In August of 1884, the French navy attacked Tonkin, the Northern part of what we today call Vietnam. The area happened to be under Chinese control, but expansion-minded French colonial authorities sought to ensure freedom of access for French traders.
“The story of French action in Tonquin is a story of gross cruelty and fraud,” an essay in The Nation of October 23, 1884, declared.
Published without a byline, the article—a review of a book about the French in Indochina—was written by Robert Durie Osborn, a recently-retired lieutenant-colonel in the English army in India (described by an author in 1901 as “a red-hot Radical and a perpetual thorn in the side of the Indian Government”). The French campaign, he wrote in The Nation, was nothing short of horrific: “Towns were bombarded, and all prisoners taken in action were shot or hanged without a touch of pity or compunction.”
Beyond its cruelty, Osborn continued, the war was—for the French—neither winnable nor worth winning: “The revenues of the republic…are not in a condition to bear the burden of a distant and costly war.” Even if France did manage to come out of it with a semblance of victory—peace with honor, perhaps?—
it will be with her resources so exhausted and her military strength so impaired that for many a year after she will be in a measure effaced from the politics of Europe. That the possession of Tonquin will be the source of any profit to France, few can anticipate who know the unfortunate result of French colonial enterprises hitherto.
* * *
Almost exactly eighty years after the French assault on Tonkin, and fifty years ago this weekend, the United States navy reported that its ships had been attacked some miles off the shore of North Vietnam, in the gulf that bears the old French protectorate’s name. Provocatively, the US ships were patrolling in areas where South Vietnam was conducting active operations against the North, prompting the latter, quite understandably, to perceive the Americans as participants in the hostilities. Torpedo boats approached within a few nautical miles of the USS Maddox, which responded with warning shots. The subsequent firefight killed four North Vietnamese sailors, destroyed several of their boats, and lightly wounded an American ship and a plane.
Two days later, American ships again reported that they were under attack and for hours fiercely maneuvered and fired at North Vietnamese boats, two of which they claimed to have sunk. As it turned out, the American ships had only been picking up radar signals from their own equipment, chasing phantoms as Don Quixote had combated windmills. Regardless, President Lyndon Johnson seized on the incident as a pre-text for bombing North Vietnam and drastically escalating American involvement in the war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing such action passed on August 7, 1964, with only two senators objecting: Wayne Morse of Oregon, a frequent Nation contributor, and Ernest Greuning of Alaska, managing editor of this publication in the early 1920s.
“The excessive retaliatory action the President saw fit to order brings us closer to the brink of World War III,” The Nation’s editors glumly observed in the next issue. “He laid all the blame on the North Vietnamese and took no account of the fact that there had been prior South Vietnamese and American provocation to match any that we suffered.”
The issue also contained an essay by John Gange, a professor at the University of Oregon and a former State Department official, titled “Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth.” A brief history of American involvement in Indochina since the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954, Gange's report also bears within it warnings of what would indeed doom the US campaign from the start: the impossibility, the immorality, the stupidity of the mission, the utter waste of resources and lives.
Gange then assailed the myth known as the "domino theory," the linchpin of American foreign policy during most of the Cold War:
Stay tuned for future Back Issues posts about The Nation's coverage of the Vietnam War.
Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at email@example.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
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The Ku Klux Klan doesn’t want to leave all the immigrant-hating to gun-toting militias and US congressmen. The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is calling for a “shoot-to-kill” policy at the border. Robert Ray of Al Jazeera America caught up with two such “knights” in North Carolina, and asked if the policy would apply to child migrants.
The “wizard” hemmed and hawed for a moment, then said: “If we pop a couple of ’em off and leave the corpses laying on the border, maybe they’ll see we’re serious about stopping immigrants.”
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Earlier this month, The Nation partnered with Know Your IX, a national survivor-run campaign to fight campus sexual violence. Together we called on Congress to give the Department of Education the tools to hold colleges accountable for their treatment of sexual assault. This morning, a group of senators introduced a bill that would do just that.
Title IX is famous for its impact on women’s sports, but the law also requires schools to protect students from gender-based violence. Our campaign asked Congress to give the DOE the authority to impose fines on schools that violate students’ Title IX rights by not protecting them from sexual violence. The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights has never once sanctioned a school for sexual assault-related violations. Part of the reason is that the current option at their disposal, the full removal of federal funds, is too onerous. Senator McCaskill called it an “idle threat” that is “like having no penalty.”
Between the petition hosted at The Nation and another at Change.org, we collected over 11,000 names in favor of the change. Along with lending their support to the campaign, many shared their stories with us, and the reasons they were demanding reform. A number of supporters said they lacked faith in institutions’ treatment of victims; one woman wrote, “My daughter was raped going down to the ladies room at night while studying in the campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She never even told me until years later. She thought no one would do anything about it.” Another commented, “I graduated college in 1983. This was an issue then. Why has nothing been done in thirty-one years?”
Called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, the bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators that included Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill and Republicans Marco Rubio and Dean Heller. Wagatwe Wanjuki, a member of Know Your IX, spoke at the press conference, as did other survivors and advocates. In addition to fines, the bill would require schools to make public the results of annual anonymous surveys on sexual assault on their campuses, ensure minimum training standards for staff handling sexual assault complaints and require colleges to implement uniform procedures for handling complaints, forbidding them from allowing subgroups, such as athletic departments, to handle accusations for their group alone.
Members of Know Your IX see the legislation as an important step forward in holding colleges accountable for their treatment of sexual assault. “We’re glad to see this bipartisan effort, rooted in students’ experiences on the ground and their recommendations, moving forward,” they said. “It’s a promising step toward building campuses that are safe for students of all genders.”
In his interview with Ian Masters, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen discusses the dangerous tensions between Washington and Moscow. Unlike other regional conflicts, Cohen states that the violence in Ukraine “is global…and the destiny of our children and grandchildren is playing out.” Cohen also critiques the Obama administrations lack of statesmanship and diplomacy: “This is [Obama’s] defining moment. This is what Roosevelt called his rendezvous with destiny and [Obama] seems to flee [his] destiny.” As the Washington hawks continue to take incremental action, Cohen asserts that we’re in the “worst American-Russian crisis since the Cuban missile confrontation.”
I’m in the hospital as I write this, getting ready to be cut open for some kind of intestinal surgery. I feel stressed, a little scared, yet given the news in the world, oddly grateful. I’m grateful that this clean facility, and its overworked but exceptionally kind staff, is not in the process of being bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
It is a sick sign of our times that human beings throughout the world cannot take for granted the concept that your hospital will not have a bullseye on its roof, but this is exactly where President Benjamin Netanyahu has dragged us. He is not the first, and he will not be the last, to take this tactic as a legitimate means of war. But defending these actions by saying, “George W. Bush has done it!” or “Assad does it, too!” is only an argument the morally bankrupt could possibly make.
No part of Israel’s war on Gaza—or any war—is more unconscionable than the targeting of hospitals. The shelling of institutions where people go to heal not only adds to the spiraling body count, it also creates mortality figures that will never ever be uttered by Wolf Blitzer, as the sick, the dying and the pregnant find themselves imperiled by Netanyahu’s slaughter. The reports from the UN about the effects in Gaza on pregnant women makes one wonder when fetuses became enemy combatants—their mothers, human shields.
Then there is Al-Wafa hospital, the only facility equipped to handle brain and spinal injuries in Gaza, which is now a “smoldering ruin.” According to Jonathan Miller of NBC News, in a devastating report, patients had to be evacuated from the hospital and carried to the center of Gaza City in blankets.
As of this writing, Al Shifa hospital, the most well-equipped in Gaza, has been under bombardment. Israel is arguing that Hamas has bombed their own hospital. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC News, who witnessed the shelling, reported otherwise, although the story from NBC has changed repeatedly without explanation.
This is yet another example of Netanyahu’s—as he speaks of his war on Gaza being one of “civilization vs. barbarism”—violating Geneva protocols.
As Allison Deger summed up in her searing report on Al-Wafa hospital,
According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) hospitals are protected sites. Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also states: ‘The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit…acts harmful to the enemy.’ The Geneva Convention also requires ‘a reasonable time limit,” for allowing an evacuation. If a hospital is used to launch weapons, under IHL it can only be targeted when there is an imminent strike originating from the location. Even storing caches of weapons do not meet international law’s stringent threshold for firing on humanitarian sites.
As for Al-Wafa, there were no weapons, no rockets. Just doctors, nurses and patients. Just teenagers, like Aya, paralyzed with a tumor on her spine, being transported with makeshift gurneys into an open space. Just bodies. Just civilians increasingly seen as legitimate targets by the IDF.
One final point. I write this from a hospital bed in the middle of the night, with help from a bedside lamp and extension cord attached to my computer. In other words, I have electricity.
The main power plant of Gaza has been bombed, plunging the city into darkness. CNN reported that this was either an accident of the IDF or Hamas took out their own power. (If Wolf Blitzer said Hamas was killing Israeli unicorns with the key to eternal life at this point, no one in Atlanta would blink.) Fox News was more blunt, saying that Israel was “striking at symbols of Hamas’s power.” How the media spin this is irrelevant to the pressing fact that it has imperiled every health facility for a place with a population three times the size of Washington, DC. I have a lot of worries right now, but the absence of electricity is not one of them. Nothing exposes the lies underpinning Netanyahu’s battle for “civilization” quite like this kind of savagery. Nothing feels more illustrative of the horrors Israel has unleashed quite like feeling privileged that my hospital isn’t under lethal attack from the skies.
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The person who served you lunch today may be going hungry. Surveys of restaurant workers in the Bay Area and New York City show that after spending long days sating the appetites of customers, they return home to empty pantries and struggle to pay for groceries. Nearly one in three restaurant workers suffers from “food insecurity”—meaning they regularly have trouble obtaining adequate nourishment, usually because they can’t afford it.
The study, published by Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) (in collaboration with Food Chain Workers Alliance and Food First), shows that while the prevalence of food insecurity in the food-service workforce is paradoxical, it is built into the capitalist food chain.
Among the surveyed workers—representing a cross-section of cooks, servers, bussers and other low-wage workers in two cities with thriving dining scenes—workers of color were more likely to be food insecure than their white counterparts. Two in three undocumented workers experienced food insecurity. The problem is especially widespread among tipped workers, like servers. Those jobs are mostly done by women, many of them single mothers raising kids in poverty.
Even restaurants that touted their green credentials—marketing themselves as organic or sustainable—did not seem to pay enough to sustain the basic needs of their workers: “Bay Area restaurant workers who served organic or sustainable ingredients were 22 percent more likely to be food insecure, compared to other Bay Area restaurant workers after controlling for demographic characteristics.”
One server surveyed, ROC-NY member Carolina Portillo, described the class dynamics of an industry built on the extremes of indulgence and deprivation: “It’s sad that when you work in a restaurant, most of the servers are starving.”
Even when they’re not actually starving, food-insecure workers struggle for sustenance. One in five of those surveyed relied on government food assistance. About the same percentage depended on restaurant food, typically because they did not have the time or money to eat homemade meals. What looks like a perk smacks of desperation. In New York, about half of those surveyed said the group meal provided by the restaurant was not nutritious. Most of them also said they “wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables than they presently did.” In other words, their jobs kept them from having the food choices that their patrons freely enjoy on the menu.
Martin Sanchez, a New York City busser and ROC-NY member, explained for the study why he ate on the job: “Even though I work in a restaurant and handle food for a living, it’s a struggle to feed myself and provide for my wife and five children…. at the last place I worked, they would serve us junk: cheap, fried food and sometimes expired food. They never let us eat the kind of food that’s popular with our customers like salmon or quinoa salads.”
Though gourmet bistros illustrate the most striking inequities, material deprivation runs through the metabolism of the entire food system. Across all food labor sectors, including farming, processing, and service, those who work with food have trouble feeding themselves; they experience twice the rate of “very low to marginal” food security, 30 percent, of the overall US workforce.
Food labor has been deeply exploited since the days of chattel slavery, and it became industrialized at the turn of the century with the squalid drudgery of urban slaughterhouses. So today’s line cooks and waitresses face brutal conditions, and they in turn make up a big chunk of the working poor who are priced out of eating well.
ROC-NY’s study points to how working conditions are linked to risk of food insecurity. Only about 2 percent of restaurant workers are unionized, and employers regularly short workers on overtime pay and discriminate against women and workers of color in their hiring and promotion decisions. Workers are regularly denied the healthcare benefits and safety protections that are essential not only to their dignity but to public health in the restaurant industry. The federal “subminimum” wage for tipped workers has remained stagnant for two decades, at $2.13 an hour—a regulatory quirk that leaves many workers essentially living on tips.
Workers often struggle with food insecurity when forced to work erratic shifts or a nonstandard schedule. The volatility in their earnings from week to week can place a healthy family lifestyle out of reach. When she works a double shift waiting tables, a single mom will find it near impossible to even see her children, much less go shopping for and cook a nutritious family meal at home.
Conversely, the survey reveals that workers are less likely to suffer from food insecurity if they have stable jobs and paid leave benefits, access to job training for career advancement and access to union representation.
By organizing workers at higher-end restaurants serving affluent clientele, ROC has run effective and media-genic workplace-justice campaigns. The group uses a blend of direct-action tactics, public outreach to educate consumers about the workforce, litigation and negotiation to win better wages and working conditions.
ROC-NY also runs a “High Road” restaurateur program, in which employers voluntarily sign onto a code of ethics promising a certain level of wages, benefits and the ability to organize.
For those employers who don’t voluntarily treat workers decently, ROC-NY and other economic justice organizations are pushing for federal legislation to provide for family and medical leave insurance for all workers, as well as raising the minimum wage for both standard wage workers and tipped workers. Some state and local lawmakers have moved ahead with paid sick days legislation; San Diego, California, and Eugene, Oregon, have recently joined seven other cities (Portland, New York City, Newark and Jersey City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC) and Connecticut in establishing paid sick days policies. Efforts are underway to pass and federal-state level family-leave insurance , which allows for longer leave times from work financed through an insurance fund.
ROC-NY also calls on policymakers to strengthen enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws and wage and hour regulations that are already on the books, and to protect workers’ universal right to organize without fear of retaliation from their bosses.
The restaurant industry lobby is one of the most powerful in the country, and it has campaigned fiercely to block federal and local minimum wage legislation, claiming that broadening labor protections for cooks and servers would harm small businesses.
But for the one in three restaurant workers who don’t earn enough to put food on the table, who go to bed hungry so their kids can eat—they’re part of the dining experience as well. When restaurant customers indulge their appetites by starving workers and their families of basic dignity, the industry is cannibalizing its own moral fiber.
Over a decade has passed since the United States began its "Global War on Terror," a campaign of dragnet surveillance, mass incarceration, drone attacks on individuals overseas and numerous other actions, many illegal according to domestic and international law. These policies are all deemed necessary, of course, for the sake of national security.
The United States has always been known as a “nation of immigrants,” a destination for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses to pursue the so-called American dream. But it has been repeatedly consumed by fear of the other. From the Native Americans to late nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants to the Central Americans crossing the Southern border today, there has been a longstanding aversion to and even hatred of ethnic and racial minorities.
It was precisely this fear that led to the relocation of 112,000 Japanese living on the West Coast—at least 70,000 of which were American citizens—to military detention centers during the Second World War. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated that thousands of people be rounded up, solely because of their race.
In the June 6, 1942, issue of The Nation, Charles Iglehart—a former missionary in Japan—wrote about his visit to one of the camps:
Iglehart focused specifically on the government’s failure, in the evacuation orders, to distinguish between first-generation Japanese immigrants and their American-born children. This raises important questions about who can claim “Americanness” in a time of mass hysteria.
Ultimately, Iglehart concluded that, moral questions to one side, “even as a war measure evacuation was unnecessary.”
While disapproving, Iglehart’s piece—like much of The Nation’s coverage of internment at the time—was not nearly as critical of Roosevelt’s order as it could have been.
After taking a look at some of the reporting of the time, I wonder whether the country has learned from past mistakes—or has the romanticization of American history allowed the resurgence of discriminatory practices in more recent episodes of crisis? Not fifty years after the disaster that was Japanese internment, another minority group became the target of mass surveillance during the first Gulf War.
In the February 4, 1991, issue of The Nation, longtime contributor (and Maryland State Senator) Jamin B. Raskin wrote: “I wish the F.B.I agents placing phone calls to Arab-Americans would stroll over to the National Museum of American History in Washington and visit the exhibit on the Japanese internment.” He considered the historical parallels:
Unfortunately, “deference to the military’s power” all too well explains why in 2014 it is no longer hard to determine whether the Supreme Court would recognize such a policy as unconstitutional. There are still 149 “high-profile” individuals detained in the extrajudicial prison at Guantánamo Bay.
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At 12:30 pm today, a few dozen people laid down in the street at the intersection of 43rd Street and Second Avenue, stopping traffic from reaching the 42nd Street block housing the Israeli Consulate. Around them, a hundred or so people chanted from the sidewalks for the end of the occupation and the slaughter in Gaza. The writer Norman Finkelstein, a fierce critic of both Israel and of the BDS movement, had called the protest the day before. “A lot of people feel that going to a demonstration every three days doesn’t rise to the occasion, the immensity of the horror,” he told me. He noted that the Israeli bombing of Gaza is now in its twenty-first day, “which means it’s one day short of Cast Lead,” the assault on Gaza that began at the end of 2008. And there is no sign that this war is going to stop anytime soon.
The action didn’t last long. After issuing a few warnings for the demonstrators to move, the police swooped in, handcuffing people and carrying those who let their bodies go limp. Traffic was stopped for, at most, twenty minutes. Still, it didn’t seem like a futile effort, because this is a moment when it’s particularly important to break through the illusion, which pervades our politics, that American support for Israel and its war in Gaza is unshakable.
Already, there are anecdotal signs that conventional New York opinion, which tends to be liberal on everything except Palestine, is starting to shift. “If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them,” wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells in a piece on New York magazine’s website last week, a sentiment that would have been hard to imagine coming from that publication a few years ago. Today, the magazine’s DC columnist Jonathan Chait, an occasionally hawkish veteran of The New Republic, has a post titled, “Why I Have Become Less Pro-Israel.” According to a recent CNN poll, while a majority of Americans continue to support Israel, 38 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the country, up fourteen points since February.
I don’t want to overstate this—after all, 10,000 people showed up at a pro-Israel rally in front of the United Nations yesterday. Even there, however, there were a couple of people with signs, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, mourning the dead in Gaza. “To the older woman who kept following me with her own ‘Stand with Israel’ sign to block my own sign and yelling out loud—look at the traitor—he’s a mamzer—a bastard—I turned and said, calmly—my father is a Holocaust Survivor, please respect him if not me,” wrote the rabbinical student Amichai Lau-Lavie. “To which she replied—he should have died there. There were other obscene and racist statements that I won’t describe.” People like this woman, obviously, are not reachable. But others might be. What’s happening is simply so brutal and inexcusable that it makes the rote rationalizations of Israel’s apologists sound ever more risible.
So it’s important for people who feel, intuitively, that there is something deeply wrong happening in Gaza to see others fighting for that conviction. Among those who were taken into custody today was Corey Robin, a Jewish professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Robin is a longtime critic of Israel, but he’d never before been arrested over it. “I finally felt like I had to do something,” he said a few moments before lying down in the street. “This is my first time doing this for Palestine. If it’s my first time, it’s going to be somebody else’s first time, if not now, then another time.
Over the past two weeks, on the heels of an announced extension to nuclear talks with Iran, Republicans in the Senate introduced two measures that could erect obstacles in reaching and implementing a final agreement with the Islamic Republic. One of the efforts, led by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, would mandate congressional approval before a nuclear deal could be struck. Another, spearheaded by the Senate’s most ferocious Iran hawk, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, would strip President Barack Obama of his ability to waive Iran sanctions—something the president might need to do in order to hold up the American end of the bargain and give Iran relief.
What’s most notable about these efforts, however, is their distinctly Republican nature. Both are co-sponsored by a bevy of GOP hawks, with no Democrats having yet signed on. (As of press time, the Corker bill has nine Republican co-sponsors and the Kirk bill has eight.)
This portends a further shift along the lines of what Eli Clifton and I discussed in our recent Nation feature on how hawkish groups influence the Hill: with diplomacy advancing as far as it has under Obama, the stakes were suddenly raised and Democrats became skittish about being seen as in opposition to one of their own president’s biggest foreign policy initiatives. As we wrote, some sixteen Democrats signed onto a sanctions measure introduced this winter—S. 1881, co-sponsored by Senators Kirk, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—but failed to generate more Democratic support after its initial introduction (whereas a number of additional Republicans signed on). In the end, many of the Democrats jumped ship when the party’s leadership, the White House and constituents pressured them.
From the perspective of opponents of diplomacy—and make no mistake that these new bills are sponsored by opponents of diplomacy—this is bad news. And they know it: when the Democrats, including Menendez, an original co-sponsor, backed off on holding an immediate vote on S. 1881, the influential pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tapped the brakes, too. “[S]topping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and there should not be a vote at this time on the measure,” the group said in a statement.
Whatever Democrats AIPAC is able to wrangle to support measures like Kirk’s and Corker’s will simply act as fig leafs for what is in fact an increasingly partisan fight over Iran policy. To understand this dynamic, one needs only look at the anti-diplomacy lobby Eli and I outlined in our piece and the funders highlighted in a sidebar: the three billionaires against diplomacy—Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus and Sheldon Adelson—are all heavyweight Republican donors. (Adelson, for one, has said that the United States should use a nuclear weapon against Iran instead of negotiating with it.)
It’s not a coincidence that those three are also, according to the most recent comprehensive numbers, the three top donors to the Foundation of Defense Democracies (FDD), an influential and hawkish Iran-focused think-tank that Eli and I discussed at length in our report. Though FDD works with some of the most hawkish Democrats on the Hill, GOP connections abound: its president, Cliff May, was a communications director with the Republican National Committee and edited the party’s official magazine before launching FDD. The GOP bent became clear in 2008, when an FDD offshoot, the now defunct defenseofdemocracies.org, launched political attack ads against fifteen Democrats, precipitating the resignations of major Democrats on the group’s board.
With the Democratic leadership aligning in favor of diplomacy, hawkish members of the partly like Menendez are likely to only become more isolated and, should they persist, could end up working on overwhelming Republican initiatives. That could help insulate the Obama administration from criticisms over negotiating with Iran and legislative efforts that have potential to block a deal. It wouldn’t be surprising, in other words, to learn that the White House was secretly supportive of Republicans—and Republicans alone—taking up efforts to kill diplomacy.
Election seasons are supposed to provide an opportunity for sitting officials to explain their records, and for challengers to question them. And when a top official is facing intense scrutiny based on recent revelations—as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is in the aftermath of reports regarding his administration’s handling of a corruption inquiry—the need for election season accountability is that much greater.
So it only makes sense that Cuomo should accept the debate challenge posed by his Democratic primary foe, Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.
Cuomo took a hard hit when The New York Times reported on July 23 that a high-powered commission he established to root out corruption “was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.” That followed an earlier report in the New York Daily News that “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission killed a subpoena to the state Democratic Party that he controls.”
Cuomo says it is “false” to suggest that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption had its independence “trumped” by his aides. But the Daily News says, “Cuomo insisted Monday that the commission operated independently—a rather stunning statement, given his past gyrations.” And the Times says, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran for office four years ago promising first and foremost to clean up Albany. Not only has he not done that, but now he is looking as bad as the forces he likes to attack.”
No matter how hard Cuomo and his allies may try to defuse the issue, it’s going to stick with him through this election year. And the governor will only make things worse for himself if he is seen as avoiding public forums for addressing the issues that have arisen.
That’s one of the reasons Cuomo should accept Teachout’s proposal for at least three debates before the September 9 Democratic primary.
Teachout lacks Cuomo’s name identification and campaign treasury. But she is a uniquely credible challenger in this race, and for this debate. As the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, which has been in the forefront of advocacy for increased transparency and accountability government and politics, she’s an actual expert on corruption issues—and on how to address them. She has written widely on, spoken about and debated issues of money in politics at the local, state and national levels for years. And she has earned national acclaim as a lawyer, an academic and an author on numerous books, including the upcoming Corruption in America, which will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.
And Teachout has made a uniquely credible case for why debates are needed.
“The Cuomo administration’s handling of the Moreland Commission distills what plagues our democracy: a special class of insiders in Albany, connected through financial and political clout, have immunized themselves from the law,” she says. “Governor Cuomo has taken this corruption and elevated it to new levels.”
The governor would, undoubtedly, disagree with that assessment, as he would with Teachout’s argument that “[t]he corruption in our Government is threatening the very basis of our democracy. Albany is working for big money, instead of the people of the state.”
But when a credible challenger, with background and expertise on a central issue, makes such a charge, that is precisely the point at which an incumbent officeholder should be expected to respond.
What makes Teachout’s invitation even more worthy of a response is the fact that she makes it not as a partisan who has always been at odds with Cuomo but as someone who once backed the governor. “I supported Andrew Cuomo in 2010 because I believed he would follow through on his promises to clean up Albany. In his campaign booklet of 2010, Andrew Cuomo said that State government was plagued by scandal,” says Teachout. “I believed him when he said, ‘In many cases the dysfunction has metastasized into corruption that would make Boss Tweed blush.’ I believed him when he said we must restore honor and integrity to Government.”
Now, argues the challenger, Cuomo has become an example of what he said he would address. “Shutting down your own anti-corruption commission when it gets too close to power,” explains Teachout, “ is something that would make Boss Tweed blush.”
Incumbents and front-runners don’t like to debate primary challengers.
But primary debates have a great history in New York Democratic politics. When Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch were running against each other for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, they debated close to a dozen times—taking their sometimes intense discourse to every corner of the state. Mario Cuomo won the primary and the governorship.
Twenty years later, when Andrew Cuomo first bid for New York’s governorship in 2002, he participated in a series of debates with his Democratic primary foe, State Comptroller Carl McCall. Cuomo lost that year, but he came back eight years later. In 2010, he secured the Democratic nod without a serious fight, but Cuomo willingly participated in a wild fall debate that included not just Republican nominee Carl Paladino but five candidates representing smaller parties. (Primary and general election debates should include all the candidates who have qualified for the ballot.) Stressing his determination to root out fraud, abuse and corruption, Cuomo was generally seen as having won the debate—as he did the ensuing election.
Debates are good for democracy. But they are not merely exercises in civil duty. Debates allow for the airing of complex issues of personal and political integrity that can never be adequately addressed in thirty-second attack ads on television.
A debate -- preferably, multiple debates -- before the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New York would allow capable candidates an opportunity to wrestle not just with questions about the Moreland Commission and money in politics but with a range of pressing issues.
Teachout wants debates on education, immigration and hydrofracking.
“But,” she adds, well aware of the turn New York’s 2014 campaign has taken, “all three would end up in a debate about corruption.”
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