MVPs of 2009
In what has become a Nation tradition, John Nichols has drawn attention to the most valuable progressive activists and organizations of the year. For the first time this year, his list of picks appears in the magazine, but you can read selections from 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 online.
For a number of years now I have, with wise counsel from Nation colleagues, Washington watchdogs and grassroots activists around the country, worked up a year-end list of Most Valuable Progressives for TheNation.com. Begun during the Bush/Cheney era, the project initially highlighted dissenters against unnecessary wars, unfair economic policies and assaults on civil liberties. As the popularity of the online project grew, it expanded to recognize social and cultural interventions, especially those by activists and artists whose work was not as well-known as it should be.
Although the MVP list, which makes its print debut here, focuses on individuals and organizations, it is really about issues and ideas. As such, the point is not to identify perfect players so much as to make note of activists and activist groups that may not get enough recognition but that are having a demonstrable effect--in Washington and around the country. That's even more important now that Bush and Cheney are gone and progressives are faced with the daunting task of assuring that Democrats govern with principle and an adventurous impulse.
Legend has it that Franklin Roosevelt told his allies in the early years of the New Deal that he agreed with their prescriptions for what ailed the Republic but that they would have to organize with an eye toward popularizing their ideas. "Go out and make me do it," the president reportedly urged them. These are some of the people and groups who are trying to make a new Democratic administration and Congress "do it."
Most Valuable Senator: Maria Cantwell
The Washington State Democrat, like previous honorees Bernie Sanders and Russ Feingold, has always taken on complicated issues. As a tech-savvy Congresswoman in 1993, for instance, Cantwell battled to assure that new technologies were not used to secretly expand government surveillance. She has come into her own, however, as Congress has wrestled with an internecine financial crisis. In October 2008 she was one of a handful of Democrats to oppose Wall Street bailout legislation, which she identified as fiscally unsound and lacking in accountability. "I am not for...turning the keys to the Treasury over to the private sector," said Cantwell. Since then, the senator has doggedly challenged fellow Democrats--in Congress and the Obama administration--to get serious about financial services reform. She has attacked the Treasury Department for defending loopholes favored by Wall Street and declared in November that she was not sure why Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner still had his job. Cantwell condemned House Financial Services Committee "reforms" that failed to crack down on derivatives trading. And she joined Sanders in proposing to use state gambling laws to regulate the $600 trillion derivatives market. The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner calls Cantwell "the best informed and most relentless crusader" for reform of the financial system. Former Commodity Futures Trading Commission official Michael Greenberger says she is "going for the jugular" in her fight to end abuses that could cause a new financial crisis. They're both right.
Most Valuable Representative: Peter DeFazio
After the Oregon Democrat opposed the stimulus bill last February because it did not do enough to create jobs, President Obama gibed, "Don't think we're not keeping score, brother." If Obama is keeping score, he should recognize by now that DeFazio has tended to be more right about real-economy concerns than any of the president's advisers. A key player on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio is Congress's most ardent advocate for spending more on job-creating construction projects and less on bank bailouts and distant wars. He was an early proponent of reclaiming TARP funds and using the money to address rising unemployment, an idea that caught on despite the fact that, as DeFazio noted, "the president has an adviser from Wall Street, Larry Summers, and a treasury secretary from Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, who don't like that idea." DeFazio earned headlines when he proposed firing Summers and Geithner with a declaration that Obama is "being failed by his economic team. We may have to sacrifice just two more jobs to get millions back for Americans." But the Congressman's finest contributions are his smart proposals (advanced with previous honoree Marcy Kaptur) to pay for investments in American communities with financial transactions taxes that steer money away from Wall Street speculation and toward Main Street renewal.
Most Valuable Federal Appointee: Elizabeth Warren
The Harvard professor, a scholar of the dwindling middle class who once palled around with Paul Wellstone and appeared frequently on PBS's NOW and Bill Moyers Journal, has taken the chairmanship of the Congressional bank bailout oversight panel and turned it into a vehicle for generating more ideas--and more good policy--than the White House or the Congressional banking committees. It was Warren who took the lead in arguing for the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. If Congress actually creates it, the only choice for its administrator is... Elizabeth Warren. Better yet, make her treasury secretary.