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Russ Feingold is running again for the United States Senate. That’s got DC insiders excited, because the former senator is way ahead in the polls and his victory in 2016 could play a critical role in tipping control of the Senate backed to the Democrats.
But Feingold has never been one for simple partisanship. His independence is legendary—as is his determination to stand on principle against not just Republicans and Wall Street but his own party and its leaders.
To a greater extent than anyone who has served in the Senate in recent decades, Feingold has a reputation for getting ahead of major issues and getting them right. It is a reputation forged not by reading polls or accepting the compromise-prone Washington way of doing things but by rejecting a failed political “consensus” and instead choosing to champion civil liberties, peace, clean elections, and, above all, economic fairness.
Russ Feingold cast the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. He was right about that, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.
Russ Feingold was in the minority that voted against authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to take the United States to war with Iraq in 2002. He was right about that, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.
Russ Feingold fought for the better part of a decade (usually with Arizona Senator John McCain) to address the worst abuses of a campaign finance system that the Wisconsinite warned was becoming a vehicle for the “legalized bribery” of elected officials. Feingold was right to fight when he did, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.
What fewer people are aware of is the fact that when he served in the Senate from 1993 to 2011 Feingold was equally visionary on the great economic issues of the our times. Indeed, long before there was an Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, there was a Russ Feingold—opposing bad trade deals, taking on the big banks and battling to forge an economy that worked for all Americans.
As he bids again for the Senate, in a candidacy announced Thursday, Feingold will focus on the economic fairness issues that have been his passion since his days as a state legislator representing the farms and factory towns of south-central Wisconsin.
“People tell me all the time that our politics and Washington are broken. And that multi-millionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling the shots. They especially say this about the U.S. Senate, and it’s hard not to agree. But what are we going to do? Get rid of the Senate?” Feingold asked in his campaign announcement. “Actually, no one I’ve listened to says we should throw in the towel and give up—and I don’t think that either.”
Feingold says his focus in 2016 will be on the restoring the “economic well-being” of a state and a nation hard hit by the austerity agendas of Republicans in Washington—including Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and the senator Feingold is challenging, Tea Party favorite Ron Johnson.
Johnson, a millionaire who says he takes his cues from Ayn Rand novels, beat Feingold in the Republican-wave year of 2010 by a 52-47 margin. But the incumbent’s over-the-top partisanship and extreme stances (on economic and foreign-policy issues) has saddled him with dismal approval ratings. The latest Marquette Law School Poll gives Feingold a 54-38 lead over the incumbent. The same poll pointed to widespread frustration with the budget proposals of Johnson ally Scott Walker, and with the weakness of the Wisconsin economy.
That Feingold is framing his campaign on an “economic well-being” agenda will come as no surprise.
The last several years have seen a great turn in American politics toward an understanding of popular frustration with economic inequality and crony capitalism. It’s not just Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; even traditionally centrist Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Republicans such as Jeb Bush are talking about restoring a measure of balance and fairness to the American economy.
What distinguishes Feingold—who spent the last five years writing, teaching, serving as a diplomat in Africa, and working with the group Progressives United—is a track record on economics that makes him, in the words of Democracy for America chair Jim Dean, “precisely the kind of fighter and truth-teller our country needs in the U.S. Senate.”
Feingold was in the Senate minority that voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and against the permanent normalization of trade relations with China in 2000. He warned of the threat that corporate-guided globalization would put the United States on a race to the bottom that would see factory closings, job losses, and an undermining of democracy.
Feingold was one of just eight senators to vote against lifting Glass-Steagall Act protections against abusive banking practices. He warned about the threat posed to consumers and to the whole of the US economy by the growth of “too-big-to-fail” banks—and about the prospect that those banks would use their power to force taxpayers to pay for their failures. When the meltdown came in 2008, Feingold voted against the Wall Street bailout. And two years later, he opposed the watered-down Dodd-Frank “reforms” because they failed to address the fundamental flaws of a ‘regulatory’ system that let’s big banks call the shots.
Feingold fought, throughout his Senate career, for a rethinking of tax and investment policies that would stop rewarding firms that shut factories, lay off workers and move jobs overseas, and instead use the power of tax policy and investment to encourage the creation of living-wage jobs in the United States. Instead of corporate-welfare giveaways, he proposed incentives for firms to expand employment and payrolls—especially in the hardest-pressed neighborhoods and most-neglected rural regions of the country. As the Economic Policy Institute observed several years ago, Feingold’s approach represented the smart alternative to austerity.
Again and again as a US Senator, Feingold broke with Democratic and Republican presidents to stand for Main Street economics—fighting for jobs and job creation while challenging the excesses and abuses of behemoth banks and multinational corporations.
He’s ready to take up the fight once more.
As Feingold says, “We need to get started fixing all this.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the federal funding of transportation and infrastructure
America’s “high-speed” rail lines are slow compared with those of the countries with which the United States chooses to compare itself. The schedules are unsteady. And, as the horrific crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia Tuesday night illustrated, safety concerns are on the rise.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis has seen a steady rise in Amtrak derailments in recent years. According to a Washington Post review of the data, “there were two in 2012, three in 2013, six in 2014…”
In the first two months of 2015, however, there were at least nine derailments. But it is the latest Amtrak Northeast Corridor derailment, with at least seven dead and roughly 200 hurt, that is renewing talk about how this country’s rail system is in serious need of repair.
The first priority is to mourn for the dead and to care for the injured in a regional tragedy that has national implications. But even amid the initial news reports, there was constant referencing of what Donald Trump was quick to decry as America’s “horrible infrastructure problems.” The Obama White House agreed, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying Wednesday morning, “There is clearly more that can be done when we’re talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades-old.”
The cause of the crash is still being investigated. There are reports that the train was traveling too fast for a turn it had to make—raising issues of human error, safety protocols, unaddressed dangers, and the role that smart infrastructure investment might have played in making the route smoother and safer. The most telling headline in this regard appeared in Friday morning’s New York Times: “Technology That Could Have Prevented Amtrak Derailment Was Absent.” The fact is that train crashes happen for a lot of reasons, some of which are difficult to control against. But there is no question that the role played by outdated and decaying infrastructure can be addressed by the federal government. Nor is there much question that one of the best ways to assure that human errors do not lead to disasters is by keeping equipment, track and systems up to date. Unfortunately, as a Bloomberg Business report explained Wednesday morning, “There’s a lack of political will.”
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a key Democrat working on transportation issues in the Senate said Wednesday that “even before last night it was clear that there’s more we can do as a nation to make rail travel safer and more reliable. Millions of Americans rely on rail to travel up and down the Northeast Corridor each year, and yet Congress refuses to make the investments needed to maintain and expand rail lines and safety features.”
The Philadelphia derailment, which occurred in the middle of national Infrastructure Week, highlights mounting concerns about infrastructure decay. “The Northeast Corridor, which runs between Boston and Washington, is one of the railroad’s busiest and most profitable lines,” reported The New York Times in its main story on the crash. “But officials have long complained that the agency needs more subsidies from Congress to improve the railroad’s deteriorating infrastructure and replace aging equipment.”
Bloomberg’s Wednesday morning report asked: “Did Old Infrastructure Contribute to Amtrak Derailment?” Answer: “It’s not just the trains, it’s the tracks.… they are getting old and they need a lot of maintenance.”
This is not a new concern. Officials in Washington have been regularly reminded in recent years of the problems plaguing America’s passenger rail system.
In a prescient article published last month, National Journal asked, “Why Can’t America Have Great Trains?”
The answer had a lot to do with politics—especially the politics of those whose determination to cut federal spending is as ardent as it is impractical.
“Along with PBS and the United States Postal Service, Amtrak is perpetual fodder for libertarian think-tankers and Republican office-seekers on the prowl for government profligacy,” explained Simon van Zuylen-Wood. “Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush repeatedly tried to eliminate its subsidy, while Mitt Romney promised to do the same. Democrats, for their part, aren’t interested in slaying Amtrak, but mostly you get the sense they just feel bad for it.”
National Journal detailed the challenges facing Amtrak, as compared with the ever-improving rail systems of developed nations, and concluded that “those stats don’t figure to improve anytime soon. While Amtrak isn’t currently in danger of being killed, it also isn’t likely to do more than barely survive. Last month, the House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—fair comparison or not—will be spending $128 billion this year on rail.”
The House proposal for Amtrak reauthorization includes one change of consequence, and it looks good at first glance. The House measure would make it easier for the Northeast Corridor to reinvest in infrastructure improvements on its own lines rather than forcing it to subsidize improvements on less-profitable routes nationwide. But that’s not an appropriate response, as it attempts to solve one funding problem by creating another.
The Senate has not gotten around to acting on Amtrak reauthorization. The awful news from Philadelphia, involving a rail line many members of Congress and Washington insiders ride, is likely to bring action. But simple reauthorization is not the answer. The House measure is ill-conceived and insufficient.
That is just the beginning of the investment that is required for the renewal of rail—and the broader infrastructure of the United States.
Safety concerns can and should motivate investment. But so, too, should concerns for job creation and economic development.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the case for a broader commitment to infrastructure central to his advocacy for a progressive agenda.
Reflecting on crowded mass transit, traffic jams and related issues in a Wednesday New York Times opinion piece, de Blasio, one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, wrote:
Federal investment has not kept pace with this demand, resulting in an outdated, overburdened surface transportation system that is ill equipped to handle current, let alone future, need. Spending on infrastructure in the United States has sunk to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product, a 20-year low.
The Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, it will cost $84 billion to $105 billion a year just to keep the highway, bridge and transit systems in good repair, and up to $170 billion a year to improve conditions and performance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world races ahead. Europe spends 5 percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure, and China 9 percent. Global cities like London and Beijing are investing in transit and rail projects on a vast scale, while in New York City, more than 160 bridges were built over a century ago, and large portions of our subway’s signal system are more than 50 years old. Some of the subway cars we ride in were built before 1975.
This isn’t for want of local resources. Over the past decade, New York City has increased commitments to capital projects by 50 percent. But we could not do it all on the local level even if we wanted to.
That’s a wise assessment. And it ought to be taken seriously by a Congress that has neglected infrastructure for too long. The Laborers’s International Union of North America sums the problem up well when it says, “Our nation’s infrastructure is failing us and so is Congress by not fixing it.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Democrat’s rejecting the TPP deal
President Obama takes it personally when Americans disagree with his free-trade fundamentalism. He keeps griping about the Democrats who usually support his agenda but are ardently opposed to his request for “fast track” authority to bypass congressional input and oversight on a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The president has from the start of the debate over fast track and the TPP had a practical problem: If most congressional Democrats align with labor, environmental, and human-rights activists rather than the White House—as they appear intent upon doing— they can block Obama’s trade agenda. In the Senate, just 40 votes are required to erect a procedural barrier to fast-track legislation. In the House, a reasonably united Democratic caucus could align with the significant number of Republicans who have traditionally opposed unrestricted free trade to thwart fast track and/or the TPP itself.
On Tuesday, the first major test came in the Senate, and the president lost. Sixty votes were required to open a debate on fast track, but only 52 senators voted to go forward. Forty-two Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King, voted “no.”
The trade fight is not finished; negotiations with Senate Republicans who favor Obama’s agenda could make the fast-track proposal more attractive to at least a few wavering Democrats. And if that happens, expect Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to exercise the option he has retained to bring the issue up again.
Unless and until that happens, however, the president has taken a hard hit. It happened because a number of traditionally pro–free trade Democrats, who had been expected to vote with Obama and the Republicans, joined with the Senate’s growing caucus of fair-trade Democrats to block action.
This was what the president feared would happen.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, the president made no secret of his frustration with his fellow Democrats.
“There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he griped to the crowd that was assembled last week for his appearance at the corporate headquarters of Nike, a US-based firm that (with its contractors) now employs roughly 40 overseas workers for every one American. And, the president explained, a lot of the critics are Democrats who he has traditionally thought of as his partisan and ideological allies.
Instead of listening to their objections, however, Obama simply announced that he was right and the Democrats who have backed him on so many other issues were wrong.
The problem is that the “evidence” the president has mustered on behalf of fast track and the TPP is unconvincing. In part that’s because, as Bernie Sanders warned with regard to proponents of free-trade deals during Tuesday’s Senate debate, “These folks have been proven wrong time after time after time.” But there is also the fact that the current promises are so hollow. Consider the case of Nike and that 40-1 ratio. Even if every promise about the benefits of free trade and the TPP were to come true—an exceptionally unlikely prospect if the history of trade pacts is any guide—the ratio of overseas workers to Americans employed by Nike and its contractors would shift to somewhere in the range of 30-1. That best-case scenario, everyone admits, would take more than a decade to be achieved. And, though fewer admit it, much of the new employment would likely involve technical workers developing automated production schemes that reduce rather than increase living-wage employment in the US and abroad.
Yet Obama has dismissed those who disagree with him as somehow wrongheaded and ignorant. “[What’s] interesting is typically they’re my friends coming from my party,” he said of the fast-track and TPP critics. “And they’re my fellow travelers on minimum wage and on job training and on clean energy and on every progressive issue, they’re right there with me. And then on this, they’re like whupping on me.”
Why does the president think this is so? “[On] this issue, on trade,” he says, “I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They’re just wrong.”
Obama’s criticisms of fellow Democrats, which became more and more intense as Tuesday’s Senate vote approached, disregarded not just the honest concerns of Democratic members of the House and Senate but the sincere objections of union members, environmentalists, civil-rights, and human-rights activists.
Ultimately, the president’s approach harmed his own credibility, as his comments created the impression that he was unaware of the long experience, and the deep insight, possessed by progressive critics of free-trade absolutism. The largest and steadiest public-education project on a major economic issue in modern history has played out over the past quarter-century in union halls and church basements and community centers across the country, as Americans have wrestled with the promises and realities of trade policy.
The people the president keeps saying are “wrong”—a group that includes Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders and most House Democrats—are not unthinking protectionists or crude isolationists. They are supporters of workers, the environment, and human rights in the United States and abroad. They have come to recognize that, while fair trade holds immense promise, free trade along the lines the United States has practiced it in recent decades has done immense damage.
The most ardent opponents of fast track and the TPP have firsthand experience with failed trade policies. They have seen what the North American Free Trade Agreement, the permanent normalization of trade with China and other trade arrangements have done to their communities.Their current position is rooted in an understanding that, as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential run) says, “We cannot afford to rush through another NAFTA that values corporate profits above families.”
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited many of those communities and stood side by side with many of the leading opponents of ill-conceived and poorly administered trade agreements. He decried “a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear…”
Now Obama suggests that those he sided with in 2008 are clueless in 2015.
That is not the case.
“American workers have seen the effects of unfair foreign trade on their jobs and manufacturing facilities—they don’t need their elected leaders making personal attacks on each other during an important policy debate,” says Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who remembers when Obama stood with the critics of failed free-trade policies.
“During the 2008 presidential primary, I watched President Obama argue in Cleveland that we should renegotiate NAFTA. Instead, we’ve seen more empty promises of jobs through exports while American workers are hit with a flood of imports and jobs shipped overseas,” says Brown. “It’s clear that the American public doesn’t support these trade deals and I am disappointed the president has resorted to name calling in an attempt to shift the debate.”
Brown’s opposition to fast track and the TPP is inspired by what he has seen happen to Ohio communities like his hometown of Mansfield, and in statistics that confirm the failure of trade deals to live up to promises made by Republican and Democratic presidents:
The Obama Administration predicted that the South Korea Free Trade Agreement would create 70,000 jobs and deliver up to $11 billion in exports. Instead, it only increased U.S. exports to Korea by $1 billion, while Korean imports have skyrocketed to more than $12 billion. The growing good trade deficit with Korea has eliminated over 75,000 jobs in the last three years.
The U.S. already has a trade deficit with Japan and 10 other countries included in the TPP. Since 1997, the deficit with these countries has increased by $151.4 billion.
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who has worked on trade policy since the 1980s, explains that the president’s suggestion that his critics do not understand the issue is “absolutely inaccurate.”
“We know exactly what we’re talking about,” says Slaughter, the daughter of a coal miner who has charted trade-related factory closings and job losses in her upstate New York district for decades. “My concern is that he does not understand what’s in it.”
Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, explains that “Over the last three decades, in large part because of bad trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA, Americans have worked harder than ever for less. In fact, hundreds of thousands of jobs—factory jobs, middle-class jobs—in states across the country were lost.”
Pocan’s a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, an auto-making town for more than a century that saw the closing of its Chrysler plant in 2010—despite the fact that the plant had been recently modernized and rated as one of the most efficient in the United States. “Anyone who does not see the connection between our economy and the failed trade agreements of the past,” says the congressman, “will remain on the wrong side of the future.”
It is not ignorance but experience that has caused so many progressive members of Congress to join activist groups that have developed deep expertise on trade policy to oppose the president’s embrace of the trade agenda of Senate majority leader McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.
Major unions have developed research teams to study trade and worked closely with experts on trade policy for decades now. They have also aligned with international trade unions to oppose the free-trade absolutism of the president and his Wall Street backers. Labor’s opposition to fast track and a TPP deal that the Communications Workers of America union refers to as “NAFTA on Steroids” is driven by fact—not fantasy.
The same goes for the criticism of current trade policies expressed by environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and for the outspoken opposition to fast track by progressive farm groups such as the National Farmers Union.
Opposition to fast track and the TPP is rooted in the fact of trade deficits and in the facts on the ground witnessed by those who voice the criticism. Yet critics of free trade do not see the current wrangling over fast track and the TPP merely from the perspective of the past. As Pocan says, “People recognize that this is a fight for the future.”
The president has every right to side with Wall Street in trade debates. But he does his cause no favors by suggesting that those who sincerely disagree with him are unaware of what is at stake. In fact, the reason they are opposing Obama’s fast-track request is because they know precisely what is at stake.
Read Next: John Nichols on Scotland’s anti-austerity message
If the Scottish National Party was a small anti-austerity party that had never before made a real dent in British politics and suddenly shot into contention—grabbing dozens of seats away from the traditional parties and elbowing its way into position as the third-largest party in new Parliament—the world would take notice.
Well, the Scottish National Party is a small—make that formerly small—anti-austerity party. And it just made a real dent, a huge dent, in politics with an epic electoral breakthrough. “The tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifted yesterday,” said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on Friday morning. The veteran British political commentator Andrew Marr declared as the election results came in that “Scotland has moved decisively to the left.”
That move offers an important lesson for American progressives about going big in politics—especially anti-austerity politics. It is not just possible to run against the failed conservative policies of seeking to balance budgets with cuts to public services, attacks on public employees and their unions, and crude policies of privatization that redistribute wealth upward. It is necessary.
“The vote yesterday was an overwhelming vote against continued austerity and that, the issue that we put at the top of the campaign, is the issue that we will seek to put at the top of the agenda in Westminster,” declared Sturgeon in interviews aired nationally Friday morning.
It did not used to be that what the leader of the historically small, historically marginalized Scottish National Party had to say was big news on the day after a nationwide election. But a lot has changed in recent years, and a lot more changed Thursday. Sturgeon, the First Minister in Scotland’s devolved parliament (the rough equivalent of a state legislature in the United States or a provincial assembly in Canada), put not just a party but an economic agenda on the table in the 2015.campaign. “I am not,” she declared. “going to support governments that plough ahead with austerity that damaged the poorest in society.”
That message resonated, with unprecedented force.
The big story out of Britain’s 2015 parliamentary election had two parts. Part one was, of course, that Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party retained power. That’s the news that most Americans will get. But part two was at least as dramatic. The SNP—running on a fervent anti-austerity platform that rejected Cameron’s policies and promised to work with any progressive party seeking to unwind them—won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British Parliament.
The divide between England and Scotland (as well as the divide between England and Wales) that was revealed by the results is stark. It points to ongoing tensions and the prospect that calls for Scottish independence—which the SNP backs and which won 45 percent of the vote in a dramatic referendum last year—will rise.
But there was a subplot to the tale of the SNP success story. The UK’s traditional party of the left, the Labour Party, ran an unsteady (sometimes bold, sometimes cautious) campaign that failed to displace Cameron and the Tories from enough English seats and led to a severe setback across Labour’s traditional stronghold of Scotland. With Labour and the national third party, the Liberal Democrats, slipping badly, the SNP grabbed dozens of seats it had never held before. It did this, at least in part, by creating an excitement factor that translated into turnout.
In England, the turnout Thursday was 65.8 percent, almost the same as the 65.5 percent rate in 2010.
In Scotland, the turnout was more than 71.1 percent, way up from the 63.8 percent in 2010. For some competitive seats in Scotland, turnout was over 80 percent. Turnout among the young and low-income voters was high, in no small part because, as The Guardian’s Ian Jack noted, “Here is the queer thing, the thrilling thing and the frightening thing. Among the food banks and the trampled front gardens of the big housing schemes, poor people here have begun to feel they have power.”
What changed? The 2014 Scottish independence referendum shifted a lot. It put fundamental issues of self-determination on the table, as well as the prospect of rejecting austerity with an exit strategy that, as the slogan suggested, would “End Tory Rule” forever. Independence did not win, but it reshaped thinking about political and economic possibilities.
Historically, the SNP was seen as a narrowly nationalist party that focused first and foremost of independence for Scotland. It’s still pro-independence. But, in recent years, it has clearly identified as an anti-austerity party that has rejected cuts imposed not just by the current Tory government but the preceding Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
“The entire focus of the Westminster debate is on the deficit. Now, the deficit is hugely important. But it is a symptom of economic difficulties, not just a cause of them,” argued Sturgeon in much-reported remarks in February. “It’s simply untrue to say that we are ‘all in this together’. The cuts have had a disproportionate impact on women, people with disabilities and people on low incomes. The most vulnerable are bearing the heaviest burden.”
There was no mystery about the point of the independence referendum in 2014. Supporters of the referendum, led by the SNP and activist groups such as Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign, sought not just a physical break but an economic break from Britain.
There was no mystery about the point of the Scottish National Party campaign of 2015. The SNP decried austerity and ripped not just the Tories but the whole political process for failing to establish a humane and functional economics.
There was far more clarity, and force, in the SNP campaign—so much so that, when Sturgeon appeared in a national debate with the leaders of the other parties, she sparked excitement far beyond Scotland. British papers announced that the Scottish first minister had “won” the debate. From across England came the ask: “Is there any way I can vote for the SNP here.” They couldn’t. The SNP was not an option on English ballots. (“Don’t tempt me,” said Sturgeon when asked about extending the party’s reach. But, in fact, she spoke favorably about the Green Party, which won well over 1 million votes and retained its single seat in parliament, and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party, which will have three seats in the new British Parliament. Throughout the campaign, Sturgeon proposed a grand alliance, including Labour and all the smaller parties of the left, to upend austerity once and for all.)
The Labour Party worked hard to be the alternative to the Tories, and it made some progress—increasing its share of the vote by 3.6 percent in England and picking up 15 new parliamentary seats there. But that was insufficient. “I’m bitterly disappointed that we’re looking at another Conservative government,” explained Sturgeon, even as she bluntly noted that ”Labour wasn’t strong enough to beat the conservatives in England.”
When Labour and the SNP went head-to-head in Scotland, Labour lost more than 40 seats. Why the wipeout? Despite the fact that Labour was the opposition party to Cameron and his government, it fully aligned with the Tories to oppose the 2014 Scottish referendum. Labour leaders failed to recognize that the referendum vote was not merely raising the issue of independence but the issue of austerity. While Labour was not going to back independence, its shoulder-to-shoulder campaigning with Cameron’s Conservatives blurred the lines of distinction.
Blurred lines are bad politics, especially when essential economic issues are being debated. They suggest what Sturgeon refers to as a “cozy consensus” around “slash-and-burn austerity.”
The message of the SNP breakthrough, not just for Scotland, and not just for Britain, is that people are sick of the “cozy consensus.” And they are ready to vote for radical alternatives. Americans progressives can, and should, learn from the emerging anti-austerity politics that says, unequivocally, that the cuts must end and a new economy must emerge.
Read Next: John Nichols on whether Bernie Sanders can break through the status quo
It would be a big deal politically, a very big deal, if Texas or Wyoming suddenly veered left and elected a super-progressive state legislature and governor. It would be a bigger deal if the progressives who swept to power did so with a promise to implement a social-democratic agenda of new taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund healthcare, improve education, maintain public services and protect the environment. It would be an even bigger deal if the new governing party was prepared to implement a $15-an-hour minimum wage and champion labor rights. And if the new leadership said it would stop promoting corporate-sponsored pipeline projects because of concerns for the environment—while promising to “take leadership on the issue of climate change”—that would be remarkable.
Well, all of this just happened in Alberta, the oil-rich province that for decades has been governed by conservatives who were so tied to the oil industry and so deferent to corporate power that they often made George W. Bush and Dick Cheney look populist by comparison.
Alberta’s New Democratic Party swept to a landslide victory in Tuesday’s voting and will, for the first time in history, form the new government for a province sometimes referred to as “the Texas of Canada.” But that does not begin to tell the story of what the NDP accomplished. Before the election, the party held four of the 87 seats in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. After the election, the NDP held 53 of the 87—a gain of 49 seats.
Local factors—corruption scandals associated with the outgoing conservative government, turbulence in the energy industry and growing concern about damage done to the environment by pipeline projects—all shaped a historic result. But nothing did more to steer the province leftward than frustration with what the NDP condemned as “deeper austerity measures and budget cuts.”
The same penchant for balancing budgets by attacking public employees and public services that has been seen in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin and Sam Brownback’s Kansas has been on display in Alberta. And as the election approached, the governing Progressive Conservative party proposed more cuts.
Ripping the conservatives for targeting education and healthcare, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley positioned herself the NDP as the alternative to austerity cuts. The Alberta NDP’s manifesto called for investments in public services paid for by hiking corporate tax rates, for a review of the royalties oil companies pay to the province with an eye toward assuring that the people get their fair share, and for a ban on corporate contributions to political parties. That willingness to challenge corporate hegemony even extended to criticizing particular pipeline projects.
Notley said during the campaign that she would no longer lobby—as previous premiers of Alberta have—for US approval of the controversial KeystoneXL pipeline. She also said she would withdraw provincial support for the equally controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project because “there’s genuine concerns by the indigenous communities” and because “I think from an environmental point of view, it’s a problem.”
Notley’s not going to shut down Alberta’s energy industries. But throughout the campaign the lawyer and activist made connections between economic and environmental issues and spoke of the need for the government to reorder priorities to embrace human needs—rather than corporate agendas. The balance on a broad range of issues, she suggested, should be tipped toward the interests of the working families of Alberta rather than multinational energy corporations. To that end, the Alberta NDP pledged to lead Canada in the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and absolutely rejected proposals to balance budgets with austerity schemes to cut public-sector wages and undermine union rights. The corporations, argued Notley, could pay a little more.
When opponents criticized the NDP for running an idealist campaign with a slate of candidates that included labor and environmental and human-rights activists who had limited electoral experience, the campaign produced T-shirts that played on the name of the metal band Mötley Crüe. The party slate, the shirts declared, was the “Nötley Crüe.” And the shirts were, of course, proudly union-made.
The NDP’s freewheeling campaign always came back to core themes, however. As Notley said, “We’re fighting for the things that really matter, accessible health care, education for our kids and ending corporate tax breaks.”
That’s very much in line with the national message of the NDP, a party with roots going back to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the remarkable democratic socialist movement that, under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, led the successful fight to develop Canada’s national health system.
“New Democrats seek a future that brings together the best of the insights and objectives of Canadians who, within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions, have worked through farmer, labor, co-operative, feminist, human rights and environmental movements, and with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, to build a more just, equal, and sustainable Canada within a global community dedicated to the same goals,” declares the party’s constitution, which adds, “New Democrats affirm a role for government in helping to create the conditions for sustainable prosperity. We believe in a rules-based economy, nationally and globally, in which governments have the power to address the limitations of the market in addressing the common good by having the power to act in the public interest for social and economic justice, and for the integrity of the environment.”
Since its founding in 1961, the NDP has at various points in history governed provinces across Canada, from British Columbia to Saskatchewan to Manitoba to Ontario to Nova Scotia—and, since 2011, the NDP has been the main opposition party in the Canadian Parliament.
But the NDP has never governed conservative Alberta, which the CBC refers to as “traditionally Canada’s most conservative province.”
“Friends,” declared Notley, “I believe, that change has finally come to Alberta. New people, new ideas and a fresh start for our great province.”
And new politics.
American media do not do a very good job of covering Canadian politics. And Americans don’t always know what is happening north of the border. But this is a development worth noting, not merely because, as Notley notes, “we might have made a little bit of history” but because there are lessons to be learned about how quickly and how massively voters can turn against austerity. If the region they call “the Texas of Canada” can change to confront failed economic and environmental policies, perhaps the Texas of America, and the Wyoming of America and a lot of other states can, as well.
Read Next: John Nichols on Mike Huckabee’s populism
Mike Huckabee is a predictably extreme conservative on a host of social issues. But on a number of economic issues, he is something of a populist.
That combination makes him a much more serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination than much of the media—and even some of his fellow candidates in the race he entered Tuesday—might imagine. This does not mean that the former governor of Arkansas and failed 2008 Republican presidential prospect will be the 2016 nominee of his party. In all likelihood, he’ll fail again. But he might take some other Republicans down with him.
The great balancing act of the Republican Party in recent decades has been to get socially conservative people who are not all that wealthy to abandon their economic self-interest and vote for candidates who openly advocate for trade policies that eliminate jobs, oppose efforts to address wage stagnation and have no real problem with an ever-expanding pattern of income inequality.
Working-class and middle-income Americans who passionately oppose abortion rights and marriage equality but who might want to keep their jobs and Social Security usually find themselves in a bind. As Republicans, they can choose from plenty of candidates who promise to prevent loving couples from getting married. But those same candidates are likely to put a lot of jobs and all of Social Security at risk.
There’s just not a lot of opportunity for working-class evangelicals to vote their values and to vote their wallets.
Except, perhaps, with Huckabee.
No, Huckabee is not some Republican Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Bernie Sanders. He doesn’t even qualify as a moderate on most economic issues. But within the Republican Party as it has been reconstructed by House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan and his minions—as a battering ram for austerity policies and the unapologetic redistribution of wealth upward—Huckabee is an outlier, in that he at least tries to distance himself from the overt politics of plutocracy.
Consider Huckabee’s response several weeks ago to the various Ryan-lite proposals to mess with Social Security and Medicare.
Huckabee said his answer to the schemes was “not just no, it’s you-know-what no.”
“I don’t know why Republicans want to insult Americans by pretending they don’t understand what their Social Security program and Medicare program is,” he said, ripping into proposals to raise the retirement age and otherwise undermine benefits.
While leading GOP contenders such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have indicated an interest in mangling so-called “entitlement programs” as part of a broader austerity agenda—and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is making specific Ryan-like proposals—Huckabee says, “That’s not a reform. That’s some kind of proposal that Republicans need to embrace because what we are really embracing at that point is we are embracing a government that lied to its people—that took money from its people under one pretense and then took it away at the time they started wanting to actually get what they have paid for all these years.”
Or consider Huckabee on trade policy.
Republican leaders in Congress want to “fast-track” President Obama’s sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, even thought critics decry it as “NAFTA on steroids.” Candidates such as Bush and Walker have histories of repeating Wall Street talking points when it comes to trade policy. But Huckabee says of the TPP: “If it’s not fair trade, it’s not free trade.” And he gripes that trade policies seem to be written in the interest of multinational corporations as opposed to working Americans, arguing that “We have a lot of globalists and frankly corporatists instead of having nationalists who put forward the best interests of the United States and working families.”
Huckabee even has an occasional kind word for organized labor. He’s no friend to public-sector unions, often engaging in the same wrongheaded rhetoric as other Republicans. But he admits that private-sector unions “have actually provided some decent check and balance to jobs and businesses.”
In 2008, when he sought the Republican nomination, Huckabee told a GOP forum: “The real fact is, unions are going to take a more prominent role in the future for one simple reason: A lot of American workers are finding that their wages continue to get strapped lower and lower while CEO salaries are higher and higher. And the reality is that when you have the average CEO salary 500 times the average worker, and you have the hedge fund manager making 2,200 times that of the average worker, you’re going to create a level of discontent that’s going to create a huge appetite for unions. So unions are the natural result of workers finally saying, ‘Look, I can’t go from a $70,000-a-year job to a $15,000-a-year job and feed by family of four.’ That’s when unions are going to come back in roaring form.”
That kind of talk won him endorsements from two major unions: the 160,000-member International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Huckabee actually sought the endorsements and declared on the campaign trail that: “I’m the only Republican who has gotten endorsements in this presidential race from major labor unions.”
That’s a far cry from the aggressive union-bashing of many of the Republican contenders, particularly Walker, who recently signed an anti-labor “right-to-work” law, regularly rips on union leaders and in February said the experience of wrangling with union families in Wisconsin had prepared him to tackle ISIS. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” declared the candidate who frequently tops GOP polls. “I can do the same across the globe.”
Walker’s clownish labor bashing has earned criticism even from conservatives, who have referred to the ISIS line as “a terrible response.” And it undoubtedly made socially conservative Republicans who are union members uncomfortable. But they have not had much in the way of an alternative, until now.
That’s what makes Huckabee’s decision to join the 2016 race bad news for presumed front-runners.
Serious social conservatives aren’t going to get excited by Bush. But Walker has made a big play for evangelical votes—especially in Iowa.
The trouble for Walker is that Huckabee, who won Iowa in 2008, has maintained close ties to many of the evangelicals Walker needs. That’s what makes Huckabee a threat to the Wisconsinite and to other contenders who are more in touch with hedge-fund managers than with hog farmers.
For Bush, divisions on his right flank are always good news. And the news gets even better if those divisions stall Walker’s progress.
But Bush should be careful what he hopes for. If Huckabee displaces pretenders such as Walker, he’ll be in the race for a good long time. That means that Bush will have to deal with a challenger who reminds Americans—well into 2016—that Bush is anything but a man of the people.
Mike Huckabee, talk-show host and best-selling author, isn’t much more of a man of the people.
Truthfully, he isn’t all that much of an economic populist. But he is enough of one to stand out from the “Wall Street can do no wrong” Republicans he is running against. And if the man from Arkansas offers working-class evangelicals in states such as Iowa the right combination of social conservatism and support for Social Security and fair trade, he could prove that even Republicans are sick of austerity.
That won’t make him the nominee. But it could prevent other candidates from being nominated. And it could leave the eventual nominee battered and bruised by the new populist politics of 2016.
Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders and the DNC Debate
Bernie Sanders will be debating Hillary Clinton as they compete for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Indeed, it looks like the two announced contenders—and prospective yet unannounced candidates such as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee—could debate six times.
The Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday that it will sanction six debates between candidates seeking the nomination. DNC Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the debates will begin this fall, as part of an effort to “give Democratic voters multiple opportunities to size up the candidates for the nomination side-by-side.” They will have plenty to debate, as there are big differences between the announced candidates on issues of war and peace, the Patriot Act, trade policy, and a whole lot more. And if Chafee, O’Malley, and Webb get in (along, potentially, with others), more distinctions on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to diplomacy will be highlighted.
There are a lot of debate specifics to be worked out—including dates and locations. But the DNC announcement is a welcome acknowledgement, coming just days after Sanders joined Clinton in the running, that the race for the party’s 2016 nomination will be competitive. The former secretary of state maintains a daunting lead in most polls, and her clear front-runner status had stirred speculation about whether she would debate. Tuesday’s announcement, in combination with recent statements from Wasserman Schultz and signals from the Clinton camp, have laid the speculation to rest.
Score a point for Democratic democracy—and points also to the party’s webmasters for highlighting the competition at the top of its site with pictures of the two announced candidates and a message that “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are officially in the presidential race.” When additional candidates enter the competition, it’s vital for the DNC to respect them all—understanding the primary campaigns can take unexpected turns and that (as Clinton well knows) front-runner status is not always permanent.
As for the debates, there is still a lot to be sorted out, including dates and locations.
The DNC plan is to schedule broadcast debates—with, the committee says, digital platforms and local media collaboration—in the early-primary and -caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. That leaves openings for two more major debates, according to the plan announced Tuesday.
Of course, there could be even more. When politics gets interesting, debates proliferate. And that’s a good thing.
Debates are essential to the political process. Voters need to see more from candidates than 30-second commercials. That is why The Nation, as part of its “45” project to open up the 2016 political process, has made advocacy for open debates—in the primary season and the fall—a central focus. More than a year ago, the magazine editorialized about how “We’ll keep an eye on the debate about debates in the primary season—and not just on (Republican National Committee chairman) Reince Priebus’s crude attempt to turn GOP debates into little more than joint press conferences. We’ll also keep an eye on the need for Democrats to hold primary debates—even if Clinton maintains what is currently the most commanding poll lead in history for an open Democratic nomination.”
In that spirit, here’s one big gripe about the Democratic plan.
According to the DNC’s statement, “While a six sanctioned debate schedule is consistent with the precedent set by the DNC during the 2004 and 2008 cycles, this year the DNC will further manage the process by implementing an exclusivity requirement. Any candidate or debate sponsor wishing to participate in DNC debates, must agree to participate exclusively in the DNC-sanctioned process. Any violation would result in forfeiture of the ability to participate in the remainder of the debate process.”
Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats should leave that sort of “control freakery” to Priebus and the Republicans. If several candidates decide to debate, particularly in a state that might not otherwise host a session, that’s to the good. If civil-rights or labor groups want to schedule forums and invite candidates, the contenders should not be able to use the excuse that they do not want to violate party rules.
The American political process features too few debates. And the ones that do take place are too controlled. The Democratic National Committee ought not be in the business of restricting options for additional debates. It should be encouraging more of them.
Read Next: John Nichols on the differences between Sanders and Clinton
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is running for president. And despite the fact that he is the longest-serving independent in Congress, he says that “after a year of travel, discussion and dialogue, I have decided to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.”
Sanders, who formally announced his candidacy in a series of statements this week, is not actually running against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who announced her candidacy earlier in April. Rather, both Sanders and Clinton are seeking the nomination of the party. They may be joined by others: former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island senator (and governor) Lincoln Chaffee. Draft initiatives are still trying to entice Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden into the competition.
By most measures, Clinton is a first among equals. She has dramatically higher name-recognition than Sanders or any of the other prospects. She is way ahead in the polls. And most commentators are convinced that she is not merely a candidate for the nomination but the Democratic nominee in waiting.
Perhaps they are right, although Sanders counsels, “People should not underestimate me. I’ve run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country.”
Even if Clinton is “inevitable,” however, she needs to debate Sanders and the other contenders. Clinton debated her opponent in her 2000 Senate race; she participated in a number of debates during her 2008 presidential run; and her campaign has indicated that she is open to debating this year.
That’s good, not just because there is much to debate but because debates are good for all candidates—including front-runners. There is plenty of history to remind us that front-runners who win their nominations in honest competition tend to be better prepared for the fall fight than those who avoid it.
No matter who else gets into the race, a Clinton-Sanders debate would be a lively, issue-focused exchange between two candidates who know and respect each other but are very different. Not long after Sanders traveled to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Clinton was a youthful campaigner for Barry Goldwater—the first step on an political evolution that would four years later see her backing Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent primary challenge to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. While Clinton’s first elective post was a US Senate seat, Sanders has been a mayor, a statewide candidate, a congressman, and a senator. The New York Times reports that Clinton’s “finance team and the outside groups supporting her candidacy have started collecting checks in what is expected to be a $2.5 billion effort, dwarfing the vast majority of her would-be rivals in both parties.” Sanders rips “plutocrats” and “the billionaire class” that funds campaigns.
But the issues are the heart of the matter. Clinton and Sanders are not always at direct odds with one another, and Clinton has since announcing her candidacy sent a number of progressive populist signals. But there are real distinctions between these two candidates.
Here are six degrees of separation between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton:
1. Fast Track and TPP
Clinton has not taken a stand on granting President Obama so-called “fast track” authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nor has she taken a clear stand with regard to the TPP itself. As secretary of state, however, she referred to the TPP as the “gold standard in trade agreements.” Now, her campaign says, she is “watching closely” as the TPP fight evolves.
Sander is a leading opponent of NAFTA-style “free trade” deals. He says, “All Americans, regardless of political ideology, should be opposed to the ‘fast track’ process which would deny Congress the right to amend the treaty and represent their constituents’ interests.” He has rallied workers and environmentalists against the deal, saying, “Let’s be clear: the TPP is much more than a “free trade” agreement. It is part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs; undercutting worker rights; dismantling labor, environmental, health, food safety and financial laws; and allowing corporations to challenge our laws in international tribunals rather than our own court system.”
2. “Medicare for All”
No one is more identified with healthcare reform than Hillary Clinton. Yet, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, she rejected proposals that the United States follow the lead of other developed countries and create what is often referred to as a “Medicare for All” system. She knows healthcare issues well but continues to be an incremental reformer. Clinton says, “I never seriously considered a single payer system.”
Sanders has for many years sponsored an American Health Security Act, which would “guarantee healthcare as a human right and provide every U.S. citizen and permanent resident with healthcare coverage and services through a state-administered, single-payer program.”
3. Amending the Constitution to Get Corporate Money Out of Politics
Clinton earned a lot of notice, and justifiably so, when she said in Iowa, “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment.”
Sanders is already there. He says it will take a constitutional amendment, and he has sponsored one that declares: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power of Congress and the States to protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections, and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.”
4. Patriot Act
As the US senator from New York, Hillary Clinton voted for the Patriot Act in 2001. Later, to her credit, Clinton backed calls for an investigation of whether President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 that approved of domestic spying without oversight from the courts. “The balance between the urgent goal of combating terrorism and the safeguarding of our most fundamental constitutional freedoms is not always an easy one to draw,” she said. “However, they are not incompatible, and unbridled and unchecked executive power is not the answer.” Still later, however, she voted for reauthorization of the act.
Along with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, Sanders (then a member of the House) voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. He also opposed its reauthorization in 2006 and 2011. “As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure,” says Sanders. “Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true.”
5. Iraq War
As the US Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush to prepare for military action against Iraq.
Sanders voted against the authorization of the use of military force. (Notably, another Democratic prospect, Chafee, voted “no” as a liberal Republican senator from Rhode Island.)
6. Democratic Socialism
No matter what her right-wing critics might claim, Hillary Clinton is not a socialist. (Her thoughtful college thesis on organizer Saul Alinsky mentioned five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs, but only in the company of Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King as an American who “embraced the most radical of political faiths—democracy.”)
Sanders is, arguably, America’s best-known democratic socialist. Like authors Gloria Steinen and Barbara Ehrenreich, scholar and voting-rights champion Frances Fox Piven, United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, and many others, Sanders identifies with what Ehrenreich refers to as “the tradition carried on by Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and thousands more.” Sanders says, “[When] I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m saying is that I do not want to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling the economic and political life of the country. That I do believe that in a democratic, civilized society, all people are entitled to health care as a right, all people are entitled to quality education as a right, all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income, and that we need a government which represents ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s announcement
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation more than a year ago that he was “prepared to run for president of the United States.” But he said he had to determine whether grassroots activists were ready to back an insurgent progressive-populist candidacy. And he had to sort out the question of how to mount a campaign that he said would require a “political revolution” to upset politics as usual.
Sanders has gotten the answers he was looking for, and aides and allies say that he is preparing to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination later this week. That’s a big leap for the senator, who has caucused with congressional Democrats but has always been elected as an independent.
Sanders, who Vermont Public Radio says will launch his challenge to the supposed inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic candidacy on Thursday, made no secret of the fact that he was wrestling with the issue of how to run. The only democratic socialist in the Senate has been a fierce critic of both major parties, and he listened closely over the past year to counsel from those who wanted him to mount an independent or third-party bid and to those who said the only practical option was to run inside the Democratic Party.
The senator always said that he would not be a spoiler—pulling votes from a Democratic nominee in a November race that might tip to a right-wing Republican. And the intensive “Run Bernie Run—as a Democrat” campaign mounted by the group Progressive Democrats of America made the case that Sanders could run his kind of campaign in the Democratic caucuses and primaries.
That’s not a guarantee that it will work, however. Polls still show Clinton far ahead of any and every potential challenger for the nomination. And there is still a determined effort to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race.
But Sanders can point to poll numbers that have improved significantly since he began visiting the first-caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire. A PPP survey released this week has him at 14 percent in Iowa, his best number yet in a state where he has consistently drawn large crowds. In New Hampshire, he’s at 12 percent—behind Clinton and Warren but ahead of Vice President Joe Biden and potential contenders such as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.
Sanders wasn’t just looking for numbers as he traveled the country over the past year, however. He was looking for enthusiasm—not just for his candidacy but for his idea that American needs that “political revolution.”
“A campaign has got to be much more than just getting votes and getting elected. It has got to be helping to educate people, organize people,” he explained. “If we can do that, we can change the dynamic of politics for years and years to come. If 80 to 90 percent of the people in this country vote, if they know what the issues are (and make demands based on that knowledge), Washington and Congress will look very, very different from the Congress currently dominated by big money and dealing only with the issues that big money wants them to deal with.”
Sanders at an event in Chicago, April 2 (Photo: John Nichols)
For Sanders, a politically savvy and serious political figure, that was not just rhetoric. More aware than any current or potential presidential contender of the extent to which corporate money and billionaire influence has warped American politics, he wanted to see whether there were still enough citizens who were ready to buck the bucks and pour their hearts and souls into an economic populist candidacy.
So Sanders went to Iowa, and New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and California. He logged tens of thousands of miles traveling to the union halls and church basements and school auditoriums of America.
When Sanders was in Chicago earlier this month to campaign with insurgent mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and newly elected city council candidate Susan Sadlowski Garza, he was mobbed by a multiracial crowd that embraced his message that “What we need are millions of working people to begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ The billionaire class can’t have it all, and we need government to start representing ordinary America.”
Sanders delivered that speech in an old United Steelworkers union hall on the south side of America’s third-largest city.
But Sanders got a similarly boisterous response in South Carolina last week, when he appeared at a convention center in Columbia and told the Southern Democrats, “They have the money, but we’ve got the people…. America does not belong to the billionaire class, it belongs to all of us.”
For Sanders, however, the most inspiring response has come in recent weeks from opponents of President Obama’s request for Trade Promotion Authority to “fast track” the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. A staunch critic of free-trade policies that invite multinational corporations to embark upon a “race to the bottom” when it comes to wages, environmental protection and human rights, Sanders has rallied workers in Washington and across the country to block the deal.
Though he tends to eschew talking about potential rivals, the trade fight has given Sanders an opportunity to draw a clear line of distinction between himself and Clinton.
Sanders is an absolute critic of fast track and the TPP, with a strong record of opposing the corporate agenda on trade policy. Clinton, on the other hand, has what is charitably referred to as a "mixed" record. So far, she has not taken a stand on fast track or the TPP.
That, says Sanders, is unacceptable.
“For decades, corporate America has been pushing disastrous trade agreements on the American people. The result: millions of jobs lost through outsourcing, lower wages and the collapse of our middle class,” the independent senator said last week. “My strong hope is that Secretary Clinton and all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, will make it clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be rejected and that we must develop trade policies that benefit working families, not just Wall Street and multi-national corporations.”
For Bernie Sanders, trade is a “which side are you on?” issue—as are a host of economic justice fights for labor rights, living wages and the expansion of Social Security.
As a presidential candidate, he can force the debate that the Democratic Party, and America, needs to have—on fast track, the TPP, and a long list of issues that the “billionaire class” would have preferred to keep off the table.
What pass for jokes at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner are, for the most part, failed attempts at comedy and commentary. Rarely do the assembled politicians and pundits employ humor for anything more than the appalling project of attempting to appear self-deprecating (as opposed to pompous) and good natured (as opposed to fiercely calculating).
But once in a great while a great moment occurs.
President Obama had one Saturday night, when he ruminated momentarily on the crude excesses of a certain former vice president.
“A few weeks ago Dick Cheney said he thinks I’m the worst president of his lifetime, which is interesting, because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president of my lifetime,” mused Obama.
Cheney, whose own presidential ambitions were dashed in the mid-1990s by disinterest and distrust on the part of his fellow Republicans, had to engineer his selection as George W. Bush’s vice president in order to secure the power he craved. But, once he had wedded his ambitions to the hapless “legacy” president, the second-in-command did indeed pull so many strings that he was understood by savvy Washingtonians as a virtual commander in chief.
Cheney hated handing off that power; as he initially had to do during Bush’s second term, when the president wised up the imbalance within his administration. It was even worse when the formal dethronement came in January of 2009, after Obama was swept into the White House and Joe Biden occupied Number One Observatory Circle.
While there was no question that the American people were tired of Bush, they were absolutely finished with Cheney—whose approval rating dropped to just 13 percent at the end of a tenure characterized by endless wars, neglected disasters, the collapse of the global economy and the bailout of Cheney’s banking buddies.
Typically, Cheney blamed everyone but himself.
In particular, Cheney blamed Obama for not immediately cleaning up the mess he and Bush had made of just about everything.
The former vice president has since 2008 (when, notably, his fellow partisans failed to invite him to that year’s Republican National Convention) made it his immediate and ceaseless mission to gripe about the succeeding administration. So it came as no great surprise when he told Playboy, “I look at Barack Obama and I see the worst president in my lifetime, without question—and that’s saying something.”
What did come as something of a surprise—and a delightful one at that—was Obama’s decision to parry the former vice president’s thrust with a devastating one-liner that had the advantage of being true.
Read Next: John Nichols on David Koch’s supporting Scott Walker