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John Nichols

John Nichols

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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

6 Degrees of Separation Between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Bernie Sanders holds a news conference after announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is running for president. And despite the fact that he is the longest-serving independent in Congress, he says that “after a year of travel, discussion and dialogue, I have decided to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.”

Sanders, who formally announced his candidacy in a series of statements this week, is not actually running against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who announced her candidacy earlier in April. Rather, both Sanders and Clinton are seeking the nomination of the party. They may be joined by others: former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator (and governor) Lincoln Chaffee. Draft initiatives are still trying to entice Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden into the competition.

By most measures, Clinton is a first among equals. She has dramatically higher name-recognition than Sanders or any of the other prospects. She is way ahead in the polls. And most commentators are convinced that she is not merely a candidate for the nomination but the Democratic nominee in waiting.

Perhaps they are right, although Sanders counsels, “People should not underestimate me. I’ve run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country.”

Even if Clinton is “inevitable,” however, she needs to debate Sanders and the other contenders. Clinton debated her opponent in her 2000 Senate race; she participated in a number of debates during her 2008 presidential run; and her campaign has indicated that she is open to debating this year.

That’s good, not just because there is much to debate but because debates are good for all candidates—including front-runners. There is plenty of history to remind us that front-runners who win their nominations in honest competition tend to be better prepared for the fall fight than those who avoid it.

No matter who else gets into the race, a Clinton-Sanders debate would be a lively, issue-focused exchange between two candidates who know and respect each other but are very different. Not long after Sanders traveled to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Clinton was a youthful campaigner for Barry Goldwater—the first step on an political evolution that would four years later see her backing Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent primary challenge to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. While Clinton’s first elective post was a US Senate seat, Sanders has been a mayor, a statewide candidate, a congressman, and a senator. The New York Times reports that Clinton’s “finance team and the outside groups supporting her candidacy have started collecting checks in what is expected to be a $2.5 billion effort, dwarfing the vast majority of her would-be rivals in both parties.” Sanders rips “plutocrats” and “the billionaire class” that funds campaigns.

But the issues are the heart of the matter. Clinton and Sanders are not always at direct odds with one another, and Clinton has since announcing her candidacy sent a number of progressive populist signals. But there are real distinctions between these two candidates.

Here are six degrees of separation between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton:

1. Fast Track and TPP

Clinton has not taken a stand on granting President Obama so-called “fast track” authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nor has she taken a clear stand with regard to the TPP itself. As secretary of state, however, she referred to the TPP as the “gold standard in trade agreements.” Now, her campaign says, she is “watching closely” as the TPP fight evolves.

Sander is a leading opponent of NAFTA-style “free trade” deals. He says, “All Americans, regardless of political ideology, should be opposed to the ‘fast track’ process which would deny Congress the right to amend the treaty and represent their constituents’ interests.” He has rallied workers and environmentalists against the deal, saying, “Let’s be clear: the TPP is much more than a “free trade” agreement. It is part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs; undercutting worker rights; dismantling labor, environmental, health, food safety and financial laws; and allowing corporations to challenge our laws in international tribunals rather than our own court system.”

2. “Medicare for All”

No one is more identified with healthcare reform than Hillary Clinton. Yet, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, she rejected proposals that the United States follow the lead of other developed countries and create what is often referred to as a “Medicare for All” system. She knows healthcare issues well but continues to be an incremental reformer. Clinton says, “I never seriously considered a single payer system.”

Sanders has for many years sponsored an American Health Security Act, which would “guarantee healthcare as a human right and provide every U.S. citizen and permanent resident with healthcare coverage and services through a state-administered, single-payer program.”

3. Amending the Constitution to Get Corporate Money Out of Politics

Clinton earned a lot of notice, and justifiably so, when she said in Iowa, “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment.”

Sanders is already there. He says it will take a constitutional amendment, and he has sponsored one that declares: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power of Congress and the States to protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections, and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.”

4. Patriot Act

As the US senator from New York, Hillary Clinton voted for the Patriot Act in 2001. Later, to her credit, Clinton backed calls for an investigation of whether President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 that approved of domestic spying without oversight from the courts. “The balance between the urgent goal of combating terrorism and the safeguarding of our most fundamental constitutional freedoms is not always an easy one to draw,” she said. “However, they are not incompatible, and unbridled and unchecked executive power is not the answer.” Still later, however, she voted for reauthorization of the act.

Along with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, Sanders (then a member of the House) voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. He also opposed its reauthorization in 2006 and 2011. “As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure,” says Sanders. “Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true.”

5. Iraq War

As the US Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush to prepare for military action against Iraq.

Sanders voted against the authorization of the use of military force. (Notably, another Democratic prospect, Chafee, voted “no” as a liberal Republican senator from Rhode Island.)

6. Democratic Socialism

No matter what her right-wing critics might claim, Hillary Clinton is not a socialist. (Her thoughtful college thesis on organizer Saul Alinsky mentioned five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs, but only in the company of Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King as an American who “embraced the most radical of political faiths—democracy.”)

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Sanders is, arguably, America’s best-known democratic socialist. Like authors Gloria Steinen and Barbara Ehrenreich, scholar and voting-rights champion Frances Fox Piven, United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, and many others, Sanders identifies with what Ehrenreich refers to as “the tradition carried on by Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and thousands more.” Sanders says, “[When] I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m saying is that I do not want to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling the economic and political life of the country. That I do believe that in a democratic, civilized society, all people are entitled to health care as a right, all people are entitled to quality education as a right, all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income, and that we need a government which represents ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful.”


Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s announcement

Bernie Sanders Readies a ‘Which Side Are You On?’ Presidential Bid

(AP Photo/John Locher)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation more than a year ago that he was “prepared to run for president of the United States.” But he said he had to determine whether grassroots activists were ready to back an insurgent progressive-populist candidacy. And he had to sort out the question of how to mount a campaign that he said would require a “political revolution” to upset politics as usual.

Sanders has gotten the answers he was looking for, and aides and allies say that he is preparing to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination later this week. That’s a big leap for the senator, who has caucused with congressional Democrats but has always been elected as an independent.

Sanders, who Vermont Public Radio says will launch his challenge to the supposed inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic candidacy on Thursday, made no secret of the fact that he was wrestling with the issue of how to run. The only democratic socialist in the Senate has been a fierce critic of both major parties, and he listened closely over the past year to counsel from those who wanted him to mount an independent or third-party bid and to those who said the only practical option was to run inside the Democratic Party.

The senator always said that he would not be a spoiler—pulling votes from a Democratic nominee in a November race that might tip to a right-wing Republican. And the intensive “Run Bernie Run—as a Democrat” campaign mounted by the group Progressive Democrats of America made the case that Sanders could run his kind of campaign in the Democratic caucuses and primaries.

That’s not a guarantee that it will work, however. Polls still show Clinton far ahead of any and every potential challenger for the nomination. And there is still a determined effort to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race.

But Sanders can point to poll numbers that have improved significantly since he began visiting the first-caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire. A PPP survey released this week has him at 14 percent in Iowa, his best number yet in a state where he has consistently drawn large crowds. In New Hampshire, he’s at 12 percent—behind Clinton and Warren but ahead of Vice President Joe Biden and potential contenders such as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.

Sanders wasn’t just looking for numbers as he traveled the country over the past year, however. He was looking for enthusiasm—not just for his candidacy but for his idea that American needs that “political revolution.”

“A campaign has got to be much more than just getting votes and getting elected. It has got to be helping to educate people, organize people,” he explained. “If we can do that, we can change the dynamic of politics for years and years to come. If 80 to 90 percent of the people in this country vote, if they know what the issues are (and make demands based on that knowledge), Washington and Congress will look very, very different from the Congress currently dominated by big money and dealing only with the issues that big money wants them to deal with.”

Sanders at an event in Chicago, April 2 (Photo: John Nichols)

For Sanders, a politically savvy and serious political figure, that was not just rhetoric. More aware than any current or potential presidential contender of the extent to which corporate money and billionaire influence has warped American politics, he wanted to see whether there were still enough citizens who were ready to buck the bucks and pour their hearts and souls into an economic populist candidacy.

So Sanders went to Iowa, and New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and California. He logged tens of thousands of miles traveling to the union halls and church basements and school auditoriums of America.

When Sanders was in Chicago earlier this month to campaign with insurgent mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and newly elected city council candidate Susan Sadlowski Garza, he was mobbed by a multiracial crowd that embraced his message that “What we need are millions of working people to begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ The billionaire class can’t have it all, and we need government to start representing ordinary America.”

Sanders delivered that speech in an old United Steelworkers union hall on the south side of America’s third-largest city.

But Sanders got a similarly boisterous response in South Carolina last week, when he appeared at a convention center in Columbia and told the Southern Democrats, “They have the money, but we’ve got the people…. America does not belong to the billionaire class, it belongs to all of us.”

For Sanders, however, the most inspiring response has come in recent weeks from opponents of President Obama’s request for Trade Promotion Authority to “fast track” the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. A staunch critic of free-trade policies that invite multinational corporations to embark upon a “race to the bottom” when it comes to wages, environmental protection and human rights, Sanders has rallied workers in Washington and across the country to block the deal.

Though he tends to eschew talking about potential rivals, the trade fight has given Sanders an opportunity to draw a clear line of distinction between himself and Clinton.

Sanders is an absolute critic of fast track and the TPP, with a strong record of opposing the corporate agenda on trade policy. Clinton, on the other hand, has what is charitably referred to as a "mixed" record. So far, she has not taken a stand on fast track or the TPP.

That, says Sanders, is unacceptable.

“For decades, corporate America has been pushing disastrous trade agreements on the American people. The result: millions of jobs lost through outsourcing, lower wages and the collapse of our middle class,” the independent senator said last week. “My strong hope is that Secretary Clinton and all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, will make it clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be rejected and that we must develop trade policies that benefit working families, not just Wall Street and multi-national corporations.”

For Bernie Sanders, trade is a “which side are you on?” issue—as are a host of economic justice fights for labor rights, living wages and the expansion of Social Security.

As a presidential candidate, he can force the debate that the Democratic Party, and America, needs to have—on fast track, the TPP, and a long list of issues that the “billionaire class” would have preferred to keep off the table.

No Joke, Cheney Was the Worst President

Dick Cheney (Reuters/Larry Downing)

Dick Cheney (Reuters/Larry Downing)

What pass for jokes at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner are, for the most part, failed attempts at comedy and commentary. Rarely do the assembled politicians and pundits employ humor for anything more than the appalling project of attempting to appear self-deprecating (as opposed to pompous) and good natured (as opposed to fiercely calculating).

But once in a great while a great moment occurs.

President Obama had one Saturday night, when he ruminated momentarily on the crude excesses of a certain former vice president.

“A few weeks ago Dick Cheney said he thinks I’m the worst president of his lifetime, which is interesting, because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president of my lifetime,” mused Obama.

Cheney, whose own presidential ambitions were dashed in the mid-1990s by disinterest and distrust on the part of his fellow Republicans, had to engineer his selection as George W. Bush’s vice president in order to secure the power he craved. But, once he had wedded his ambitions to the hapless “legacy” president, the second-in-command did indeed pull so many strings that he was understood by savvy Washingtonians as a virtual commander in chief.

Cheney hated handing off that power; as he initially had to do during Bush’s second term, when the president wised up the imbalance within his administration. It was even worse when the formal dethronement came in January of 2009, after Obama was swept into the White House and Joe Biden occupied Number One Observatory Circle.

While there was no question that the American people were tired of Bush, they were absolutely finished with Cheney—whose approval rating dropped to just 13 percent at the end of a tenure characterized by endless wars, neglected disasters, the collapse of the global economy and the bailout of Cheney’s banking buddies.

Typically, Cheney blamed everyone but himself.

In particular, Cheney blamed Obama for not immediately cleaning up the mess he and Bush had made of just about everything.

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The former vice president has since 2008 (when, notably, his fellow partisans failed to invite him to that year’s Republican National Convention) made it his immediate and ceaseless mission to gripe about the succeeding administration. So it came as no great surprise when he told Playboy, “I look at Barack Obama and I see the worst president in my lifetime, without question—and that’s saying something.”

What did come as something of a surprise—and a delightful one at that—was Obama’s decision to parry the former vice president’s thrust with a devastating one-liner that had the advantage of being true.

Read Next: John Nichols on David Koch’s supporting Scott Walker

David Koch on the 2016 GOP Nominee: ‘It Should Be Scott Walker.’ But…

David Koch (AP/Mark Lennihan)

David Koch (AP/Mark Lennihan)

The billionaire Koch brothers have always had a thing for Scott Walker. But do they support him for president? Well, sort of, but, you know, um, not just yet.

According to several reports from a New York State Republican Party fundraising event on Monday, David Koch told the big donors, “We will support whoever the candidate is. But it should be Scott Walker.”

That sounded like an endorsement. So did what Koch said outside the Manhattan event, at which Walker also spoke. Koch hailed the governor of Wisconsin “a tremendous candidate.” Could Walker beat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton? “No question about it,” chirped Koch. “If enough Republicans have a thing to say— why, he’ll defeat her by a major margin.”

But hold on. As confused headline writers churned out the “news” that the monied Machiavellis had found their prince, David Koch was scrambling to clarify that: “While I think Governor Walker is terrific, let me be clear, I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time.”

First privately and then publicly, Koch signaled that the massive political apparatus he and his brother Charles oversee—with $900 million raised from the Kochs and their fellow billionaires at help favored partisans win control of the federal government in 2016—will not intervene in GOP primaries on behalf of any candidate. Not even Scott Walker.

For now, at least, the Kochs won’t spend against the Wisconsinite. But they won’t spend for him.


Because, for the Kochs, Republican contenders are essentially interchangeable. The Kochs want power, not a personality. That’s bad news for Walker, whose political rise has benefited from massive infusions of Koch money. The billionaire brothers supported his bid to get elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, and they came to the rescue when Walker was in a fight for his political life after his attacks on labor and public services and public education stirred an outcry. They have hailed Walker’s policies. They have invited Walker to their “secret” summits. They have held him up as a model governor. In many senses, the Kochs made Scott Walker who he is today. Bloomberg Politics even refers to Walker as the “King of Kochworld.”

Yet, in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, Walker could be a king without a Koch crown. Some of the wealthy allies of the Kochs may back him, to be sure. But at this early stage in the competition, for the Kochs themselves, Scott Walker’s is merely a first among equals.

How come? Perhaps because, despite David Koch’s show of bravado on Monday, Walker may not be the strongest Republican contender against Clinton. And what matters most to the billionaire brothers in 2016 is not the race for the Republican nomination. It’s the November race for control of the White House. To think otherwise is to imagine that the Kochs are starry-eyed idealists rather than focused and serious partisans.

Walker is a stylistic favorite of the Kochs, to be sure. But this is about more than style.

In a new CNN/ORC poll, Clinton leads Walker nationally by a 59-37 margin. That’s closer to a Franklin Roosevelt 1936, Lyndon Johnson 1964, Ronald Reagan 1984 blowout for Clinton than a “major margin” for Walker.

In fairness to Walker, he has posted better numbers against Clinton in other polls. For instance, he was only down 14 points in a late March ABC News/Washington Post survey. There are surveys that put him closer. But, in all recent polls, he’s trailing the Democratic frontrunner.

What’s worse for Walker is that his numbers against Clinton are not so strong as those of other Republicans.

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Walker runs a notably weaker race against Clinton than Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in head-to-head national matchups, according to the CNN survey. Even Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee get closer to beating Clinton than Walker.

Walker cannot even count on his home state. A new poll from Wisconsin—a traditional battleground in presidential elections—has Clinton 12 points ahead of Walker, for a 52-40 margin. By comparison, Clinton beats Paul by just eight points in Wisconsin, according to the Marquette University Law School poll. Among the voters who know Walker best, even Bush runs better against Clinton.

The Koch brothers know Walker, too.

They still like him. A lot.

But there may be a reason why the Kochs are not quite ready to invest any of that billion-dollar budget in Scott Walker’s primary campaign. It may be that, for all of his talk about how Walker would win by “a major margin” in November, 2016, David Koch has seen the polls.


Read Next: John Nichols on Jamie Raskin’s run for congress

Jamie Raskin Is Running for Congress to ‘Renew Popular Democracy in America’

Jamie Raskin (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Jamie Raskin (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Congress has a handful of rock-solid champions of democracy. There’s Michigan Congressman John Conyers and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. There’s Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan. In the Senate, there’s New Mexico’s Tom Udall and, of course, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. You can count a few more in the camp. But no one would argue that either chamber has a sufficient contingent of advocates for the principle that government should be “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

So it is worth noting that one of America’s most ardent advocates for democracy just jumped into a contest for the US House. Maryland legislator Jamie Raskin—whom The Washington Post recognizes as the Maryland Senate’s “constitutional authority”—is bidding for the Democratic nomination to succeed Congresswoman Chris Van Hollen.

Raskin says right up front that he is making the race “because America needs effective progressive leadership to renew the momentum of popular democracy in America.”

Raskin is not the only candidate in the Maryland contest. The field could get crowded, as this is the sort of “safe seat” that does not come open all that often. Raskin could face credible progressive opposition for the Democratic nod. He will have to make his case in this particular contest, and there are no assurances that he will prevail.

There is an assurance, however, that Raskin will bring to the competition plenty of big ideas about how to defend, strengthen and expand American democracy. And, if he is elected, Raskin will bring experience and energy to congressional debates about voting rights, fair elections and getting big money out of politics.

A constitutional law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law (where he directs the Law and Government Program), Raskin has represented Greenpeace and the Service Employees International Union and high school students fighting for the freedom to talk about LGBT rights, He has a long history of waging difficult legal and legislative battles on behalf of progressive ideals. As a state senator, he has earned high marks for leading historic floor fights to establish marriage equality, to abolish the death penalty and to preserve civil rights and liberties.

When Raskin announced for Congress, he was immediately endorsed by Maryland Senate majority leader Catherine Pugh, who declared that “we need him to bring the same passion and eloquence he brought to Annapolis to the fight for justice and democracy at the national level.”

Raskin works well within the legislative process. But if the process does not work, if framework for achieving justice in insufficient, Raskin seeks to forge new frameworks—by forging alliances with grassroots movements, by opening up debates, by campaigning to amend the US Constitution.

“My ambition is not to be in the political center. My ambition is to be in the moral center,” Raskin told a room packed with supporters as he announced his candidacy Sunday in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Then he added a line that sums up his vision: “We will get the political center to move to us.”

Raskin is serious about this. He has a record of wading into fights at a point when most Democrats, and even most progressives, are still standing on the sidelines. As a longtime advocate on voting rights issues, he has been in the forefront of the fight for the franchise. After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a point of emphasizing—during the Bush v. Gore arguments in December 2000—that there is no federal constitutional guarantee of a right to vote for president, Raskin responded by making the case that the Constitution should be amended to clearly establish just such a protection. When few in Congress were willing to take the issue up, Raskin was arguing that “it is time for American progressives to engage in serious constitutional politics on behalf of the right to vote.”

With the group FairVote, he has proposed and advanced a number of proposals aimed at assuring that every vote counts—and that every vote is counted. Among these is the “National Popular Vote” proposal for an interstate compact to guarantee that the presidency goes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide.

After the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision cleared the way for corporations to spend as they chose to influence elections, Raskin was among the very first to object. And he did so in the right way, by advocating for a constitutional amendment to undo the damage done by the High Court.

At a point when most Democrats in Washington were talking around the issue, and avoiding the hard reality of what needed to be done, Raskin wrote that “an amendment to allow for reasonable regulation of campaign expenditures and contributions would empower Congress to return corporations to the economic sphere.”

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Today, more than 600 communities and 16 states have formally asked Congress to act. And action will be necessary because, as Raskin noted several years ago in an article for The Nation: “We live in what will surely come to be called the Citizens United era, a period in which a runaway corporatist ideology has overtaken Supreme Court jurisprudence. No longer content just to pick a president, as five conservative Republicans on the Rehnquist Court did in 2000, five conservative Republicans on the Roberts Court a decade later voted to tilt the nation’s entire political process toward the views of moneyed corporate power.”

Those are bold words.

But, certainly, not too bold.

As someone who knows a thing or two about constitutional law, Raskin understands that “A constitutional amendment to correct these distortions may seem impossible now, but all amendments seem impossible until they become inevitable.”


Read Next: John Nichols on Clinton’s faux economic populism

If Clinton Is Serious About Economic Populism, She Should Come Out Against Fast Track

Hillary Clinton (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Hillary Clinton (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Hillary Clinton has backed NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements and she has opposed NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements. Like many other prominent Democrats, she has been inconsistent in her support of what is best for workers, the environment and human rights.

But Clinton has a chance to get trade policy right when it matters.

And when it matters is now.

As she launches a 2016 presidential campaign in which she seems to be interested in grabbing the banner of economic populism—going so far as to complain in her announcement video about how “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top”—Clinton can and should stake out a clear position in opposition to granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Despite overwhelming opposition from labor, farm, environmental, and social-justice groups, Congress is preparing to consider whether to provide Obama with the “fast track” authority he seeks to construct a “free trade” deal linking the North American and Asian nations of the Pacific Rim. Imagine the North American Free Trade Agreement on steroids and you get a sense of what is at stake. Yet, so far, Clinton’s office has offered only a statement about how she is “watching closely” as the debate evolves and a suggestion that she wants “greater prosperity and security for American families, not trade for trade’s sake.”

That’s not a clear commitment one way or the other on fast track or the TPP. And the coming congressional debate demands clear commitments not just from members of the House and Senate but from those who seek the presidency.

In many senses, it is remarkable that Congress would even consider surrendering its authority to make amendments, to provide oversight, and to check and balance the executive branch on so vital an economic and social issue. Yet, the legislation has now been introduced and the White House and corporate interests are gearing up a massive campaign on behalf of fast track. If it succeeds, the TPP will be negotiated behind closed doors and with inadequate oversight from Congress.

No matter what anyone thinks about “free trade,” as it is currently arranged to benefit multinational corporations that seek a race-to-the-bottom economics, or “fair trade,” as it should be arranged to protect workers, the environment, and human rights, no one who believes in openness, transparency and democracy should be on the fence regarding fast track .

The practical arguments against “fast track” are clear enough. As Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says: “[Americans] have seen these type of ‘free trade’ deals rushed through Washington before, and we saw the results firsthand: closed factories, depleted industries and lost jobs. We cannot make the same mistakes of the past. If the administration wants to get the approval of Congress for this new agreement, we must take the time to conduct the careful and thorough oversight this measure requires.”

The political arguments against fast track are, if anything, even clearer. Mark Perrone, the new president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, explains that “no elected official, regardless of political party, who is truly interested in making the economy better and fairer, can responsibly support the TPP. Simply put, this trade deal, like so many others, is bad for our workers, families, and shared future. In the end, while we may not be able to change every mind, we will remember those elected officials who stood with America’s workers by voting for jobs and against another destructive trade deal. More to the point, we join with the AFL-CIO and other unions that refuse to support any member of Congress that decides to put narrow self-interests above the interests of hard-working families.”

So far, Clinton cannot be counted as a supporter of fast track, or as a foe. The statement emailed from a Clinton spokesman to media outlets says that she is “watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation, improve labor rights, protect the environment and health, promote transparency, and open new opportunities for our small businesses to export overseas.” More generally, it explains, “Hillary Clinton believes that any new trade measure has to pass two tests: First, it should put us in a position to protect American workers, raise wages and create more good jobs at home. Second, it must also strengthen our national security. We should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests.”

That’s good language, as is the reminder from her office that Clinton believes “we shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.” But none of this amounts to a statement of opposition to fast track or the TPP.

Critics of the deal are pushing for specifics.

On the day after the fast-track legislation was proposed in Congress, one of the most outspoken opponents of NAFTA-style trade policies called on Clinton and other 2016 contenders to state their opposition. “My strong hope is that Secretary Clinton and all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, will make it clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be rejected and that we must develop trade policies that benefit working families, not just Wall Street and multi-national corporations,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been exploring the prospect of challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Framing his call in the language of economic populism that Clinton has sought to echo, Sanders argued that a strong stance by candidates was necessary because, “For decades, corporate America has been pushing disastrous trade agreements on the American people. The result: millions of jobs lost through outsourcing, lower wages and the collapse of our middle class.”

Former labor secretary Robert Reich presumes that Clinton is in a tight spot. As Obama’s Secretary of State she talked up trade deals, including the TPP initiative. As a senator, she backed some and opposed others. Reich says the question of whether to stick with Obama or to oppose his fast-track request “could definitely be a headache for her in 2016 because it is so very unpopular among progressives.”

Democracy for America’s Jim Dean summed up the centrality of the fast-track debate when he said, “Like a vote for the Iraq War or statements of support for the Social Security–cutting Bowles-Simpson plan, a vote for fast track and the TPP will never be forgotten…”

Presumably, that goes for the positions taken by candidates, as well.

Fair enough.

Politics requires hard choices—the title of Clinton’s memoir.

Clinton should make one. Instead of sticking with Obama on this issue (or, worse yet, trying to avoid taking a stance), she should stick with principles she embraced as a senator. In 2002, sheopposed granting President Bush fast-track authority. And, as a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, she won states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania at least in part because she declared that “The United States should be pursuing trade agreements that promote human rights and worker rights, not overlook egregious abuses.”

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Notably, when she spoke to United Auto Workers members during that campaign, Clinton said, “Every trade agreement has to be independently, objectively analyzed.”

The first place in which trade agreements must be independently and objectively analyzed is in Congress—before they are adopted. Clinton can and should state this truth, as she makes the hard choice to oppose the president she once served and side with the Democrats she proposes to lead.

There is plenty of skepticism about Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed but at this point scantly articulated embrace of economic populism. She can address at least some of that skepticism right now, at the start of her 2016 campaign, by opposing fast track.


Read Next: John Nichols on the need to enshrine the right to vote in the constitution

Enshrine the Right to Vote in the Constitution

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

 A pocket-sized copy of the Constitution (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Flags flew at half mast, schoolchildren recited the “Gettysburg Address” and for a few hours on April 15, America paused to remember that a century and a half ago this country lost its 16th president to an assassin’s bullet.

Now, Americans can finish with the pause and begin to fully honor Lincoln.

The place of beginning is with an embrace of the work of reconstruction that was imagined when Lincoln lived but that is not—even now—complete.

President Obama proclaimed April 15 as a National Day of Remembrance for President Abraham Lincoln, declaring, “Today, we reflect on the extraordinary progress he made possible, and with one voice, we rededicate ourselves to the work of ensuring a Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Obama was right to focus on Lincoln’s great preachmenton behalf of American democracy. It directs our attention toward the mission to which small “d” democrats of all partisanships and ideologies must rededicate ourselves.

One hundred and fifty years after the moment when a still young country saw the end of a Civil War and the assassination of a president, the events of April 1865 continue to shape and challenge the American experience.

With Lincoln’s death, an inept and wrongheaded vice president, Andrew Johnson, succeeded to the presidency. Had it been left to Johnson, who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the progress extending from the great sacrifices of the Civil War would have beenimperiled. But the rough outlines for securing the victory were not left to a president. They were enshrined in the US Constitution.

Three amendments to the founding document were enacted during the five-year period from 1865 to 1870. These “Reconstruction Amendments”were transformational statements—even if their promise has yet to be fully recognized or realized.

The first of the amendments addressed the great failure of the founding moment: a “compromise” that recognized—and effectively permitted—human bondage.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution affirmed that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Those words confronted the indefensible “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which was outlined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution as it was framed in 1787. That paragraph did not speak specifically of slavery, but instead referred to two groups of Americans: “the whole Number of free Persons” and “all other Persons.”

The 13th Amendment was an essential step toward an official embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “immortal declaration”of 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

But it was not enough.

To the 13th Amendment of 1865 was added the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which confirmed that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The 14th Amendment, remarkable in its clarity and detail, provided for due process and equal protection under the law.

But it was not enough.

To the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 and the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 was added the 15th Amendment of 1870, which avowed that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Congress was given the power to enforce these articles by appropriate legislation.

But that was still not enough, as became obvious with the collapse of Reconstruction and the establishment of “Jim Crow” segregation in states that had been part of the Confederacy. With these ruptures came overt discrimination against voting rights.

It took more than a century of litigation, boycotts, protests and marches to restore the promise of equal protection and voting rights.

But that was not enough.

Despite the protections delineated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution (which in 1964 formally banned poll taxes), headlines remind us that the right to vote is “still threatened.” The US Supreme Court has mangled the Voting Rights Act, and the Congress has failed to repair the damage done. The Brennan Center for Justice has determined that at least 83 restrictive bills were introduced in 29 states where legislatures had floor activity in 2014, including proposals to require a photo ID, make voter registration more difficult, reduce early voting opportunities, and make it harder for students to vote.

“The stark and simple truth is this—the right to vote is threatened today—in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” said President Obama.

The great American process of forming a more perfect union is far from complete. The events of 150 years ago were not the end of anything. They were a pivot point that took the United States in a better direction. But the was incomplete, and insufficient to establish justice. So the process continues.

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That is why Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have proposed to amend the Constitution to declare clearly and unequivocally that

“SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.

“SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”

The Pocan-Ellison amendment will not, in and of itself, form a more perfect union. But it provides a tool for those who understand that we best honor our history by recognizing unmet promises—and seeking, finally, to keep them.

“A core principle of our democracy is the ability for citizens to participate in the election of their representatives,” explains Pocan. “We have seen constant attempts by some states to erode voting rights and make it harder for citizens to vote. This amendment would affirm the principle of equal participation in our democracy for every citizen. As the world’s leading democracy, we must guarantee the right to vote for all.”

Take Action: Make Voting Easier in Your State

Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s cautious campaign finance reform

Hillary Clinton Is Still Too Cautious on Campaign Finance Reform

Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

As she begins to frame out the themes of her 2016 presidential run, Hillary Clinton says she will make reform of the nation’s “dysfunctional” campaign finance system a focus of her campaign.

She is right to do so.

And she is getting close to addressing the issue in the right way.

“We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” the former secretary of state told students at Kirkwood Community College in rural Monticello, Iowa.

Like most prominent Democrats, Clinton is too cautious on this issue.

There is simply no question that an amendment will be needed. Americans recognize this. More than 600 communities across the country and 16 states have formally requested that Congress back an amendment to undo the decisions of the Supreme Court to remove barriers to corporate spending and billionaire domination of the political process.

Those decisions, in cases such as Citizens United-v-Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon-v-Federal Election Commission, have left no doubt that an activist majority will continue to do the bidding of corporate special interests and wealthy elites that seek to buy elections—and the policies that extend from those elections. One of Clinton’s prospective rivals in the race for the presidency, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, got it exactly right when he said, “There comes a time when an issue is so important that the only way to address it is by a constitutional amendment.”

Sanders introduced such an amendment in 2011, along with Florida Congressman Ted Deutch. The Sanders-Deutch “Saving American Democracy Amendment” was written to:

* Make it clear that corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as people and that corporations may be regulated by Congress and state legislatures

* Preserve the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press

* Renew a historic ban on corporate campaign donations to candidates

* Establish broad authority for Congress and states to regulate spending in elections

That’s not the only amemdment proposal. Some go even further in clarifying that corporations are not people, that money is not speech and that votes should matter more than dollars. But it is a good start and Clinton would do well to acknowledge as much and endorse the proposal Sanders has put forward.

Until she does, her recognition of the amendment option should be seen as just that: recognition but not an absolute commitment to lead on the issue. She needs to make that commitment, especially as she prepares to make the fund-raising rounds for a campaign that it is predicted will cost an unprecedented $2.5 billion.

Clinton defenders argue that she has to raise enough money to compete with big-spending Republican rivals such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Wallker—and with the “independent expenditures” of billionaires such as the Koch brothers, whose network of wealthy donors is preparing to pour close to $1 billion into the 2016 competition. As a candidate, Clinton needs to make it clear that she understands that these spending levels are not just “dysfunctional.” They are obscene and anti-democratic.

Until she gets clearer on the issue, the Democratic front-runner will face plenty of skepticism.

With this said, Clinton has sent a useful signal on her first day of actual campaigning. Starting her run for the Democratic nomination by talking about amending the Constitution offers an indication that her 2016 campaign may not be so ideologically and practically cautious as her 2008 run was.

Clinton’s statement also highlights the vitality of the grassroots fight for an amendment.

“This move reflects the basic reality—recognized by the vast majority of Americans—that our democracy is being stripped away by a handful of Citizens United–enabled billionaires and giant corporations,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “It is also directly responsive to a rising grassroots movement demanding that the Constitution be amended to overturn Citizens United and restore We the People as sovereign.”

Seventy Years On, Let Us Renew FDR’s Struggle for an Economic Bill of Rights

FDR in 1932 (AP Photo)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 (AP Photo)

Seventy years after the week in which the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shocked the nation and the world, it is easy enough to imagine the loss of America’s longest-serving and most-transformative president as history.

But FDR understood the American story as that of a long struggle characterized by old fights on new grounds. “In our own land we enjoy indeed a fullness of life greater than that of most nations,” he said. “But the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.”

The way to “reaffirm the faith of our fathers” Roosevelt argued, as he sought and won his greatest electoral victory in 1936, was “to restore to the people a wider freedom.”

“That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power,” FDR explained, in his “Rendezvous With Destiny” speech to the Democratic National Convention of 1936; he continued:

In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy—from the eighteenth-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.

And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the Fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small-businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.

The whole point of the New Deal was to challenge the economic royalists on behalf of the great mass of Americans, and to establish that wider freedom.

“The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live,” Roosevelt said.

“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”

Roosevelt was re-elected that year, as he would be again in 1940 and 1944. He led the nation as it struggled to overcome a Great Depression at home and fascism abroad. But he never lost sight of the great struggle to overcome economic tyranny.

To that end, he proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” that was, in its themes and purposes, as bold as the first. It was this “Second Bill of Rights,” an economic bill of rights, that he promised to pursue in the fourth term that was cut short by his death.

“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure,” Roosevelt told the Congress and the nation in the 1944 State of the Union address that framed the final year of his presidency.

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“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty,” said FDR, who explained:

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

—The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

—The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

—The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

—The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

—The right of every family to a decent home;

—The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

—The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

—The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

Seventy years after this country lost Franklin Roosevelt and the promise of a final term spent advocating for a realization of the “new goals of human happiness and well-being,” those goals have yet to be realized. The historian Havey Kaye has argued that President Obama should recognize Roosevelt’s vision and present it anew. The Roosevelt Institute and the Four Freedoms Center remind us that expanding and extending the debate about basic rights and democracy presents “a compelling vision for the future.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has explored these possibilities with his “Economic Agenda for America.” Those are starting points, but they should not be the end of the embrace.

Democrats who speak of FDR’s legacy, and progressives who understand that legacy in its full measure, honor him best by renewing and extending the struggle for a “Second Bill of Rights.”

Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s soft populism

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