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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

The Scott Walker Effect: Helping Democrats Win and Republicans Lose

Scott Walker

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli counted on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to provide the conservative candidate with some of the “star power” he needed to get him elected November 5.

It didn’t work.

The Cuccinelli campaign scheduled a high-profile rally in Spotsylvania on the Saturday before the election—hoping for a rip-roaring event that would put a picture of the candidate, his surrogate and a huge crowd on the front pages of Virginia’s Sunday morning papers.

The campaign used social media and phone calls to invite backers to come greet the anti-union firebrand from Wisconsin. They produced a poster featuring pictures of the Virginian and the Wisconsinite and the message: “Join Ken Cuccinelli for an Exciting Rally with Scott Walker!” Pat Mullins, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party declared, “Scott is the type of governor that Ken will be here in Virginia, someone that’s not afraid to stand up to Big Labor.”

On Saturday, when the candidate and his star surrogate showed up for the rally they were greeted not by thousands of supporters but by… ”about 150 people.”

It was not quite what the Cuccinelli campaign had hoped for. Nor was an event later in the day with the governor of Wisconsin that drew barely 100 Republican stalwarts. Nor was it a great day for Walker, who imagines himself as a 2016 presidential prospect.

That Walker is running for president is clear. He will issue a campaign biography later this month—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—later this month. But he did not have the kind of off-year Election Day that make’s a candidate look like the next leader of the Grand Old Party.

On the day Walker arrived in Virginia, an Emerson College poll had Cuccinelli within two points of union-backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But Walker didn’t close the gap. His campaigning for Cuccinelli fell short, as did the Virginia contender—who lost his race by more than 55,000 votes.

In the race where a Republican won, Walker was notably absent.

Though he was on the East Coast, Walker was not invited for a final weekend surrogate swing in New Jersey to campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie. Though he campaigned for Walker in 2010 and 2012, Christie did not appear to be seeking to associate himself with the Wisconsinite as Christie was organizing a reelection run that was managed with an eye toward jumpstarting the New Jersey governor’s own Republican presidential bid.

However, Walker was a factor in other races. For instance, in Boston, critics of mayoral candidate Martin Walsh produced a video showing the veteran Boston Building Trades labor leader and legislator leading chants of “Union! Union! Union!” at a rally organized in solidarity with Wisconsin workers who were protesting Walker’s anti-labor agenda. “What happened in Wisconsin better not happen here!” Walsh shouted in the video before adding: “Our grandparents, our great grandparents fought the fight for us, to have the wages we have. Not just here in Boston, but in Wisconsin.”

That was supposed to hurt Walsh, who was portrayed by some media outlets as too sympathetic toward working people and their unions. But Walsh did not back down or back away from his union ties. “I am a son of labor,” he said. “I will wear my record of fighting for working people as a badge of honor.”

As Walsh’s labor ties were emphasized, his poll numbers started to rise. The campaign closed with Walsh being celebrated in a TV ad that featured the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston band famous for championing the cause of workers (and for opposing Republicans who attacked unions in Wisconsin), reworking their popular song “Shipping Up to Boston” with new lyrics: “Marty Walsh for Boston! Marty Walsh!”

On Tuesday, Walsh scored what many saw as a come-from-behind win, grabbing the mayoralty with a 52-48 margin.

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In New York, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio explicitly distanced himself from anti-labor Republican officials—like Walker—who have attacked public-sector unions. “I will start by actually liking the people who do the work,” the candidate told a rally of union backers several days before the election. “The reason we have become a middle-class nation is because of the labor movement,” added de Blasio. “The best thing we can do for the people of New York City, the best public policy, is more people in unions so the city is strong and their neighborhoods are stronger.”

That rejection of Walker-style governing helped de Blasio win 73 percent of the vote on a night when Cincinnati voters rejected attempts to undermine pension protections for public employees, when SeaTac, Washington, voters embraced a $15-an-hour living wage, when New Jersey voters raised the minimum wage in that state and linked future increases to hikes in the cost of living.

Make no mistake, Scott Walker is still running for president; he’s off to New York November 18 to wine and dine with big donors.

But he is running from a weaker position—within his own Republican Party and nationally—as the electoral shine comes off the anti-worker, anti-union agenda.

John Nichols exposes Chris Christie’s brand of style-over-substance politics.

Don’t Get Too Excited About Christie’s Politics of Style, Not Substance

Chris Christie and his family

Chris Christie is ready for his close-up.

And if all that we are allowed to learn from Tuesday’s voting in cities and states across the nation is what a particularly self-absorbed presidential prospect wants us to talk about, then that is the only permissible takeaway from the 2013 election.

Forget about the transformational election of progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio as mayor of the nation’s largest city. Forget about the election of a labor champion, Marty Walsh, as mayor of Boston. Forget about the overwhelming vote of voters in Portland, Maine, to legalize marijuana.

Forget that the most historic result of the night came in Virginia.

Just do what Chris Christie says and talk about Chris Christie—at least until his ridiculous reach for the Republican presidential nomination crashes and burns after he yells at the first teacher in Iowa.

Or get serious enough to recognize that Christie’s super-hyped victory on Tuesday was all about style—not substance.

The substantial result on Tuesday was that Democrats ran exceptionally well in the battleground state of Virginia. How well? This year’s election took place when a Democratic president was serving his second four-year term. The last time Democrats won the governorship of Virginia during the second four-year term of a president of their party, that president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Going into the 2013 election, Republicans held the statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in Virginia. On Tuesday, Democrat Ralph Northam won the office of lieutenant governor by a 55-45 margin. Democrat Mark Herring wrestled Republican front-runner Mark Obenshain to a 50-50 tie in the race for attorney general, and might yet win the job. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the governorship by a reasonably comfortable 48-45 margin. And it is entirely sensible to argue that the governor’s race was that close because a Libertarian candidate who often erred on the liberal side of libertarianism—emphasizing opposition to the drug war and support for marriage equality, and earning critiques from the right such as a National Review piece titled “Sarvis a Libertarian? Nope“—won close to 7 percent of the vote. It’s often assumed that Libertarian candidates draw votes primarily from Republicans, and there was certainly some of that in Virginia. But exit polls of voters under age 30—not a traditional Republican group—had Libertarian Robert Sarvis winning almost 20 percent of that demographic. That should serve as a reminder to Democrats that they need to reckon with the reality that their party can also lose votes to Libertarians.

McAuliffe, whose political experience was not as an elected official but as a party fund-raiser, was anything but a perfect Democratic nominee. He was vulnerable. But the Republicans were more vulnerable. Republican extremism cost the party dearly. Social-policy extremism hurt initially, providing McAuliffe with a definitional gender-gap advantage among women. But economic-policy extremism—in the form of Ted Cruz’s politics of government shutdown and debt-ceiling gamesmanship—struck the final blow against GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

It was different in New Jersey, not because Christie is any kind of moderate. He’s a social and economic conservative who actually agrees with Ken Cuccinelli on a wide range of issues. But Christie was smart enough to avoid mentioning that fact. Instead of running as a mainstream Republican, he pitched himself as “a governor for all the people”—a man without a party who was more than willing to work with Democratic President Barack Obama and Democrats in the state legislature.

Like McAuliffe, Christie had a substantially larger campaign treasury than his challenger. In fact, he outspent his Democrat Barbara Buono by a roughly 5-1 margin. Christie aired sixteen distinct campaign commercials. Buono aired two. Christie had all the advantages of incumbency and support from key national Republicans, while Buono was treated as an afterthought by many state and national Democrats. (In a spirited concession speech, she did not hesitate to criticize Democratic insiders who aided Christie in order to “help themselves politically and financially.”) And just to make sure that there was no surge in Democratic votes on November 5, he manipulated the scheduling of the special election to fill the US Senate seat of the late Frank Launtenberg, D-NJ, so that it was held October 16—at a cost of roughly $25 million to taxpayers. So Christie got his win, but his 60-38 margin was notably smaller than the thirty-three-point triumph that polls had predicted as recently as mid-October.

Christie had no coattails. Democrats retained control of the state Assembly and state Senate.

Christie had little traction getting started toward a 2016 presidential run. The exit polling showed that the same New Jersey voters who re-elected the governor on Tuesday would reject him in a 2016 race with Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Those were important results.

But the most important New Jersey result, the one that tells us everything we need to know about Chris Christie’s win, was another one.

And it was not in the gubernatorial race.

It was in a statewide vote on whether to amend the constitution to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour—and to allow for cost-of-living adjustments.

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In January, Christie rejected a bill to raise the minimum wage. He claimed that the bill, as written by legislative Democrats, would “jeopardize the economic recovery we all seek.”

He was wrong, economically and politically.

A “Raise the Wage” campaign, backed by Working Families United, unions and their allies, succeeded in getting the legislature to put the issue on the November ballot. And then they waged a campaign that won big.

Every bit as big, it should be pointed out, as did Chris Christie.

He won with 60 percent of the vote Tuesday.

The minimum-wage increase that Christie rejected won by just as wide a margin.

The calculus cannot be denied: hundreds of thousands of New Jersey voters who cast ballots for Christie also cast ballots for a policy shift he opposed.

The governor won on style points, not substance.

And those style points are not going to carry Chris Christie from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—let alone to the presidency itself.

That’s the takeaway from Tuesday.

John Nichols explores the larger trends in the 2013 election landscape.

An Election About GOP Extremism, Unions, Wages and Dollarocracy

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe

Two states will elect governors Tuesday, and one of those governors could emerge as a 2016 presidential contender. The nation’s largest city will elect a mayor, as will hundreds of other communities. A minimum-wage hike is on the ballot. So is marijuana legalization. So is the labeling of genetically-modified foods. And Seattle might elect a city council member who promises to open the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Forget the silly dodge that says local and state elections don’t tell us anything. They provide measures of how national developments—like the federal government shutdown—are playing politically. They give us a sense of whether the “War on Women” is widening the gender gap. They tell us what issues are in play, and the extent to which the political debate is evolving.

Here are some signals to watch for as the results come in tonight:

1. Have Republican Extremists Finally Gone Too Far?

Since the Republican Party became competitive in Virginia, no Democrat has ever been elected governor when a Democrat was in the White House. Indeed, the last Democratic president to see a Democrat take charge in the Old Dominion state was Lyndon Johnson.

So if Democrat Terry McAuliffe is elected Tuesday, there’s a message there—and it could tell us a lot about the evolving politics not just of Virginian, but of the United States as it heads toward the critical mid-term elections of 2014.

What message?

It has something to do with the extremism of Republicans at the state level when it comes to social issues. The Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is pretty much the embodiment of the social conservatism that has the potential to create a permanent gender gap. But past Republican nominees in Virginia have been opposed to abortion rights and marriage equality. What made things even rougher for Cuccinelli was a mid-campaign government shutdown shocked and outraged Virginians—a lot of whom happen to be federal employees. President Obama made that point in a pre-election campaign swing on behalf of McAuliffe. “You’ve seen an extreme faction of the Republican Party that has shown again and again and again that they’re willing to hijack the entire party and the country and the economy and grind progress to an absolute halt if they don’t get 100 percent of what they want,” the president told Virginians. “You cannot afford to have a governor who is thinking the same way.”

If McAuliffe, a first-time candidate with plenty of baggage as a veteran campaign fund-raiser and fixer, wins big on Tuesday, the message Democrats will take away from the election is that Ted Cruz and the shutdown caucus have handed them a political hammer. And they will use it again and again and again in 2014.

2. Is Chris Christie as Big a Deal as Chris Christie Thinks Chris Christie Is?

The Republican governor of New Jersey has mounted a reelection campaign that reaches out not just to Republicans but to Democrats and independents. He’s even made nice with Barack Obama. Why? Not because he likes Obama. What Christie likes is winning—big. And he knows that a big enough win could make him a serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

But how big is big? A mid-October Quinnipiac survey gave the governor a thirty-three-point lead over Democrat Barbara Buono, and a Richard Stockton College survey from a week before the election had him up twenty-four points. Yet, despite a massive fund-raising advantage, despite all the advantages of incumbency, on the weekend before the election, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll had Christie’s margin at nineteen points.

If Christie wins under 60 percent, he’ll have a hard time convincing the Republican base in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina—which does not trust him—that he’s their man. If he goes over 60 percent, he can start making his argument. And he will. But, even then, his cynical campaign in New Jersey will have to be taken into account. Christie has not run for reelection as who he is—a socially and economically conservative Republican. He’s run as an all-things-to-all-people incumbent, who has used a 6-1 money advantage to buy his margin. If it’s not that much of a margin, Christie will be stuck in the job he wants to get out of. And if Christie were to lose, well, then all bets are off—or on—for 2014.

3. Is This the End of Urban Republicanism?

“Everybody knows I’m not part of the national Republican Party,” New York Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota said before the election. “I am pro-choice; they are not. I am pro-gay rights as well as marriage equality; they are not. I have been outspoken about these issues over and over again. Do not lump me with the national Republicans. It’s unbecoming.”

Lhota was not running in a city where Republicans never win. He was running in a city where Republicans won the mayoralty in 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2003, and a Republican-turned-independent won in 2007. And while New York Republicans have always been different from Arkansas Republicans, there used to be room in the party for both camps. No more. The Republican Party has been moving to the right since the late 1970s, but that move accelerated after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The new GOP is obsessed with right-wing ideological purity. And that comes through loud and clear—not just inside Republican caucus meetings but in communities that once elected Republicans.

If Lhota loses, as the polls suggest is likely, his defeat will come after a steady pattern of loses for Republicans in cities that once elected GOP mayors—from Los Angeles to Dallas to Houston to Cleveland to Toledo to Jacksonville to Phoenix—will be the latest indication that Republicans are no longer serious contenders in urban America.

“In the year 2000, Republican mayors governed half of the country’s dozen largest cities by population. Some of the party’s most provocative leaders had come out of city hall, including New York’s Giuliani, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, the celebrated policy wonk and George W. Bush adviser,” explains Politico’s Alexander Burns. “Today, you have to go all the way down to Indianapolis—the country’s 13th-largest city—to find just one Republican mayor.”

It’s not just the conservative stances on issues such as marriage equality, and a host of other LGBT concerns. It’s also the opposition to infrastructure improvements and jobs programs, and the relentless assault on public education, social services and Food Stamps. The trouble with the GOP today is that, instead of focusing on the practical concerns of people who live in cities, Mesa, Arizona, Mayor Scott Smith says party leaders “put ideology above all.” Smith is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He’s also a Republican.

4. Are Voters Tired of Politicians who Pick on Unions?

When Wisconsin’s union-bashing Governor Scott Walker showed up to rally support for Jen Cuccinelli in Virginia, only 150 people turned out. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie forgot to invite Walker and instead sought private-sector union endorsements. In New York, labor-backed mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio told a closing rally in New York: “The reason we have become a middle-class nation is because of the labor movement. “

But the real test of labor’s renewed appeal will come in Boston.

Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh is a union man. And that does not sit well with much of media and political elites that have tried to suggest that a former union leader—as opposed to a corporate CEO—might bring biases to the job. In fact, Walsh brings strengths. He knows how to negotiate, he knows how to get a fair deal, and he actually think it’s important to respect workers.

But that hasn’t stopped his opponents—supporters of “school choice” experiments, corporate interests, traditionally Republican donors—from spending heavily to rip Walsh’s record as a labor activist, even going so far as to issue a video attacking the former head of the Boston Building Trades for rallying in solidarity with Wisconsin workers when Governor Scott Walker was attacking them in 2011.

Walsh was behind in the polls initially but he’s closed the gap as Bostonians have become aware of how his opponent, fellow Democrat John Connolly, has earned the backing of conservative Republicans. A recent Boston Globe headline read: “For Republicans, Connolly is the Democrat of choice. In Boston’s mayoral race, GOP donors shy from Walsh and his labor background.”

If Walsh wins as a proud union man, that victory will send a signal about the growing recognition on the part of voters that we need more leaders who are committed to protect the rights of working people, their unions, public services and public education.

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5. Has the Time Come for Legalization of Marijuana? Or at Least Decriminalization?

Portland, Maine, will vote Tuesday on whether to become the first east-coast city to legalize marijuana. The test comes a year after Washington and Colorado voters approved the recreational use of marijuana by adults—and on the same day that Colorado takes the next step by considering whether to begin taxing pot sales.

In Brooklyn, the Democratic nominee for District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, says that if he is elected he will no longer prosecute individuals arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Thompson, who beat the incumbent DA in the September Democratic primary, has made decriminalization a major plank in his platform.

6. Doesn’t Everyone Deserve a Raise?

New Jersey voters will on Tuesday vote on whether to raise the state minimum wage by $1 dollar. Democratic legislators passed a bill to make the move earlier, but Chris Christie blocked it. So unions and the allies took the issue to the people. They are likely to win, proving a reminder that even if Christie does well, his policies do not.

States and cities across the country have embraced living-wage initiatives in recent years. But one of the most dynamic efforts comes in Seattle, where city council candidate Kshama Sawant promises that, if elected, she will push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage—along with a millionaire’s tax and an end to austerity cuts and assaults on public workers.

7. Will Big Money Keep Labels off GM Food?

Last year, in California, massive spending—at least $46 million—by grocery manufacturing companies and their corporate allies beat back an initiative to label foods that have been genetically modified. The defeat for the proposal was a powerful reminder of how big money—in the early days of Citizens United and corporate personhood—can warp the debate. Now, a new test is coming in Washington state, where voters will decide Tuesday on Initiative 522, a plan to require groceries that have been genetically modified to carry labels.

More than thirty of the nation’s largest food manufacturers have poured money into various “No on 522” efforts. The corporations will spend at least $22 million, perhaps much more, to turn voters against what would otherwise be a popular proposal. The “Yes on 522” campaign has more than 13,000 small donors, but only a fraction of the cash.

This is how dollarocracy works—by seeking to “own” the debate with overwhelming spending. The question is whether democracy will prevail in Washington.

John Nichols calls out Chris Christie’s “bully politics.”

Chris Christie’s Bully Politics: ‘I Am Tired of You People’

Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is running hard for a second term, and for a place in the 2016 Republican presidential race.

He’s still the front-runner in his re-election run, thanks to a huge bankroll, celebrity-worship media coverage and the advantages of incumbency. But his once overwhelming poll lead has shrunk a bit as the campaign has come to a close. Where a mid-October Quinnipiac survey gave the governor a thirty-three-point lead over Democrat Barbara Buono, and a Richard Stockton College survey from last week had him up twenty-four points, the latest poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University had him up just nineteen points.

That’s a wide margin. But it is striking that, as the election comes closer, and as Christie dramatically increases his spending and campaigning, his numbers are declining.

Maybe it has something to do with treatment of teachers.

Since becoming governor in 2010, Christie done a lot of yelling at teachers.

Not long after his election, Christie coupled his constant criticism of New Jersey Education Association union members with cuts that have made it harder for the targets of that criticism to do their jobs. “New Jersey public schools have been underfunded by the State by an astonishing $5.2 billion since 2010,” observes Julia Sass Rubin, PhD, an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is a founding member of the group Save Our Schools NJ. She goes on:

“This shortfall has been most severe in school districts populated primarily by children of color. For example, the Paterson, Elizabeth, and Newark school districts combined lost over $300 million since 2010. If the New Jersey Supreme Court had not intervened in 2012 to restore some of the funding, the damage would have been even greater. Gov. Chris Christie also tried repeatedly to permanently alter the State’s school funding formula, to reduce funding for the almost 40 percent of New Jersey public school students who are low-income and/or Limited English Proficient.”

When teachers have questioned Christie, he has not responded well.

Early in his tenure, the governor was so belligerent that Marie Corfield, an art teacher at Robert Hunter Elementary School in Flemington, confronted him at a town hall meeting and declared: “New Jersey has some of the best schools in the country, and this administration has done nothing but lambaste us and tell us what horrible schools we have.”

When Christie started to pick at her, Corfield announced: “I’m going back to work.”

A video of the confrontation went viral and the teacher from Flemington is now a top Democratic candidate for the New Jersey Assembly who says New Jersey has “a governor who leads by intimidation and not diplomacy. That is not the hallmark of a strong leader. We have been fighting against that. We are fighting against bullying instead of real leadership.”

Christie’s record on education issues—and on respect for teachers—is so atrocious that Diane Ravitch, the author and analyst of education debates, has urgently endorsed the governor’s Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono. Though Ravitch notes the Democratic legislator’s impressive résumé and platform, she also says:

“[Buono’s] first qualification is that she is not Chris Christie. Christie has divided the state, neglected its poorest communities (other than to try to privatize their public schools), and bullied people he doesn’t agree with. He disdains public schools (calling them “failure factories”) and scorns the people who work in them every day to educate the children of New Jersey. He is ignorant of the fact that the public schools of New Jersey are ranked near the very top on federal tests. He actively promotes policies that segregate and disempower people of color in New Jersey. I shudder to think of an America in which someone with the character of Chris Christie were considered a role model.”

That’s not the sort of review any governor should want—especially one who is positioning himself for re-election and then a presidential run.

But Christie can’t control his urge to bash teachers.

On Saturday, as he finished a day of campaigning across New Jersey, the governor ran into Melissa Tomlinson, a veteran teacher who asked Christie: “Why do you continue to spread the myth that our schools and teachers are failing?”

Christie shot back, “Because they are!”

Then, poking a finger at Tomlinson, the governor shouted, “I am tired of you people.”

He demanded to know: “What do you want?”

Tomlinson replied, “I want more money for my students.”

As his supported taunted the teacher, Christie told the teacher to just do her job.

Tomlinson kept her cool and headed home, where she wrote a poignant letter to the governor in which she explained, “I am a public school teacher that works 60 hours a week in my building, Yes, you can check with my principal. I run the after-school program, along with my classroom position. I do even more work when I am at home. For verification, just ask my children.”

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In her letter, she detailed the challenges caused by Christie’s cuts to public education. She also reflected on the folly of focusing so much school time on preparing for and administering standardized tests and on privatization schemes.

And she asked the tough questions about the governor’s constant political positioning.

“Why do you portray schools as failure factories? What benefit do you reap from this? Have you acquired financial promises for your future campaigns as you eye the presidential nomination?” wrote Tomlinson, suggesting that in order to score political points, “you are setting up the teachers to take the blame. Unfortunately, you are not the only governor in our country that has this agenda.”

“What do ‘we people’ want, Governor Christie?” Tomlinson asked rhetorically. “We want our schools back. We want to teach. We want to be allowed to help these children to grow, educationally, socially and emotionally. We want to be respected as we do this, not bullied.”

John Nichols dispels the notion that Chris Christie is a moderate.

Seattle’s ‘Another World Is Both Possible and Necessary’ Campaign

It may come as a surprise to Ted Cruz, but Americans have a rich history of entertaining democratic-socialist responses to economic and political challenges. Tom Paine charted the rough outlines of a social-welfare state in his 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.” Fanny Wright was campaigning for the labor-linked and essentially social-democratic Workingmen’s Party in 1829. Utopian socialists were regular contributors to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the newspaper that inspired the radical political experiment that came to be known as the Republican Party.

A century ago, members of the Socialist Party served in Congress and state legislatures, they were mayors of big cities and peopled city councils and school boards across the country. The Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Eugene Victor Debs, won close to a million votes and polled more than 10 percent of the vote in the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington.

The latter state was a hotbed of radicalism, especially in Seattle, where in 1916 activist Anna Louise Strong was elected to the school board. A militant supporter of left-wing causes and campaigns, she aligned with labor unions during the city’s general strike and famously declared: “They say the Pharaohs built the pyramids. Do you think one Pharaoh dropped one bead of sweat? We built the pyramids for the Pharaohs and we’re building for them yet.”

As a member of the school board, Strong backed the antiwar and civil liberties crusades of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who in 1924 would seek the presidency as an independent progressive backed by the Socialist Party. La Follette came in third nationally but he finished second in Washington that year, behind Republican Calvin Coolidge but well ahead of Democrat John Davis.

Like San Francisco and Portland, Seattle remains a “Left Coast” city, with strong unions, a history of militant activism and adventurous local politics.

The latest adventure will play out November 5, when Seattle voters will decide whether to add a socialist to their city council. Kshama Sawant, a former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, is running a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that declares: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”

A veteran of Occupy protests and organizing drives, Sawant pulls no punches in her platform, which begins with a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promises to:

* Seek “A Millionaire’s Tax to fund mass transit, education, and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services.” She proposes to: “End corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners & workers.”

* Support efforts to “Unionize Amazon, Starbucks & low-paid service workers.”

* Commit to “No layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”

That’s a message with proven appeal in Seattle, where Sawant won 35 percent of the citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 ballot challenging sixteen-year-incumbent Richard Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin is backed by most of the Democratic leadership in the very Democratic city of Seattle; he’s also got the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates have obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant has won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.

“An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction,” argued The Stranger in an editorial that celebrated Sawant’s run. “She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on non-economic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.”

In August, the Seattle Weekly wrote: “We like her because she’s an honest-to-god socialist who’s willing to throw a few Molotov cocktails into the cloistered hatch-pits of our terribly staid civic ‘debates.’”

Sawant is challenging a long-serving incumbent. She’ll be outspent. That means that by most measures her race is an uphill one—as are those of the other independent and third-party candidates running on the left and the right this fall. The outlines of our electoral politics are, for the most part, drawn to favor the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis’s unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (now in double digits in some polls) offers an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle is proving that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.

“There is nobody in the political leadership of Seattle right now who comes into work every day with a sense of urgency to really fight for people’s standard of living,” says Sawant. “That’s why voters are engaged in our campaign, because they are hearing a voice that they have been wanting to hear for years.”

Chris Christie’s No Moderate, and Barack Obama Ought to Say That

Chris Christie

President Obama will make a campaign swing into the battleground state of Virginia this weekend, on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe has been consistently ahead in the polls and his chances of winning look reasonably good—as do those of other Virginia Democrats in high-profile races. The Virginia Democrats have two advantages: Republican foes who have gone to extremes on social issues and a broad revulsion in a state with high levels of federal employment at Republican tactics during the government shutdown.

So Obama’s trip to Virginia comes with few risks.

The thing is that, at this point in his tenure, Obama could afford to take some political risks.

For instance, he could travel to the other state that is holding a gubernatorial election this fall: New Jersey.

Though New Jersey is a more reliably Democratic state than Virginia by most measures, it has a Republican governor who leads in the polls. Though Chris Christie is actually very conservative, he has done a better job than his Virginia counterparts of positioning himself as a relative moderate. And a big boost for that strategy has come from Christie’s association with President Obama, who worked with Christie closely after Superstorm Sandy hit the state last year—and who so far has steered clear of any significant role in this year’s gubernatorial contest.

It is good that Obama and Christie worked well together following a natural disaster.

But that does not make Christie a moderate.

He has fundamental differences with Obama and the Democrats, and those differences will come into stark relief if Christie is re-elected, as the Republican will immediately begin positioning as a contender for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

To elbow his way into GOP contention, however, Christie must win big in New Jersey next Tuesday. So the governor is running an expensive and aggressive re-election campaign, with plenty of help from the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

He wants a landslide win, and polls suggest he could get it. But to assure that he secures the numbers he is seeking, Christie must attract support not just from Republicans but from independents and Democrats. Much of the Christie campaign’s thrust is aimed at winning the votes of New Jerseyans who don’t often back Republicans—and who probably would not vote for Christie if he was entirely frank about his right-wing social and economic stances.

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A visit from Obama this weekend could bring some perspective to the race, perspective that Christie’s able-but-underfinanced Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, has been trying—against some pretty tough odds—to provide.

Buono’s new television ad gets to the point. Standing in front of a school-yard fence, the senator says:

I’m Barbara Buono, the only one actually running for governor. Chris Christie’s got his sights set on the Republican presidential primary. That’s why he defunded Planned Parenthood, opposes abortion rights, vetoed gay marriage and stands with the gun lobby on background checks. With 400,000 New Jerseyans out of work and our poverty rate at a 50-year high, Christie raised taxes on the working poor—but won’t ask millionaires to pay another dime. He wants to be president. I want to be your governor.

Buono’s making an important point. But she lacks the bully pulpit that Christie has. According to a Newark Star-Ledger analysis, the Republican governor has over the past six months raised $12.7 million and aired sixteen distinct television commercials on television stations that reach New Jersey voters. The Democrat has raised just $2.9 million and aired two commercials.

Christie has also benefited from a taxpayer-funded “Stronger Than the Storm” ad campaign, in which he appears. But he may benefit most from that image as the Republican governor who worked with President Obama.

Obama can acknowledge the cooperation.

But he can also acknowledge that, on policy, he disagrees with Christie on just about everything—including the current debate over implementation of the Affordable Care Act. If the president noted those differences in an appearance with Buono he would, at the very least, provide a frame of reference for New Jersey voters who might otherwise be misled by the governor’s slick-and-cynical campaign.

Chris Christie is a very conservative Republican. There’s nothing moderate about the guy. And Barack Obama ought to say that.

John Nichols demonstrates Christie's conservative agenda (again).

Instead of Paul Ryan’s ‘Robin Hood in Reverse,’ Why Not a Robin Hood Tax?

Paul Ryan

For House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and the Republican Party’s unofficial austerity caucus, the shutdown and debt-ceiling fights did not end in defeat. As part of the deal to end reopen the government and avert a “full-faith-and-credit” crisis, they got an agreement to establish a House and Senate conference committee that is charged with pulling together a bipartisan budget plan.

Ryan makes little secret of his agenda. The Wisconsin Republican is already talking about implementing the “entitlement reforms” he’s been pitching for years. So no one should rule out the prospect that the committee will entertain proposals for the roll-the-dice experiments with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid voucher schemes, hiking retirement ages, establishing means tests and reducing protections against inflation. At the same time, Ryan would reduce the corporate tax rate and eliminate the alternative minimum tax—completing the “Robin Hood-in-reverse” scenario that so appeals to austerity advocates.

But what are the prospects that the committee will discuss proposals that might attract the resources needed to avoid cuts to essential programs and steer the US economy toward job creation and growth? The Democrats make a bow in the right direction. In addition to investing in job creation, transportation infrastructure and worker training programs, Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray, D-Washington, includes proposals to close tax loopholes and eliminate tax breaks for corporations that offshore operations.

But if they are serious about countering austerity—and they should be—Democrats need to offer something more substantial. And the place to begin is with a real alternative to “Robin Hood in reverse.”

As in: a “Robin Hood Tax.”

That’s a tax on high-stakes financial transactions, as proposed in the House by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota. Ellison’s “Inclusive Prosperity Tax” would raise hundreds of billions in new revenues. “This is a small tax on Wall Street transactions to meet the needs of our nation,” says Ellison, who asks: “Didn’t America step up to the plate when Wall Street needed help?”

The congressman’s proposal would also reduce harmful market speculation. As Ellison says, “Gambling on Wall Street does not benefit our society.”

This week in Washington, National Nurses United and 160 groups associated with the Robin Hood Tax Campaign are raising the issue in Washington. A Tuesday teach-in, featuring University of Massachusetts–Amherst economist Robert Pollin, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and labor leaders such as Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley, heard NNU co-president Jean Ross, RN, declare: “The nurses of America have a message for Wall Street: You have the money we need to heal America.” A Wednesday march, congressional briefing ( featuring economist Jeffrey Sachs and European parliamentarian Anni Podimata) and lobbying day will tell members of the US House and Senate that: “It’s not a Tax on the People. It’s a Tax for the People.”

And it’s about time.

This is a vital intervention in a debate that needs a fresh idea.

“With the latest Congressional super committee on budget deliberations about to meet in the aftermath of the brinkmanship over federal funding, a change in tone is needed in Washington,”says Karen Higgins, RN, an NNU co-president. “We are calling on Congress and the White House to refocus on a human needs budget, not just an endless cycle of more austerity and more cuts. We need the Robin Hood tax.”

Arguing for a Financial Transactions Tax does not only have the potential to shift the character of the budget conference committee deliberations. It could move the broader debate beyond the empty wrangling that pits Ryan’s austerity agenda against the austerity-lite response of too many Democrats.

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“It’s far past time that we break this cycle and fund America. There is a simple solution: more revenue,” explains National People’s Action executive director George Goehl. “If the government had more money we could break the crisis fever that is killing our economic recovery and devastating most those who can afford it least.”

Goehl and NPA are making the case that a Robin Hood Tax could break the austerity cycle with “a tax of half of a percent or less on big Wall Street transactions [that] would not affect the retirement accounts for middle class and working families. The Robin Hood Tax could generate up to $350 billion each year for investments in America—health care, fighting HIV/AIDS, jobs, safety net, fighting climate change, and affordable housing.”

As NPA says: “It’s a small change for the banks, big change for us.”

That big change will be needed if the conference committee is to reach a budget agreement that rejects austerity in favor of the balance of fiscal responsibility and social responsibility that Americans have every right to demand.

Greg Kaufmann asks whether congress will maintain essential services for seniors.

Lou Reed’s Politics

Lou Reed

Lou Reed, who has died at age 71, will be rightly remembered for creating a canon that was groundbreaking in the scope of its sociological and literary achievement. There was nothing unreasonable about Reed’s 1987 suggestion to Rolling Stone that “all through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”

Yet Reed was, as well, an artist who understood and engaged in the political struggles of his times. No one who followed the remarkable career of the Velvet Underground co-founder and iconic solo artist over the better part of five decades failed to recognize his determination to speak up—and to show up.

From the beginning of his career, Reed identified himself as an artist who was determined to explore and explain the great societal taboos. He wrote songs about sex and sexuality, addiction, abuse, disease and communities that refused to conform or capitulate. His 1972 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” took AM radio and a generation of young Americans to places they had never been before. That wasn’t an explicitly political song by most measures, yet it achieved a remarkable political end: transforming how people saw one another, and themselves.

Reed kept pushing the limits in the 1970s and ’80s, relishing controversy, challenging conventions and siding with those who did the same. He outlined his political philosophy in very nearly gentle 1982 song, “The Day John Kennedy Died.”

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law, undenied
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died
 
I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done
I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone
I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

Reed finished the 1980s with the album New York, a visceral assessment of America at the close of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Topical and barbed, New York pulled no punches, especially on Reed’s masterpiece: “The Last Great American Whale.”

Reed closed that song with an indictment:

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
with human life not worth more than infected yeast
 
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
they’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
and complain if they can’t swim
 
They say things are done for the majority
don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”

Yet those who heard Reed’s edgy rendering of “The Last Great American Whale” at 1990’s Farm Aid concert recognized that his commentary was biting not because he was cynical but because he cared.

Reed did not always get it right; no one ever does. And he did not always echo the politics of his audiences. His criticisms of the Rev. Jesse Jackson on New York's "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim" rubbed plenty of people the wrong way -- even earning some boos when he performed the song on Broadway in 1989,

But Reed was always engaged, always passionate, and far more generous with his time and prominence than most.

Reed showed up for benefit concerts, for Tibet House and Tibetan Freedom, for Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. He was there to recall the Freedom Riders, and to condemn apartheid as part of Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City” project. He was there to defend human rights and to decry attacks on artistic freedom. “It’s one thing to read about things. [But it’s something else] when someone’s sitting right in front of you telling and articulating some of these gruesome, unbelievable things that happen to people who do things that we take for granted every day,” he explained in before an Amnesty International “Conspiracy of Hope” concert in the mid-1980s. “I mean, some of the records that I’ve made: I would be rotting in jail for the last ten years.”

Reed did not just take the stage.

He took to the streets. In 2011, when Occupy Wall Street activists were being hounded in New York City, Reed took their side as one of the city’s best-known and most respected artists.

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“I have never been more ashamed than to see the barricades tonight,” Reed told the Occupy crowd outside Lincoln Center.

“I want to occupy Wall Street,” he continued on that cold December night. “I support it in each and every way. I’m proud to be part of it.”

In that remarkable mic-check moment, the crowd responded: “I’m proud to be part of it.”

Lou Reed was smiling right then. He was where he wanted to be: very much thick of things, very much on the side of those who were upsetting the status quo.

Reed spoke up. He showed up. He was indeed proud to be part of it.

Peter Rothberg’s remembrance of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel features a video of Havel speaking with Lou Reed.

A Mass Rally Against Mass Surveillance

NSA director Keith Alexander (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

What do Congressman Justin Amash, the libertarian-leaning Republican from Michigan, and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who mounted unapologetically progressive campaigns for the Democratic presidential nod, have in common?

They both think that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution ought to be respected.

And they both know that’s not the case when personal communications are routinely monitored by the National Security Agency and when the Obama White House and the Congress fail to provide meaningful oversight of an ever-expanding surveillance state.

So Amash, who last summer worked with Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan, to organize a House fight to defund the NSA’s bulk collection of data, and Kucinich, who in 2001 was one of the handful of House members who joined Senator Russ Feingold in opposing the Patriot Act, stood together Saturday with thousands of Americans who gathered in Washington for a groundbreaking “Rally Against Mass Surveillance.”

The boisterous rally, which took place on the twelfth anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act, was backed by a remarkable left-right coalition that drew together organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Tea Party–aligned Freedom Works, from the very progressive folks associated with the Demand Progress project to the very conservative Young Americans for Liberty, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"This isn’t about right and left — it’s about right and wrong,” explained Craig Aaron, the president of the media-reform network Free Press.

Amash told the crowd in Washington: “This isn't a partisan issue. This is for Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, conservatives and liberals, everyone in between."

The organizers of the StopWatching.us coalition delivered to Congress petitions signed by 575,000 Americans who say “we won’t tolerate mass surveillance any longer.”

The coalition is “calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.”

Those who rallied Saturday, and those who will continue speaking out in the weeks and months to come, want Congress to immediately and publicly:

1. Enact reform this Congress to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;

2. Create a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying. This committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance;

3. Hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.

That’s a tall order, but a necessary one—as anyone who has followed the revelations from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden well understands. Snowden said in a statement supporting Saturday's rally:

In the last four months, we’ve learned a lot about our government.

We’ve learned that the U.S. intelligence community secretly built a system of pervasive surveillance. Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands. Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They’re wrong.

Now it’s time for the government to learn from us.

The rally outside the Capitol was important because of the size and scope of the coalition, and also because of the energy it has brought to Washington at a time when surveillance issues are in the news—but are not being adequately debated by the Obama administration or Congress.

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The demand for congressional engagement extends beyond the rally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has produced “Stop Watching Us: The Video,” featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal. John Cusack, Phil Donahue, Oliver Stone and Daniel Ellsberg, among others.

In the video, Congressman Conyers, who for five decades has battled in Congress for civil rights and civil liberties, says, “A free society should not have secret laws.”

He’s right. But the secrecy won’t be addressed without a mass movement.

Saturday’s rally represented a “next step” in building that movement: “to remind our elected officials that they work for us, not the NSA.”

John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of Free Press. Their new book, Dollarocracy, details the growth of data mining as a political tool.

Greg Mitchell probes NSA claims that surveillance has thwarted terrorist attacks.

Dick Cheney’s Transcendent Cynicism

Dick Cheney. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Dick Cheney’s cynicism knows no end.

Yet, it still has the power to amaze—especially when Cheney’s political machinations go to extremes.

Consider his current embrace of the Tea Party movement.

At a point when the Republican Party’s favorability ratings have collapsed to the lowest point in the history of Gallup polling, just about everyone who has an interest in the future of the Grand Old Party is fretting about the damage done by a movement so politically tone deaf that it thought the American people would embrace a politics of government shutdown and debt-ceiling brinksmanship in order to advance the impossible dream of “defunding Obamacare.”

But here’s Dick Cheney—taking time out from pitching his new book, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey—to rally to the defense of the movement.

Hailing the Tea Party as a “positive influence” on the Grand Old Party, he announced on NBC’s Today show that “it’s an uprising, in part, and the good thing is it’s taken place within the Republican Party.”

Despite the chaos it has unleashed within and around the party for which the 72-year-old former vice president serves as a grouchy grand old man, Cheney declared: “I don’t see it as a negative. I think it’s much better to have that kind of ferment and turmoil and change in the Republican Party than it would be to have it outside.”

“These are Americans,” he says of the Tea Partisans. “They’re loyal, they’re patriotic and taxpayers, and they’re fed up with what they see happening in Washington. I think it’s a normal, healthy reaction and the fact that the party is having to adjust to it is positive.”

That’s rich coming from Cheney.

No matter what anyone thinks about the Tea Party movement in its current managed and manipulated form, many of its most sincere adherents joined what they thought was a grassroots challenge to the Republican establishment.

And no one says establishment like Dick Cheney: a permanent fixture in and around Republican administrations since Richard Nixon turned the key at the White House. No one has fought harder than this guy has to maintain the crony capitalist project that has made the modern GOP a lobbying agency for Wall Street speculators, bailout-seeking bankers and defense contractors like his own Halliburton.

Cheney’s everything Tea Party activists say they are fighting against.

So what’s the former vice president up to?

The same self-serving gaming of the process in which the man who arranged his own nomination as George W. Bush’s running mate has always engaged.

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Asked about Ted Cruz, Cheney declined to criticize the Texas senator who steered the party off the charts when it comes to disapproval among the great mass of voters.

That’s because Cheney doesn’t at this point have any interest in the great mass of American voters. He’s interested in the handful of Wyoming Republican primary voters who will decide the fate of daughter Liz Cheney’s challenge to Republican Senator Mike Enzi.

Enzi is a steady conservative whose only “sin” was to get in the way of Cheney-family ambition. But he is in the way, so Dick Cheney is quite willing to remake himself as the Tea Party’s ardent defender in order to aid Liz Cheney’s campaign.

Indeed, instead of ripping Cruz—as he would have done in his former days as a White House chief of staff, GOP congressional leader, secretary of defense and vice president—Cheney now compares Cruz with daughter Liz.

“I think [Cruz] represents the thinking of an awful lot of people obviously in Texas,” says Dick Cheney. “But my own daughter is running for U.S. Senate in Wyoming partly motivated by the concern that Washington is not working, the system is breaking down and it’s time for new leadership.”

Shameless? Well, yes.

But that’s how Dick Cheney rolls.

The Republican Party is just a vehicle.

The state of Wyoming is just a political playground.

What matters to Cheney is the Cheney brand. And if he has to attach a Tea Party label in order to advance it, why Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney is more than willing to oblige.

John Nichols is the author of Dick: The Man Who Is President and The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney (The New Press).

Tom Tomorrow deconstructs Tea Party logic.

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