John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

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No Debate Equals No Democracy: The Folly of Fast Track

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Police remove a woman protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership during a Senate hearing in January. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

The decision on whether to surrender the authority of the US Congress to amend and potentially improve trade agreements goes to the very heart of whether the United States respects democracy. If members of the House and Senate cannot check and balance executive branch choices that will define the economic future of the country, then the ability of the American people to petition for the redress of economic and social grievances and to have those grievances addressed by their elected representatives is severely undermined. That is what is at stake with debates about whether to eliminate basic congressional oversight of trade deals, via the “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority that President Obama seeks.

The vote Thursday by the Senate to shut down debate on a measure to provide Obama with this authority was the first step in the deconstruction of the democratic processes by which citizens can influence not just trade but economic policy. If the Senate now approves fast track, and if the House goes along with the plan, then the ability to alter or improve sweeping new trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be lost. All that will remain is a take-it-or-leave-it vote on final approval of a deal negotiated behind closed doors and without adequate scrutiny by the American people or their elected representatives.

It came when 13 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in supporting a cloture motion Thursday. Thirty-one Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and five Republicans opposed the move to shut down debate about amendments and to effectively restrict meaningful discourse on what the measure’s sponsor, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, described as “quite possibly the most important debate that we’ll have all year in Congress.”

Among the senators who are current or potential presidential prospects, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, voted “no,” as did Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. So, too, did Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. But Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida sided with the Obama White House and the corporate interests that have advocated aggressively for fast track and the TPP.

The Senate’s 62-38 decision to end debate on the president’s proposal to fast-track what could be the largest trade deals in American history was a travesty. Senators who had put up some resistance last week rushed to approve a proposal before a scheduled holiday break. “Instead of getting this bill done by Memorial Day, we should get it done right.” argued Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. “We should not vote on fast track without debate on amendments that would stand up for workers and manufacturers against unfair foreign trade practices.”

Brown’s objection was spot on. But it did not end there.

The Democrat who, since the mid-1990s has been one of the ablest and most engaged analysts of trade policy, detailed the absurdity of Thursday’s rushed vote.

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“Fast track authority hasn’t been debated in 13 years and this bill will allow expedited consideration of the largest trade agreement we’ve ever negotiated. More than 200 amendments have been filed by 46 senators, yet we’ve only voted on two,” argued Brown, the author of a highly regarded book on trade debates and policies, Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed (New Press). “With American jobs and more than 60 percent of the world’s economy on the line, we need to get this right.”

The Senate did not get it right on Thursday.

Specifically, the cloture vote limited debate and blocked amendments.

Practically, the cloture vote erected another barrier to the popular input and pressure—and the responses of elected representatives to this input and pressure—that makes real the promise of democracy.

Take Action: Demand that Congress Reject 'Fast Track' for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Read Next: John Nichols on Jim Kenney and Philadelphia

‘Jimmy From the Block’ Just Beat the Billionaires

Jim Kenney (AP/ Matt Slocum)

Democratic mayoral candidate and former City Councilman Jim Kenney celebrates onstage after winning the primary election in Philadelphia. (AP/ Matt Slocum)

The billionaires who play politics with America make some of their biggest plays in some of our biggest cities. They identify candidates who share their penchant for “school choice” schemes, vouchers, and privatization—like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—and they pour money into slick TV ads that sometimes tip the balance of urban elections.

Sometime, but not always. Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York in 2013 as a progressive, as were Marty Walsh in Boston and Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka scored a breakthrough victory in 2014 as the candidate of a coalition of union activists and public-education advocates. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced a runoff against Emanuel in Chicago this year and took a solid 44 percent of the vote on April 7. Then, on Tuesday, the guy the Philadelphia Daily News called “Jimmy from the block” beat the big spenders to become the Democratic nominee for mayor of America’s fifth-largest city.

Jim Kenney, a 56-year-old Irish-American pol from South Philly whom few expected to see making a serious bid for the city’s top job this year, won an epic landslide victory and is now the favorite to lead the city after next November’s election. If that happens, Kenney will lead from the left, as a progressive who Pennsylvania Working Families Executive Director Kati Sipp says “ran on a platform of supporting Philly public schools, raising the minimum wage, and ending stop-and-frisk.”

“This election shows that a candidate propped up by big money can be beaten out by a candidate who stands for true progressive values,” explained Sipp.

That’s right. But there is a little more to it.

Kenney did not make a timely embrace of the big-tent progressive politics that is suddenly in vogue—at least among Democrats—as America struggles to focus on issues of racial and economic injustice, environmental crisis, wage stagnation, and income inequality. He practiced it, for decades. When unions went on strike, “Jimmy-from-the-block” showed up with his picket sign—telling folks about how he “washed dishes after school as a member of Local 274” and earned his first union card at 17. When concerns arose about racial and ethnic divisions, he showed up for community meetings and established alliances with African-America, Asian-American, and Latino activists. When he saw discrimination against gays and lesbians, he championed a groundbreaking LGBTQ Equality Bill. When kids were getting busted, facing the threat of criminal records and even jail time for minor offenses, he worked to decriminalize marijuana. When neighborhoods were getting socked by corporate polluters, he helped set up a City Council Environmental Committee to put clean air, clean water, and solar power on the agenda in City Hall.

Kenney toyed with a mayoral bid. But it didn’t look likely even as the campaign was getting started.

State Senator Anthony Williams was the early front-runner, and he seemed to have all the advantages in a multi-candidate field that included a former district attorney, a former city solicitor, a former legislator, and a corporate executive. Williams was a powerful legislative leader and former gubernatorial candidate; he had a lot of the right connections in city and state government; and he was closely aligned with a group of billionaires who, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “share Williams’ views”—especially on “expanding charter schools, and using tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition vouchers.”

In January, as labor and community groups sought to identify a progressive alternative to Williams, they turned to Kenney. It was an audacious notion: that “Jimmy-from-the-block” might beat the political and economic power that was arrayed to seize City Hall. But he gave up his council seat and started running.

What made the run work was not just Kenney’s stands on the issues. It was memory. Folks remembered when “Jimmy-from-the-block” had been there for them. When Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals President Patty Eakin announced the union’s endorsement, she recalled that “Jim Kenney stood by us in 2010 when we had to strike at Temple University Hospital in order to protect our right to advocate on behalf of our patients.” The nurses were out knocking doors for Kenney on their breaks, as were the teachers, whose union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, noted that “Kenney’s views on public education and other issues faced by working families made him the clear choice of Philadelphia’s educators.” On Earth Day, the city’s major environmental groups backed the candidate who promised to make Philadelphia “the greenest city in America.” And, despite suggestions from pundits that a white councilman could not hope to secure substantial support in a race with a prominent African-American official such as Williams, Kenney started winning endorsements from African-American legislators and council members who celebrated his opposition to stop-and-frisk policing and public education. “I know what’s in Jim’s heart,” declared Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “He sat next to me in city council for 23 years…”

As a labor- and community-backed, multi-racial coalition came together for Kenney, and as he began to surge in the polls, the billionaires doubled down. “One group, American Cities, raised $6.8 million as of May 4 to support state Sen. Anthony H. Williams for mayor, with 97 percent coming from three guys on the Main Line who founded a stock trading firm,” reported the Inquirer.

That was roughly five times what the Kenney campaign raised. In fact, as Philadelphia magazine explained a week before the election, “the amount of the money that American Cities still had left in the bank Monday is more than any of the individual mayoral candidates raised since Jan. 1st. Or here’s another way to think about it: American Cities raised more money this year than all of the six Democratic mayoral candidates combined.”

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But Jim Kenney still had those nurses and teachers and gay rights activists and environmental advocates and Councilwoman Tasco, and they were still knocking on doors—still arguing that cities should be on the side of workers and neighborhoods and civil rights and public education.

When the votes were counted Tuesday night, that message—not the one in the ads paid for by the billionaires—prevailed.

Jim Kenney won by a 2-1 margin over Williams, with four other candidates trailing far behind. Kenney took 58 percent of the overall vote and swept to victories in more than 50 of the city’s 66 wards.

Former Philadelphia city solicitor Ken Trujillo, a progressive favorite who stepped out of the race early on and backed Kenney, said that, while some candidates might project a sense of political entitlement, “Jim, from the beginning, had a humility about his candidacy. He never acted like he was entitled to it.”

On election night, in a packed banquet hall on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street, Kenney’s “historic coalition” gathered on Tuesday night. The Inquirer declared that here “stood the real-life evidence of the unlikely coalition that Democratic nominee James F. Kenney created—Irish Catholics, cops and firefighters, gays and lesbians, building trades unions, black politicians who crossed the color line for a white candidate.”

“It’s a great hodgepodge,” State Representative Brian Sims, Pennsylvania’s first openly gay elected legislator announced. “We wanted somebody who knew all of us and had worked with all of us.”

Up on the stage, Jim Kenney waved a clenched fist of solidarity to the cheering crowds and proceeded to thank the unions and the activists and elected officials, one by one, name after name, for sticking with him. They had proven something about politics, not just in Philadelphia but in America.

Sometimes, great piles of money are not enough.

Sometimes, great coalitions of people win out.

Sometimes, “Jimmy from the block” beats the billionaires.


Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s plan to tax wall street and make college free

Bernie Sanders Has a Plan: Tax Wall Street and Make College Free

 (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders keeps bending the rules of Senate service and presidential campaigning by offering up proposals that imagine America as the fair, functional, and prosperous country it could be. Instead of playing politics within the narrow lines prescribed by the partisans and pundits who police the political process in America, the recently announced contender for the Democratic presidential nomination is going big—this week with a plan to provide tuition-free higher education for students at four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

“We live in a highly competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world,” says Sanders. “That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”

The contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is, of course, right.

But the United States isn’t supposed to be able to do the right thing anymore.

According to the Republicans who are running Congress—and running for president—there’s just no money for free higher education. Or for other useful initiatives. In an age of austerity, as defined by House Rules Committee chairman Paul Ryan and his minions, we are told that all Americans have to look forward to are more cuts, more privatization, wage stagnation, and staggering income inequality.

Ryan and his ideological amen corner moan that there’s just no money for programs that might educate and employ and care for Americans.

Of course, there is money: trillions of dollars that can be freed up, at the drop of a hat (or a stock market), to bail out banks and fund wars. But Republicans like Ryan and the contenders for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination claimthe country is damn-near broke—with just enough money left for one more tax cuts for one more billionaire campaign donor. And, too frequently, America’s “fair and balanced” media and compromised and compromising Democratic Partygo alongwith the fantasy.

What has distinguished Sanders’s Senate service and his presidential bid is a refusal to buy intothe lie of austerity. Instead, the senator is identifying problems that need to be solved and identifying where the money to solve them can be found.

Consider the legislation Sanders is sponsoring to provide tuition-free higher education for college students. This is not a new idea. As the senator notes, “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people. They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

“We used to lead the world in the percentage of our people who graduated college. Today we are in 12th place,” argues Sanders. “We used to have great universities tuition free. Today they are unaffordable. I want a more educated work force. I want everybody to be able to get a higher education regardless of their income.”

The case for eliminating undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities—and for substantially lowering student debt and bringing down interest rates on college loans—is sound. And popular.

So we have an appealing proposal that makes economic and social sense.

Cue the chorus of “we can’t afford that.”

But Sanders says we can.

At the same time that the senator is proposing to make higher education free he is also proposing that the United States follow the lead of other countries that have introduced a financial transactions tax. Under the comprehensive plan proposed by the senator—which would also overhaul student loan programs to eliminate profiteering and expand work-study options to keep costs down—“the federal share of the cost would be offset by [revenues raised from the] tax on Wall Street transactions by investment houses, hedge funds and other speculators.”

Specifically, Sanders is sponsoring Senate legislation to introduce a nominal financial transactions tax on speculative trading in stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other financial instruments. Parallel to the Inclusive Prosperity Act, a measure sponsored by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, the Sanders proposal would bring the United States up to speed with the dozens of other nations that have recognized the wisdom of establishing financial transactions taxes.

European nations have focused on financial transactions taxes because, as the European Commission explains, “Member States and their citizens want to ensure that the financial sector makes a fair and substantial contribution to public finances. Moreover, the sector should pay back at least part of what the European tax payers have pre-financed in the context of the bank rescue operations.”

In addition to raising revenues, financial transactions taxes have been embraced as tools to reduce the risks of high-speed and irresponsible speculative trading, explains the commission.

National Nurses United Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, whose union has been outspoken in its advocacy for a “Robin Hood Tax” on the speculators, says that the Sanders plan can raise hundreds of billions of dollars every year to pay for higher education.

The financial transactions tax “is the perfect way to fund this program, as well as providing the resources we need for other vital humanitarian needs, including healthcare and good paying jobs for all, affordable housing, eradicating poverty and environmental justice,” said DeMoro. “It is the hallmark of a civilized society and a more just nation.”

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More than 170 labor, civil rights, religious, environmental, community, consumer, and student groups have endorsed America’s campaign for a Robin Hood Tax, joining groups in countries around the world that have embraced the movement.

There’s a reason for this widespread interest in financial transactions taxes: economic realism.

“Income inequality is now at the center of our national political discourse, with politicians of every stripe recognizing it as a major problem of our time,” explains George Goehl, the executive director of National People’s Action. “What too few are willing to say is that we must demand more revenue from corporations and the one percent to level the playing field.”

Sanders, Ellison, and a hardful of other members of Congress are saying it: arguing that the United States can recognize human and societal needs, come up with plans to address them, and find the resources to get the job done.

That’s a rejection of economic austerity. But it is also something else: a rejection of the political austerity—as practiced by Republicans and Democrats—that has prevented progress for too long.

Read Next: John Nichols on Russ Feingold Running for the Senate

Russ Feingold Is Running Again for the Senate and for Economic Fairness

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Russ Feingold, (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Russ Feingold is running again for the United States Senate. That’s got DC insiders excited, because the former senator is way ahead in the polls and his victory in 2016 could play a critical role in tipping control of the Senate backed to the Democrats.

But Feingold has never been one for simple partisanship. His independence is legendary—as is his determination to stand on principle against not just Republicans and Wall Street but his own party and its leaders.

To a greater extent than anyone who has served in the Senate in recent decades, Feingold has a reputation for getting ahead of major issues and getting them right. It is a reputation forged not by reading polls or accepting the compromise-prone Washington way of doing things but by rejecting a failed political “consensus” and instead choosing to champion civil liberties, peace, clean elections, and, above all, economic fairness.

Russ Feingold cast the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. He was right about that, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.

Russ Feingold was in the minority that voted against authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to take the United States to war with Iraq in 2002. He was right about that, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.

Russ Feingold fought for the better part of a decade (usually with Arizona Senator John McCain) to address the worst abuses of a campaign finance system that the Wisconsinite warned was becoming a vehicle for the “legalized bribery” of elected officials. Feingold was right to fight when he did, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.

What fewer people are aware of is the fact that when he served in the Senate from 1993 to 2011 Feingold was equally visionary on the great economic issues of the our times. Indeed, long before there was an Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, there was a Russ Feingold—opposing bad trade deals, taking on the big banks and battling to forge an economy that worked for all Americans.

As he bids again for the Senate, in a candidacy announced Thursday, Feingold will focus on the economic fairness issues that have been his passion since his days as a state legislator representing the farms and factory towns of south-central Wisconsin.

“People tell me all the time that our politics and Washington are broken. And that multi-millionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling the shots. They especially say this about the U.S. Senate, and it’s hard not to agree. But what are we going to do? Get rid of the Senate?” Feingold asked in his campaign announcement. “Actually, no one I’ve listened to says we should throw in the towel and give up—and I don’t think that either.”

Feingold says his focus in 2016 will be on the restoring the “economic well-being” of a state and a nation hard hit by the austerity agendas of Republicans in Washington—including Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and the senator Feingold is challenging, Tea Party favorite Ron Johnson.

Johnson, a millionaire who says he takes his cues from Ayn Rand novels, beat Feingold in the Republican-wave year of 2010 by a 52-47 margin. But the incumbent’s over-the-top partisanship and extreme stances (on economic and foreign-policy issues) has saddled him with dismal approval ratings. The latest Marquette Law School Poll gives Feingold a 54-38 lead over the incumbent. The same poll pointed to widespread frustration with the budget proposals of Johnson ally Scott Walker, and with the weakness of the Wisconsin economy.

That Feingold is framing his campaign on an “economic well-being” agenda will come as no surprise.

The last several years have seen a great turn in American politics toward an understanding of popular frustration with economic inequality and crony capitalism. It’s not just Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; even traditionally centrist Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Republicans such as Jeb Bush are talking about restoring a measure of balance and fairness to the American economy.

What distinguishes Feingold—who spent the last five years writing, teaching, serving as a diplomat in Africa, and working with the group Progressives United—is a track record on economics that makes him, in the words of Democracy for America chair Jim Dean, “precisely the kind of fighter and truth-teller our country needs in the U.S. Senate.”

Feingold was in the Senate minority that voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and against the permanent normalization of trade relations with China in 2000. He warned of the threat that corporate-guided globalization would put the United States on a race to the bottom that would see factory closings, job losses, and an undermining of democracy.

Feingold was one of just eight senators to vote against lifting Glass-Steagall Act protections against abusive banking practices. He warned about the threat posed to consumers and to the whole of the US economy by the growth of “too-big-to-fail” banks—and about the prospect that those banks would use their power to force taxpayers to pay for their failures. When the meltdown came in 2008, Feingold voted against the Wall Street bailout. And two years later, he opposed the watered-down Dodd-Frank “reforms” because they failed to address the fundamental flaws of a ‘regulatory’ system that let’s big banks call the shots.

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Feingold fought, throughout his Senate career, for a rethinking of tax and investment policies that would stop rewarding firms that shut factories, lay off workers and move jobs overseas, and instead use the power of tax policy and investment to encourage the creation of living-wage jobs in the United States. Instead of corporate-welfare giveaways, he proposed incentives for firms to expand employment and payrolls—especially in the hardest-pressed neighborhoods and most-neglected rural regions of the country. As the Economic Policy Institute observed several years ago, Feingold’s approach represented the smart alternative to austerity.

Again and again as a US Senator, Feingold broke with Democratic and Republican presidents to stand for Main Street economics—fighting for jobs and job creation while challenging the excesses and abuses of behemoth banks and multinational corporations.

He’s ready to take up the fight once more.

As Feingold says, “We need to get started fixing all this.”

Read Next: John Nichols on the federal funding of transportation and infrastructure

Congress Has to Get Serious About Railroads and Infrastructure

Amtrak crash (AP Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

Emergency personnel at the deadly Amtrak train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia (AP Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

America’s “high-speed” rail lines are slow compared with those of the countries with which the United States chooses to compare itself. The schedules are unsteady. And, as the horrific crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia Tuesday night illustrated, safety concerns are on the rise.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis has seen a steady rise in Amtrak derailments in recent years. According to a Washington Post review of the data, “there were two in 2012, three in 2013, six in 2014…”

In the first two months of 2015, however, there were at least nine derailments. But it is the latest Amtrak Northeast Corridor derailment, with at least seven dead and roughly 200 hurt, that is renewing talk about how this country’s rail system is in serious need of repair.

The first priority is to mourn for the dead and to care for the injured in a regional tragedy that has national implications. But even amid the initial news reports, there was constant referencing of what Donald Trump was quick to decry as America’s “horrible infrastructure problems.” The Obama White House agreed, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying Wednesday morning, “There is clearly more that can be done when we’re talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades-old.”

The cause of the crash is still being investigated. There are reports that the train was traveling too fast for a turn it had to make—raising issues of human error, safety protocols, unaddressed dangers, and the role that smart infrastructure investment might have played in making the route smoother and safer. The most telling headline in this regard appeared in Friday morning’s New York Times: “Technology That Could Have Prevented Amtrak Derailment Was Absent.” The fact is that train crashes happen for a lot of reasons, some of which are difficult to control against. But there is no question that the role played by outdated and decaying infrastructure can be addressed by the federal government. Nor is there much question that one of the best ways to assure that human errors do not lead to disasters is by keeping equipment, track and systems up to date. Unfortunately, as a Bloomberg Business report explained Wednesday morning, “There’s a lack of political will.”

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a key Democrat working on transportation issues in the Senate said Wednesday that “even before last night it was clear that there’s more we can do as a nation to make rail travel safer and more reliable. Millions of Americans rely on rail to travel up and down the Northeast Corridor each year, and yet Congress refuses to make the investments needed to maintain and expand rail lines and safety features.”

The Philadelphia derailment, which occurred in the middle of national Infrastructure Week, highlights mounting concerns about infrastructure decay. “The Northeast Corridor, which runs between Boston and Washington, is one of the railroad’s busiest and most profitable lines,” reported The New York Times in its main story on the crash. “But officials have long complained that the agency needs more subsidies from Congress to improve the railroad’s deteriorating infrastructure and replace aging equipment.”

Bloomberg’s Wednesday morning report asked: “Did Old Infrastructure Contribute to Amtrak Derailment?” Answer: “It’s not just the trains, it’s the tracks.… they are getting old and they need a lot of maintenance.”

This is not a new concern. Officials in Washington have been regularly reminded in recent years of the problems plaguing America’s passenger rail system.

In a prescient article published last month, National Journal asked, “Why Can’t America Have Great Trains?

The answer had a lot to do with politics—especially the politics of those whose determination to cut federal spending is as ardent as it is impractical.

“Along with PBS and the United States Postal Service, Amtrak is perpetual fodder for libertarian think-tankers and Republican office-seekers on the prowl for government profligacy,” explained Simon van Zuylen-Wood. “Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush repeatedly tried to eliminate its subsidy, while Mitt Romney promised to do the same. Democrats, for their part, aren’t interested in slaying Amtrak, but mostly you get the sense they just feel bad for it.”

National Journal detailed the challenges facing Amtrak, as compared with the ever-improving rail systems of developed nations, and concluded that “those stats don’t figure to improve anytime soon. While Amtrak isn’t currently in danger of being killed, it also isn’t likely to do more than barely survive. Last month, the House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—fair comparison or not—will be spending $128 billion this year on rail.”

The House proposal for Amtrak reauthorization includes one change of consequence, and it looks good at first glance. The House measure would make it easier for the Northeast Corridor to reinvest in infrastructure improvements on its own lines rather than forcing it to subsidize improvements on less-profitable routes nationwide. But that’s not an appropriate response, as it attempts to solve one funding problem by creating another.

The Senate has not gotten around to acting on Amtrak reauthorization. The awful news from Philadelphia, involving a rail line many members of Congress and Washington insiders ride, is likely to bring action. But simple reauthorization is not the answer. The House measure is ill-conceived and insufficient.

Connecticut Senator Murphy has been arguing that “The existing (Northeast Corridor) needs upwards of $50 billion in investment over the next 20 years just to keep up with projected demand.”

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That is just the beginning of the investment that is required for the renewal of rail—and the broader infrastructure of the United States.

Safety concerns can and should motivate investment. But so, too, should concerns for job creation and economic development.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the case for a broader commitment to infrastructure central to his advocacy for a progressive agenda.

Reflecting on crowded mass transit, traffic jams and related issues in a Wednesday New York Times opinion piece, de Blasio, one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, wrote:

Federal investment has not kept pace with this demand, resulting in an outdated, overburdened surface transportation system that is ill equipped to handle current, let alone future, need. Spending on infrastructure in the United States has sunk to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product, a 20-year low.

The Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, it will cost $84 billion to $105 billion a year just to keep the highway, bridge and transit systems in good repair, and up to $170 billion a year to improve conditions and performance.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world races ahead. Europe spends 5 percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure, and China 9 percent. Global cities like London and Beijing are investing in transit and rail projects on a vast scale, while in New York City, more than 160 bridges were built over a century ago, and large portions of our subway’s signal system are more than 50 years old. Some of the subway cars we ride in were built before 1975.

This isn’t for want of local resources. Over the past decade, New York City has increased commitments to capital projects by 50 percent. But we could not do it all on the local level even if we wanted to.

That’s a wise assessment. And it ought to be taken seriously by a Congress that has neglected infrastructure for too long. The Laborers’s International Union of North America sums the problem up well when it says, “Our nation’s infrastructure is failing us and so is Congress by not fixing it.”


Read Next: John Nichols on Democrat’s rejecting the TPP deal

Why So Many Democrats Rejected Obama’s Lobbying on the Trans-Pacific Trade Deal

(Reuters/ Kevin Lamarque)

A protestor at the hearing on "President Obama's 2015 Trade Policy Agenda" (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

President Obama takes it personally when Americans disagree with his free-trade fundamentalism. He keeps griping about the Democrats who usually support his agenda but are ardently opposed to his request for “fast track” authority to bypass congressional input and oversight on a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The president has from the start of the debate over fast track and the TPP had a practical problem: If most congressional Democrats align with labor, environmental, and human-rights activists rather than the White House—as they appear intent upon doing— they can block Obama’s trade agenda. In the Senate, just 40 votes are required to erect a procedural barrier to fast-track legislation. In the House, a reasonably united Democratic caucus could align with the significant number of Republicans who have traditionally opposed unrestricted free trade to thwart fast track and/or the TPP itself.

On Tuesday, the first major test came in the Senate, and the president lost. Sixty votes were required to open a debate on fast track, but only 52 senators voted to go forward. Forty-two Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King, voted “no.”

The trade fight is not finished; negotiations with Senate Republicans who favor Obama’s agenda could make the fast-track proposal more attractive to at least a few wavering Democrats. And if that happens, expect Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to exercise the option he has retained to bring the issue up again.

Unless and until that happens, however, the president has taken a hard hit. It happened because a number of traditionally pro–free trade Democrats, who had been expected to vote with Obama and the Republicans, joined with the Senate’s growing caucus of fair-trade Democrats to block action.

This was what the president feared would happen.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, the president made no secret of his frustration with his fellow Democrats.

“There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he griped to the crowd that was assembled last week for his appearance at the corporate headquarters of Nike, a US-based firm that (with its contractors) now employs roughly 40 overseas workers for every one American. And, the president explained, a lot of the critics are Democrats who he has traditionally thought of as his partisan and ideological allies.

Instead of listening to their objections, however, Obama simply announced that he was right and the Democrats who have backed him on so many other issues were wrong.

The problem is that the “evidence” the president has mustered on behalf of fast track and the TPP is unconvincing. In part that’s because, as Bernie Sanders warned with regard to proponents of free-trade deals during Tuesday’s Senate debate, “These folks have been proven wrong time after time after time.” But there is also the fact that the current promises are so hollow. Consider the case of Nike and that 40-1 ratio. Even if every promise about the benefits of free trade and the TPP were to come true—an exceptionally unlikely prospect if the history of trade pacts is any guide—the ratio of overseas workers to Americans employed by Nike and its contractors would shift to somewhere in the range of 30-1. That best-case scenario, everyone admits, would take more than a decade to be achieved. And, though fewer admit it, much of the new employment would likely involve technical workers developing automated production schemes that reduce rather than increase living-wage employment in the US and abroad.

These are points that foes of Trade Promotion Authority and the TPP have made in precise and thoughtful detail, and with substantial support from economists and policy analysts.

Yet Obama has dismissed those who disagree with him as somehow wrongheaded and ignorant. “[What’s] interesting is typically they’re my friends coming from my party,” he said of the fast-track and TPP critics. “And they’re my fellow travelers on minimum wage and on job training and on clean energy and on every progressive issue, they’re right there with me. And then on this, they’re like whupping on me.”

Why does the president think this is so? “[On] this issue, on trade,” he says, “I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They’re just wrong.”

Obama’s criticisms of fellow Democrats, which became more and more intense as Tuesday’s Senate vote approached, disregarded not just the honest concerns of Democratic members of the House and Senate but the sincere objections of union members, environmentalists, civil-rights, and human-rights activists.

Ultimately, the president’s approach harmed his own credibility, as his comments created the impression that he was unaware of the long experience, and the deep insight, possessed by progressive critics of free-trade absolutism. The largest and steadiest public-education project on a major economic issue in modern history has played out over the past quarter-century in union halls and church basements and community centers across the country, as Americans have wrestled with the promises and realities of trade policy.

The people the president keeps saying are “wrong”—a group that includes Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders and most House Democrats—are not unthinking protectionists or crude isolationists. They are supporters of workers, the environment, and human rights in the United States and abroad. They have come to recognize that, while fair trade holds immense promise, free trade along the lines the United States has practiced it in recent decades has done immense damage.

The most ardent opponents of fast track and the TPP have firsthand experience with failed trade policies. They have seen what the North American Free Trade Agreement, the permanent normalization of trade with China and other trade arrangements have done to their communities.Their current position is rooted in an understanding that, as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential run) says, “We cannot afford to rush through another NAFTA that values corporate profits above families.”

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited many of those communities and stood side by side with many of the leading opponents of ill-conceived and poorly administered trade agreements. He decried “a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear…”

Now Obama suggests that those he sided with in 2008 are clueless in 2015.

That is not the case.

“American workers have seen the effects of unfair foreign trade on their jobs and manufacturing facilities—they don’t need their elected leaders making personal attacks on each other during an important policy debate,” says Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who remembers when Obama stood with the critics of failed free-trade policies.

“During the 2008 presidential primary, I watched President Obama argue in Cleveland that we should renegotiate NAFTA. Instead, we’ve seen more empty promises of jobs through exports while American workers are hit with a flood of imports and jobs shipped overseas,” says Brown. “It’s clear that the American public doesn’t support these trade deals and I am disappointed the president has resorted to name calling in an attempt to shift the debate.”

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Brown’s opposition to fast track and the TPP is inspired by what he has seen happen to Ohio communities like his hometown of Mansfield, and in statistics that confirm the failure of trade deals to live up to promises made by Republican and Democratic presidents:

The Obama Administration predicted that the South Korea Free Trade Agreement would create 70,000 jobs and deliver up to $11 billion in exports. Instead, it only increased U.S. exports to Korea by $1 billion, while Korean imports have skyrocketed to more than $12 billion. The growing good trade deficit with Korea has eliminated over 75,000 jobs in the last three years.

The U.S. already has a trade deficit with Japan and 10 other countries included in the TPP. Since 1997, the deficit with these countries has increased by $151.4 billion.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who has worked on trade policy since the 1980s, explains that the president’s suggestion that his critics do not understand the issue is “absolutely inaccurate.”

“We know exactly what we’re talking about,” says Slaughter, the daughter of a coal miner who has charted trade-related factory closings and job losses in her upstate New York district for decades. “My concern is that he does not understand what’s in it.”

Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, explains that “Over the last three decades, in large part because of bad trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA, Americans have worked harder than ever for less. In fact, hundreds of thousands of jobs—factory jobs, middle-class jobs—in states across the country were lost.”

Pocan’s a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, an auto-making town for more than a century that saw the closing of its Chrysler plant in 2010—despite the fact that the plant had been recently modernized and rated as one of the most efficient in the United States. “Anyone who does not see the connection between our economy and the failed trade agreements of the past,” says the congressman, “will remain on the wrong side of the future.”

It is not ignorance but experience that has caused so many progressive members of Congress to join activist groups that have developed deep expertise on trade policy to oppose the president’s embrace of the trade agenda of Senate majority leader McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Major unions have developed research teams to study trade and worked closely with experts on trade policy for decades now. They have also aligned with international trade unions to oppose the free-trade absolutism of the president and his Wall Street backers. Labor’s opposition to fast track and a TPP deal that the Communications Workers of America union refers to as “NAFTA on Steroids” is driven by fact—not fantasy.

The same goes for the criticism of current trade policies expressed by environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and for the outspoken opposition to fast track by progressive farm groups such as the National Farmers Union.

Opposition to fast track and the TPP is rooted in the fact of trade deficits and in the facts on the ground witnessed by those who voice the criticism. Yet critics of free trade do not see the current wrangling over fast track and the TPP merely from the perspective of the past. As Pocan says, “People recognize that this is a fight for the future.”

The president has every right to side with Wall Street in trade debates. But he does his cause no favors by suggesting that those who sincerely disagree with him are unaware of what is at stake. In fact, the reason they are opposing Obama’s fast-track request is because they know precisely what is at stake.

Take Action: Demand that Congress Reject ‘fast track’ for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Read Next: John Nichols on Scotland’s anti-austerity message

A Resounding Message From Scotland: Break the ‘Cozy Consensus’ Around ‘Slash-and-Burn Austerity’


People react during a Scottish pro-independence campaign rally in central Glasgow, Scotland. (AP Photo/David Cheskin)

If the Scottish National Party was a small anti-austerity party that had never before made a real dent in British politics and suddenly shot into contention—grabbing dozens of seats away from the traditional parties and elbowing its way into position as the third-largest party in new Parliament—the world would take notice.

Well, the Scottish National Party is a small—make that formerly small—anti-austerity party. And it just made a real dent, a huge dent, in politics with an epic electoral breakthrough. “The tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifted yesterday,” said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on Friday morning. The veteran British political commentator Andrew Marr declared as the election results came in that “Scotland has moved decisively to the left.”

That move offers an important lesson for American progressives about going big in politics—especially anti-austerity politics. It is not just possible to run against the failed conservative policies of seeking to balance budgets with cuts to public services, attacks on public employees and their unions, and crude policies of privatization that redistribute wealth upward. It is necessary.

“The vote yesterday was an overwhelming vote against continued austerity and that, the issue that we put at the top of the campaign, is the issue that we will seek to put at the top of the agenda in Westminster,” declared Sturgeon in interviews aired nationally Friday morning.

It did not used to be that what the leader of the historically small, historically marginalized Scottish National Party had to say was big news on the day after a nationwide election. But a lot has changed in recent years, and a lot more changed Thursday. Sturgeon, the First Minister in Scotland’s devolved parliament (the rough equivalent of a state legislature in the United States or a provincial assembly in Canada), put not just a party but an economic agenda on the table in the 2015.campaign. “I am not,” she declared. “going to support governments that plough ahead with austerity that damaged the poorest in society.”

That message resonated, with unprecedented force.

The big story out of Britain’s 2015 parliamentary election had two parts. Part one was, of course, that Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party retained power. That’s the news that most Americans will get. But part two was at least as dramatic. The SNP—running on a fervent anti-austerity platform that rejected Cameron’s policies and promised to work with any progressive party seeking to unwind them—won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British Parliament.

The divide between England and Scotland (as well as the divide between England and Wales) that was revealed by the results is stark. It points to ongoing tensions and the prospect that calls for Scottish independence—which the SNP backs and which won 45 percent of the vote in a dramatic referendum last year—will rise.

But there was a subplot to the tale of the SNP success story. The UK’s traditional party of the left, the Labour Party, ran an unsteady (sometimes bold, sometimes cautious) campaign that failed to displace Cameron and the Tories from enough English seats and led to a severe setback across Labour’s traditional stronghold of Scotland. With Labour and the national third party, the Liberal Democrats, slipping badly, the SNP grabbed dozens of seats it had never held before. It did this, at least in part, by creating an excitement factor that translated into turnout.

In England, the turnout Thursday was 65.8 percent, almost the same as the 65.5 percent rate in 2010.

In Scotland, the turnout was more than 71.1 percent, way up from the 63.8 percent in 2010. For some competitive seats in Scotland, turnout was over 80 percent. Turnout among the young and low-income voters was high, in no small part because, as The Guardian’s Ian Jack noted, “Here is the queer thing, the thrilling thing and the frightening thing. Among the food banks and the trampled front gardens of the big housing schemes, poor people here have begun to feel they have power.”

What changed? The 2014 Scottish independence referendum shifted a lot. It put fundamental issues of self-determination on the table, as well as the prospect of rejecting austerity with an exit strategy that, as the slogan suggested, would “End Tory Rule” forever. Independence did not win, but it reshaped thinking about political and economic possibilities.

Historically, the SNP was seen as a narrowly nationalist party that focused first and foremost of independence for Scotland. It’s still pro-independence. But, in recent years, it has clearly identified as an anti-austerity party that has rejected cuts imposed not just by the current Tory government but the preceding Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

“The entire focus of the Westminster debate is on the deficit. Now, the deficit is hugely important. But it is a symptom of economic difficulties, not just a cause of them,” argued Sturgeon in much-reported remarks in February. “It’s simply untrue to say that we are ‘all in this together’. The cuts have had a disproportionate impact on women, people with disabilities and people on low incomes. The most vulnerable are bearing the heaviest burden.”

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There was no mystery about the point of the independence referendum in 2014. Supporters of the referendum, led by the SNP and activist groups such as Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign, sought not just a physical break but an economic break from Britain.

There was no mystery about the point of the Scottish National Party campaign of 2015. The SNP decried austerity and ripped not just the Tories but the whole political process for failing to establish a humane and functional economics.

There was far more clarity, and force, in the SNP campaign—so much so that, when Sturgeon appeared in a national debate with the leaders of the other parties, she sparked excitement far beyond Scotland. British papers announced that the Scottish first minister had “won” the debate. From across England came the ask: “Is there any way I can vote for the SNP here.” They couldn’t. The SNP was not an option on English ballots. (“Don’t tempt me,” said Sturgeon when asked about extending the party’s reach. But, in fact, she spoke favorably about the Green Party, which won well over 1 million votes and retained its single seat in parliament, and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party, which will have three seats in the new British Parliament. Throughout the campaign, Sturgeon proposed a grand alliance, including Labour and all the smaller parties of the left, to upend austerity once and for all.)

The Labour Party worked hard to be the alternative to the Tories, and it made some progress—increasing its share of the vote by 3.6 percent in England and picking up 15 new parliamentary seats there. But that was insufficient. “I’m bitterly disappointed that we’re looking at another Conservative government,” explained Sturgeon, even as she bluntly noted that ”Labour wasn’t strong enough to beat the conservatives in England.”

When Labour and the SNP went head-to-head in Scotland, Labour lost more than 40 seats. Why the wipeout? Despite the fact that Labour was the opposition party to Cameron and his government, it fully aligned with the Tories to oppose the 2014 Scottish referendum. Labour leaders failed to recognize that the referendum vote was not merely raising the issue of independence but the issue of austerity. While Labour was not going to back independence, its shoulder-to-shoulder campaigning with Cameron’s Conservatives blurred the lines of distinction.

Blurred lines are bad politics, especially when essential economic issues are being debated. They suggest what Sturgeon refers to as a “cozy consensus” around “slash-and-burn austerity.”

The message of the SNP breakthrough, not just for Scotland, and not just for Britain, is that people are sick of the “cozy consensus.” And they are ready to vote for radical alternatives. Americans progressives can, and should, learn from the emerging anti-austerity politics that says, unequivocally, that the cuts must end and a new economy must emerge.

Read Next: John Nichols on whether Bernie Sanders can break through the status quo

Social Democracy on the Prairie: Canadians Teach Us How to Beat Austerity

The oil rich tar sands of Alberta (Reuters/Todd Korol)

It would be a big deal politically, a very big deal, if Texas or Wyoming suddenly veered left and elected a super-progressive state legislature and governor. It would be a bigger deal if the progressives who swept to power did so with a promise to implement a social-democratic agenda of new taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund healthcare, improve education, maintain public services and protect the environment. It would be an even bigger deal if the new governing party was prepared to implement a $15-an-hour minimum wage and champion labor rights. And if the new leadership said it would stop promoting corporate-sponsored pipeline projects because of concerns for the environment—while promising to “take leadership on the issue of climate change”—that would be remarkable.

Well, all of this just happened in Alberta, the oil-rich province that for decades has been governed by conservatives who were so tied to the oil industry and so deferent to corporate power that they often made George W. Bush and Dick Cheney look populist by comparison.

Alberta’s New Democratic Party swept to a landslide victory in Tuesday’s voting and will, for the first time in history, form the new government for a province sometimes referred to as “the Texas of Canada.” But that does not begin to tell the story of what the NDP accomplished. Before the election, the party held four of the 87 seats in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. After the election, the NDP held 53 of the 87—a gain of 49 seats.

Local factors—corruption scandals associated with the outgoing conservative government, turbulence in the energy industry and growing concern about damage done to the environment by pipeline projects—all shaped a historic result. But nothing did more to steer the province leftward than frustration with what the NDP condemned as “deeper austerity measures and budget cuts.”

The same penchant for balancing budgets by attacking public employees and public services that has been seen in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin and Sam Brownback’s Kansas has been on display in Alberta. And as the election approached, the governing Progressive Conservative party proposed more cuts.

Ripping the conservatives for targeting education and healthcare, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley positioned herself the NDP as the alternative to austerity cuts. The Alberta NDP’s manifesto called for investments in public services paid for by hiking corporate tax rates, for a review of the royalties oil companies pay to the province with an eye toward assuring that the people get their fair share, and for a ban on corporate contributions to political parties. That willingness to challenge corporate hegemony even extended to criticizing particular pipeline projects.

Notley said during the campaign that she would no longer lobby—as previous premiers of Alberta have—for US approval of the controversial KeystoneXL pipeline. She also said she would withdraw provincial support for the equally controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project because “there’s genuine concerns by the indigenous communities” and because “I think from an environmental point of view, it’s a problem.”

Notley’s not going to shut down Alberta’s energy industries. But throughout the campaign the lawyer and activist made connections between economic and environmental issues and spoke of the need for the government to reorder priorities to embrace human needs—rather than corporate agendas. The balance on a broad range of issues, she suggested, should be tipped toward the interests of the working families of Alberta rather than multinational energy corporations. To that end, the Alberta NDP pledged to lead Canada in the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and absolutely rejected proposals to balance budgets with austerity schemes to cut public-sector wages and undermine union rights. The corporations, argued Notley, could pay a little more.

When opponents criticized the NDP for running an idealist campaign with a slate of candidates that included labor and environmental and human-rights activists who had limited electoral experience, the campaign produced T-shirts that played on the name of the metal band Mötley Crüe. The party slate, the shirts declared, was the “Nötley Crüe.” And the shirts were, of course, proudly union-made.

The NDP’s freewheeling campaign always came back to core themes, however. As Notley said, “We’re fighting for the things that really matter, accessible health care, education for our kids and ending corporate tax breaks.”

That’s very much in line with the national message of the NDP, a party with roots going back to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the remarkable democratic socialist movement that, under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, led the successful fight to develop Canada’s national health system.

“New Democrats seek a future that brings together the best of the insights and objectives of Canadians who, within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions, have worked through farmer, labor, co-operative, feminist, human rights and environmental movements, and with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada within a global community dedicated to the same goals,” declares the party’s constitution, which adds, “New Democrats affirm a role for government in helping to create the conditions for sustainable prosperity. We believe in a rules-based economy, nationally and globally, in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market in addressing the common good by having the power to act in the public interest for social and economic justice, and for the integrity of the environment.”

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Since its founding in 1961, the NDP has at various points in history governed provinces across Canada, from British Columbia to Saskatchewan to Manitoba to Ontario to Nova Scotia—and, since 2011, the NDP has been the main opposition party in the Canadian Parliament.

But the NDP has never governed conservative Alberta, which the CBC refers to as “traditionally Canada’s most conservative province.”

Until now.

“Friends,” declared Notley, “I believe, that change has finally come to Alberta. New people, new ideas and a fresh start for our great province.”

And new politics.

American media do not do a very good job of covering Canadian politics. And Americans don’t always know what is happening north of the border. But this is a development worth noting, not merely because, as Notley notes, “we might have made a little bit of history” but because there are lessons to be learned about how quickly and how massively voters can turn against austerity. If the region they call “the Texas of Canada” can change to confront failed economic and environmental policies, perhaps the Texas of America, and the Wyoming of America and a lot of other states can, as well.


Read Next: John Nichols on Mike Huckabee’s populism

Mike Huckabee Is a Little Bit Populist, and That Could Be a Big Problem for Bush and Walker

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Mike Huckabee (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Mike Huckabee is a predictably extreme conservative on a host of social issues. But on a number of economic issues, he is something of a populist.

That combination makes him a much more serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination than much of the media—and even some of his fellow candidates in the race he entered Tuesday—might imagine. This does not mean that the former governor of Arkansas and failed 2008 Republican presidential prospect will be the 2016 nominee of his party. In all likelihood, he’ll fail again. But he might take some other Republicans down with him.

How’s that?

The great balancing act of the Republican Party in recent decades has been to get socially conservative people who are not all that wealthy to abandon their economic self-interest and vote for candidates who openly advocate for trade policies that eliminate jobs, oppose efforts to address wage stagnation and have no real problem with an ever-expanding pattern of income inequality.

Working-class and middle-income Americans who passionately oppose abortion rights and marriage equality but who might want to keep their jobs and Social Security usually find themselves in a bind. As Republicans, they can choose from plenty of candidates who promise to prevent loving couples from getting married. But those same candidates are likely to put a lot of jobs and all of Social Security at risk.

There’s just not a lot of opportunity for working-class evangelicals to vote their values and to vote their wallets.

Except, perhaps, with Huckabee.

No, Huckabee is not some Republican Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Bernie Sanders. He doesn’t even qualify as a moderate on most economic issues. But within the Republican Party as it has been reconstructed by House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan and his minions—as a battering ram for austerity policies and the unapologetic redistribution of wealth upward—Huckabee is an outlier, in that he at least tries to distance himself from the overt politics of plutocracy.

Consider Huckabee’s response several weeks ago to the various Ryan-lite proposals to mess with Social Security and Medicare.

Huckabee said his answer to the schemes was “not just no, it’s you-know-what no.”

“I don’t know why Republicans want to insult Americans by pretending they don’t understand what their Social Security program and Medicare program is,” he said, ripping into proposals to raise the retirement age and otherwise undermine benefits.

While leading GOP contenders such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have indicated an interest in mangling so-called “entitlement programs” as part of a broader austerity agenda—and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is making specific Ryan-like proposals—Huckabee says, “That’s not a reform. That’s some kind of proposal that Republicans need to embrace because what we are really embracing at that point is we are embracing a government that lied to its people—that took money from its people under one pretense and then took it away at the time they started wanting to actually get what they have paid for all these years.”

Or consider Huckabee on trade policy.

Republican leaders in Congress want to “fast-track” President Obama’s sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, even thought critics decry it as “NAFTA on steroids.” Candidates such as Bush and Walker have histories of repeating Wall Street talking points when it comes to trade policy. But Huckabee says of the TPP: “If it’s not fair trade, it’s not free trade.” And he gripes that trade policies seem to be written in the interest of multinational corporations as opposed to working Americans, arguing that “We have a lot of globalists and frankly corporatists instead of having nationalists who put forward the best interests of the United States and working families.”

Huckabee even has an occasional kind word for organized labor. He’s no friend to public-sector unions, often engaging in the same wrongheaded rhetoric as other Republicans. But he admits that private-sector unions “have actually provided some decent check and balance to jobs and businesses.”

In 2008, when he sought the Republican nomination, Huckabee told a GOP forum: “The real fact is, unions are going to take a more prominent role in the future for one simple reason: A lot of American workers are finding that their wages continue to get strapped lower and lower while CEO salaries are higher and higher. And the reality is that when you have the average CEO salary 500 times the average worker, and you have the hedge fund manager making 2,200 times that of the average worker, you’re going to create a level of discontent that’s going to create a huge appetite for unions. So unions are the natural result of workers finally saying, ‘Look, I can’t go from a $70,000-a-year job to a $15,000-a-year job and feed by family of four.’ That’s when unions are going to come back in roaring form.”

That kind of talk won him endorsements from two major unions: the 160,000-member International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Huckabee actually sought the endorsements and declared on the campaign trail that: “I’m the only Republican who has gotten endorsements in this presidential race from major labor unions.”

That’s a far cry from the aggressive union-bashing of many of the Republican contenders, particularly Walker, who recently signed an anti-labor “right-to-work” law, regularly rips on union leaders and in February said the experience of wrangling with union families in Wisconsin had prepared him to tackle ISIS. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” declared the candidate who frequently tops GOP polls. “I can do the same across the globe.”

Walker’s clownish labor bashing has earned criticism even from conservatives, who have referred to the ISIS line as “a terrible response.” And it undoubtedly made socially conservative Republicans who are union members uncomfortable. But they have not had much in the way of an alternative, until now.

That’s what makes Huckabee’s decision to join the 2016 race bad news for presumed front-runners.

Serious social conservatives aren’t going to get excited by Bush. But Walker has made a big play for evangelical votes—especially in Iowa.

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The trouble for Walker is that Huckabee, who won Iowa in 2008, has maintained close ties to many of the evangelicals Walker needs. That’s what makes Huckabee a threat to the Wisconsinite and to other contenders who are more in touch with hedge-fund managers than with hog farmers.

For Bush, divisions on his right flank are always good news. And the news gets even better if those divisions stall Walker’s progress.

But Bush should be careful what he hopes for. If Huckabee displaces pretenders such as Walker, he’ll be in the race for a good long time. That means that Bush will have to deal with a challenger who reminds Americans—well into 2016—that Bush is anything but a man of the people.

Mike Huckabee, talk-show host and best-selling author, isn’t much more of a man of the people.

Truthfully, he isn’t all that much of an economic populist. But he is enough of one to stand out from the “Wall Street can do no wrong” Republicans he is running against. And if the man from Arkansas offers working-class evangelicals in states such as Iowa the right combination of social conservatism and support for Social Security and fair trade, he could prove that even Republicans are sick of austerity.

That won’t make him the nominee. But it could prevent other candidates from being nominated. And it could leave the eventual nominee battered and bruised by the new populist politics of 2016.


Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders and the DNC Debate

With Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton In, Democrats Prepare for 6 Debates

 (AP/John Locher)

Sanders speaks during a town hall meeting in 2015. (AP/John Locher)

Bernie Sanders will be debating Hillary Clinton as they compete for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Indeed, it looks like the two announced contenders—and prospective yet unannounced candidates such as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee—could debate six times.

Or more.

The Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday that it will sanction six debates between candidates seeking the nomination. DNC Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the debates will begin this fall, as part of an effort to “give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side.” They will have plenty to debate, as there are big differences between the announced candidates on issues of war and peace, the Patriot Act, trade policy, and a whole lot more. And if Chafee, O’Malley, and Webb get in (along, potentially, with others), more distinctions on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to diplomacy will be highlighted.

There are a lot of debate specifics to be worked out—including dates and locations. But the DNC announcement is a welcome acknowledgement, coming just days after Sanders joined Clinton in the running, that the race for the party’s 2016 nomination will be competitive. The former secretary of state maintains a daunting lead in most polls, and her clear front-runner status had stirred speculation about whether she would debate. Tuesday’s announcement, in combination with recent statements from Wasserman Schultz and signals from the Clinton camp, have laid the speculation to rest.

Score a point for Democratic democracy—and points also to the party’s webmasters for highlighting the competition at the top of its site with pictures of the two announced candidates and a message that “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are officially in the presidential race.” When additional candidates enter the competition, it’s vital for the DNC to respect them all—understanding the primary campaigns can take unexpected turns and that (as Clinton well knows) front-runner status is not always permanent.

As for the debates, there is still a lot to be sorted out, including dates and locations.

The DNC plan is to schedule broadcast debates—with, the committee says, digital platforms and local media collaboration—in the early-primary and -caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. That leaves openings for two more major debates, according to the plan announced Tuesday.

Of course, there could be even more. When politics gets interesting, debates proliferate. And that’s a good thing.

Debates are essential to the political process. Voters need to see more from candidates than 30-second commercials. That is why The Nation, as part of its “45” project to open up the 2016 political process, has made advocacy for open debates—in the primary season and the fall—a central focus. More than a year ago, the magazine editorialized about how “We’ll keep an eye on the debate about debates in the primary season—and not just on (Republican National Committee chairman) Reince Priebus’s crude attempt to turn GOP debates into little more than joint press conferences. We’ll also keep an eye on the need for Democrats to hold primary debates—even if Clinton maintains what is currently the most commanding poll lead in history for an open Democratic nomination.”

In that spirit, here’s one big gripe about the Democratic plan.

According to the DNC’s statement, “While a six sanctioned debate schedule is consistent with the precedent set by the DNC during the 2004 and 2008 cycles, this year the DNC will further manage the process by implementing an exclusivity requirement. Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process. Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process.”

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Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats should leave that sort of “control freakery” to Priebus and the Republicans. If several candidates decide to debate, particularly in a state that might not otherwise host a session, that’s to the good. If civil-rights or labor groups want to schedule forums and invite candidates, the contenders should not be able to use the excuse that they do not want to violate party rules.

The American political process features too few debates. And the ones that do take place are too controlled. The Democratic National Committee ought not be in the business of restricting options for additional debates. It should be encouraging more of them.


Read Next: John Nichols on the differences between Sanders and Clinton

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