward vision of citizenship.
And I’ve run organizations for decades now. And what I say to people, is this. There are three ways you can treat human beings who work in your organization. No 1, you do nothing, then they leave you within a year. No. 2, you tell them how great they are. That lasts for about a year, and then they leave you before the second year. The third thing you can do is you invest in them. You compensate them. You give them raises, and you genuinely value them and then they’ll stay with you forever. Right now in the United States of America, we’re doing some combination of one and two with our kids. We’re saying, “Hey, things are great. You can vote.” They don’t really believe it. If you could look at every parent who could then look at their children and say, “when you turn 18, you’re going to get $1,000 a month from your country because your country loves you, your country values you, and we are investing in you,” that is a game changer for Americans of every political party. And there are many people in red states who are already embracing this vision. I know, because I see them every day.

To believe that a President Yang would get Republicans and conservatives in Congress to support his Freedom Dividend because they are “for economic freedom” is ridiculous. He must have been asleep for the entirety of the Obama presidency, which was a master class in Republican resistance taught by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Republican Party even opposed policies they once supported simply because Obama proposed them.

Next, it’s great that “an avid Fox viewer” likes him because “he is the only one who does not seem to be judging me.” Fox News is a haven of white grievance and race hysteria. Could it be that that person doesn’t feel judged because Yang isn’t saying anything that would make that viewer remotely uncomfortable? Did he decry family separation? Did he rain righteous thunder down upon those jailing babies at the border? Did he say federal money being spent by Trump on policies that pervert our national moral character would be redirected to his Freedom Dividend? (Disclosure: I’m a contributor for MSNBC.)

What I wanted to hear from Yang was an acknowledgement of the menacing racial climate in America today. I wanted him to decry the racism and xenophobia flowing from the White House and how it manifests itself in American life. And I wanted him to then argue how, despite such malevolent forces, he would realistically surmount the opposition to get his agenda from proposal to passage. Saying “cash is much, much harder to demonize than health care” completely ignores decades of battles over other forms of cash from the federal government — such as welfare, tax credits and housing assistance.

The 2020 presidential election isn’t just about the economic pain masked by a soaring stock market. It’s not just about other needs that have gone unaddressed. Because of the damage wrought by Trump, the forthcoming election is also about the character of our country and the soul of our nation. What good is $1,000 a month “because your country loves you” if the president who promised it is blind to the fact that he is presiding over a nation whose core problems are priceless?

America needs more than a check. It needs a return of moral leadership in the White House and moral authority from the Oval Office. It needs a president unafraid to address the racial wounds worsened by Trump, if only to allow his agenda to get a fair hearing. Yang has yet to show that he is that person.

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Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang says he'll build a "dream team" of "tremendous people" to solve U.S. and international problems. (Video: The Washington Post)

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