Coronavirus Report: The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna
Steve Clemons: Thanks so much for joining me today. Let’s just start with the fact that this nation was a mess before COVID[-19] hit. COVID[-19] has hit and on top of that now we have protests in Minneapolis. We had yet another case of alleged police abuse and the death of a man. And I just want to ask you, as we start this conversation, how do you as a congressman find your way through this moment where you’re dealing both with the national health crisis, but we are also somewhat dealing with a crisis over our own soul?
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.): Well, Steve, it’s a difficult time for all of us as citizens. Our country is deeply divided. You have the president of the United States threatening violence against American citizens. Even Richard Nixon was remorseful after Kent State. Even he understood that the United States government shouldn’t be shooting its own citizens. And now you have a president literally going on social media and threatening to shoot protesters. And a president who has called protesters fighting for racial justice “thugs” but unwilling to call those marching in Charlottesville the racist thugs. So, it is a time of a lack of moral leadership in our country. I mean, on the Minneapolis situation, if you want to stop the protests, the way to do it is to arrest the officers; that’s why they’re protesting. Have an investigation into the police department there, the sheriff — the PSC called for that. Why they’re not arresting those officers is beyond me.
Clemons: We’re also in a time where we’ve been in a tug of war between those who have, I mean, this may be an unfair distinction, but between those who have been saying, we need public health first, public health guardrails that are very strictly adhere to versus those that want to have a rapid reopening. I know there’s a middle ground there, but I’d love to get your insights, at this moment when we are seeing so much of the country reopen again, and we’re seeing incidents like in Lake of the Ozarks, where there’s a kind of human jam going on. What are the equities? What’s the equilibrium that we have to get right between those different impulses?
Khanna: Well, first we should have listened to science. I mean, had we done what South Korea, which is tell people to wear masks early on, had we gotten private testing companies involved in February, had we sheltered in place back then, like my district did in Santa Clara. March 15 we sheltered in place even though we were one of the first hit we’ve only had 120 deaths, that’s obviously significant, but it’s nowhere near what other regions have faced because we sheltered in place.
Clemons: I mean, let me stop you there for a minute. Can you just profile that? Because when I was reading about Santa Clara and how hard it was hit at the beginning, can you just go through those numbers? Because at the beginning of March you had about 400-some odd cases, which was a lot at that time, and tell us how things have unfolded.
Khanna: Well, we were the first county in the nation to shelter in place and as a result the deaths have been much fewer, the cases have been growing at one of the slowest rates in the entire country. In fact, the former CDC head had said that if New York sheltered had place when we did, it would have been 80 percent, 80 percent fewer casualties in New York. Now, this is not because of me or any of the elected officials. It was Sara Cody, the health official, who had the insight after having spoke to epidemiologists to do that. So, you know, that should be a lesson for the country about listening to science.
Clemons: Now, how are you reopening now? I’ve seen California Governor Gavin Newsom’s plans. Where does Santa Clara fit in that right now? How is your own reopening process going?
Khanna: We’re opening cautiously. I mean, we are opening some of the manufacturing businesses we are opening businesses that are essential. We are not opening high-contact businesses. And we’re making sure that people have [personal protective equipment] PPE and they have social distancing. And I guess that to me seems to be a way forward. Open up, but do it with social distancing. Do it with worker protection. Do it with providing PPE. And then monitor the results and be willing to slow down or shut things down if the results spike; otherwise, continue to open up in a responsible way. And that’s I think a way forward. I think, unfortunately, you had people try to politicize it where most Americans understand the common sense of what we need to do.
Clemons: You’ve been an advocate and you continue to push the buttons of, we need free testing, we need ever-present testing and we need free treatment for people. Where do those stand?
Khanna: Well, it’s not just that we need testing — and we should be at about 600,000-700,000 tests a day. We’re still a way from that. But we need to know then what to do with the testing. I mean, we need people who then will engage in contact tracing like they’ve done in other countries and have people trained for that. [Sen.] Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.] and I called for massive production on the Defense Production Act to build the things that would be, that are the bottlenecks to the testing, because the challenge is we don’t have some of the swabs and the equipment for the testing. Look, we’re getting better, but we’re still not where we need to be. And then we want to be treating people, and you shouldn’t fear a bill to go get treatment.
Clemons: You know, I talked to CDC Director Robert Redfield recently, and he said he was looking to hire about — somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 contact tracers. Do you think that’s enough?
Khanna: I would defer to him. I mean, I don’t want to second-guess a CDC director, and he’s pretty nonpolitical. If he says 30,000 to 100,000 then we should do that. You know, there was an MIT professor who had a great idea for a digital work progress administration. Sort of a New Deal idea but in terms of digital skills, that we have such need for contact tracing or electronic records or other areas that the country could employ people in some of these digital tasks and get people back to work.
Clemons: I know, and there been some companies — and I know you’re in the tech community and you’re a tech guy yourself — I interviewed recently Andrew Frame, the CEO of Citizen who has created something called SafeTrace in a way to kinda begin looking at how you can create what Taiwan has done and look at how you instantly alert people if they’ve come into contact with, you know, someone who was diagnosed with COVID[-19] and whatnot. So, there’s a lot out there. But getting into the tech area, congressman, I know that you’ve been, I mean, I think one of the interesting things about COVID[-19] is that it has exacerbated problems and tensions we had in the country before. One of the areas you worked on was rural development and trying to get tech jobs and tech investment into rural areas. And I’d love to hear where that stands now and whether that continues to be, you know, an important priority for you as you look at a more inclusive economic development plan in the country at a time when we’ve got 41 million officially unemployed.
Khanna: Well Steve, I think it’s accelerated the need for that. I mean, first of all, tech companies realized that remote work is more possible. Facebook has said that they’re going to go all remote, or at least half of their employees are going to be remote. Twitter has said the same thing. So, I think we’re seeing that we’re gonna have more decentralization of technology jobs and opportunities. Majority Whip [James] Clyburn [D-S.C.] has an extraordinary bill, $80 billion to finally get the country hooked up to high speed internet so that every part of the country has that. Consider this: We are spending $3 trillion on relief. Can’t we spend $80 billion to hook up the internet for every American? And then look at the controversy on Twitter with the president where he’s demonizing social media and trying to appeal to his base. Imagine, just for a thought experiment, that some of these social media companies had decentralized work, they actually had employees in the Midwest, in the South who also were part of creating this 21st century public forum. People would feel much more agency. They would be much less likely to label these tech folks as elite or “other.” I think this would actually not just help our economics, it would help some of the national cohesiveness that’s missing in this country.
Clemons: Now the president has, you know, issued an executive order on censorship and social media firms, and he is angrier than I think we’ve seen him in a while at Twitter. Jack Dorsey is attaching tags to tweets that he sees as either big mistruths or as glorifying violence, breaking rules that Twitter has set up. Previously, Twitter had decided not to take any more paid political ads on its site. Facebook, which you also know well, is on the other side of that. Facebook is taking lots of political ads and saying it’s not going to be the arbiter of speech. Where’s the right point between those two?
Khanna: Well, look, the president is just engaged in political theater. You know, he wants this fight. I mean, he operates on the premise that all conflict is good. The courts aren’t gonna uphold his executive order. He knows that, but he’s just engaged in rhetoric. Here’s what I think we need. I think we need a fairness doctrine for the 21st century. Let me explain how that would work. Let’s say the president is tweeting out conspiracy theories about Joe Scarborough. Well, why not allow the widower who doesn’t want the president tweeting about his deceased wife, why not give him the opportunity to send a response, and that response Twitter could send to every person who clicks on the president’s tweet? Or why not allow someone to respond to the president’s claims about vote, ballot fraud? So, what I would say is, you defeat speech with speech. But you didn’t give one person a huge megaphone and not allow a fair response. And that was what the fairness doctrine that Reagan got rid of was all about. We need something similar in a social media age
Clemons: Where are you on the issue of mail-by ballot? You know, you’re in California right now, I think. But here in Washington, you know, there’s also this stuff brewing. Even the president’s spokesperson has voted by mail 10 out of the last 11 elections, the president has himself. But we see these assertions that the process would be endemically corrupt and rigged. Where are you on this? And how likely is it that we’re going to see most states adopt a mail-by-ballot system? And what does the federal government need to do to make that happen?
Khanna: Well, I’m for it. This is actually a very simple debate. If you want more people to vote or do you want less people to vote? And let’s just be blunt: The Republicans believe the less people that vote, the better their chance is. Democrats believe the more people that vote, the better our chance is. The philosophical issue is that more people should vote. And if you believe more people should vote, we ought to have mail-in-ballots. The idea that there is some fraud in that is absurd and there’s not a single study that says that vote-by-mail is more fraud than voting in person. And it’s such a miniscule number in either case. So, California’s shown that it could work. It’s been empowering for many people. And we ought to be doing that at the national level, and the HEROES Act we passed provides the resources for states to do that.
Clemons: You know, Ro, you and I have talked a lot about technology and its impact on society and how it can be, you know, essentially something that extends human aspiration in contrast to dislodging human aspiration, if you will. And I guess the question I have at the moment — you’re such a thoughtful guy — is what does our social contract need to be after this period we’re in? What does it need to look like? How can we look back to the time of FDR and see things like the WPA or the Tennessee Valley Authority or the CCC? Are there big projects that we need to have people put on the dock that could be part of a new infrastructure that brings this country out of this? Or are we too early for that right now?
Khanna: Well, I think our social contract should be that everyone in this country should have the chance that I did. If this country can give the son of immigrants a chance to have a good public education, to have a parent employed with a job that provided health care, to not — to live in a safe neighborhood. If this country can do that for the son of immigrants, why can’t this country do that for every American? So, our social safety net should say we believe that you should have the freedom to succeed or fail. But before you get to do that, you also have health care, you also have a good education, you have to have an early childhood education. [James] Heckman, the Nobel laureate, said that by the age of five so much of our life chances are determined based on our upbringing. We have to make those basic investments, and then we ought to be making the investments in the infrastructure for the 21st century. Just like electricity was a necessity, the internet is a necessity. Basic digital skills are necessities, and people don’t want to just be taken care of. They want to participate in the new economy, and we have to provide those opportunities. So, I think that the road map on what we need is pretty clear; the question is will we have the political will?