Rejoining the World | Crooked Media
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April 09, 2021
Positively Dreadful
Rejoining the World

In This Episode

This week on Rubicon, Brian Beutler talks to Crooked Media’s own Tommy Vietor about the challenges President Biden will face fixing the damage Trump did around the world, and how he can unite global leaders around a series of climate goals. They also discuss Biden’s first major foreign-policy steps, like ordering airstrikes in Syria, trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, and reining in public and corporate corruption.




[clip of President Biden] Folks, the people of this nation have spoken, they’ve delivered us a clear victory. . . Tonight, we’re seeing all over this nation . . . indeed across the world, an outpouring of joy, of hope, renewed faith in tomorrow to bring a better day.


Brian Beutler: Imagine things had gone a bit differently. What if Joe Biden had won the election, but that’s it. No Georgia runoffs, no Senate majority, no American Rescue Plan, no long debates over budget reconciliation or the filibuster or voting rights. The gulf between that world and this one is almost too vast to fathom. But we came so, so close to living in it. What would Biden’s presidency have looked like then? Well, for one thing, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Biden’s legislative legacy. With Congress gridlocked, Biden would have had to make more use of his executive powers, and Democrats would probably devote more resources to Trump accountability. The only part of the story that might have proceeded unchanged is in the sphere of foreign policy. That’s where, for better and worse, the president’s powers are greatest and least reviewable. And with much less news on the legislative front to absorb, we would have taken greater notice of some pretty big developments. Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord. He’s begun the process of trying to salvage the deal to denuclearize Iran. His administration has set about exposing international corruption, and hopes to establish a global minimum corporate tax, depriving multinational firms of the power to dodge civic responsibilities in the countries where they operate. Biden may even join a multilateral boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, in a global mass protest of the Uighur genocide and other human rights abuses. Less auspiciously, Biden declined to sanction Mohammed bin Salman for ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


[news clip] The administration rolled out new visa restrictions and some new sanctions for those close to the crown prince, but no punishment for the one person we now know was behind Khashoggi’s murder.


Brian Beutler: He ordered an airstrike in Syria and has slow-walked a promised withdrawal from Afghanistan.


[clip of President Biden] It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline, in terms of tactical reasons it’s hard to get those troops out. But it is not my intention to stay there for a long time.


Brian Beutler: This only scratches the surface. But all of these developments and others fit into a larger story and a more abstract series of challenges. Can Biden restore America to a position of global leadership? Does he aspire to make that leadership a worthier thing than it has been historically? What does the world look like without it? Biden has talked a lot about the importance of conducting foreign policy on a multilateral basis,


[clip of Joe Biden] I’ll be a president who will stand with our allies and friends and make it clear to our adversaries: the days of cozying up to dictators is over . . . and I’ll always stand for our values of human rights and dignity. I’ll work in common purpose for more secure, peaceful and prosperous world.


Brian Beutler: But we’re only a few weeks beyond the Trump presidency, and nothing is stopping Trump from running again. With that looming in the back of their minds, will other leaders partner with Biden? Or did their experience of the Trump years shake their faith in American commitment to allies, to Western democracy, to the very notion of representative government? My guest this week is Tommy Vietor. Before he was Pod Saving America and the World, he served as a spokesman for President Obama’s National Security Council. He’s here to discuss whether American global leadership is salvageable, how Biden can save it, whether it’s worth salvaging at all. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.


Brian Beutler: Great to see you, man.


Tommy Vietor: You too, buddy. And I love the conversation with Perry Bacon in particular. Was that last week?


Brian Beutler: Oh! Yeah, that was last week. He’s so smart.


Tommy Vietor: The kind of—the lack of certainty came through in a way that didn’t on like some of the other writing about this. You know, I mean. Humility.


Brian Beutler: I don’t know if you caught a piece he wrote probably a couple of months ago—


Tommy Vietor: Yes.


Brian Beutler: It was all about that. Is like the problem with certainty and trying to be a predictor in punditry.  Like a good analyst in politics starts with the assumption that you have no fucking clue what’s going to happen, and go from there.


Tommy Vietor: See?


Brian Beutler: But don’t get the clicks that way, though.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah. You don’t get the clicks.


Brian Beutler: All right. So I want to rewind a bit by thinking back to the Democratic primary. And do you remember what you thought the foreign policy stakes were? Particularly, I guess, between Biden and Bernie Sanders?


Tommy Vietor: You know, God, it was so underemphasized that, you know, it was more—the stakes were more narrow and specific on issues. You know, like the one that really jumps out to me in my memory is the willingness to put pressure on the Israeli government over annexation of the West Bank. A whole bunch of candidates came out and said they would be willing to consider conditioning aid to Israel if annexation occurred. I think Biden was unwilling to even suggest that they would consider sort of a carrot and stick approach that would involve conditioning. So I think that was something that stood out to me pretty clearly.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. Well, so Biden wins the primary with, I guess you could say, a more conventional—in DC terms anyway— view of global politics, and then we’re in the general election. What did you think of as the foreign policy stakes of that election?


Tommy Vietor: I mean, I thought the stakes of the general election were essentially like the continuation of U.S. democracy or not. You know what I mean? It felt that fundamental just in terms of our commitment to our our own values and our democracy here.


[clips of President Trump] You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? . . . Look, we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy. We have to stand . . . I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but uh, I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today, and what he did is . . . But you also had people that were very fine people—on both sides! You had people in that group, excuse me, excuse me . . .


Tommy Vietor: We were sending the absolute wrong message to everyone around the world. Then you were starting to see countries, you know, invade places that they might not have if they’d actually had pressure, do things that were—like crimes against humanity. Like Trump had basically stopped talking about human rights abroad, Right? Like John Bolton, his former national security adviser wrote in his book that Donald Trump told President Xi Jinping of China that building concentration camps for like a million+ Uighurs and reeducating them—which is the, you know, the sort of sanded-down version of what’s happening there, it’s a cultural genocide—he told Xi Jinping that that was the right thing to do. Right? So it’s not just that like human rights issues were underemphasized. So, like, those were the stakes to me.


Brian Beutler: So it sounds like the proposition on the table is something like: if Biden wins, he gets to pick up the pieces of a bunch of shattered alliances and a corrupted foreign policy, and then have to convince the world that the US hadn’t sort of fundamentally changed despite everything Trump did. Whereas if Trump had won, you know, who knows where it would have ended, but we would have been further down the line of the U.S. forming a partnership among global autocracies, in rivalry with European democracies, which are kind of in their own fragile state.


Tommy Vietor: I think that’s exactly right. I mean, listen, we are all accustomed to the post-World War II global world order where, you know, the U.N. has been a key actor in a lot of debates and conflicts, where NATO is a global alliance structure that we value and lean on and see as critical to global security. We have all these alliances in Asia. And for some reason, Trump just slowly walked away from all of those alliances, right? I mean, he refused to recommit to Article 5, which is the provision in the NATO charter that says an attack on one country is an attack on all, basically you know the fact the US would come to the defense of NATO country if attacked—which essentially just unravels the entire alliance. So, yeah, I mean, he basically was walking away from the key alliances that every president since World War II has leaned on. And he was oddly a big fan of berating leaders of democracies, especially women. Right? So like you could see that a lot of countries, whether we’re talking Europe or Asia, we’re trying to figure out what a post-United States path might look like for themselves, when they just couldn’t depend on us anymore.


Brian Beutler: I was kind of raised on a on a Sanders-esque critique of U.S. military hegemony, and I still hope that in my lifetime, someone with Sanders’s doubts about the way U.S. wields its power in the world, institutes a more humble, confident approach to US global leadership. But I, I kind of think that in practice, what Trump showed is that the proposition on the table right now isn’t whether America will be a big imperial power or not, but whether we’ll use imperial power for the most base corrupt purposes, or whether at least some higher values will be driving things. And when you serve up that choice, a lot of the higher-minded critiques of US foreign policy kind of drain away.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, I mean, look, you and I kind of like came up in politics during the Iraq War, the run up to the Iraq War, right? And I think, you know, when you look at the damage that conflict did to the region and to the entire world, it’s hard not to have a ton of sympathy for the leftist critique of U.S. hegemony and U.S. foreign policy. Or when you really dig into the things that the CIA was doing in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s and the coups we’re fomenting and the dictators we were propping up, right? I think I’m kind of like Elizabeth Warren, domestic policy brain and then more of a Bernie Sanders foreign policy brain—which might surprise people since I worked for Obama, who’s called a neo-liberal. But, you know, I think there are areas where the United States has and will continue to provide indispensable leadership. For example, I think that if the US is not out leading the charge on climate change, we will not met any of the targets we need to meet to prevent the planet from melting. I think if the US is not in front leading the charge on getting developing nations vaccines and improving vaccine equity, then no one will do it. So like there is a clear role for the US to play in the world. That doesn’t have to be a militarized one, though, and I think that’s kind of the key distinction.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. So Biden talks a lot about foreign policy as a as a matter of relationships, and specifically about his own longstanding relationships with a lot of global leaders today. So as relieved as some of them might have been to see Biden win and now I have a familiar face back in charge in the U.S., do you have any sense of how rattled they were by Trump, and whether the experience of living through the Trump presidency is complicating Biden’s efforts to work multilaterally with them? Like, are they suspicious?


Tommy Vietor: It’s a great question. I’ve wondered it myself. I would imagine that there will be countries, there will be partners, who feel sufficiently burned by the US walking away from promises or alliances that they’ll rethink, like forging ties that close. I’ll be honest with you, I would be surprised if are that many countries that feel that way. I mean, most countries understand that like, US political leadership changes and that, you know, our approach to foreign policy can change with it. I do suspect that there’s a lot of relief among traditional allies and partners, you know, like countries like Australia, countries like, you know, Germany. Right? Who like for no reason, Donald Trump just loved kicking around Angela Merkel, who has been the stalwart leader in Europe for like a decade or more. And so I assume that will be relieved. I think a lot of allies in Asia will be relieved.


Brian Beutler: I kind of interpret everything we’ve talked about thus far to mean that Biden has a couple main overarching tasks. One is convincing peer leaders that he specifically is a trustworthy partner with sound judgment. And the other is convincing them that US democracy is healthy enough, that while party rule may change in the US, we’re not inexorably on a road to kleptocracy, and they can look ahead to the future with the US without wondering if we’re going to scrap alliances with democracies and forge them with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a couple of ways you could, like, quickly summarize, you know, maybe the Trump approach, right? It was it was capricious: one day he would just get mad and tweet about something, and all of a sudden we’d be in a tariff war with China. I think countries like moving on from that. But you’re right to flag this kleptocracy piece, because I think some countries quickly figured out that the way to his heart was through his wallet, and that they could offer personal favors and that would be kind of a new and exciting way for them to do business and get around traditional hurdles that they dealt with when trying to negotiate with the U.S..


Brian Beutler: All right. So then let’s talk about what Biden has done so far, and to what extent they advanced his goals and to what extent they cut against him. It seems like the big faith-restoring steps he’s taken are still works in progress. Like he rejoined the Paris agreement, which I kind of took as a bit of a gimme. But beyond that, he wants to reenter the Iran deal. He wants to reform the 2001 military force authorization. He says he wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. And more recently, he’s—his administration anyways—talked about reviving anticorruption as a foreign policy goal. So what do you make of that list, and how hopeful are you that he’ll accomplish those things?


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, look, I agree with you that rejoining the Paris Climate Accords was both a gimme and also, I think probably largely symbolic. We need to tighten down those targets if we’re really going to prevent some of the most devastating consequences from climate change. That said, I mean, we went from having a president of the United States that rhetorically was to the right of the president of basically every other country when it comes to climate change, to one that is actually committed to it and that is trying to sort of embed climate change in all parts of the US government and all policy making. So I think, you know, ultimately that’s a really good thing. And there were some reports yesterday, Brian, that the US might be considering essentially doubling the targets for emissions reduction. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s like a headline I saw leaked out yesterday.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I saw that, too. And what made me excited about it is that the whole knock on Biden—if you want to call it a knock—is that he’s setting goals he knows he can beat, so that he can, you know, take a victory lap. And it’s like if he’s setting this goal and he beats it, we’re going to be in much better shape than I thought we were going to be in.


Tommy Vietor: Yes, agreed. I mean, and obviously, like, you know, setting goals that you can, you can beat by just being competent and, you know, having people who are like, good at logistics is very different than getting the entire world to switch from using fossil fuels. But I’m with you like, I want to see him set a big ambitious target and do our best to meet it. Right? I mean, like, what else? What is government for, if not that kind of that kind of work?


Brian Beutler: OK, so what about the more like war and peace goals? There’s the Iran deal and the AUMF in particular we’re like the big, big early ones, I think.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah. So, look, there’s finally some progress when it comes to the US reentering the JCPOA, the Iran deal.


Brian, narrating: Hey, it’s Brian here to bring you a quick primer on the Iran deal before Tommy and I get into the details. JCPOA stands for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It’s an agreement between the U.S., Iran, China and other global powers that took effect during the Obama years to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The US initiated the deal and really led the charge to get Iran to sign it. So it was devastating when President Trump pulled out of it, seemingly just to settle scores with President Obama while justifying the decision with lies and propaganda. It essentially let Iran off the hook, and as you’d expect, Iran went right back to enriching uranium. Trump replaced the Iran deal with brutal sanctions on the country, which ultimately hurt everyday Iranians, not their leaders. President Biden wants to revive the Iran deal, but he can’t just do that without acknowledging one way or another that we’re the ones who blew it up in the first place. The deal can only survive in an environment of mutual concessions, which Trump and his loyalists will cite to try to weaken Biden politically at home, while vowing to blow the deal up all over again if they get back into power.


Tommy Vietor: The challenge for Biden is all the usual suspects in Washington, D.C., all the, you know, Gulf country-funded think tanks and right wingers like Tom Cotton, and all these folks are making all the same arguments, which is that: the agreement is flawed, it doesn’t do enough, it doesn’t deal with the fact that Iran supports terrorism, it doesn’t deal with Iran’s human rights record. Right? So they’re trying to lard up the thing and make it so complicated that there’s no way we can pass it. I was a little worried about the delay that, you know, the Biden folks had in terms of just getting back to talks with the Iranians. There has been this dance about sort of who goes first when it comes to reentering the deal. Like the Biden folks want to see the Iranians stop certain enrichment activities. The Iranians say they want sanctions relief first.


[clip Iran spokesman] All the sanctions have to be removed. The United States must gain re-entry to the JCPOA. It’s not automatic. It’s not a revolving door.


Tommy Vietor: It seems like these talks that started this week in Vienna where the Europeans were an intermediary, it seems like they’ve maybe negotiated a framework to get both sides to move simultaneously, which would get us back into the deal. And then once you’re back in the deal, once Iran isn’t enriching more nuclear materials, you can try to negotiate a follow-on agreement, or you can try to negotiate about some of the other areas that the right-wingers want to talk about. But the key thing to know for all the listeners here is that, like the “maximum pressure strategy” that Trump put forward, where he just pulled out of the deal and tried to crush their economy with sanctions, hurt a lot of innocent people in Iran. And now Iran has more enriched nuclear material than they did when they were in the deal. So it was just disastrous failure. So I’m glad to see Biden finally moving forward and trying to get back into the thing.


Brian Beutler: Part of the question about who goes first and how quickly you move is about domestic politics here in the US.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: But there are domestic political considerations in Iran, too, like, as you mentioned the other day, that they have an election coming up later this year. How does that cut? Do you think that the election looming there is something that should speed things along, or is it an impediment to reestablishing the deal?


Tommy Vietor: Oh, it’s a good question. I mean, look, this is the question that we’re all trying to figure out, which is President Rouhani is like, he’s not a moderate in any way, but compared to some of the hardest hardliners in Iran, like the IRGC, the generals, right, he is more moderate than them. He’s termed out. So there will be a new president elected in June. And the question is, who is that person? Do they support any talks with the US? Does the whole country feel sufficiently burned by the US pulling out of the JCPOA that they want to do business with us again? Right? So that to me, creates a bit of a time crunch and a squeeze here, where I’d like to see us just be back in the deal before those elections occur so that, you know, the easiest part of the problem at least feels managed.


Brian, narrating: Coming up, we look at Biden’s plan to stop corporations from cheating on their taxes by using overseas tax shelters. And we tackle the biggest challenge of all, the rapid spread of autocracies around the world. Can Biden style of democracy beat back that tide? When we return.


[ad break]


Brian, narrating:  Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Crooked Media’s Tommy Vietor, and we’re talking about the steps taken by the Bush administration to right the ship on the global stage. One thing we haven’t talked about yet is Biden’s plan to clamp down on international corruption. He wants to tax big corporations that shelter their money overseas, and his administration is sanctioning foreign officials for corrupt practices.


Tommy Vietor: You know, if you look at someone like Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orban, these are autocratic leaders that are propped-up in part by massive corruption, right? Like corruption becomes an anti-democratic force. So I think the thinking is if you can crack down on some of this global corruption, you can, you know, reduce the power of some of these leaders who are using money and using carve-outs and special favors for their friends to stay in charge. There’s also, frankly, the legal corruption. Right? Which is US companies inverting their corporate structures and pretending they, you know, exist in Ireland or whatever to skirt taxes. And, you know, Janet Yellen came out in favor of some steps to crack down that kind of activity. I’m glad they’re putting this forward. It was something Bernie Sanders talked about a lot in the primary, which was great. I’m not exactly sure how it will take shape, but I think it’s an important plank.


Brian Beutler: Is it doable, do you think? Like if—I’ve never been closer than a newspaper article to a global initiative like this, but negotiating a global corporate minimum tax sounds about as complicated an undertaking as anything I can think of. Like Kyoto, but for taxes or something like that.


Tommy Vietor: I mean, look, man, that was my exact reaction, which was: great idea Janet Yellen, you’re a hell of a lot smarter than me, good luck with that. I have no idea how this works.


Brian Beutler: So on the other side of the coin, things that I think a lot of people want to root for Biden found disappointing where airstrikes he ordered in Syria.


[news clip] US President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes on buildings used by Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria. The action was retaliation for the militia strikes in Iraq last week that wounded a U.S. . . .


Brian Beutler: His response to the Khashoggi murder:


[news clip] President Biden chose not to punish Mohammed bin Salman. The administration rolled out new visa restrictions . . .


Brian Beutler: And you know, his general continuation of the status quo in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah.


Brian Beutler: What was your view on those things? And what do allies, how do they respond when they see this sort of continuation of how things were under Trump?


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, I mean, listen, I am glad that Biden released the intelligence report on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. I’m glad we named, the US named Mohammed bin Salman as being behind that disgusting attack on a journalist, a dissident. That said the fact that he wasn’t punished was extremely disappointing. I think that, you know, we really do need to “right size” our entire relationship with Saudi Arabia. Part of that has started. You know, Biden said he was going to cut off support for offensive military operations in the civil war in Yemen—that’s the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels. I’d like to see Biden be even more specific about what that means, because, you know, this is a conflict in Yemen that has led to just like humanitarian catastrophe. But, you know, I think stepping back, like Trump’s entire Middle East approach was cozying up to autocrats. Right? In places like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, cutting deals with them—it does seem like Biden is very quickly backing away from that approach. So that’s good.


[clip of President Biden] By the time I left office as Vice President, I spent more time with Xi Jinping than any world leader had. I spent hours upon hours with him, my interpreter and his, going into great detail, very, very straightforward. Doesn’t have a democratic with a small D bone in his body. He’s one of the guys like Putin who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future. Democracy can’t function in an ever-complex world.


Brian Beutler: Biden seems fond of this sort of FDR-esque argument that his domestic success or failure will have big foreign policy implications, because democracy is in such a fragile state internationally that if someone can’t prove that it works to help people, then the world will just keep backsliding towards more, you know, authoritarian or gangster-ish mode of leadership.


[clip of President Biden] I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake. Not just with China. Look around the world. We’re in the midst of a 4th industrial revolution of enormous consequence.


Brian Beutler: Do you think he’s right about that? Is that how tenuous the situation is in the world?


Tommy Vietor: Look, I think you can trace back a lot of the problems we’re seeing today from the global financial crisis. So if we can get the global economy cooking again, I do think that will help improve things generally. But, you know, like I am wary of simple-sounding rhetorical ties. I do think, like this is a long game and there’s a lot of complexity here.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, I, I think I’m sold on the like, the historical analysis that the New Deal was an important part of the ideological victory over communism and fascism. That it wasn’t just that you had to crush the armies, you had to prove that, you know, instituting democratic governments around the world would be better for the people who lived in them. And so I feel like in theory, you could end up in a situation like that again, where you have a rise of these nefarious forces around the world and you need to show that a better system works. But it’s just unclear to me if you can draw a straight line between, you know, the American Rescue Plan passes, America has a glorious comeback, and everyone says: hey, that’s a that’s a better model than what we got going in Russia. It can’t just be that Biden has to, you know, oversee a high level of GDP and people in the United States feeling optimistic about the future, right? Like he needs to govern well and then also he needs to be rewarded with reelection or the Democratic Party needs to be rewarded with good election outcomes. So do you see consequences if the United States, having just been through this sort of crisis of democracy, elects someone like Biden who’s got real liberal democratic commitments? He governs well, but because the US doesn’t have a perfect democracy at all, you know, his party can’t hold on to power despite governing well.


Tommy Vietor: So, like, is the question: OK, so in the next few months, a year plus, the Republicans and a bunch of states pass voter suppression bills and they gerrymander the shit out of a bunch of districts, and we lose the House in 2020, does that have an impact on the state of global democracy?


Brian Beutler: Yeah.


Tommy Vietor: I feel like that’s a hard argument to make, you know what I mean? Like, I think where, I think that there’s probably a bunch of think tanks in DC that might think that way, but I don’t know. I’m not sold on that.


Brian Beutler: What about 2024 then?


Tommy Vietor: Look if Trump wins again, I think it’s, it’s the worst possible signal about, you know, where America is heading. So that makes me very nervous. Yes.


Brian Beutler: You know, how important is Trump to that equation, I guess is what I’m trying to ask. Like whether or not Biden wins in 2024, is there a difference between Trump coming back and winning reelection versus another Republican that is part of this very Trump-ified party now? Or, you know, with a President Tom Cotton or something, be salutary in some way in not continuing Trump’s more kleptocratic tendencies?


Tommy Vietor: It’s a good question. I think it depends on the person. Look, I think that Trump is a singular official in terms of his authoritarian tendencies, his brazen corruption, his total disregard for human rights, his racism. Right? I think that makes him like a singular danger in our politics right now. That said, I mean, it’s not like Tom Cotton being in charge is a good thing. It would just be bad for a whole bunch of different reasons. Right? I mean he’d be throwing more people in jail, invading more countries, calling for us to attack Iran every day. Right? There’s a whole different set of disasters.


Brian Beutler: Yeah. OK, so it’s a show about Biden’s first 100 days. There’s at least a few days left before the end of that. What would you like to see him do that you think would put him on the most promising course to leaving the world in as good a shape as possible whenever his term ends?


Tommy Vietor: I think like getting back in the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, is a big one. I think that, you know, there’s a conversation that started about the forever wars—20 years into the Afghanistan war—about how the US conducts counterterrorism missions, where that’s allowed, what Congress’s role is in providing authority for those strikes. I think that’s a big challenging, but important conversation that’s one of the most important things Biden is going to do. And that sort of encompasses some of the areas where progressives are frustrated, like the fact that we’re not going to meet the May 1 deadline to get all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, like the Syria strike that we saw a few months back, that that raised a lot of eyebrows. Right? So that’s a, that’s a key, critical thing that, you know, I don’t think they’ve had time to take on.


Brian Beutler: So maybe just a little bit beyond the 100 days horizon, once you get the overwhelming majority of Americans vaccinated, we have surplus supply here, that Biden has many good reasons to want to be at the forefront, like leading the global vaccination effort.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, it’s absolutely in our interest to get the whole world vaccinated. I mean, I read a story the other day that said Kenya was aiming to have 30% of its population vaccinated by, I think, mid-2023, which is just so far outside of the time ranges that it horrified me. And Kenya is like a big, bustling economy, right? I mean, they should be able to buy these doses. So I think the US has to take a major role in making sure that all these countries can get access to vaccines. And I really think we can sell that argument to the American people who might not otherwise care or support foreign assistance. Right? You just have to tell them: hey, this virus is going to change and come back if we don’t get everybody protected. And I think, you know, the way you do that could involve the US purchasing and distributing lots of doses and giving them to people. It could involve lifting intellectual property rights on vaccine manufacturing, or treatments, or testing, and allowing other countries that have the capability to manufacture them themselves. And the good news is Biden just named a woman named Gayle Smith, used to run USAID, to lead this effort. She’s dogged. She’s great. I worked with her. She’ll approach the job well. But it’s going to you know, it’s going to require Americans getting past, like, traditional opposition to quote unquote “foreign aid.” We just have to be willing to help our neighbors.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I take two things from that. One is that, like, you know, the, we’ve been so hungry for optimism in the news—


Tommy Vietor: Yes.


Brian Beutler: —and the US vaccination program being, like, finally firing on all cylinders, and being like the model for the world is good, and it feels good. But we should realize that the flip-side of that coin is that that’s because we have the supply, and others don’t.


Tommy Vietor: Yes.


Brian Beutler: And, you know, that was like a highly-contingent thing that, you know, has questionable moral aspects to it. And then separately, I think the implication is also if we don’t, someone’s going to sell or give vaccine doses to other countries. Right? And that can either be the United States, or it can be one of the other countries that developed their own vaccine. And, you know, between a soft power situation where the US is giving tons of vaccine away versus China and or Russia, it seems like a no-brainer to me.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah. I mean, look, at first, first and foremost, I am thrilled that the Russians developed a great vaccine. I’d like to see India, China, every single country develop a great vaccine domestically. But you’re absolutely right. Like the Russians, the Chinese, they’re viewing this as a diplomatic opportunity to get vaccines to other countries. We need to be doing the same. Because, look at a country like Brazil. Brazil just had a day where 4,000 people died from COVID. 4000 people! I mean, it is a catastrophe. The health care system is about to collapse. And the president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro is a guy who openly pines for the day of Brazil being a military dictatorship. He just fired a bunch of his senior generals. He fired his defense minister. Like you could see, you know, a health disaster from COVID becoming a pretext to, you know, lock the country down, go into a state of emergency. Right> There’s a lot of horrible, horrible outcomes that could destabilize the entire region, the entire world. Not, you know, and I don’t need to skip past the human suffering in Brazil right now. I mean, that’s like the thing that we should be thinking about the most. But there are geopolitical implications. Brazil has porous borders with its neighbors, so infected people are going back and forth, and it’s hurting the countries in the region. So it’s like we got to get a handle on a handle on this problem. Then I think it has to be a focus that’s paired with a really deliberate and loud messaging push to make sure that it’s not something that’s demagogue’d by Fox News. Right? Like, I guess I’m not entirely sure how Sean Hannity would demagogue this because, like, you know, all these guys are flirting with being anti-vaxxers anyway, and, you know, if you’re an anti-vaxxer, are you mad about us giving away your vaccine? I don’t know anymore.


Brian Beutler: [laughs] I don’t think they care. Yeah. They’re just going to say whatever.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah, they’re just going to attack no matter what. But like, you know, like when Obama came into office, you know, we spent the first several years cleaning up shit that Bush did. I do think that the US’s utter failure on COVID, you know, requires a little clean up. And we’ll see our, we’ll have to do a better job of trying to help everybody else getting take care of.


Brian Beutler: Yeah, it’s a good one to put a pin in. And I think the good news is that, like, Biden picked a really strong chief of staff for seeing that big picture.


Tommy Vietor: Yeah. I mean, look, it is [laughs] it is quite lucky for the entire country, for the world, for Joe Biden, that Ron Klain was the guy who led the Ebola efforts in 2014. I mean, like he’s someone who really gets the nuts and bolts of pandemic response. You just can’t overstate how great it is, that someone with that kind of brain and that experience is in the Oval Office like several times a day.


Brian Beutler: All right. Well, let’s leave it there. Tommy Vietor, thanks for coming on Rubicon.


Tommy Vietor: Thanks for having me, man. I’m a fan, I’m a listener. Subscribe, smash that subscribe button and tell your friends. Give them a five-star review, please.


Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions, our email address is Listener Brad writes: assuming it becomes federal law, what parts of H.R.1 would be most vulnerable to a potential SCOTUS fight? Would the law still be active in elections that take place during the legal battle? These are such important questions, and part of the reason they’re so good is because they’re so hard to answer. We know the Roberts court conservatives have been profoundly hostile to voting rights, but they haven’t been particularly principled or consistent in their actions, which makes it very hard to say which provisions of H.R.1 they’d be most likely to invalidate or why. If I had to guess, I’d say I worry most about H.R.1’s  independent redistricting provision, campaign finance and disclosure reforms, and its provision to re-enfranchise people with felony records. The Roberts court has been a handmaid to Republicans on similar issues in recent cases. And it’s not hard at all to imagine five conservatives concocting arguments that Congress doesn’t have the power to dictate to states how they draw their congressional lines, or how they determine who qualifies to vote, or that any regulation of political donations violates the First Amendment. As to whether these provisions would remain in effect through the judicial process, it’s impossible to say for sure. But we know if conservatives have their way, friendly courts will enjoin the law—preventing the government from enforcing it—in the hope that the Supreme Court either throws it out before the election, or runs out the clock so that it can’t be implemented until it’s too late. That’s why, in my view, the biggest missing piece of the Democrats democracy reform agenda is court reform. The judiciary is inherently undemocratic, and this judiciary, the one stacked with partisan Republican loyalists despite decades of Democratic popular victories, has been selected precisely to block the popular will. H.R.1 isn’t exempt from that. And without embracing court reform, Democrats are setting themselves up to learn this lesson in a particularly painful way.


Brian Beutler: Rubicon is written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.