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Lincoln Chafee just went there, as only Lincoln Chafee could.
The former Republican senator and independent governor of Rhode Island, who is very seriously exploring the prospect of challenging Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, said Iraq should be an issue.
Then Chafee got specific. He brought up the votes that he and Clinton cast in 2002, as members of the US Senate, on whether to authorize President Bush and Vice President Cheney to steer the United States toward war with Iraq.
Chafee, then sitting as a Republican, voted with Senators Russ Feingold, Paul Wellstone, and twenty others to block the rush to war.
Clinton, sitting as a Democrat, voted with Senator John McCain and 75 others to give Bush and Cheney their blank check.
Chafee calls that Clinton’s vote “the biggest mistake of many” on issues of foreign policy by the presumed frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
“I don’t think anybody should be president of the United States that made that mistake,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s a huge mistake and we live with broad, broad ramifications today—of instability not only in the Middle East but far beyond and the loss of American credibility. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
Chafee has raised the Iraq issue as Clinton is preparing to make an earlier-than-expected announcement of her candidacy on Sunday. In so doing, the prospective challenger to Clinton has recalled what was once—and what could still be—the greatest vulnerability of the former secretary of state. Hillary Clinton has a reputation, and a record, as a hawk when it comes to wars and military adventures abroad.
But will that reputation and record be “disqualifying” in 2016?
There is little question that Iraq was an essential issue for Illinois Senator Barack Obama in 2008, when he challenged Clinton for that year’s Democratic presidential nomination. Obama and his backers highlighted the fact that—as an Illinois state senator—he had delivered an anti-war speech in 2002. That went a long way toward distinguishing a relative newcomer to national politics from the former first lady and two-term senator.
Of course, 2008 was a different election. Bush was the sitting president, and there were roughly 150,000 US troops on the ground in Iraq. But the challenge that Obama raised then, and that Chafee raises now, was about more than one war, It was also about judgment, and a vision of foreign policy. “We’ve been having the muscular approach that isn’t smart in the long term,” says the former senator, who suggests that he is more in the “brains over biceps” camp than Clinton.
Chafee is not alone in expressing concerns about how a President Clinton would strike the balance between militarism and diplomacy. As she prepares a 2016 candidacy that begins on a strong strategic and structural footing, Clinton remains vulnerable with a party base that is more anti-war and more economically populist than party elites.
While other potential Clinton challengers have been cautious about criticizing the front-runner, Chafee is not. He’s taking swipes at Clinton on economic issues, campaign finance concerns, and how the Clinton Foundation operates—and he’s even noting that, while, yes, he was once a liberal Republican, Clinton was once a supporter of conservative Republican Barry Goldwater.
“I am not naive about the task, but I think there is a strong stream of Democratic primary voters that would like some choices. I do believe that,” says Chafee. “I am not naive about the amount of money already the Clinton campaign has amassed and support, but it is a long marathon of a race and I am very confident that there are questions that need to be asked and I want to be asking them.”
Chafee, who backed Obama in 2008, is not the Obama of 2016. He is a relative newcomer to the Democratic Party with a reputation as a maverick. Yet the questions he raises are serious ones. Clinton needs to face them, and answer them. Just as she needs to face and answer the questions about income inequality, wage gaps, and trade policy that a challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders might raise.
Clinton is the Democratic front-runner, the leader in every national poll and in the polls from early caucus and primary states. Her campaign will seek to foster a sense of inevitability.
But even those who support Clinton should recognize the lesson of 2008: “Inevitability” does not always translate into reality. And Democrats who believe Clinton will be their nominee should recognize something else: She will face questions about her record. Those questions will either come in a spirited primary process, or they will come in a fall race with a Republican. Lincoln Chafee is raising the toughest questions now. That is not merely appropriate, that is practical and necessary—for Clinton and for the Democratic Party.
Read Next: John Nichols on remembering Stanley Kutler
Louis Brandeis was, of course, correct when he observed that, just as “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” so “publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases.”
And no one knew more about shedding sunlight on the shadowy recesses of American public life than Stanley Kutler.
The University of Wisconsin professor of history, Guggenheim fellow and Fulbright lecturer, who has died too soon at age 80, recognized that the history that mattered was the history that political and economic elites preferred to keep concealed. That is why he fought, sometimes for decades, to open the closed doors of the past and reveal the dark doings of the powerful.
Much of what Americans know about Richard Nixon and Watergate is in their possession because of Kutler’s dogged pursuit of the thirty-seventh president. Former President Jerry Ford may have pardoned his predecessor, but Stanley Kutler did not.
“History very much mattered to Nixon,” the scholar recalled. “No different from other leaders who realized that when their power faded, they had only their history, which they desperately tried to control.”
But Kutler knew it was wrong to let Nixon, or any president, or any powerful or wealthy man, own history. He had an encyclopedic memory of presidential power grabs and wrongdoing—especially when it involved warmaking abroad and assaults of rights of citizens at home. He made it his mission to call out a Democrat (Lyndon Johnson) and a Republican (Richard Nixon) with regard to the Vietnam War. He confronted a Republican (George W. Bush) and a Democrat (Barack Obama) on Iraq. He called out obfuscation, lies and secrecy.
Others might forgive and forget, but this historian remembered and remonstrated.
Kutler authored a pair of groundbreaking books on Nixon’s wrongdoing: The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (Knopf, 1990) and Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press, 1997). These were the books that Nixon and his allies hoped would never be published. The former president, who was obsessed with rebuilding his reputation after being forced from office in 1974, prevented the release of the vast majority of the secretly taped material from his years in the Oval Office.
Only about sixty hours from the tapes were made available to the public during Nixon’s lifetime.
Kutler knew that the real story was being suppressed. So, in 1992, with Public Citizen, the historian sued the National Archives to force the release of the thousands of hours of White House conversations that Nixon and his associates had sought to conceal.
Kutler and Public Citizen won, securing the gradual release of 3,700 hours worth of tapes. And the professor started reviewing the material that had been kept from the American people. The result was the appropriately titled Abuse of Power. An agile thinker and gracious writer, Kutler produced a fact-driven book that serves to this day as a powerful indictment not merely of Nixon but of official secrecy.
Much was made of the revelations in Abuse of Power, especially those regarding the former president’s paranoia and bigotry. But the most powerful details in the book are those that reveal the extent to which a politician can use the awesome power of the presidency to attack “enemies” and reward “friends,” to warp the political process in his favor and to undermine the rule of law.
Kutler, an internationally recognized historian of the constitution and the rule of law who was a frequent contributor to The Nation, would have been a highly regarded public intellectual even if he had not taken on the Nixon fight. And he always emphasized that his deepest interest was in the abuses that extended from an imperial presidency rather than the misdeeds of a man—even if he did admit that he was “alternately amused and appalled” by the thirty-seventh president.
Madison attorney Dean Strang, a defense lawyer and legal historian, best summed Kutler up when he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the professor “had an ability to take constitutional history and make it real and human and trace its impact on real lives. He was completely engaged in tomorrow and how to make the country a better place, right up until the end.”
This is what we should take away from Stanley Kutler’s life.
He will always be known as the historian who chased, and caught, Richard Nixon—revealing the whole story of the former president’s personal and political corruption. But that is insufficient. Stanley Kutler should be remembered as the teacher who warned us about letting any president use the power of his position to abuse democracy.
Kutler objected to the “luxuriant privilege” that presidents of both parties have bestowed upon themselves. He despised the abuse of power. And he recognized that official secrecy has always been, and will always be, the tool by which self-serving elites disregard and diminish the will of the people.
It was for these reasons that, like the best of our founders, Stanley Kutler was ever at the ready to defend the Constitution from all affronts—even those of presidents.
Read Next: John Nichols on Chuy Garcia and Chicago’s Progressive Movement
Chicago progressive Jesus “Chuy” Garcia made political history in February, when he forced Rahm “Mayor 1%” Emanuel into an unprecedented runoff election. For the first time since the nation’s third-largest city established a nonpartisan system for choosing local officials, a mayor fell short of 50 percent of the vote and had to face a challenger in a second election.
But Garcia did not make history twice. He fell short in the April 7 Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff vote that mirrored the broader struggle for the future of the party—in Chicago and nationally—by pitting a populist challenger against a corporatist incumbent. Despite a remarkable grassroots campaign, which changed political equations across the city, the challenger and the labor-backed coalition that supported him could not overcome the advantages Emanuel enjoyed: incumbency, support from remnants of the Chicago Democratic machine, the steady support of the city’s two major newspapers, an endorsement from President Obama, and a campaign bankroll of more than $23.6 million (almost four times what Garcia raised). The incumbent's spending spree was augmented by millions more in spending by a separate campaign fund and an Emanuel-aligned "Super PAC."
“Emanuel’s overwhelming financial advantage ultimately helped save the mayor as he fought for his political life,” acknowledged The Chicago Tribune in its Wednesday morning assessment of the results.
Yet, Garcia won more than 250,000 votes (44 percent of the total) and the city-wide coalition that supported him beat a number of city council candidates allied with Emanuel. The challenger conceded Tuesday night, but he did not sound defeated. “We didn’t lose today. We tried today. We fought hard for what we believe in,” Garcia told a cheering crowd of supporters. “You don’t succeed at this or anything else unless you try. So keep trying. “
Labor unions and activist groups that campaigned for Garcia and the progressive council candidates signaled that they would, indeed, keep trying. “Rahm’s wealthy donors bought him another term but they couldn’t buy him love,” declared the Working Families Party’s Jon Green. “A progressive movement is growing in Chicago and it’s capturing hearts and minds. Three months ago, Rahm thought he was untouchable. He survived the political fight of his life, but he had to move on important issues like the minimum wage and affordable housing. Rahm is still the mayor, but he’s no longer the king.”
Garcia’s finish was better than even optimistic allies predicted when he entered the mayoral race last fall, as a county commissioner with a solid record of progressive activism but little name recognition—and less money.
Garcia’s finish was also better than the one Harold Washington secured in his first run for mayor.
That’s right: the hero of Chicago progressive history who beat the money and the machine in 1983 to become the city’s first African-American mayor did not simply appear on the scene to upset incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard Daley, the son of the city’s longtime mayor and legendary political boss.
Six years earlier, when the senior Daley’s death forced a special election for the mayoralty. Washington mounted an insurgent primary campaign against the machine and the downtown money power. On paper, Washington’s 1977 run sounded like a great idea. With more than a dozen years of experience as a state legislator, with a network of supporters in the African-American community, and with three white candidates dividing the base of a political machine that looked to be in decline, Washington simply had to pull together a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and liberal reformers. But it didn’t happen. He won just over 10 percent of the vote—a “dismal” finish, in the words of The New York Times.
Washington learned from the experience. He built on the independent base he had begun to develop in 1977, got himself elected to Congress and developed a strategy for winning in 1983. His plan was to lead “anti-greed and anti-corruption” coalition rooted in a faith that would eventually define his mayoralty: “We are a multiethnic, multiracial, multi-language city and that is a source of stability and strength.” It was not easy. The opposition was crude and divisive. Even after Washington won his primary victory, many Democrats backed the Republican in what was then a partisan runoff. But Washington prevailed—by a 52-48 margin—because of the city-wide coalition he and his supporters had built over not weeks or months but years.
That’s the lesson that ought to be taken away from the 2015 results. The coalition that backed Garcia and progressive council contenders this year is young and dynamic. It is still evolving. But it is real.
Garcia had not planned to challenge Emanuel this spring. He only entered the race after Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who had been preparing to take on the mayor, was sidelined by illness. Yet Garcia and the coalition that backed him forced a mayoral runoff and a real debate about the city and its future. They also shook up city council races to such an extent that, as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin noted Wednesday morning, “a meaningful number of Emanuel-backed candidates went down in flames.”
It may not be that Garcia will run again. That is not the point.
The point is that someone, many someones, will run against the money power in the elections to come. And they will run from a position of greater strength than existed before.
Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery got it right Tuesday night when he said that forcing a runoff and opening up the process “made an undeniable impact in Chicago.” This city has been changed by this campaign. The city council will have a larger progressive caucus and Emanuel will face steady opposition—inside City Hall and on the streets—to his pay-to-play politics, privatization schemes and assaults on public education.
The labor organizations that helped to forge this coalition (the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois State Council of the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 308 and 241 and others) have challenged a powerful Democratic mayor. And they have done so by objected, bluntly, to the Democratic party’s penchant for selling out its base; as the ATU locals did when they declared, “Mayor Emanuel is at the heart of the frustration working Americans have had with the continuing economic inequality and corporatism in both the Republican and Democratic parties.”
The unions are not going away or backing down. Neither are the local activists associated with the National People’s Action Campaign (through its Reclaim Chicago affiliate), Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party. The United Working Families organization provided an early endorsement for Garcia and progressive council candidates and worked with union activists in wards across the city to build grassroots networks that will continue to be a force in local politics.
When backers of Garcia and city council candidate Susan Sadlowski Garza (who held a narrow lead in Tuesday’s results) gathered a few days before the election at an old United Steelworkers hall on the city’s southeast side, CTU President Karen Lewis took the long view. “This has got to be the start of a movement,” she told the crowd. “This can’t be about one election, one election cycle.”
If that movement builds, Lewis promised, “Things will change.”
Garcia’s strong finish—along with victories by progressive council candidates—makes that change seem possible. The progressive movement of 2015 has a much bigger base upon which to build than did Harold Washington had after his first mayoral bid of 1977.
Neither this year’s election results, nor the history that points to what might be, provides a guarantee of change.
They merely raise the prospect.
But in a town as slow to change as Chicago, that prospect is a big deal.
Chicago did not elect a new mayor this year. But it has shaken things up for an old mayor. And it has held out hope for a new politics not just in one city but nationwide.
“Today was just the beginning. While Mayor Emanuel bought this election hand over fist, we’re seeing a new left pole emerge in American politics,” said National People’s Action Campaign executive director George Goehl, a Chicagoan who was active with the Reclaim Chicago effort. “In cities across the country, progressive populists are taking on corporate politicians and running on an agenda that puts people and planet before excessive profits. As discontent with a system that’s rigged in favor of corporations and the super-wealthy continues to grow, so too will a new political movement.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Rand Paul’s candidacy
Dick Cheney does not approve of Rand Paul, which is certainly a strong recommendation.
But not strong enough. The senator from Kentucky’s occasionally expressed doubts about the national security state and wars of whim and folly may offend the delicate sensibilities of the former vice president, who has made no secret of his disdain for the Republican presidential prospect. But the truth is that Paul still fits rather too comfortably into the autocratic mainstream of Cheney’s Republican Party.
There is no question that Paul is more interesting than the other Republicans who will join him in the race for the 2016 primary contests. His objections to Cheney’s over-the-top militarism are worthy of note, and even sometimes of praise. And he deserves at least some credit for recognizing that the party has a grumpy-old-man problem. “I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime for the presidency unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” said the senator, as he prepared the way for his entry into the race for the party’s nomination. But what makes him genuinely interesting is that he can be rather specific regarding his stylistic concerns with the curse of Cheneyism: declaring that the GOP must undergo “a transformation, not a little tweaking at the edges.” Paul wants the party to start talking about dialing down Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” with an acknowledgement that “it’s disproportionately affected the poor and the black and brown among us.” He reminds his fellow partisans that serious conversations about “big government” must deal with the looming presence of the military-industrial complex.
He even suggests that the party, which has grown increasingly meddlesome when it comes to restricting rights and preempting local democracy, needs to do a better job defending—as opposed to merely talking about—liberty.
Unfortunately, the supposedly “different” Rand Paul talks a better line than he delivers.
When it counts, Paul reveals himself as an rather too predictable contemporary Republican. He is not interested in winning the battle of ideas. He is simply interested in winning—and if that means using the power of big government to thwart the legitimate and honorable democratic aspirations of citizens, so be it.
This inconvenient truth will frustrate Americans who array themselves on various positions along the political spectrum. There were a good many good citizens—on the right and the left—who have entertained the notion that the son of former Congressman Ron Paul (who frequently stood on principle against his fellow Republicans) might get the Republican Party to abandon the authoritarian tendencies that have come to dominate its platforms and political strategies. This prospect has attracted considerable attention for his 2016 bid, which Paul announced Tuesday with an amusingly populist slogan: “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.”
Unfortunately, Rand Paul is on the side of the machine he claims to oppose.
Paul, like so many of his Republican colleagues, has turned out to be the worst sort of big-government man.
While libertarians and many progressives believe in decentralizing power and making sure that the most authority is rested in the hands of the most people, Paul wants the federal government to dictate policies and procedures to Americans—even when that undermines the ability of those Americans to spend tax dollars as they choose.
The senator made this abundantly clear several years ago when he blocked action on the District of Columbia Budget Autonomy Act, a power-to-the-people measure designed to give the voters of Washington, DC, and their elected representatives more authority over the spending of locally raised tax dollars.
Instead of embracing the decentralization plan, the senator used his position to derail it.
The Senate Homeland Security and Government Operations Committee had planned in the summer of 2012 to begin the process of moving the DC Budget Autonomy Act toward passage. But Paul used his senatorial privilege to stall action on the measure with a series of schemes, including proposals for amendments designed to weaken the district’s gun laws and ban local spending for reproductive health services. He even sought to impose anti-labor “right to work” rules to the city with an amendment providing that “membership in a labor organization may not be applied as a precondition for employment” in the District of Columbia.
Paul made no secret of his intention to use the power of the federal government to impose his will on the residents of Washington, DC, a majority-minority city that ought to be a state.
“I think it’s a good way to call attention to some issues that have national implications,” the senator explained to The Washington Post. “We don’t have (authority) over the states but we do for DC”
Paul succeeded in thwarting local democracy and local control.
The Post reported: “D.C. budget autonomy bill pulled after Rand Paul offers amendments on guns, abortion, unions.”
An analysis by DC public-radio station WAMU announced: “Senator Rand Paul Derails D.C. Budget Autonomy Momentum.”
Even a year later, as Paul was trying to soften his image and suggest that he was flexible, the group DC Vote reminded everyone that, when it mattered, “Rand’s personal agenda on guns and abortion doomed chances for the bill.”
That authority is no small matter for the residents of the District of Columbia.
“Budget autonomy is critical to the District’s future,” explains the Council of the District of Columbia, which notes that “On all but three occasions since 1990, Congress has approved the District’s budget after the fiscal year was already underway. This creates great difficulty and uncertainty in the District’s budgeting process, and increases short-term borrowing costs. Additionally, since our schools’ budget year is tied to that of Congress, we are forced to face the costly and illogical situation of having the all-important ‘back to school’ season fall during the very last weeks of their shared fiscal year.”
“The issue is clear: dollars that are raised locally should be allowed to be spent locally without the need for Congressional involvement (although Congress would retain decision-making on federal funds),” argue the elected leaders of Washington, DC. “The Council, the Mayor, and 83 percent of District voters are on record supporting this view.”
This is a basic local control issue, a basic liberty issue. It is exactly the sort of issue that a different kind of Republican, a “new” Republican (or a very old Republican of the “Party of Lincoln” school) should have gotten right.
But Rand Paul got it wrong. And there is a lesson in this. The Paul cannot be counted on to stand on principle when his party is wrong. And he cannot be counted on to lead in a “new” direction.
Decrying “Sen. Rand Paul’s stunning hypocrisy,” Ilir Zherka, executive director of the group DC Vote, complained, “He preaches about restraining the power of the federal government, but uses that same power to impose his own, narrow political agenda on residents of the District of Columbia.”
That’s the right analysis.
But it should not be coming only from DC activists.
It should be coming from everyone who thinks that government—big or small, local or national—is supposed to serve the people, not impose the will of petty politicians on the great mass of citizens.
Rand Paul may claim to believe in the principles of self-government, as outlined by Jefferson and Madison.
But that is not the case.
When it matters, he’s just another top-down, autocratic, big-government Republican.
Read Next: John Nichols on Scott Walker and the Supreme Court
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plays politics to win. As a political careerist who has run two dozen primary and general election campaigns since 1990, he leaves nothing to chance. And the partisans who have allied with him have embraced the view that the best way to prevail in politics is to “have it all”—control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
This week, Walker’s allies are focused on securing control of the judicial branch of state government in Wisconsin. The Republican Party of Wisconsin and groups that have consistently backed Walker’s agenda are leading the charge to oust a state Supreme Court justice who has championed judicial independence and to change the way in which the high court is organized—with an eye toward ousting another independent jurist from the position of chief justice.
The Wisconsin fights, which will play out in two statewide votes Tuesday, have received little national attention. Yet they are instructive for those who seek to understand the relentless pursuit of power by Walker and his political allies—and the approach that the all-but-announced Republican presidential contender and his associates would bring to Washington if they realize their national ambitions.
Since his election in 2010, Walker and his legislative cronies have grabbed every opening to secure and advance their authority. They have employed ambitious gerrymandering schemes, reorganized the election calendar, rewritten voting rules and invited the wealthiest men in America to flood the state with special-interest money. They have disregarded rules and regulations designed to maintain transparency and fairness. They have played what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe as “winner-take-all politics.”
Since the wave election of 2014, Walker and his Republican allies have enjoyed absolute control of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. They have used that control to further an anti-labor agenda—begun in 2011 with assaults on public-sector unions—by enacting so-called “right to work” legislation. And they plan to do a lot more. In addition to proposals to cut funding for the University of Wisconsin and expand private K-12 voucher schools using money that would otherwise be earmarked for public education, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Walker has plans for “ending state funding for highway beautification, and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television; phasing out a long-standing racial integration program for students; and leaving most prison watchtowers vacant at night.”
Yet, Walker and his partisans are not satisfied.
The ability to roll over partisan opposition in the legislative branch of government is not enough. Walker and his allies have faced a number of legal challenges to their power grabs. So the governor’s allies have made gaining and maintaining control of the state’s highest court a high priority. After several of what the Brennan Center for Justice has identified as among the most expensive and negative state judicial races in recent American history, Walker’s Republican and corporate allies have secured a majority on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan court.
“Judicial elections are supposed to be non-partisan, but partisan politics and large political donations from outside the state have played a key role in Wisconsin Supreme Court races in recent years,” observed a report published last week by the Wisconsin Gazette. “The Koch brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have spent an estimated $8.3 million to elect right-wing justices in Wisconsin, giving conservatives and supporters of Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda a majority on the bench.”
But there are still three justices who have refused to bow to pro-Walker partisanship, and one of them is the powerful chief justice.
On Tuesday, Walker’s allies hope to oust one of the three remaining justices who maintain a commitment to judicial independence. And they are seeking to amend the state constitution to alter the method for organizing the high court’s leadership—in what is broadly understood as a move to oust the chief justice. Both initiatives come as the court prepares to hear three cases involving a John Doe investigation into the campaigns of Walker and his political allies.
The sitting justice who faces a direct challenge Tuesday is Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who has served on the high court for two decades, earning national recognition for her legal scholarship and work ethic. Justice Bradley is running a traditional reelection campaign that emphasizes the importance of judicial independence, respect for the rule of law and a nonpartisan judiciary.
Bradley has earned backing from Democrats, independents and old-school Republicans, from organized labor and responsible business leaders. In endorsing her, the LaCrosse Tribune noted Bradley’s “broad bipartisan support,” while the Wausau Daily Herald argued that “Bradley has shown an ability to be impartial; Daley has seemingly intentionally campaigned on the promise not to be.”
This distinction has led to the targeting of Justice Bradley by the relentless partisans associated with Walker and his legislative allies.
Justice Bradley has also been targeted by conservatives on the court. Justice David Prosser, against whom the Judicial Commission has filed ethics charges stemming from an incident in which Prosser placed his hands around Justice Bradley’s neck, has donated $500 to the campaign of Bradley’s challenger, Rock County Judge James Daley. Prosser, a former Republican legislative leader, worked closely with Walker when both served in the state Assembly.
Republican efforts on behalf of Daley have been widely reported.
“Daley accepted a $7,000 in-kind contribution from the Wisconsin Republican Party and is speaking at GOP events around the state, ” according to the Associated Press. That should come as no surprise, as Daley’s campaign ads position him as an ally of the governor and legislative Republicans—going so far as to hail the governor’s anti-labor agenda and the enactment of a restrictive voter-ID law. Wisconsin governors do not usually make endorsements in judicial races, and Walker has avoided formally stating his preferences, but there is no missing the message of Daley’s campaign ads, which accuse Justice Bradley for trying “to undermine Gov. Walker’s reforms.” The ads are unprecedented in their partisanship, leaving little doubt that Daley would align himself with a particular faction inside the executive and legislative branches and, by extension, with the political paymasters that sustain this faction.
The second vote of consequence for the judiciary involves an assault on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Re-elected in 2009 with almost 60 percent of the vote, Abrahamson is popular with the people of Wisconsin, respected by lawyers and judges, and highly regarded in her role as the administrative head of the state courts system. She is so widely respected nationally that, during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, Justice Abrahamson’s name turned up on lists of potential US Supreme Court nominees.
Fiercely independent, she has a reputation for spurning pressure from politicians of both parties and for refusing to bend to special interests. So politicians and special-interest groups associated with Walker are trying to oust Justice Abrahamson from her role as chief justice by amending the state constitution to end the 126-year-old practice of having the senior justice (who has been elected the most times by the voters) serve as chief. The amendment, which was proposed and advanced by Walker allies in the legislature, would establish a new system for selecting the chief justice that allow justices who have supported Walker’s agenda to replace Justice Abrahamson with one of their own.
“This is clearly targeted at the current chief justice because certain groups don’t want her as chief justice,” argues former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who was appointed to the court by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.
“For more than 100 years, that post has gone to the most senior member on the court, which is a wise and prudent procedure, which cuts done on infighting and jockeying and politicization,” explains Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild. “But now, because anti-democratic forces have a vendetta against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, they’ve put a referendum (on the ballot) to change that process so that a majority of the justices decide who is chief justice.”
Walker’s allies are all-in for this one.
“Outside groups have made late expenditures in two judicial contests on Wisconsin’s April 7 ballot,” report the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake, based on an analysis of Federal Communications Commission records conducted by the groups. “Though traditional big spenders are supporting groups on either side of the ballot measure, the bulk of the spending thus far is a single $600,000 contribution from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to a group in favor of [the amendment].”
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a corporate group that does not reveal its donors, has long championed Walker and his legislative agenda. Shortly before he signed Wisconsin’s “right to work” law—“a top policy reform on the WMC public policy agenda”—Walker appeared at the organization’s annual “Business Day in Madison” event, which was sponsored by Walmart and Koch brothers–owned Georgia-Pacific.
Noting the heavy spending by WMC in support of the proposed amendment, Justice and Stake executive director Bert Brandenburg said, “The brawl over Wisconsin’s courts has moved to a new arena. But many Wisconsin residents still don’t realize that Question 1 is a political effort to tilt the court to one side, not a good-government measure.”
The one side is that of Scott Walker, whose allies are working hard to assure that the governor will have one-size-fits-all control of state government.
Read Next: John Nichols on Chuy Garcia’s progressive vision
“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery,” wrote Horace Mann in 1848, when the great proponent of public education outlined a premise that remains at the heart of every progressive vision for this country.
Unfortunately, 167 years after Mann made his case, many politicians who position as “progressive” are insufficiently committed to the cause of public education. Some of the crudest education cuts and “reforms” have been implemented by Democrats who often go as far—even further—than conservative Republicans in embracing the wrong thinking of those who would undermine public education with “charter” experiments, voucher schemes and privatization plans.
It is too simplistic to assume that the debate over public education plays out only between Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. In fact, there are important debates over education that need to be had within the Democratic Party. Until Democrats are solidly supportive of public education, it is difficult to see how they will effectively counter Republicans like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who have aligned themselves with the billionaire proponents of an “education reform” movement that is all about deforming and diminishing the promise of the great equalizer.
This debate has already erupted in a number of cities and states. In 2014, for instance, much of the support for law professor Zephyr Teachout’s exceptionally strong Democratic primary challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came from teachers and their allies in the burgeoning movement to defend public education.
Now, an ever clearer test is playing out in Chicago.
The lines of division could not be starker in next Tuesday’s Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff contest. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an advocate of high-stakes testing and the charter-school “reforms” favored by conservative Republicans and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, faces an energetic challenge from Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, an outspoken champion of teachers and neighborhood schools who has aligned with progressive unions and grassroots activist groups.
With all the advantages of incumbency, a massive fund-raising advantage and political connections that extend to the White House, Emanuel remains the front-runner in the Chicago contest. But the fact that there is a race at all—the first runoff election since the current system for electing Chicago mayors was created—owes everything to the evolving debate over education policy.
A case can be made that Emanuel would not have faced serious competition had he not ordered the closing of dozens of neighborhood schools, as part of an ongoing fight with public-education advocates and the Chicago Teachers Union. The mayor earns praise from national groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, which bluntly declares, “We believe in empowering mayors to lead urban school districts…”
While there are plenty of Democratic mayors who have embraced that approach, Garcia says Chicago needs to go in a different direction. He argues for an elected school board—which Chicago currently lacks—as part of an expanded commitment to public schools.
“My program involves giving the school system back to the people through an elected school board; reducing to the barest legal minimum the plethora of high-stakes, standardized tests by which we falsely judge schools, students, and teachers; placing a moratorium on further charter schools; expanding public education to include pre-kindergarten and even earlier; and reducing class size, which is one of the largest in the state,” explains Garcia, who declares that “it is necessary to change course dramatically from the so-called ‘reforms’ offered by Mayor Emanuel.”
That stance, among others, has won Garcia the enthusiastic support of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has wrangled with Emanuel so frequently that CTU President Karen Lewis briefly considered challenging the mayor. Lewis was sidelined by illness last fall, but she is now Garcia’s most enthusiastic backer, appearing at the challenger’s side and declaring that “if he is elected as our mayor, I know he will work for all of our citizens, not just the corporate elites and special interests who seek to privatize our public assets.”
On Saturday, Lewis and teachers and community leaders from across the city will participate in “march to the polls” to promote early voting for Garcia. They’ll be joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congressman Danny Davis and Dr. Cornel West, as well as Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka.
Recently elected in Newark, Baraka has taken the lead in arguing for a new vision of urban education that fights for and funds public schools—rather than beating up on them. “There are many parallels between Chuy’s campaign and my own,” says Mayor Baraka. “I see the same type of grassroots, people-powered campaign in Chicago right now as I ran in Newark last year. Chuy Garcia will return control of public schools to the communities they serve. Chicago, Newark, and so many cities around this country face a common struggle against corporate interests that want to undermine public education and silence dissenting voices in the community.”
Baraka’s point is well taken. Too many Democrats are either wrong on education issues, or so vague in their stances that it is tough to determine whether they are right or wrong. In contrast, the new mayor of Newark has been unapologetic and energetic in arguing for public schools.
Garcia has been equally unapologetic and energetic—and specific. With a vision of “progressive mayors across the country” working with teachers and parents to strengthen neighborhood schools and services, the Chicago challenger sees his run as part of a broader effort to reframe the debate over public education in America.
That new frame stops looking for ways to blame teachers and starts recognizing the need to address the pressures that make it difficult for even the best teachers to do their jobs.
Garcia decries the emphasis on high-stakes testing in public schools. “When it comes to standardized, high-stakes testing, our kids are over-tested and under-educated,” says the candidate, who argues that “Making everything dependent on test scores in two subjects simply builds in larger failures. Ultimately it causes teachers, schools and entire systems to narrow educational goals and teach to the tests—or cheat, which we’ve seen recently around the country and in Chicago in past years.”
A veteran city, county and state official whose progressive political roots go back to the days when former mayor Harold Washington was battling the Daley machine, Garcia is equally blunt about the flaws and failures of charter-school experiments. Charters “long ago ceased offering anything new that public schools could utilize, particularly since teachers unions in today’s world have reformed significantly, focusing more on education than protecting the jobs of teachers,” says Garcia, who says that “charters drain increasing amounts of public money while paying staff lower wages.”
But Garcia’s core advocacy goes back to the values championed by the pioneering advocates for public education, who argued it was an underpinning of democracy. It is this faith in democracy that animates Garcia’s candidacy. He believes in empowering students, teachers, parents and communities by resting power with an elected school board.
“One of my first acts as mayor will be to go to Springfield and ask the legislature to revoke the mayoral control legislation and let Chicago take its place with the rest of Illinois by having an elected board,” says Garcia. “We are the only school district in the state with an appointed, not an elected, school board, thanks to state legislation passed in 1995—which I voted against as state legislator. This is the board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders. Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?”
To a greater extent than a lot of Democrats, including Rahm Emanuel, “Chuy” Garcia gets that the fight for public education is about democracy—and about the rights that are essential to democracy.
“School systems are perhaps the main governmental bodies touching the lives of a majority of our citizens. That’s why I believe an elected school board is a constitutional right,” argues Garcia, in one of the core statements of his campaign. If the state legislature fails to revoke mayoral control of the Chicago school system, he promises, “I will file a federal voting-rights lawsuit based on the Constitution and civil rights laws.”
A mayor waging that fight would earn national attention and, perhaps, usher in a whole new debate about public education. That’s a debate that Democrats need to have if there is to be hope that the great equalizer of the conditions of men and women might finally be the balance wheel of our social machinery.
Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Chuy Garcia
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says America needs a "political revolution" to change the debate about economic inequality and he sees evidence of the upheaval in Chicago. So the senator is wading into that city's mayoral race as a backer of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the labor-backed progressive who is mounting a spirited challenge to incumbent Rahm Emanuel.
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, has been exploring a possible 2016 presidential candidacy as a progressive-populist challenger to the Democratic establishment. And he argues that Garcia is forging the sort of "working-class coalition" that is needed to shake up politics in urban America and beyond.
Garcia earned headlines with a strong showing in Chicago's first round of voting in February. That forced Emanuel into a rare runoff for mayor of the nation's third largest city. Emanuel, a politically-connected Democrat with close ties to Wall Street and corporate interests, still has a big money advantage in the race (with many donations from wealthy Republicans)—and a lead in most polls. But Garcia's insurgent candidacy has won significant grassroots support in Chicago, along with the backing of key labor organizations, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Council of the Service Employees International Union.
Both Emanuel and Garcia are Democrats, and Garcia (a former Chicago alderman and Illinois legislator and current Cook County Commissioner) actually has a longer record of running for and winning office on the party line than the incumbent. So opposition to Emanuel in Chicago's nonpartisan runoff is, as National People's Action executive director George Goehl notes, based on "a clear set of populist principles, not a party."
For the most part, however, national Democrats have either backed Emanuel (as did President Obama, who appeared with the mayor in February and has recorded campaign commercials for him) or steered clear of the race. That's a measure of the political influence maintained by Emanuel, not just in Chicago but in Washington.
Though he was never a favorite of progressive Democrats during his tenures as an aide to Presidents Clinton and Obama, or when he headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel's stock has fallen since he became mayor four years ago. His decisions to close public schools and to align with corporate interests at a time when the Democratic Party is under growing pressure to address income inequality, wage stagnation and a host of economic injustices has only heightened frustration with the mayor.
That frustration manifested itself in the decision of an old rival of Emanuel, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, to back Garcia—as has a group founded by Dean and many supporters from his 2004 presidential run, Democracy for America.
MoveOn.org has also highlighted opposition to Emanuel and support for Garcia.
Yet, few other prominent progressives have joined in making the populist argument against Emanuel.
So the endorsement of Garcia by Sanders is drawing notice in Chicago and Washington. The endorsement mixes local and national political storylines, as Sanders is pondering a possible run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination – perhaps as a progressive populist challenger to presumed Democratic frontrunner (and Emanuel-backed prospect) Hillary Clinton.
Sanders will make the endorsement formally on Thursday, at a Chicago event featuring Garcia and Susan Sadlowski Garza, a labor-backed progressive seeking a city council seat on Chicago’s south side.
“I am going to Chicago to support Chuy Garcia and Susan Sadlowski Garza. I support them because we need a political revolution in this country and we need the kind of working-class coalitions that Chuy and Susan are pulling together,” says Sanders,who argues that, “At a time when the wealthiest people and largest corporations are becoming richer while virtually everyone else is becoming poorer, working-class people have got to fight back. And that is what the campaigns of Chuy and Susan are all about.”
The Chicago event caps a week of cross-country appearances by Sanders, who appeared at several large events in Los Angeles last weekend and addressed San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the senator headed to Las Vegas and then Austin, Texas.
For Sanders, the events are opportunities to speak but also to talk with labor and progressive activists. In Los Angeles, the senator was the keynote speaker at an “awakening our conscience, restoring our democracy” event organized by author Marianne Williamson, which also included on its list of featured speakers Congressmen Alan Grayson and Keith Ellison, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and author and radio host Thom Hartmann. In Austin, populist writer and commentator Jim Hightower joined Sanders; this writer will MC the Chicago event.
Sanders has said that he will make a decision on whether to seek the presidency later this spring. When we first discussed the prospect a year ago, he explained that such a candidacy would require “a political revolution” – the same phrase he employed when endorsing Chuy Garcia and Susan Sadlowski Garza.
“(When} I talk about a political revolution, what I am referring to is the need to do more than just win the next election. It’s about creating a situation where we are involving millions of people in the process who are not now involved, and changing the nature of media so they are talking about issues that reflect the needs and the pains that so many of our people are currently feeling,” says Sanders. “Essentially, what a political revolution means is that we organize and educate and create grassroots movements, which we certainly do not have right now.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Mike Pence's discrimination law
Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who not long ago sounded like a 2016 Republican presidential prospect, might have thought that his decision to sign his state’s so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) would have at least earned him the enthusiastic embrace of all Republicans and all conservative media.
But it is not working out that way in Indiana, a state that (with the exceptions of Democrats Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Barack Obama in 2008) has backed every Republican presidential candidate since 1940. A number of 2016 Republican presidential prospects—including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson (who referred to the Indiana law as “vital”)—backed Pence with notably more enthusiasm than the governor could muster.
But the governor got a good deal of pushback from conservative Republicans and media at home—so much, in fact, that Pence now says he is looking for a way to adopt new legislation that will “clarify” that the law does not permit businesses to engage in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
It remains to be seen whether Pence, who has bumbled badly as he has tried to defend the RFRA, will get the clarification right. He still does not seem to grasp what the problem is—claiming that “we’ve got a perception problem.”
But there are Indiana Republicans who “get” it. The Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, says that Pence and his allies are “missing the bigger trend” toward support of LGBT rights. As one of the few Republicans who leads a major American city, Ballard is calling on the Indiana legislature not just to reject discrimination but “expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in state law.”
What’s playing out in Indiana, and nationally, is important because it illustrates the extent to which thinking about LGBT rights is shifting, even within a socially-conservative Republican Party.
There has been an enormous backlash to the governor’s decision to sign what the Human Rights Campaign condemns as “a sweeping bill allowing individuals to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people and other minorities.”
Pence has been ripped by CEOs and business leaders nationally, and in Indiana, for embracing discrimination rather than welcoming the diversity. Many Democrats have spoken up, evidencing the extent to which a party that once has its own divisions on the issue has united in support of LGBT rights. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke with particular force, arguing, “History will not look kindly on this new Indiana state law, couched under claims of religious freedom, which turns back the clock on gains Americans have made together to ensure equal treatment, equal access, and equal rights for all citizens. Indiana’s law goes far beyond other state and federal examples by allowing religious justifications to be used in disputes between private parties and giving private businesses a license to discriminate.”
But the criticism that has most stung Pence, a former Republican congressman and favorite of conservatives, has come from Indiana Republicans and conservatives.
Five Republican legislators opposed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” with state Representative Ed Clere, R-New Albany, asking: “Do we want our sign to say ‘Welcome?’ Or do we want our sign to say ‘Closed for Business?’ Or ‘Certain people aren’t welcome?’ Or, as some have suggested, ‘We don’t accept fill-in-the-blank?’ “
When the governor tried to claim that “some on the left and some in the national media have mischaracterized” his law, Indianapolis Mayor Ballard made it absolutely clear that there are Republicans who object. Arguing that the law sends the “wrong signal” about discrimination, the Republican mayor declared, “Indianapolis strives to be a welcoming place that attracts businesses, conventions, visitors and residents. We are a diverse city, and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indy to feel comfortable here.”
The Indianapolis Star, a newspaper that endorsed Pence for governor in 2012 and that for many years was owned by conservative publisher Eugene C. Pulliam (the grandfather of former vice president Dan Quayle), published a rare front-page editorial condemning the law.
In an editorial headlined, “Fix This Now,” the state’s largest newspaper declared that the RFRA has “already has done enormous harm to our state and potentially our economic future.”
“The consequences will only get worse if our state leaders delay in fixing the deep mess created. Half steps will not be enough. Half steps will not undo the damage,” the editorial argued. “Only bold action—action that sends an unmistakable message to the world that our state will not tolerate discrimination against any of its citizens—will be enough to reverse the damage. Gov. Mike Pence and the General Assembly need to enact a state law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Republican Mayor Ballard was pushing the “fix-this-law” line—calling either for the repeal of the Pence’s law for for the addition of explicit protections in state law against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Discrimination is wrong,” declared the mayor. “And I hope that message is being heard loud and clear at our Statehouse.”
Perhaps Pence does still speak, however ineptly, the sentiments of his party’s socially conservative base.
But if there was a Indiana Republican who sounded like he understood where most Americans at with regard to protecting LGBT Americans from discrimination, it was not Pence. It was Ballard.
Read Next: John Nichols on the passing of the American presidency between families
When Thomas Paine called America into revolt against the British Crown with Common Sense, he explained at great length that there was nothing divine—nor minimally commendable—about the supposed “divine right of kings.” Warning that “a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places (grants of power and wealth to favored families),” Paine observed: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
After outlining the many arguments against dividing society into kings and subjects, however, Paine wrote of an even more unsettling arrangement.
“To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity,” he wrote. “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”
The United States has wisely eschewed formal monarchy. But it has, rather too frequently, accepted a dynastic politics that rests power in particular families. This has always been troublesome for those who take seriously the promise of an American experiment founded on the premise that all men—and women—are created equal.
The prospect of a 2016 presidential contest between representatives of two families that have claimed the presidency with some frequency in recent decades is doubly troublesome. This ought to inspire debate in both major political parties, and beyond their narrow boundaries, about whether it makes sense to give Americans a “choice” between the son and the brother of former presidents running as a Republican and the wife of a former president running as a Democrat.
So give former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley credit for opening the debate in an appearance on ABC News’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.When Stephanopoulos suggested that O’Malley sounded like he was ready to challenge presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, the host got no objection from the all-but-announced candidate.
Indeed, O’Malley went for it.
“I think that our country always benefits from new leadership and new perspectives,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, the presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families, it is an awesome and sacred trust that has to be earned, and exercised on behalf of the American people.”
That line got more attention than anything else O’Malley has said in two years of positioning for what everyone accepts would be an uphill challenge to the former First Lady.
O’Malley eschewed direct attacks on Clinton, whom he backed for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and took no great swings at potential Republican nominee Jeb Bush. The former governor avoided going off on tangents about Bill Clinton or Bush 41 and Bush 43. He suggested that his objection was to “any two families” trading off the keys to the White House.
This is the right objection.
In fairness to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—while both have benefitted mightily from family ties, and the campaign-treasury largesse that extends from them—neither of these prospective contenders is formally staking a purely dynastic claim on the presidency. Both have records to run on.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton is the best-prepared Democratic contender.
Perhaps Jeb Bush is the best-prepared Republican contender.
Should they run—as is expected—each will have a chance to make their case. And if Clinton and Bush secure their respective nominations, they will find themselves arguing with each other about who is better prepared. And, presumably, about who is more "of the people."
But Democrats and Republicans who dare to infuse their partisanship with reason and reflection should ask whether this is really the choice that they ought to offer the American electorate.
Democrats and Republicans who are of a serious bent have every right—and responsibility—to examine alternatives.
This should be recognized as a very American consideration.
It is difficult to imagine that Tom Paine would have expected—or wanted—Americans to have to pick their president from a select pair of experienced and entitled families.
As Paine is not with us to raise the concern, it is good that Martin O’Malley has done so.
Read Next: John Nichols on Harry Reid’s replacement
Fifty years ago, when Democrats were beginning finally to break the grip of Southern segregationists on their party, the way in which key congressional positions were filled was a major issue for the party. Southern members of the House and Senate tended to serve forever. As such, they took advantage of an archaic seniority system to secure committee chairmanships and even leadership posts—making a slowly progressing party seem still to be as reactionary as it once was.
A new generation of congressional Democrats, including Phil Burton of California in the House and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in the Senate, sought to shake things up. Unfortunately, Burton lost a key race for House majority leader in 1976, as Kennedy had lost an equally important race for Senate majority whip in 1971.
The Democratic Party opted against more aggressively progressive leadership, weakening its message for years to come. Indeed, as David Broder would write late in Ronald Reagan presidency, when Wright had been designated as Speaker of the House and Byrd was in position to become Senate majority leader: “It may turn out that the luckiest break President Reagan has in his current time of trouble lies in the character of the Democratic leaders of the 100th Congress.”
As Senate Democrats consider replacements for minority leader Harry Reid, who announced Friday that he would not seek a new term in 2016, they should remember the mistakes of the past. This, in turn, should get them thinking in bigger and bolder ways about their available options for filling a position with enormous potential to define the party’s image and direction.
Reid has been a more progressive majority leader than his predecessor, former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was right when he observed Friday that on a host of critical issues Reid has been “a fighter for the low- and moderate-income people of this country.
But Reid has not always been effective as a communicator of progressive positions or strategies.
What Democrats should be looking for now is a Senate leader who will be absolutely progressive and absolutely effective.
The immediate speculation about replacing Reid followed conventional wisdom, with the top prospects identified as New York Senator Charles Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. But, within hours, there were reports that Durbin was taking himself out of contention. Thus, any challenge to Schumer was likely to come from a “dark horse” contender—with prominent initial mentions going to Patty Murray of Washington and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
That sound you are hearing is the air going out of the party balloon.
That list is not the right place of beginning for Democrats who understand, now more than ever, that the party’s Senate leader is going to be ideologically and tactically strong. This is especially true if Republicans take the White House in 2016, in which case the leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus could well be the party’s most prominent national spokesperson. But the fact is that, even if Democrats retain control of the White House (as polls currently suggest is likely), the congressional party needs to step up.
There’s not much question that Schumer, a prodigious fundraiser with famously close ties to Wall Street interests, has the upper hand. That provides some explanation for why Durbin quickly sent signals about standing down. Durbin’s exit is unfortunate because, on some key issues, the Illinoisan has a more progressive record than Schumer. For instance, Durbin voted against authorizing George W. Bush to wage a war of whim in Iraq, while Schumer backed Bush’s agenda.
It is not just on foreign policy that Schumer has been disappointing. The New Yorker has cast some lousy votes on trade policy For instance, he supported permanent normalization of trade relations with China, when responsible senators such as Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold were voting “no.”
Murray’s record is even worse on trade, and it is hard to forget the compromises she made when “negotiating” with then House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan on the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.” Besides, most of the talk Friday was not of a run for the top job by Murray but of the prospect that she might challenge Durbin for the caucus whip post that the Illinoisan now holds. As for Bennet, he’s been on the wrong side of a lot of education debates; and he’s the guy who, when asked whether he would back the removal of barriers to labor organizing with an Employee Free Choice Act proclaimed, “I would not support the language in that bill.”
The records of the mentioned prospects ought to be taken seriously. But the other measure that should be applied, in what for better or worse is a media age, ought to be the ability of potential leaders to communicate progressive ideas with passion and a clear sense of commitment.
For that reason, Democrats who want their next Senate leader to be an actual leader ought to cast a wider net.
Should they consider the “star” of the moment: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren? Of course. But don’t assume that Warren—whose office says she is not seeking the leadership post—is the only progressive prospect.
Warren’s name was floated Friday as a potential leader for a good reason: she is seen by a lot of Democrats as a leader.
As soon as Reid made his announcement, there was immediate advocacy for Warren to consider a leadership leap. “If Elizabeth Warren doesn’t run for president, she should definitely run for leader of the Senate,” says Neil Sroka, of Democracy for America, which has been part of the move to draft Warren as a 2016 Democratic presidential contender. “The election for Senate leader is not going to be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone like Senator Schumer. He’s closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising. It only makes sense that the next leader of the US Senate is either from that wing or deeply understands how to work with that wing.”
“There will likely not be a coronation to replace Harry Reid, and Elizabeth Warren is right up there with others as someone who would be taken very seriously,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has worked closely with Warren, declared. “Warren’s lifetime of fighting for the little guy against Wall Street power—including her upset victory on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—shows she can think big, wage tough fights against powerful interests, and win key votes in the Senate. She’s the definition of a leader, and that’s why her colleagues and millions of Americans respect her and are inspired by her rise.”
Warren’s strengths are well known: the base loves her, the media pay attention to her and the party needs her ideas. Reid, Durbin and Schumer have acknowledged the importance of what Warren has to offer the caucus—fashioning a position on the leadership team for her after Democrats lost control of the chamber in 2014. But even some of Warren’s most ardent enthusiasts argue that her talents might be better utilized in the White House, or as an outspoken rank-and-file senator. (Remember that Ted Kennedy survived his leadership defeat to become a definitional legislator.)
The best argument for putting Warren at the head of Senate Democrats is that—if she is not going to seek the presidency, as she says she won’t—then she ought to seek the best platform that is available for advancing an agenda.
The simple reality is that Democrats need national leadership with more than bully pulpits. The party needs national leadership that can move from a position of strength at the legislative level. That does not necessarily mean that Warren is the right candidate to lead Senate Democrats. But it definitely means that Democrats who are serious about the party’s future have every right, and every reason, to suggest her for the post.
There are other prospects who should be on the list, as well.
Consider Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is every bit as populist as Warren and has a particularly strong record as a leader in fights for breaking up big banks and against failed trade policies. On top of that, Brown voted (as a House member) against going to war in Iraq and against the Patriot Act.
Brown has won two tough elections in the ultimate swing state of Ohio. And he has done so by figuring out how to be very progressive and very appealing to a broad cross-section of voters. He’s close to labor, but he is also close to farm and rural groups. He has never had it easy politically, and this has made him a unique senator—with strong skills when it comes to effectively communicating a progressive vision on complex economic and political issues. That’s something Senate Democrats could use.
Consider, also, Jeff Merkley, the progressive Democrat from Oregon who, with Tom Udall of New Mexico (another appealing leadership prospect), has been in the forefront of working to reform both the Senate and a broken political process. Merkley is especially well qualified for leadership of a party caucus and a legislative chamber, as the former Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.
The bottom line is that the selection of a new Senate Democratic leader need not be a contest among senators who simply happen to be senior, predictable choices or compromise candidates. It’s an opportunity for Democrats to think bigger, and better, about leadership. And if ever the party needed to do that, it’s now.
Read Next: John Nichols on the People’s Budget