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Congress has a handful of rock-solid champions of democracy. There’s Michigan Congressman John Conyers and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. There’s Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan. In the Senate, there’s New Mexico’s Tom Udall and, of course, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. You can count a few more in the camp. But no one would argue that either chamber has a sufficient contingent of advocates for the principle that government should be “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
So it is worth noting that one of America’s most ardent advocates for democracy just jumped into a contest for the US House. Maryland legislator Jamie Raskin—whom The Washington Post recognizes as the Maryland Senate’s “constitutional authority”—is bidding for the Democratic nomination to succeed Congresswoman Chris Van Hollen.
Raskin says right up front that he is making the race “because America needs effective progressive leadership to renew the momentum of popular democracy in America.”
Raskin is not the only candidate in the Maryland contest. The field could get crowded, as this is the sort of “safe seat” that does not come open all that often. Raskin could face credible progressive opposition for the Democratic nod. He will have to make his case in this particular contest, and there are no assurances that he will prevail.
There is an assurance, however, that Raskin will bring to the competition plenty of big ideas about how to defend, strengthen and expand American democracy. And, if he is elected, Raskin will bring experience and energy to congressional debates about voting rights, fair elections and getting big money out of politics.
A constitutional law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law (where he directs the Law and Government Program), Raskin has represented Greenpeace and the Service Employees International Union and high school students fighting for the freedom to talk about LGBT rights, He has a long history of waging difficult legal and legislative battles on behalf of progressive ideals. As a state senator, he has earned high marks for leading historic floor fights to establish marriage equality, to abolish the death penalty and to preserve civil rights and liberties.
When Raskin announced for Congress, he was immediately endorsed by Maryland Senate majority leader Catherine Pugh, who declared that “we need him to bring the same passion and eloquence he brought to Annapolis to the fight for justice and democracy at the national level.”
Raskin works well within the legislative process. But if the process does not work, if framework for achieving justice in insufficient, Raskin seeks to forge new frameworks—by forging alliances with grassroots movements, by opening up debates, by campaigning to amend the US Constitution.
“My ambition is not to be in the political center. My ambition is to be in the moral center,” Raskin told a room packed with supporters as he announced his candidacy Sunday in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Then he added a line that sums up his vision: “We will get the political center to move to us.”
Raskin is serious about this. He has a record of wading into fights at a point when most Democrats, and even most progressives, are still standing on the sidelines. As a longtime advocate on voting rights issues, he has been in the forefront of the fight for the franchise. After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a point of emphasizing—during the Bush v. Gore arguments in December 2000—that there is no federal constitutional guarantee of a right to vote for president, Raskin responded by making the case that the Constitution should be amended to clearly establish just such a protection. When few in Congress were willing to take the issue up, Raskin was arguing that “it is time for American progressives to engage in serious constitutional politics on behalf of the right to vote.”
With the group FairVote, he has proposed and advanced a number of proposals aimed at assuring that every vote counts—and that every vote is counted. Among these is the “National Popular Vote” proposal for an interstate compact to guarantee that the presidency goes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide.
After the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision cleared the way for corporations to spend as they chose to influence elections, Raskin was among the very first to object. And he did so in the right way, by advocating for a constitutional amendment to undo the damage done by the High Court.
At a point when most Democrats in Washington were talking around the issue, and avoiding the hard reality of what needed to be done, Raskin wrote that “an amendment to allow for reasonable regulation of campaign expenditures and contributions would empower Congress to return corporations to the economic sphere.”
Today, more than 600 communities and 16 states have formally asked Congress to act. And action will be necessary because, as Raskin noted several years ago in an article for The Nation: “We live in what will surely come to be called the Citizens United era, a period in which a runaway corporatist ideology has overtaken Supreme Court jurisprudence. No longer content just to pick a president, as five conservative Republicans on the Rehnquist Court did in 2000, five conservative Republicans on the Roberts Court a decade later voted to tilt the nation’s entire political process toward the views of moneyed corporate power.”
Those are bold words.
But, certainly, not too bold.
As someone who knows a thing or two about constitutional law, Raskin understands that “A constitutional amendment to correct these distortions may seem impossible now, but all amendments seem impossible until they become inevitable.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Clinton’s faux economic populism
Hillary Clinton has backed NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements and she has opposed NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements. Like many other prominent Democrats, she has been inconsistent in her support of what is best for workers, the environment and human rights.
But Clinton has a chance to get trade policy right when it matters.
And when it matters is now.
As she launches a 2016 presidential campaign in which she seems to be interested in grabbing the banner of economic populism—going so far as to complain in her announcement video about how “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top”—Clinton can and should stake out a clear position in opposition to granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Despite overwhelming opposition from labor, farm, environmental, and social-justice groups, Congress is preparing to consider whether to provide Obama with the “fast track” authority he seeks to construct a “free trade” deal linking the North American and Asian nations of the Pacific Rim. Imagine the North American Free Trade Agreement on steroids and you get a sense of what is at stake. Yet, so far, Clinton’s office has offered only a statement about how she is “watching closely” as the debate evolves and a suggestion that she wants “greater prosperity and security for American families, not trade for trade’s sake.”
That’s not a clear commitment one way or the other on fast track or the TPP. And the coming congressional debate demands clear commitments not just from members of the House and Senate but from those who seek the presidency.
In many senses, it is remarkable that Congress would even consider surrendering its authority to make amendments, to provide oversight, and to check and balance the executive branch on so vital an economic and social issue. Yet, the legislation has now been introduced and the White House and corporate interests are gearing up a massive campaign on behalf of fast track. If it succeeds, the TPP will be negotiated behind closed doors and with inadequate oversight from Congress.
No matter what anyone thinks about “free trade,” as it is currently arranged to benefit multinational corporations that seek a race-to-the-bottom economics, or “fair trade,” as it should be arranged to protect workers, the environment, and human rights, no one who believes in openness, transparency and democracy should be on the fence regarding fast track .
The practical arguments against “fast track” are clear enough. As Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says: “[Americans] have seen these type of ‘free trade’ deals rushed through Washington before, and we saw the results firsthand: closed factories, depleted industries and lost jobs. We cannot make the same mistakes of the past. If the administration wants to get the approval of Congress for this new agreement, we must take the time to conduct the careful and thorough oversight this measure requires.”
The political arguments against fast track are, if anything, even clearer. Mark Perrone, the new president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, explains that “no elected official, regardless of political party, who is truly interested in making the economy better and fairer, can responsibly support the TPP. Simply put, this trade deal, like so many others, is bad for our workers, families, and shared future. In the end, while we may not be able to change every mind, we will remember those elected officials who stood with America’s workers by voting for jobs and against another destructive trade deal. More to the point, we join with the AFL-CIO and other unions that refuse to support any member of Congress that decides to put narrow self-interests above the interests of hard-working families.”
So far, Clinton cannot be counted as a supporter of fast track, or as a foe. The statement emailed from a Clinton spokesman to media outlets says that she is “watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation, improve labor rights, protect the environment and health, promote transparency, and open new opportunities for our small businesses to export overseas.” More generally, it explains, “Hillary Clinton believes that any new trade measure has to pass two tests: First, it should put us in a position to protect American workers, raise wages and create more good jobs at home. Second, it must also strengthen our national security. We should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests.”
That’s good language, as is the reminder from her office that Clinton believes “we shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.” But none of this amounts to a statement of opposition to fast track or the TPP.
Critics of the deal are pushing for specifics.
On the day after the fast-track legislation was proposed in Congress, one of the most outspoken opponents of NAFTA-style trade policies called on Clinton and other 2016 contenders to state their opposition. “My strong hope is that Secretary Clinton and all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, will make it clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be rejected and that we must develop trade policies that benefit working families, not just Wall Street and multi-national corporations,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been exploring the prospect of challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Framing his call in the language of economic populism that Clinton has sought to echo, Sanders argued that a strong stance by candidates was necessary because, “For decades, corporate America has been pushing disastrous trade agreements on the American people. The result: millions of jobs lost through outsourcing, lower wages and the collapse of our middle class.”
Former labor secretary Robert Reich presumes that Clinton is in a tight spot. As Obama’s Secretary of State she talked up trade deals, including the TPP initiative. As a senator, she backed some and opposed others. Reich says the question of whether to stick with Obama or to oppose his fast-track request “could definitely be a headache for her in 2016 because it is so very unpopular among progressives.”
Democracy for America’s Jim Dean summed up the centrality of the fast-track debate when he said, “Like a vote for the Iraq War or statements of support for the Social Security–cutting Bowles-Simpson plan, a vote for fast track and the TPP will never be forgotten…”
Presumably, that goes for the positions taken by candidates, as well.
Politics requires hard choices—the title of Clinton’s memoir.
Clinton should make one. Instead of sticking with Obama on this issue (or, worse yet, trying to avoid taking a stance), she should stick with principles she embraced as a senator. In 2002, sheopposed granting President Bush fast-track authority. And, as a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, she won states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania at least in part because she declared that “The United States should be pursuing trade agreements that promote human rights and worker rights, not overlook egregious abuses.”
Notably, when she spoke to United Auto Workers members during that campaign, Clinton said, “Every trade agreement has to be independently, objectively analyzed.”
The first place in which trade agreements must be independently and objectively analyzed is in Congress—before they are adopted. Clinton can and should state this truth, as she makes the hard choice to oppose the president she once served and side with the Democrats she proposes to lead.
There is plenty of skepticism about Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed but at this point scantly articulated embrace of economic populism. She can address at least some of that skepticism right now, at the start of her 2016 campaign, by opposing fast track.
Read Next: John Nichols on the need to enshrine the right to vote in the constitution
Flags flew at half mast, schoolchildren recited the “Gettysburg Address” and for a few hours on April 15, America paused to remember that a century and a half ago this country lost its 16th president to an assassin’s bullet.
Now, Americans can finish with the pause and begin to fully honor Lincoln.
The place of beginning is with an embrace of the work of reconstruction that was imagined when Lincoln lived but that is not—even now—complete.
President Obama proclaimed April 15 as a National Day of Remembrance for President Abraham Lincoln, declaring, “Today, we reflect on the extraordinary progress he made possible, and with one voice, we rededicate ourselves to the work of ensuring a Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Obama was right to focus on Lincoln’s great preachmenton behalf of American democracy. It directs our attention toward the mission to which small “d” democrats of all partisanships and ideologies must rededicate ourselves.
One hundred and fifty years after the moment when a still young country saw the end of a Civil War and the assassination of a president, the events of April 1865 continue to shape and challenge the American experience.
With Lincoln’s death, an inept and wrongheaded vice president, Andrew Johnson, succeeded to the presidency. Had it been left to Johnson, who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the progress extending from the great sacrifices of the Civil War would have beenimperiled. But the rough outlines for securing the victory were not left to a president. They were enshrined in the US Constitution.
Three amendments to the founding document were enacted during the five-year period from 1865 to 1870. These “Reconstruction Amendments”were transformational statements—even if their promise has yet to be fully recognized or realized.
The first of the amendments addressed the great failure of the founding moment: a “compromise” that recognized—and effectively permitted—human bondage.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution affirmed that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Those words confronted the indefensible “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which was outlined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution as it was framed in 1787. That paragraph did not speak specifically of slavery, but instead referred to two groups of Americans: “the whole Number of free Persons” and “all other Persons.”
The 13th Amendment was an essential step toward an official embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “immortal declaration”of 1776—that “all men are created equal.”
But it was not enough.
To the 13th Amendment of 1865 was added the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which confirmed that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The 14th Amendment, remarkable in its clarity and detail, provided for due process and equal protection under the law.
But it was not enough.
To the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 and the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 was added the 15th Amendment of 1870, which avowed that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Congress was given the power to enforce these articles by appropriate legislation.
But that was still not enough, as became obvious with the collapse of Reconstruction and the establishment of “Jim Crow” segregation in states that had been part of the Confederacy. With these ruptures came overt discrimination against voting rights.
But that was not enough.
Despite the protections delineated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution (which in 1964 formally banned poll taxes), headlines remind us that the right to vote is “still threatened.” The US Supreme Court has mangled the Voting Rights Act, and the Congress has failed to repair the damage done. The Brennan Center for Justice has determined that at least 83 restrictive bills were introduced in 29 states where legislatures had floor activity in 2014, including proposals to require a photo ID, make voter registration more difficult, reduce early voting opportunities, and make it harder for students to vote.
“The stark and simple truth is this—the right to vote is threatened today—in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” said President Obama.
The great American process of forming a more perfect union is far from complete. The events of 150 years ago were not the end of anything. They were a pivot point that took the United States in a better direction. But the was incomplete, and insufficient to establish justice. So the process continues.
That is why Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have proposed to amend the Constitution to declare clearly and unequivocally that
“SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
“SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”
The Pocan-Ellison amendment will not, in and of itself, form a more perfect union. But it provides a tool for those who understand that we best honor our history by recognizing unmet promises—and seeking, finally, to keep them.
“A core principle of our democracy is the ability for citizens to participate in the election of their representatives,” explains Pocan. “We have seen constant attempts by some states to erode voting rights and make it harder for citizens to vote. This amendment would affirm the principle of equal participation in our democracy for every citizen. As the world’s leading democracy, we must guarantee the right to vote for all.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s cautious campaign finance reform
As she begins to frame out the themes of her 2016 presidential run, Hillary Clinton says she will make reform of the nation’s “dysfunctional” campaign finance system a focus of her campaign.
She is right to do so.
And she is getting close to addressing the issue in the right way.
“We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” the former secretary of state told students at Kirkwood Community College in rural Monticello, Iowa.
Like most prominent Democrats, Clinton is too cautious on this issue.
There is simply no question that an amendment will be needed. Americans recognize this. More than 600 communities across the country and 16 states have formally requested that Congress back an amendment to undo the decisions of the Supreme Court to remove barriers to corporate spending and billionaire domination of the political process.
Those decisions, in cases such as Citizens United-v-Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon-v-Federal Election Commission, have left no doubt that an activist majority will continue to do the bidding of corporate special interests and wealthy elites that seek to buy elections—and the policies that extend from those elections. One of Clinton’s prospective rivals in the race for the presidency, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, got it exactly right when he said, “There comes a time when an issue is so important that the only way to address it is by a constitutional amendment.”
Sanders introduced such an amendment in 2011, along with Florida Congressman Ted Deutch. The Sanders-Deutch “Saving American Democracy Amendment” was written to:
* Make it clear that corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as people and that corporations may be regulated by Congress and state legislatures
* Preserve the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press
* Renew a historic ban on corporate campaign donations to candidates
* Establish broad authority for Congress and states to regulate spending in elections
That’s not the only amemdment proposal. Some go even further in clarifying that corporations are not people, that money is not speech and that votes should matter more than dollars. But it is a good start and Clinton would do well to acknowledge as much and endorse the proposal Sanders has put forward.
Until she does, her recognition of the amendment option should be seen as just that: recognition but not an absolute commitment to lead on the issue. She needs to make that commitment, especially as she prepares to make the fund-raising rounds for a campaign that it is predicted will cost an unprecedented $2.5 billion.
Clinton defenders argue that she has to raise enough money to compete with big-spending Republican rivals such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Wallker—and with the “independent expenditures” of billionaires such as the Koch brothers, whose network of wealthy donors is preparing to pour close to $1 billion into the 2016 competition. As a candidate, Clinton needs to make it clear that she understands that these spending levels are not just “dysfunctional.” They are obscene and anti-democratic.
Until she gets clearer on the issue, the Democratic front-runner will face plenty of skepticism.
With this said, Clinton has sent a useful signal on her first day of actual campaigning. Starting her run for the Democratic nomination by talking about amending the Constitution offers an indication that her 2016 campaign may not be so ideologically and practically cautious as her 2008 run was.
Clinton’s statement also highlights the vitality of the grassroots fight for an amendment.
“This move reflects the basic reality—recognized by the vast majority of Americans—that our democracy is being stripped away by a handful of Citizens United–enabled billionaires and giant corporations,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “It is also directly responsive to a rising grassroots movement demanding that the Constitution be amended to overturn Citizens United and restore We the People as sovereign.”
Seventy years after the week in which the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shocked the nation and the world, it is easy enough to imagine the loss of America’s longest-serving and most-transformative president as history.
But FDR understood the American story as that of a long struggle characterized by old fights on new grounds. “In our own land we enjoy indeed a fullness of life greater than that of most nations,” he said. “But the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.”
The way to “reaffirm the faith of our fathers” Roosevelt argued, as he sought and won his greatest electoral victory in 1936, was “to restore to the people a wider freedom.”
“That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power,” FDR explained, in his “Rendezvous With Destiny” speech to the Democratic National Convention of 1936; he continued:
In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy—from the eighteenth-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.
And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.
Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the Fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small-businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.
The whole point of the New Deal was to challenge the economic royalists on behalf of the great mass of Americans, and to establish that wider freedom.
“The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live,” Roosevelt said.
“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
Roosevelt was re-elected that year, as he would be again in 1940 and 1944. He led the nation as it struggled to overcome a Great Depression at home and fascism abroad. But he never lost sight of the great struggle to overcome economic tyranny.
To that end, he proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” that was, in its themes and purposes, as bold as the first. It was this “Second Bill of Rights,” an economic bill of rights, that he promised to pursue in the fourth term that was cut short by his death.
“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure,” Roosevelt told the Congress and the nation in the 1944 State of the Union address that framed the final year of his presidency.
“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty,” said FDR, who explained:
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
—The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
—The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
—The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
—The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
—The right of every family to a decent home;
—The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
—The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
—The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
Seventy years after this country lost Franklin Roosevelt and the promise of a final term spent advocating for a realization of the “new goals of human happiness and well-being,” those goals have yet to be realized. The historian Havey Kaye has argued that President Obama should recognize Roosevelt’s vision and present it anew. The Roosevelt Institute and the Four Freedoms Center remind us that expanding and extending the debate about basic rights and democracy presents “a compelling vision for the future.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has explored these possibilities with his “Economic Agenda for America.” Those are starting points, but they should not be the end of the embrace.
Democrats who speak of FDR’s legacy, and progressives who understand that legacy in its full measure, honor him best by renewing and extending the struggle for a “Second Bill of Rights.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s soft populism
As she struggled to keep her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination alive, Hillary Clinton took a turn toward economic populism. It helped; after a series of setbacks in early caucus and primary states, Clinton’s abandonment of frontrunner caution and embrace of “I’m in this race to fight for you” rhetoric played a significant role in securing her big wins in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ultimately, she gained more votes than Barack Obama and came close to wrestling the nomination from him. If Clinton had run from the start as a populist, there is no telling what might have happened. But the important thing to remember is that Clinton did not turn up the volume until she felt she had no other choice—and by then it was too late.
Now, as she launches a new bid for her party’s nomination, Clinton is starting with populist talk. In a slick announcement video released Sunday she gripes that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”
“Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” says the former First Lady, US Senator and Secretary of State, on the various platforms employed for the carefully coordinated social media launch of her long-anticipated candidacy.
This is conscious positioning by Clinton. She sounds the same themes in more detail in a freshly-released epilogue to her book, Hard Choices. Reflecting on the birth of her granddaughter, she writes, “I’m more convinced than ever that our future in the 21st century depends on our ability to ensure that a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or the Rio Grande Valley grows up with the same shot at success that Charlotte will.”
“Unfortunately,” adds Clinton, “too few of the children born in the United States and around the world today will grow up with the same opportunities as Charlotte. You shouldn’t have to be the granddaughter of a President or a Secretary of State to receive excellent health care, education, enrichment, and all the support and advantages that will one day lead to a good job and a successful life.”
That’s a fine line, and there is no point in questioning Clinton’s sincerity. Undoubtedly, she would prefer that everyday Americans enjoy successful lives. But there is every reason to ask whether the candidate—whose $2.5 billion campaign will rely heavily on money from folks who are on the winning side of the income-inequality gap—shares the specific vision of grassroots Democrats about how best to achieve the goal. On too many issues, Clinton’s record is that of “corporate Democrat,” says Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement executive director Hugh Espey. In the first caucus and primary states, there are plenty of progressives who agree with New Hampshire state Representative Marcia Moody when she describes Clinton as “fundamentally a person for Wall Street and not the people.”
This is why there has been so much organizing on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire for progressive-populist alternatives: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been actively exploring a run against Clinton, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running. And this is why the organizing must continue on behalf of alternative candidacies and a competitive race for the Democratic nomination. Clinton is way ahead in the polls, but it would be political malpractice for progressives to be satisfied with a few good turns of phrase at this point. The frontrunner must be pressed to make real commitments on real issues.
Clinton’s decision to open her second presidential campaign on a populist note is a reflection of her savvy recognition that plenty of Democrats have doubts about her past support for free trade deals and her closeness to financial elites that are far more committed to their own self-interest than to the public interest. But the times demand more than just a populist note. They demand progressive populist specifics.
This is not 2008, when the economy was turning bad. This is 2015, and tens of millions of Americans have experienced a rough seven-year period of unemployment, wage stagnation, uneven recovery and growing inequality. Through a portion of that period, the country had a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress; Obama, Pelosi and Reid delivered some relief, as well as mild healthcare reform and banking regulation. But the polls suggest that Americans are unsatisfied.
When Republicans took charge of the House in 2011, gridlock replaced whatever remained of hope and change. Yet, now, Republicans such as Jeb Bush pitch themselves as born-again champions of working Americans, griping about depressed wages and slow growth. That’s cynical. But it will not be enough to simply call Bush and Scott Walker out on their cynicism, and it will not be enough to echo their vapid expressions of concern for the vast majority of Americans for whom the economy is not working.
The Democratic nominee in 2016 has to propose a specific populism that recognizes the failure of free-trade deals such as NAFTA and join Elizabeth Warren in rejecting proposals to “Fast Track” a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that critics warns will be “NAFTA on steroids.” The Democratic nominee has to recognize that the Dodd-Frank reforms were insufficient and that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is right when he proposes to break up “too-big-to-fail” banks. The Democratic nominee must recognize the need to raise new revenues, as Congressman Keith Ellison has with his proposal for a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation. The Democratic nominee must, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee does, recognize the need to steer money away from bloated Pentagon budgets and toward meeting human needs. The Democratic nominee must, as Bernie Sanders does, recognize the absolute necessity of massive federal investments in infrastructure and programs that create and sustain living-wage jobs.
Those are the basics—along with commitments to expand Social Security, address climate change and reduce the influence of corporate interests on our politics and governance. To achieve baseline credibility as a contender, not just for the nomination but for the presidency, Clinton must offer specifics on all of these issues. No one should presume she will do this on her own. This is why progressive groups such as National People’s Action and the Campaign for America’s Future are arguing that a detailed “populist agenda” is essential to victory. This is why the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has launched a “Ready for Boldness” campaign—playing off the “Ready for Hillary” message of Clinton’s early supporters—with support from US Senators Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Jeff Merkley, and Sheldon Whitehouse; former US Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kaufman and hundreds of activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. PCCC co-founder Adam Green is certainly right when he says, “It’s a great general election strategy to embrace these economic populism issues that are wildly popular across the political spectrum.”
Unfortunately, Democrats presidential frontrunners have frequently failed to recognize the logic of economic populism—and even more frequently spoken about economic issues in such tepid terms that the message was muted. Every evidence is that New Hampshire state Representative Renny Cushing is right when he says that “there’s only one way” to get Clinton or any other front-runner to get specific. “If you’re in the electoral arena, you really need a candidate,” explains Cushing, who has been working to draft Warren into the competition. “You can’t do it without a candidate.”
Clinton is running another race for the presidency, and this time she is starting with the populist themes she used at the end of her last race. That’s progress—for her, for her party and maybe for her country. But that’s not enough progress. Clinton needs to be pinned down on the details and prodded to go big.
Activist pressure is essential, and it may move Clinton some. But a real race for the nomination, as opposed to a coronation, is the best guarantee that the party will produce a sufficiently populist nominee to strike the chords that will inspire voters. If Clinton is not up to the task, then Democrats had better find an alternative. If Clinton recognizes that she must not merely note the crisis but address it—recognizing the concerns about her record and answering them with an economic agenda that makes real the populist promise—then she will have the right message for a nomination fight and for a November fight that will require a lot more than platitudes.
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