Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

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

Enshrine the Right to Vote in the Constitution

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was not enough.

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

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

But it was not enough.

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

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

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

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

But that was not enough.

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

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

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

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

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

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

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

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

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

Take Action: Make Voting Easier in Your State

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

Hillary Clinton Is Still Too Cautious on Campaign Finance Reform

Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

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

She is right to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Preserve the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press

* Renew a historic ban on corporate campaign donations to candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FDR in 1932 (AP Photo)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 (AP Photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“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

Hillary Clinton’s Soft Populism Is Not Enough

(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

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.

Former Republican Says No One Who Voted for the Iraq War Should Be President—Including Hillary Clinton

Lincoln Chafee (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Lincoln Chafee (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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.

How big?

“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.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

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

Stanley Kutler Battled the ‘Luxuriant Privilege’ of Imperial Presidents

The original Nixon White House tape and original tape recorder

The original Nixon White House tape and original tape recorder (AP Photo/National Archives)

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.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

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’s Chuy Garcia Lost an Election, but Won a Movement

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (AP Photo/ M. Spencer Green)

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.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

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

Rand Paul Loves Big Government

Rand Paul

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) formally announces his candidacy for president during an event in Louisville, Kentucky, April 7, 2015. (Reuters/John Sommers II)

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.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

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

Scott Walker Controls Wisconsin’s Executive and Legislative Branches. Now His Minions Are Gunning For the Judicial.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Wisconsin GovernorScott Walker (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plays politics to win. As a political careerist who has run two dozen primary and general election campaigns since 1990, he leaves nothing to chance. And the partisans who have allied with him have embraced the view that the best way to prevail in politics is to “have it all”—control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

This week, Walker’s allies are focused on securing control of the judicial branch of state government in Wisconsin. The Republican Party of Wisconsin and groups that have consistently backed Walker’s agenda are leading the charge to oust a state Supreme Court justice who has championed judicial independence and to change the way in which the high court is organized—with an eye toward ousting another independent jurist from the position of chief justice.

The Wisconsin fights, which will play out in two statewide votes Tuesday, have received little national attention. Yet they are instructive for those who seek to understand the relentless pursuit of power by Walker and his political allies—and the approach that the all-but-announced Republican presidential contender and his associates would bring to Washington if they realize their national ambitions.

Since his election in 2010, Walker and his legislative cronies have grabbed every opening to secure and advance their authority. They have employed ambitious gerrymandering schemes, reorganized the election calendar, rewritten voting rules and invited the wealthiest men in America to flood the state with special-interest money. They have disregarded rules and regulations designed to maintain transparency and fairness. They have played what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe as “winner-take-all politics.”

Since the wave election of 2014, Walker and his Republican allies have enjoyed absolute control of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. They have used that control to further an anti-labor agenda—begun in 2011 with assaults on public-sector unions—by enacting so-called “right to work” legislation. And they plan to do a lot more. In addition to proposals to cut funding for the University of Wisconsin and expand private K-12 voucher schools using money that would otherwise be earmarked for public education, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  reports that Walker has plans for “ending state funding for highway beautification, and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television; phasing out a long-standing racial integration program for students; and leaving most prison watchtowers vacant at night.”

Yet, Walker and his partisans are not satisfied.

The ability to roll over partisan opposition in the legislative branch of government is not enough. Walker and his allies have faced a number of legal challenges to their power grabs. So the governor’s allies have made gaining and maintaining control of the state’s highest court a high priority. After several of what the Brennan Center for Justice has identified as among the most expensive and negative state judicial races in recent American history, Walker’s Republican and corporate allies have secured a majority on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan court.

“Judicial elections are supposed to be non-partisan, but partisan politics and large political donations from outside the state have played a key role in Wisconsin Supreme Court races in recent years,” observed a report published last week by the Wisconsin Gazette. “The Koch brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have spent an estimated $8.3 million to elect right-wing justices in Wisconsin, giving conservatives and supporters of Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda a majority on the bench.”

But there are still three justices who have refused to bow to pro-Walker partisanship, and one of them is the powerful chief justice.

On Tuesday, Walker’s allies hope to oust one of the three remaining justices who maintain a commitment to judicial independence. And they are seeking to amend the state constitution to alter the method for organizing the high court’s leadership—in what is broadly understood as a move to oust the chief justice. Both initiatives come as the court prepares to hear three cases involving a John Doe investigation into the campaigns of Walker and his political allies.

The sitting justice who faces a direct challenge Tuesday is Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who has served on the high court for two decades, earning national recognition for her legal scholarship and work ethic. Justice Bradley is running a traditional reelection campaign that emphasizes the importance of judicial independence, respect for the rule of law and a nonpartisan judiciary.

Bradley has earned backing from Democrats, independents and old-school Republicans, from organized labor and responsible business leaders. In endorsing her, the LaCrosse Tribune noted Bradley’s “broad bipartisan support,” while the Wausau Daily Herald argued that “Bradley has shown an ability to be impartial; Daley has seemingly intentionally campaigned on the promise not to be.”

This distinction has led to the targeting of Justice Bradley by the relentless partisans associated with Walker and his legislative allies.

Justice Bradley has also been targeted by conservatives on the court. Justice David Prosser, against whom the Judicial Commission has filed ethics charges stemming from an incident in which Prosser placed his hands around Justice Bradley’s neck, has donated $500 to the campaign of Bradley’s challenger, Rock County Judge James Daley. Prosser, a former Republican legislative leader, worked closely with Walker when both served in the state Assembly.

Republican efforts on behalf of Daley have been widely reported.

“Daley accepted a $7,000 in-kind contribution from the Wisconsin Republican Party and is speaking at GOP events around the state, ” according to the Associated Press. That should come as no surprise, as Daley’s campaign ads position him as an ally of the governor and legislative Republicans—going so far as to hail the governor’s anti-labor agenda and the enactment of a restrictive voter-ID law. Wisconsin governors do not usually make endorsements in judicial races, and Walker has avoided formally stating his preferences, but there is no missing the message of Daley’s campaign ads, which accuse Justice Bradley for trying “to undermine Gov. Walker’s reforms.” The ads are unprecedented in their partisanship, leaving little doubt that Daley would align himself with a particular faction inside the executive and legislative branches and, by extension, with the political paymasters that sustain this faction.

The second vote of consequence for the judiciary involves an assault on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Re-elected in 2009 with almost 60 percent of the vote, Abrahamson is popular with the people of Wisconsin, respected by lawyers and judges, and highly regarded in her role as the administrative head of the state courts system. She is so widely respected nationally that, during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, Justice Abrahamson’s name turned up on lists of potential US Supreme Court nominees.

Fiercely independent, she has a reputation for spurning pressure from politicians of both parties and for refusing to bend to special interests. So politicians and special-interest groups associated with Walker are trying to oust Justice Abrahamson from her role as chief justice by amending the state constitution to end the 126-year-old practice of having the senior justice (who has been elected the most times by the voters) serve as chief. The amendment, which was proposed and advanced by Walker allies in the legislature, would establish a new system for selecting the chief justice that allow justices who have supported Walker’s agenda to replace Justice Abrahamson with one of their own.

“This is clearly targeted at the current chief justice because certain groups don’t want her as chief justice,” argues former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who was appointed to the court by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.

“For more than 100 years, that post has gone to the most senior member on the court, which is a wise and prudent procedure, which cuts done on infighting and jockeying and politicization,” explains Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild. “But now, because anti-democratic forces have a vendetta against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, they’ve put a referendum (on the ballot) to change that process so that a majority of the justices decide who is chief justice.”

Walker’s allies are all-in for this one.

“Outside groups have made late expenditures in two judicial contests on Wisconsin’s April 7 ballot,” report the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake, based on an analysis of Federal Communications Commission records conducted by the groups. “Though traditional big spenders are supporting groups on either side of the ballot measure, the bulk of the spending thus far is a single $600,000 contribution from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to a group in favor of [the amendment].”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a corporate group that does not reveal its donors, has long championed Walker and his legislative agenda. Shortly before he signed Wisconsin’s “right to work” law—“a top policy reform on the WMC public policy agenda”—Walker appeared at the organization’s annual “Business Day in Madison” event, which was sponsored by Walmart and Koch brothers–owned Georgia-Pacific.

Noting the heavy spending by WMC in support of the proposed amendment, Justice and Stake executive director Bert Brandenburg said, “The brawl over Wisconsin’s courts has moved to a new arena. But many Wisconsin residents still don’t realize that Question 1 is a political effort to tilt the court to one side, not a good-government measure.”

The one side is that of Scott Walker, whose allies are working hard to assure that the governor will have one-size-fits-all control of state government.

 

Read Next: John Nichols on Chuy Garcia’s progressive vision

Chicago’s Chuy Garcia Has a Vision: Progressive Mayors Fighting for Public Education

Chicago Public School teachers' protest

(Reuters/John Gress)

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery,” wrote Horace Mann in 1848, when the great proponent of public education outlined a premise that remains at the heart of every progressive vision for this country.

Unfortunately, 167 years after Mann made his case, many politicians who position as “progressive” are insufficiently committed to the cause of public education. Some of the crudest education cuts and “reforms” have been implemented by Democrats who often go as far—even further—than conservative Republicans in embracing the wrong thinking of those who would undermine public education with “charter” experiments, voucher schemes and privatization plans.

It is too simplistic to assume that the debate over public education plays out only between Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. In fact, there are important debates over education that need to be had within the Democratic Party. Until Democrats are solidly supportive of public education, it is difficult to see how they will effectively counter Republicans like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, who have aligned themselves with the billionaire proponents of an “education reform” movement that is all about deforming and diminishing the promise of the great equalizer.

This debate has already erupted in a number of cities and states. In 2014, for instance, much of the support for law professor Zephyr Teachout’s exceptionally strong Democratic primary challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came from teachers and their allies in the burgeoning movement to defend public education.

Now, an ever clearer test is playing out in Chicago.

The lines of division could not be starker in next Tuesday’s Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff contest. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an advocate of high-stakes testing and the charter-school “reforms” favored by conservative Republicans and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, faces an energetic challenge from Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, an outspoken champion of teachers and neighborhood schools who has aligned with progressive unions and grassroots activist groups.

With all the advantages of incumbency, a massive fund-raising advantage and political connections that extend to the White House, Emanuel remains the front-runner in the Chicago contest. But the fact that there is a race at all—the first runoff election since the current system for electing Chicago mayors was created—owes everything to the evolving debate over education policy.

A case can be made that Emanuel would not have faced serious competition had he not ordered the closing of dozens of neighborhood schools, as part of an ongoing fight with public-education advocates and the Chicago Teachers Union. The mayor earns praise from national groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, which bluntly declares, “We believe in empowering mayors to lead urban school districts…”

While there are plenty of Democratic mayors who have embraced that approach, Garcia says Chicago needs to go in a different direction. He argues for an elected school board—which Chicago currently lacks—as part of an expanded commitment to public schools.

“My program involves giving the school system back to the people through an elected school board; reducing to the barest legal minimum the plethora of high-stakes, standardized tests by which we falsely judge schools, students, and teachers; placing a moratorium on further charter schools; expanding public education to include pre-kindergarten and even earlier; and reducing class size, which is one of the largest in the state,” explains Garcia, who declares that “it is necessary to change course dramatically from the so-called ‘reforms’ offered by Mayor Emanuel.”

That stance, among others, has won Garcia the enthusiastic support of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has wrangled with Emanuel so frequently that CTU President Karen Lewis briefly considered challenging the mayor. Lewis was sidelined by illness last fall, but she is now Garcia’s most enthusiastic backer, appearing at the challenger’s side and declaring that “if he is elected as our mayor, I know he will work for all of our citizens, not just the corporate elites and special interests who seek to privatize our public assets.”

On Saturday, Lewis and teachers and community leaders from across the city will participate in “march to the polls” to promote early voting for Garcia. They’ll be joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congressman Danny Davis and Dr. Cornel West, as well as Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka.

Recently elected in Newark, Baraka has taken the lead in arguing for a new vision of urban education that fights for and funds public schools—rather than beating up on them. “There are many parallels between Chuy’s campaign and my own,” says Mayor Baraka. “I see the same type of grassroots, people-powered campaign in Chicago right now as I ran in Newark last year. Chuy Garcia will return control of public schools to the communities they serve. Chicago, Newark, and so many cities around this country face a common struggle against corporate interests that want to undermine public education and silence dissenting voices in the community.”

Baraka’s point is well taken. Too many Democrats are either wrong on education issues, or so vague in their stances that it is tough to determine whether they are right or wrong. In contrast, the new mayor of Newark has been unapologetic and energetic in arguing for public schools.

Garcia has been equally unapologetic and energetic—and specific. With a vision of “progressive mayors across the country” working with teachers and parents to strengthen neighborhood schools and services, the Chicago challenger sees his run as part of a broader effort to reframe the debate over public education in America.

That new frame stops looking for ways to blame teachers and starts recognizing the need to address the pressures that make it difficult for even the best teachers to do their jobs.

Garcia decries the emphasis on high-stakes testing in public schools. “When it comes to standardized, high-stakes testing, our kids are over-tested and under-educated,” says the candidate, who argues that “Making everything dependent on test scores in two subjects simply builds in larger failures. Ultimately it causes teachers, schools and entire systems to narrow educational goals and teach to the tests—or cheat, which we’ve seen recently around the country and in Chicago in past years.”

A veteran city, county and state official whose progressive political roots go back to the days when former mayor Harold Washington was battling the Daley machine, Garcia is equally blunt about the flaws and failures of charter-school experiments. Charters “long ago ceased offering anything new that public schools could utilize, particularly since teachers unions in today’s world have reformed significantly, focusing more on education than protecting the jobs of teachers,” says Garcia, who says that “charters drain increasing amounts of public money while paying staff lower wages.”

But Garcia’s core advocacy goes back to the values championed by the pioneering advocates for public education, who argued it was an underpinning of democracy. It is this faith in democracy that animates Garcia’s candidacy. He believes in empowering students, teachers, parents and communities by resting power with an elected school board.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“One of my first acts as mayor will be to go to Springfield and ask the legislature to revoke the mayoral control legislation and let Chicago take its place with the rest of Illinois by having an elected board,” says Garcia. “We are the only school district in the state with an appointed, not an elected, school board, thanks to state legislation passed in 1995—which I voted against as state legislator. This is the board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders. Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?”

To a greater extent than a lot of Democrats, including Rahm Emanuel, “Chuy” Garcia gets that the fight for public education is about democracy—and about the rights that are essential to democracy.

“School systems are perhaps the main governmental bodies touching the lives of a majority of our citizens. That’s why I believe an elected school board is a constitutional right,” argues Garcia, in one of the core statements of his campaign. If the state legislature fails to revoke mayoral control of the Chicago school system, he promises, “I will file a federal voting-rights lawsuit based on the Constitution and civil rights laws.”

A mayor waging that fight would earn national attention and, perhaps, usher in a whole new debate about public education. That’s a debate that Democrats need to have if there is to be hope that the great equalizer of the conditions of men and women might finally be the balance wheel of our social machinery.

 

Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Chuy Garcia

Syndicate content