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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Lincoln Chafee Adds a Proposal to the 2016 Debate: ‘Let’s Bring Edward Snowden Home’

Lincoln Chafee

Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Lincoln Chafee launched his 2016 campaign with a perfect illustration of why it is so vitally important that the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency be contested and vibrant, with lots of debates, and serious interchanges not just on questions of economic inequality—which the candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will spotlight and define—but on issues such as mass surveillance and privacy rights.

Chafee launched his candidacy several weeks ago with a takeaway statement about how “Our sacred Constitution requires a warrant before unreasonable searches, which includes our phone records. Let’s enforce that and while we’re at it, allow Edward Snowden to come home.”

This has remained a steady focus for the former Rhode Island senator and governor as he has framed a decidedly uphill challenge to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and the other contenders for the party’s nomination. Like all candidates, Chafee says he is in it to win it. But he also says that “the first goal” of his candidacy is to assure that a wider range of issues is “discussed within the Democratic Party.”

Just as Sanders has gone big on economic populism and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has gone big on immigration reform, Chafee has gone big on privacy rights in general and the Snowden case in particular.

After Congress moved to place some restrictions on the mass surveillance that Snowden exposed—as a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and National Security Agency contractor who two years ago revealed that the National Security Agency had been making records of nearly every phone call in the United States—Chafee tweeted: “Congratulations to Congress for standing tall for civil liberties! Now let’s bring Snowden home. He has done his time.”

In New Hampshire, on his first campaign swing as an announced candidate, Chafee expanded on his remarks about Snowden, who penned a June 4 opinion piece for The New York Times in which he recalled his role in “revealing that democratic governments had been monitoring the private activities of ordinary citizens who had done nothing wrong.”

“Within days, the United States government responded by bringing charges against me under World War I-era espionage laws. The journalists were advised by lawyers that they risked arrest or subpoena if they returned to the United States. Politicians raced to condemn our efforts as un-American, even treasonous,” wrote Snowden. “Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing—that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.”

Now, however, Snowden argues that the United States and the world are saying “no” to mass surveillance and creating a new political dynamic:

Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.

This is the power of an informed public.

But will that new dynamic be reflected in our politics?

That remains to be seen. After all, Hillary Clinton is on record arguing with regard to Snowden that she “can never condone what he did. He stole millions of documents, and the great irony is the vast majority of those documents had nothing to do with civil liberties.”

On the issue of Snowden returning to the United States from Russia, Clinton has said, “If he wishes to return knowing he would be held accountable and also able to present a defense, that is his decision to make.”

Chafee is saying something very different.

In Lebanon, New Hampshire, following the recent congressional action to limit the NSA’s surveillance programs, the former senator told a crowd, “Now, let’s bring Snowden home.… He did the right thing.”

Clinton and Chafee disagree on a question of consequence—an issue that a lot of Americans understand, and about which a lot of Americans have opinions.

That’s the stuff of a fine, and necessary, debate.

The Democratic National Committee says there will be such a debate; in fact, there will be six debates. But that’s fewer debates than the Republican National Committee is planning. In addition, the DNC is demanding that candidates accept an “exclusivity” clause designed to prevent them from participating in debates that have not been organized by the DNC. Worst of all, the DNC still has not produced a debate schedule.

Clinton’s challengers have begun pushing for more debates and more flexible rules. They are right to do so. And Clinton would be wise to embrace proposals for a busier and more engaged debate schedule. Perhaps there are some risks involved. But Clinton well understands that front-runners who work too hard to avoid risks often end up losing their leads.

Instead of trying to calculate which candidate might be advantaged and which candidate might not be advantaged by adding debates and opening up the process, it’s better to simply recognize that the Democratic Party and America would benefit from more debates on edgier issues.

Like what?

Like Lincoln Chafee’s suggestion that it is time to bring Edward Snowden home.

Green Jill Stein Is Fighting for Open Debates and Real Democracy

Jill Stein

Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Dr. Jill Stein has some great ideas about how to create “deep system change, moving from the greed and exploitation of corporate capitalism to a human-centered economy that puts people, planet and peace over profit.”

If the 2012 Green Party presidential nominee and contender for the party’s 2016 nod gets a hearing, those ideas will expand and improve the national debate. They could also strike a chord with the millions of Americans who are ready for a plan to “end unemployment and poverty; avert climate catastrophe; build a sustainable, just economy; and recognize the dignity and human rights of everyone in our society and our world.”

The overwhelming response to the bid by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination suggests the potential for dissident candidacies that challenge the political, social, and economic status quo. Yet Sanders is the first to admit that he is making an uphill run against the party establishment.

If the branches of the status quo within the two major parties manage to nominate Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton next year, a third-party bid by Stein could attract significant support.

The question is whether Stein, who this week formally launched her second presidential bid, will gain the hearing that is necessary to realize that potential. That is far from guaranteed, because the status quo polices presidential campaigns in order to maintain itself. That policing begins with ballot-access demands that make it hard for millions of American voters to have the multi-party choices that are available to voters in Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Canada, and every other credible democracy.

Even if Stein and the Greens secure every available ballot line—and they have a smart, ambitious plan for busting through the barriers—that still does not guarantee that she will be heard.

This is because the status quo polices the political discourse via the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a vehicle constructed by the two major parties to maintain their duopoly. In 2012, Stein and Green vice-presidential candidate Cheri Honkala were arrested for trying to enter a presidential debate sponsored by the CPD.

This year, Stein is starting early by joining other third-party contenders who have been excluded from CPD debates as plaintiffs in a historic legal challenge to the commission’s practices. Initiated by the group Level the Playing Field, the lawsuit seeks to open up the 2016 debates to alternative candidates and alternative views.

Describing the legal action as "essential to the movement for real democracy and real solutions,” Stein notes that “a majority of U.S. adults say a third major political party is needed.”

But for minor parties to become major parties, and for new ideas to enter the mainstream discourse, the political process must be more open, flexible, and free.

Americans of every partisanship and ideology must support open debates. Like initiatives to protect voting rights and limit the influence of big money, efforts to assure that voters have access to diverse choices and a robust discourse are not just about the mechanics of election campaigns. They are essential to establishing vital and meaningful democracy.

Stein says that “the American people have the right to hear from the full spectrum of their choices, so we can begin to secure a government that is truly of, by and for the people!”

She’s right.

(For more information on the struggle to open up the debates in particular and the political process in general, check out Ballot Access News, edited by Richard Winger.)

Ready for Warren Becomes Ready to Fight and Backs Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In another indication of the appeal of the insurgent presidential candidacy launched by Bernie Sanders, a grassroots group that had been organized to draft Elizabeth Warren into the race for the Democratic nomination has transformed into a new organization and endorsed the Vermont senator’s campaign.

“Inspired by Elizabeth Warren’s message that we need to fight—and fight hard—to win the progress we want to see, Ready to Fight is a grassroots group that’s standing with Warren in the fights she’s leading, and backing Bernie Sanders for president in 2016,” declares the website launched by organizers of the Ready for Warren campaign that had been one of several efforts to draft the senator from Massachusetts.

Ready to Fight will advocate broadly for an economic populist agenda that mirrors the messages of Warren with regard to taking on the big banks and addressing income inequality, wage stagnation, and a host of other issues.

Warren has said that she will not seek the nomination, and she has not made a formal endorsement in the race for the Democratic nomination. Many of her backers (including several key players associated with the separate Run Warren Run initiative) are still exploring their options in a race that also includes front-runner Hillary Clinton, as well as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee.

But Sanders has surged since announcing his candidacy, drawing large crowds in key states and moving to within 10 points of Clinton in a recent poll of likely voters in the first-primary state of New Hampshire. And in an opinion piece published Friday by CNN, Ready for Warren campaign manager Erica Sagrans and Charles Lenchner, a co-founder of Ready for Warren and the director of Organizing 2.0, wrote:

We believe the movement to draft Warren fundamentally changed the terms of the 2016 debate, and these days, just about every Democrat running for president seems to sound a lot like Warren. Few people have ever played as large a role in a Democratic presidential primary without even entering the race.

But having demonstrated how much support Elizabeth Warren has, we’ve spent the past few weeks listening to our grassroots supporters and the progressive community about what they want to do next. And one thing we heard time and again is that they’re ready to play a big role in 2016, fighting alongside Warren on issues like trade, student debt, and reining in Wall Street.

They are also ready to back “Warren Wing” candidates who embody Warren’s fearless brand of progressive populism. And although it isn’t just about the presidency, 56% of supporters have urged us to back Bernie Sanders as the candidate currently running for president who best embodies the values that Warren champions.

Sagrans and Lenchner explained that “Ready for Warren is launching a new grassroots initiative called Ready to Fight—and Ready to Fight is endorsing Bernie Sanders as its candidate for president” because, “while Warren is the champion who inspired this movement, the draft effort was never just about her—it’s about her message and the values she represents.”

The organizers conclude that “Bernie Sanders has caught fire in a way that’s reminiscent of the draft Warren movement itself—from the Internet to town halls in Iowa, Sanders has captured the imagination and support of people looking for a real progressive challenger in the 2016 Democratic primary.”

A Civil-Rights Champion Was Lost in the Attack on Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Surreace Cox, of North Charleston, South Carolina, holds a sign during a prayer vigil down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where a young white man reportedly shot and killed nine people Wednesday night, is an historic center of religious and social activism, with roots in anti-slavery and anti-segregation struggles going back two centuries and a contemporary commitment to the struggle against police brutality and economic injustice.

The oldest AME church in the South, and one of the largest African-American congregations in the region, it is referred to as “Mother Emanuel” because of the central role this faith institution has played in the lives and the history of a city, a state, a region, and a nation. That centrality is recalled in the church’s history:

In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands among newly imported Africans. He was the personal servant of slavetrader Captain Joseph Vesey, who settled in Charleston in 1783. Beginning in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South. Brown, suspected but never convicted of knowledge of the plot, went north to Philadelphia where he eventually became the second bishop of the AME denomination.

During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Worship services continued after the church was rebuilt until 1834 when all black churches were outlawed. The congregation continued the tradition of the African church by worshipping underground until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted, meaning “God with us.”

Rebuilt and expanded over the ensuing decades, it became an essential stop on the circuit of civil-rights champions, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s; and it has remained a touchstone for contemporary struggles for economic and social justice. The church’s pastors have long been leaders of those struggles.

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those killed during the prayer meeting Wednesday night, carried on that tradition. When he was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly almost two decades ago, at the age of 23, he was the youngest African-American to serve as a South Carolina state legislator. Since 2000, he has served in the South Carolina Senate.

Rev. Pinckney, with his great sense of history and mission, carried on a family tradition of religious leadership and political engagement.

A 2010 profile in the Charleston Post and Courier noted that “In his family, on his mother’s side, are four generations of AME pastors. His great-grandfather, the Rev. Lorenzo Stevenson, sued the Democratic Party in the state to end whites-only primaries. His uncle, the Rev. Levern Stevenson, who pastored at Macedonia AME Church in Charleston, was involved with the NAACP in the 1960s and 1970s fighting to desegregate school buses in Jasper County, and sued Gov. John C. West to create single-member voting districts that would open the door to blacks who wanted to serve in the Legislature.”

As a pastor and a legislator, Rev. Pinckney maintained the commitments of his family and his church to voting-rights and civil-rights struggles that are far from finished. “Could we not argue that America is about freedom whether we live it out or not?” he said in 2013. “Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”

After the April police shooting of Walter Scott, which was captured on video and stirred an international outcry, Rev. Pinckney rallied with pastors in North Charleston and participated in vigils demanding changes in policing.

He became a legislative leader on behalf of a plan to make body cameras mandatory for police officers across South Carolina, declaring, “I think that if my colleagues will be moved by the fact that other people are moved by the need for body cameras, and also that there will be persons that will give testimony as to why body cameras are important. Body cameras help to record what happens. It may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but it helps to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which distributed an image of Rev. King at Mother Emanuel in the 1960s sent messages Thursday morning, mourning the tragedy in Charleston and urging people to tonight “light and say a prayer for justice, for true justice.”

“At this point,” said the King Center, “it should certainly be beyond clear why is an earnest cry and an affirmation.”

Donald Trump’s Absurdly Appropriate Candidacy

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Were it left to me, I’d probably retire the “clown car” analogy for the crowded 2016 Republican presidential contest. Like the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” line employed by those who sought to dismiss Hillary Clinton and the other contenders for the 2008 Democratic nomination, I think it diminishes the real competition that is going on—and the real distinctions between the candidates.

But the “clown car” line is going to be amplified as Donald Trump grabs for the wheel.

Trump’s candidacy begins as a punchline, and it’s hard to imagine how it will end as anything other than that. After teasing the country for years about entering politics, Trump finally declared Tuesday that this is no longer a joke: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States…”

Because Trump is Trump, his campaign will be characterized as political theater of the absurd.

Of course, that is not necessarily disqualifying these days.

Presidential campaigning has, for all intents and purposes, and with a few honorable exceptions, become political theater of the absurd. So Trump fits right in—not merely to the Republican race but to the broader 2016 competition.

After all:

* The presumed front-runners for the nominations of both major parties are the wife of one former president and the son and brother of two former presidents. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, no matter what their other strengths, begin the 2016 race with the presidential-level name recognition that most other candidates can only dream of. But Trump does not have to dream. He is a son of privilege whose determination to grab the spotlight has, over many decades of publicity grabbing, gained celebrity that is proximately presidential.

* It is quite likely that the eventual nominees of both major parties—and the various and sundry political operations and “independent” political enterprises associated with their candidacies—will each end up spending well in excess of $2 billion. (That’s up from the $1.2 billion for Team Romney and the $1.1 billion for Team Obama in 2012, but America is suffering from exceptional political inflation in this Citizens United era.) Claiming a net worth of $9 billion, Trump says he is the “most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far”—with a “Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney .”In the new age of money in politics, that is certainly some sort of “qualification.”

* Because of the money and the manipulation of the process, neither party is likely to nominate the candidate who speaks the values and the ideals of its base. This is not a guaranteed circumstance, and both Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul will do their best to upset the insider calculus. But if all goes according to pattern and plan, the nominees will be compromise choices rather than “right-from-the-start” favorites. That’s what our politics has become. It has been noted, of course, that Trump’s disapproval rating among Republicans is high—43 percent in the latest Public Policy Polling survey. But Chris Christie’s disapproval rating in the same poll is 49 percent, and Bush’s is 40 percent. And while Scott Walker is quite popular in national polls of voters who do not know him well, his disapproval rating in recent polling of Wisconsinites is 55 percent.

* The debates that both parties are organizing will constrict and constrain serious political discourse rather than encourage it—and, in the case of the Republicans, very possibly create a two-tiered system that effectively stamps some candidates as unworthy of serious consideration. Worse yet, the expectation is that the winners of the Democratic and Republican nominations will then appear in a handful of overly scripted fall debates that exclude third-party candidates and all sorts of issues and ideas. If Trump is excluded or diminished by Republican debate planners, count on him to raise a ruckus. And that would be terrific.

* The overwhelming majority of the messaging from both parties and from the myriad Super PACs and “charitable organizations” that seek to influence our politics will be negative. We will literally have a national campaign of enormous consequence in which the essential message will be “Don’t Vote.” Democrats will say “Don’t Vote for the Republican.” Republicans will say, “Don’t Vote for the Democrat.” But the core theme will be one of discouragement and disenchantment. And who does negative better than Donald “you’re fired” Trump?

Barring a radical twist or turn on the campaign trail—and let’s hope there are many of these between now and November 2016—this presidential race will be a theater of the absurd.

So congratulations Donald Trump. You have finally found the role you were meant to play.

Magna Carta Said No Man Is Above the Law, but What About Corporations?

Citizens United protesters

Demonstrators gather near a courthouse in Boston to protest the Citizens United ruling. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Magna Carta reminds us that no man is above the law.

And it should be celebrated for that.

But it should not be imagined that Magna Carta established democracy, or anything akin to it.

The great British parliamentarian Tony Benn put it well several years ago when he noted, as this 800th anniversary of Magna Carta approached, that we still do not have democracy.

“Don’t look at historic documents but treat them as part of the language and words that help us understand what we have to do,” said Benn, who died in 2014 at age 88.

As queens and presidents celebrate today’s anniversary of Magna Carta, with all their pomp and circumstance, we the people should be focused on what we have to do.

If we respect the notion that the rule of law must apply to all—the most generous interpretation of the premises handed down across the centuries from those who on June 15, 1215, forced “the Great Charter of the Liberties” upon King John of England at Runnymede—then surely it must apply to corporations.

And, surely, the best celebration of those premises in the United States must be the extension of the movement to amend the US Constitution to declare that corporations are not people, money is not speech, and citizens and their elected representatives have the authority to organize elections—and systems of governance—where our votes matter more than their dollars.

Millions of Americans have already engaged with the movement to amend the Constitution to overturn not just the Supreme Court’s noxious 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC but a host of other decisions that have permitted billionaires and corporate CEOs to define our politics and policies. Sixteen states have formally urged Congress to move an amendment, as have more than 600 communities. Democratic and Republican members of Congress are supportive. One presidential candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has penned an amendment proposal, while others, including Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, say they are open to the prospect.

But this movement, like every movement to amend the Constitution in a way that upsets the status quo, still faces plenty of obstacles. Politicians and media outlets that benefit from a system defined by blank checks and millions of negative ads continue to resist the logic of this reform—and the prospect of robust democracy.

Polls show that the American people know that billionaires and corporations are too influential, and referendum results confirm that the people are ready to amend the constitution to reduce that influence. But to translate those sentiments into real change will require more campaigning by the groups that have moved this project forward, including Move to Amend, Free Speech for People, Common Cause, Public Citizen, People for the American Way and dozens of others.

It will also require citizens themselves to begin to confront elected officials with blunt questions that go to the heart of democracy—and to the heart of the question of whether the rule of law really does apply to all men, all women and all corporations.

Tony Benn, the great chronicler and champion of the long struggle for liberty in Britain and around the world, best outlined the challenge that must be made to those who control our politics and our economics—and who are so inclined to resist change.

Decades ago, Benn outlined “Five Questions for People of Power.

They are:

“What power have you got?

“Where did you get it from?

“In whose interests do you use it?

“To whom are you accountable?

“How do we get rid of you?”

“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions,” said Benn, “does not live in a democratic system.”

For Americans, the answer to that last question is a movement to amend the Constitution so that we can begin to get rid of the overwhelming influence of billionaires and corporations over our politics, our governance, and our lives.

Hillary Clinton Lays Out Her Presidential Vision on Roosevelt Island—but She Still Needs Some FDR Fire

Hillary Rodham Clinton waves to supporters Saturday, June 13, 2015, on Roosevelt Island in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Branding is not everything in politics, but it does count for a lot in an era when coverage of campaigns owes more to the traditions of America’s Got Talent than those of Walter Cronkite. Candidate must define themselves, especially front-running candidates. And Hillary Clinton has from the start of her 2016 presidential run understood the need for some rebranding. What she tried in 2008 did not work. So it is time for something new.

Or perhaps something old.

What to do?

Head for New York’s Roosevelt Island and formally launch the new campaign with a great big rally at Four Freedoms Park, a public space that recognizes Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union declaration of the four “fundamental freedoms” that must be guaranteed for all: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

FDR outlined premises that remain essential values for the Democrats Clinton seeks to sway in her race for the party’s nomination, and for the great mass of Americans who must be roused to vote in November of 2016. FDR argued that “there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment—The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

That’s a message that Clinton embraced Saturday—not just in the text of a speech that was drafted to reposition her politically as something more of an economic populist, but in her choice of a platform where she could celebrate “Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be.”

“The way the park is situated, she’s literally wrapping herself in the Four Freedoms speech,” explained Roosevelt Institute president Felicia Wong.

True enough. And there is space amid the broad rhetorical flourishes of FDR’s great speech provides plenty of a space for a mainstream Democrat to occupy. And Clinton sought to fill it with rhetoric about the “four fights” she says she hopes to wage as president: building a better economy; keeping American safe; strengthening communities and families; and repairing a broken political system by standing up for voting rights and fighting to get “unaccountable” money out of politics;.

Clinton hit most of the right notes, placing herself on the side of those who believe in the science of climate change, who are ready to invest in the infrastructure of the future, who seek to make it easier for immigrants to become citizens and who demand that the rights of women, people of color and LGBT Americans be respected. She was especially strong on the democracy issues, earning loud cheers as she declared:

We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people.

We need Justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, (cheers, applause) rather than every corporation’s right to buy elections.

If necessary, I will support a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

I want to make it easier for every citizen to vote. That’s why I’ve proposed universal, automatic registration and expanded early voting.

I’ll fight back against Republican efforts to disempower and disenfranchise young people, poor people, people with disabilities, and people of color.

What part of democracy are they afraid of?

In general, Clinton spoke with authority, delivering a laundry list of factoids, anecdotes, and general statements of principle that recalled nothing so much as the something-for-everyone speeches that former President Bill Clinton delivered during his 1992 and 1995 campaigns and that President Barack Obama delivered—in somewhat more focused form—during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

She restated what a core premise of those past campaigns, with her reference to “America’s basic bargain: If you do your part, you ought to be able to get ahead.”

By most political measures, that’s smart. First, the 1992 and 1996 campaigns were successful, as were the 2008 and 2012 races. Second, Clinton needs to put some serious distance between herself and the corporate crowd that has so frequently paid her to speak and that has donated so much to her campaigns and more.

Yet the speech on Roosevelt Island was short on populist specifics, especially when it came to the economic themes that will define her candidacy. Clinton seemed to recognize this, actually telling the crowd at one point that, “In the coming weeks, I’ll propose specific policies…”

If this was her actual campaign announcement, that would be expected. But Clinton announced two months ago. The “coming weeks” have come and she has been criticized for refusing to take clear stands on the hot-bottom economic issues of the moment: fast track, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the details of where trade policy should go from here, for instance. And while she says she wants to be a champion for those seeking a $15-an-hour living wage, she needs to say what that will mean.

In fairness to Clinton, she has time to get specific—and she promises to do so in planned policy addresses. But the clock is ticking. Long before she faces off with one of the several dozen announced and potential Republican contenders—who she blasted for “singing the same old song, a song called Yesterday”—she will engage in at least six debates with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island governor (and senator) Lincoln Chafee and perhaps other Democratic contenders. Clinton’s the frontrunner and front-runners tend to err on the side studied vagueness, but the other candidates won’t let her get away with vaguely appealing statements of principle.

Nor will the moment. Clinton is right that the fundamental issues of the 2016 campaign will be economic, and that the desired responses will be populist. She articulated that understanding in the best sections of her speech at Four Freedoms Park, especially when she told the crowd: “Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers. Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations. Prosperity and democracy are part of your basic bargain, too. You brought our country back. Now it’s time, your time, to secure the gains and move ahead. And you know what? America can’t succeed unless you succeed.”

Now it’s time for Clinton to go all-in.

When she delivers the specifics she promises, Clinton needs to jettison cautious rhetoric that pays too must deference to the “third-way” compromises of the past—“I’m running to make our economy work for you and for every American.… For the successful and the struggling”—and too little to the language of a realigning and transformational politics.

Clinton came to the right place to find that language. She was absolutely right to recognize the power and the majesty of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” message. But it was not the Four Freedoms message that secured Roosevelt the historic landslide victories—and governing majorities—of 1932 and 1936.

FDR embraced the specifics from the start of his first presidential campaign. “I will leave no doubt or ambiguity on where I stand on any question of moment in this campaign,” he declared on accepting the 1932 Democratic nomination.

Roosevelt was pointed—make that fiery—with regard to the economic fights in which he was prepared to engage. He respected small business and fought for farmers. But he was ready to call out the malefactors of great wealth—to borrow a phrase from distant cousin Teddy Roosevelt.

It was not late in his presidency but early in the 1932 campaign that FDR began to call out reactionary Republicans for being out of touch not just with the challenges of the moment but with the basic premises of America. They were, he suggested, economic royalists.

“There are two ways of viewing the Government’s duty in matters affecting economic and social life,” Roosevelt explained. “The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.”

“But,” he continued,

it is not and never will be the theory of the Democratic Party. This is no time for fear, for reaction or for timidity. Here and now I invite those nominal Republicans who find that their conscience cannot be squared with the groping and the failure of their party leaders to join hands with us; here and now, in equal measure, I warn those nominal Democrats who squint at the future with their faces turned toward the past, and who feel no responsibility to the demands of the new time, that they are out of step with their Party.

Yes, the people of this country want a genuine choice this year, not a choice between two names for the same reactionary doctrine. Ours must be a party of liberal thought, of planned action, of enlightened international outlook, and of the greatest good to the greatest number of our citizens.

Hillary Clinton seems to recognize that Americans want a genuine choice, and she seems to be inclined to give it to them. Yet, a genuine choice requires that lines be drawn in the sand, that sides be taken. Clinton has not quite gotten there. Yet that is the direction she must go if 2016 is to be a year when her party elects not just a president but a government capable of tackling the economic royalists of our times.

The TPP Fast-Track Vote Wasn’t About Obama, It Was About Failed Trade Policies

President Obama

President Obama (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The fight over Trade Promotion Authority was never about Barack Obama, despite the best efforts of the White House and many in the media to portray it as such. The president’s effort to obtain congressional consent to “fast track” a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which failed Friday amid a complex flurry of House votes, fell apart because of something that runs far deeper: frustration on the part of Americans with race-to-the-bottom trade policies as defined by the North American Free Trade Agreement and extended across ensuing agreements.

This is a reality that the president and his allies need to recognize as they revisit fast track and trade issues—not just in advance of an expected “revote” on a key measure Tuesday but in the weeks and months to come. America is moving beyond the point where a politics of partisanship or personality is sufficient to secure support for “free trade” policies that have not worked and that will not work.

The free-trade model that has been promoted for decades by Democratic and Republican presidents, along with Wall Street interests and multinational corporations, has failed American workers and communities—and millions of Americans who were part of the president’s winning coalitions in 2008 and in 2012 recognize this.

Like presidents before him, Obama sought fast-track authority in order to make it easier to engage in trade negotiations, in particular, and international relations, in general. His harshest critics suggested that he was selling out to the Wall Street interests that provided substantial support for his 2012 reelection campaign. The president argued that he merely wanted flexibility so that he could develop better deals than past presidents did. Whatever the calculus, Obama could not convince his fellow partisans to give him—and his successor—the authority he sought. Too many factory closings, too many unmet promises, had left no room for traditional appeals on the grounds of party loyalty or personal connections.

On the critical vote Friday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was a “no,” and in declaring her opposition she spoke the sentiments of most Democrats, saying, “Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers.”

It wasn’t that the Democrats wanted to deal Obama a defeat, as the vapid headlines suggested Friday afternoon. This wasn’t the personality contest that pundits so enjoy. Many of the “no” votes came from the president’s earliest and most sincere allies: House members such as Michigan’s John Conyers, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, and California’s Barbara Lee. The issue was trade policy, and most Democrats in the House share the view of labor, farm, environmental, and human-rights groups that believe our trade policies must be radically altered.

It was this understanding, not some antipathy toward Obama, that led 144 House Democrats to bolt on the critical vote, despite a last-minute appeal by the president to House Democratic Caucus members. Only 40 of Obama’s partisan allies voted for the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) component of the package. The president won the support of twice as many Republicans as Democrats on the TAA vote, which had been packaged with the fast-track legislation. A vote against either measure doomed the final package. (Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he wants to bring the TAA issue up again next week in a last-ditch effort to pull all the pieces together, but that will only happen if a lot of Democratic votes flip.)

In an essentially symbolic test on fast track Friday, which came just after the TAA defeat, only 28 Democrats sided with the 191 Republicans who voted “yes.”

The Democrats who voted against the legislation did not do so to hurt the president, and the Republicans who voted for the legislation weren’t trying to help the president. The Republicans cast entirely predictable votes for a trade agenda that benefits the Wall Street interests that influence both parties, but that tend to carry the most sway with the GOP.

One of the steadiest critics of the president, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan, worked feverishly for weeks to secure support for Trade Promotional Authority, under which Congress would have granted Obama the so-called fast-track authority to close the deal on sweeping new trade agreements such as the TPP. Ryan’s enthusiastic lobbying provided essential backing for Obama’s effort to get Congress to cede its oversight and amendment powers over trade deals.

But Ryan was not providing that support because of any change of heart regarding Obama. He was providing that support because he invariably aligns with Wall Street in fights over economic issues. And he had an added incentive for doing so: If fast track had been approved Friday (or if it is eventually approved), Obama would not be the only president who gets the freedom to negotiate deals with limited congressional oversight. His successor, potentially a Republican, would get the same authority.

President Obama needed allies such as Ryan as the House prepared to vote on whether to join the Senate in supporting the surrender of congressional input and oversight over the TPP scheme. (Trade Promotion Authority requires a straight up-or-down vote on a negotiated trade agreement, with no amendments and limited debate.)

The president was not able to look to his usual allies in the labor movement. Unions have been overwhelmingly opposed to a deal that Communications Workers of America posters refer to as “NAFTA on Steroids.”

The president has not been able to look to major environmental organizations. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and other green groups have been outspoken in their opposition.

The president was not able to look to progressive farm groups. The National Farmers Union was explicitly opposed to using a fast-track approach that would allow trade agreements to move through Congress with limited debate and no amendments.

In fact, as Obama ramped up his advocacy for a free-trade strategy that progressive Americans tend to see as a threat to workers, farmers, the environment, human rights, and democracy, he acknowledged that he wasn’t able to count on traditional allies to stir up grassroots support in the states. That left the president in strange company—aligned with House members such as Ryan, and with groups that promote policies that activists say contribute to the growing gap between a wealthy few and an increasingly impoverished many.

While Obama’s usual coalition partners were opposing fast track in cities and states across the country, the president got support from a group that has maintained an extensive network of political connections in states across the country and is enthusiastically on board for “the expedited conclusions and approval of the TPP.”

That group is the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Unfortunately for Obama, if any group has come to represent the problem with letting corporate interest dictate policy, it’s ALEC.

The corporate-funded organization that stirred considerable controversy several years ago with its advocacy on behalf of so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun laws and restrictive voter ID rules, ALEC produces so-called “model legislation” and resolutions for introduction by conservative state legislators. If corporate America is for a proposal, it’s a good bet that ALEC is promoting it. And ALEC has been enthusiastically pro–fast track.

In 2013, the ALEC board of directors approved and circulated a “Model Policy” that celebrates the TPP and declares that it “will be an impetus for further bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.”

Expanding trade along lines established by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China has always been on ALEC’s agenda. The multinational corporations that cover the group’s expenses, and help to define every aspect of its agenda, embrace an approach that allows them to move factories and jobs from country to country in order to lower wages and avoid labor, environmental, and human-rights regulations.

ALEC’s model policy on the TPP even made respectful reference to President Obama and his administration. That’s ironic, as ALEC members have been among the most ardent critics of the president’s policies. Not long ago, the group published a “State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare.” Yet, ALEC has highlighted the Obama administration’s support of the TPP “as one part of its strategy to increase competitiveness and employment in the United States.”

Over the past year, ALEC has urged state legislators who have been busy trying to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act to get their states to formally endorse the TPP. The model policy concludes:

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the legislature of [INSERT STATE] call(s) on Congress to support negotiations for a comprehensive, high-standard and ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that will provide a platform for regional trade and economic integration.

ALEC’s International Relations Task Force, which is co-chaired by a representative from Philip Morris International, declares on its webpage that it “promotes both bilateral and multilateral free trade frameworks, initiatives and partnerships.” ALEC has a long history of being at the forefront of fights to sell the trade agenda outlined in the North American Free Trade Agreement and other deals backed by Democratic and Republican presidents.

Indeed, the task force that’s promoting the TPP says, ALEC’s international policy work is persuasive “precisely because our policy directives are backed by our public and private sector members—American state legislators from all 50 states and some of the world’s largest corporations.”

That’s not the right coalition for this president, for America’s future.

That’s not the right coalition for workers in the United States, or for workers in the countries with which the United States trades.

President Obama needs to recognize this.

The president will, undoubtedly, continue to advocate for trade agreements, but he cannot succeed merely with the support of Wall Street, Paul Ryan, and ALEC. He needs to renew his coalition, in Washington and in the states. And the way to do that is not with fast-track authority, secret negotiations, and the old “free trade” model. The way to succeed is with a fair-trade model that puts workers, farmers, the environment, human rights, and democracy ahead of the corporate interests that want only a race to the bottom.

Hillary Clinton and the New Politics of $15

Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Fast-food workers and their allies in the “Fight for 15” movement who were gathered Sunday in Detroit to plan strategy for action in the streets and at the ballot box got an unexpected call from the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and, perhaps, the presidency.

Declaring, “I want to be your champion,” Hillary Clinton told the activists, “We need you out there fighting against those who would strip away Americans’ right to organize, to collectively bargain, to fair play. No man or woman who works hard to feed American families should have to be on food stamps to feed their own family.”

The Sunday morning phone call by the former secretary of state to the national gathering in Detroit was a breakthrough moment for the movement to raise pay for fast-food and retail workers, as it signaled that their issues are going to be a major part of the 2016 debate. It was also something of a breakthrough moment for Clinton, who has been seeking since announcing her candidacy to distinguish herself as a more progressive and populist contender.

But how much of a breakthrough remains to be seen. Clinton did not talk numbers in her call. Indeed, as CNN noted, ” Just how high a wage hike Clinton supports, however, remains a mystery. The candidate has not provided a figure yet. Her campaign did not return a request for comment Sunday night.”

Specifics are going to matter.

Facing a spirited economic-populist challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has long championed wage hikes, and prodded by former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who has a track record of work on living-wage issues, Clinton could not avoid the debate about hiking wages; she had to offer the party’s base voters some economic populism. A recent Politico headline sums the circumstance up. “Hillary Clinton Camp Fears Bernie Sanders,” read one, while another declared, “Wall Street Fears Leftward Swerve By Clinton.”

To Clinton’s credit, her referencing of the Fight for 15 movement was not a mild reference. It was laudatory. “I hope that every one of you will continue to raise your voices until we get all working Americans a better deal,” the candidate told the fast-food workers who had come to Detroit from across the country. “I want to be your champion. I want to fight with you every day. I’m well aware that the folks on top already have plenty of friends in Washington, but we together will change the direction of this great country.”

Yet Clinton has not, as have Sanders and O’Malley, announced support for a $15-an-hour wage. And as with her relatively strong statements on trade policy—strong on principles, weak on precises stances—the specifics are what will matter.

Clinton is a savvy politician. She recognizes that the “Fight for 15” movement has traction—and that major labor unions and grassroots activists are starting to measure candidates according to their commitment to the fight. She has made a good statement, and gotten some good headlines. Now she must provide a sense of where exactly she stands on a federal $15-an-hour wage, on state and local fights, and on a host of other wage and work concerns. And, frankly, she needs to fill-in-the-blanks on related issues, such as the fight for a Retail Workers Bill of Rights and efforts to make it easily to organize and maintain unions.

Clinton’s formal launch of her candidacy this coming Saturday at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City will be a key test. Will she reference the Fight for 15 movement? Will she make this struggle a clear, and constant focus of her campaign?

The pressure will only increase for Clinton and the other 2016 candidates. Following the lead of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities across the country have moved to implement $15 wage floors, and states such as New York are starting to explore the prospect.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced last month that he will convene a special wage board to review and recommend higher wage rates for fast-food workers, explains why this is the case. “Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry,” wrote Cuomo in a New York Times opinion piece. “Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).”

As Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry says, ” Powerful people around the world are listening to this movement to change our world.”

This is the context in which Clinton’s statement comes. Fast-food workers are organizing, and they are winning. Retail workers are organizing, and they are winning. Home-care workers are organizing. A movement has taken shape. It is real. And it has specific “asks” of candidates.

“We’ve got unstoppable momentum,” said LeTonya Wilson, 41, a Richmond, Virginia, McDonald’s worker who is paid $8.25 an hour. “Fifteen dollars is sweeping the country and we’re going to build off victories in places like Los Angeles, New York and St. Louis to win $15 in Richmond and all across the country. Everyone said we had no chance, but we’ve shown when we stick together and speak out, we get life-changing results.”

Wage hikes are life-changing for workers who are struggling to get by.

And the movement for wage hikes is changing American politics.

Presidential candidates are taking notice.

Indeed, the front-runner in the race for the White House is saying to LeTonya Wilson and her fellow workers: “There’s a lot we can do together and you’re showing us what that route is. You’re on the streets, your voices are being heard. We need you.”

That’s right. But that’s not enough. Getting a presidential front-runner to “call in” is not an indication that a corner has been turned on the “Fight for $15.” Rather, it is a signal that the 2016 contest could, with continued pressure on all the candidates—Democrats and Republicans and third-party contenders,; liberals and centrists and conservatives—be the moment when that turn is made.

Wisconsin Straw Poll: Clinton 49 Percent, Sanders 41 Percent

Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)


More than 500 Wisconsin Democrats participated in a presidential straw poll at their state party convention over the weekend, and they sent a powerful signal about the potential of the challenge Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is mounting to presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Clinton still maintains a wide lead in national polls and in those from early battleground states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But the delegates, alternates, and registered guests at the Wisconsin party convention—among the state’s most activist Democrats—gave Sanders 41 percent support to 49 percent for Clinton.

The breakdown of the straw poll vote, which was conducted by the well regarded politics website WisPolitics.com, was:

Hillary Clinton 252
Bernie Sanders 208
Joe Biden 16
Martin O’Malley 16
Jim Webb 8
Lincoln Chafee 5
No vote 1

Elizabeth Warren 4
Tom Vilsack 1

The senator has been a regular visitor to Wisconsin over the years, as a frequent speaker at the annual “Fighting Bob Fest” gatherings, which draw thousands of Wisconsin activists to outdoor eventseach September. He has lauded the legacy of former Wisconsin US senator Robert M. La Follette, who mounted an independent progressive campaign for the presidency in 1924, and of the democratic socialists who led Milwaukee for much of the 20th century. In recent years, he had worked with Ed Garvey, a former gubernatorial candidate, on a host of issues.

Perhaps most importantly, Sanders is an enthusiastic backer of organized labor—a stance that resonates with Wisconsin activists who, over the past four years, have battled the anti-union initiatives of the administration of Governor Scott Walker.

Clinton has also worked the state over the years. In 2008, she and her backers battled with Barack Obama and his backers in a closely watched February primary. Obama won the primary with a 58-41 margin. But Clinton ran well in many regions of the state and took 32 of the state’s 74 delegates.

This year, at the state convention, Clinton backers were present—with pins and T-shirts. And they were celebrating a recent endorsement of their candidate from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former gubernatorial candidate and 2008 Obama backer.

Sanders supporters were also active at the convention. Members of Progressive Democrats of America, which encouraged Sanders to run, maintained a table featuring a huge “We Want Bernie” banner and handed out Sanders materials. They also held a well-attended meet-up to promote the senator’s bid.

The Clinton campaign, which will formally launch June 13 in New York City, retains huge name-recognition and campaign finance advantages going into the race for the 2016 nomination. A RealClearPolitics average gave her 59 percent support in the race for the Democratic nomination, which in addition to Sanders also includes former Maryland governor O’Malley and former Rhode Island governor Chafee. Former Virginia senator Webb is also considered a likely contender. Other candidates could yet get in, and there are still some folks pushing a bid to draft Elizabeth Warren.

But since Sanders formally launched his campaign late last month with a Burlington, Vermont, event that drew an estimated 5,000 enthusiasts, the senator has attracted large crowds in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Minnesota. Most polls now have him running second to Clinton. A recent Quinnipiac poll had Sanders moving from 4 percent support nationally in early March to 15 percent in late May.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party straw-poll numbers offer a different sort of encouragement for the insurgent campaign Sanders is running.

Last week, in Minnesota, Sanders attracted thousands to a hastily scheduled town hall meeting. The size of the crowd certainly suggested that the senator’s economic-populist message is getting through. At the same time, it offered an indication that Sanders has, through decades of work in Washington and travel around the country, forged a connection with the grassroots activists who are especially engaged with the nominating process in a state that will never get the attention accorded the first-caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire—but that will send a substantial bloc of delegates to the July 2016 Democratic National Convention. Now, in another state, Wisconsin, Sanders has gained another sign of unexpected and significant support.

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