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Given the choice between Republicans who are explicitly committed to doing away with collective bargaining rights and Democrats, public-sector labor unions tend to back Democrats at election time.
But that does not mean that unions are always satisfied with Democratic Party policies—or with Democratic policymakers.
This is especially true with regard to education debates. There are certainly Democrats who have been strong advocates for public schools. But there are also Democratic mayors, governors, members of Congress and cabinet members such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who have embraced and advanced “reforms” that supporters of public schools identify as destructive.
Duncan’s policies were so appealing to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—who explicitly praised the “good things” the education secretary was doing—that education writer Dave Murray wrote a 2012 article headlined, “Could a Romney Administration include Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary?”
Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as a leading champion of public education, refers to Duncan as “one of the worst Secretaries of Education”— arguing that “Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality.
Teachers are pushing back against Duncan and those policies.
The NEA Representative Assembly joins other educators and parents in calling for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.
Duncan is not about to resign. Instead, he dismisses the resolution with a typically glib DC-insider dig about how he is “trying to stay out of local union politics.”
But the NEA statement is not a “local” resolution.
This is a call for the resignation of a Democratic secretary of education from the nation’s largest professional employee organization—a union with 3 million members working from the pre-school to university graduate program levels of public education in 14,000 communities across the United States.
Past resolutions urging Duncan’s resignation failed to gain traction with NEA representative assemblies. But this year, the delegates determined that it was time for the education secretary to go.
Even if Duncan does not seem to take the call seriously, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress should.
For a number of years now, teachers, parents and students have expressed mounting frustration—and appropriate anger—with the focus of Duncan and other education policymakers on standardized testing that they say makes evaluation a bigger priority than actual education.
“For us, one thing is clear: before anything is going to get better: It’s the Testing, Stupid,” the incoming president of the NEA, Utah teacher Lily Eskelsen García, told delegates to the representative assembly. “Better yet, it’s the stupid testing.”
In her speech, Eskelsen García decried what she referred to as a “phony” accountability system that she said hurts students and demeans the teaching profession.
Members of the California Teachers Association, who submitted the resolution urging Duncan to quit, have been especially blunt in their calls for Duncan to exit the cabinet.
Upset both with the education secretary’s emphasis on standardized testing and with Duncan’s response to a recent court ruling that eliminated workplaces protections for teachers, the CTA says:
Authentic education change only comes when all stakeholders— teachers, parents, administrators and the community—work together to best meet the needs of the students in their school or college. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are part of the solution. And it’s time we have a Secretary of Education who understands and believes that.
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There are many ways to express patriotism. Yet there remains a common sense that the best expressions extend beyond ideology and partisanship to embrace the noblest ideals and deepest truths—of the American experiment.
In this time of deep division and money-driven hyper-partisanship, can that higher common ground still be reached?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has been the steadiest antiwar voice in the US House, and Congressman Scott Rigell, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve before representing Virginia as a very conservative Republican, have found it. They may disagree on many, perhaps most, issues. But Lee and Rigell are in absolute agreement that President Obama and Congress should resist “calls for a ‘quick’ and ‘easy’ military intervention in Iraq.”
Lee and Rigell recognize that while the rise of sectarian violence in Iraq is a serious concern, it cannot become an excuse for the casual redeployment of US troops to the country where so many Americans and so many Iraqis have already perished.
“We do not believe intervention could be either quick or easy. And, we doubt it would be effective in meeting either humanitarian or strategic goals, and that it could very well be counter-productive,” write Lee and Rigell in a joint letter to President Obama. “This is a moment for urgent consultations and engagement with all parties in the region who could bring about a cease fire and launch a dialogue that could lead to a reconciliation of the conflict.”
The letter, which eighty House Democrats and Republicans have signed, urges the president to be restrained in his own response and to accept respect the further restraint of the system of checks and balances outlined in the Constitution.
“As you consider options for U.S. intervention, we write to urge respect for the constitutional requirements for using force abroad,” it reads. “The Constitution vests in Congress the power and responsibility to authorize offensive military action abroad. The use of military force in Iraq is something the Congress should fully debate and authorize. Members of Congress must consider all the facts and alternatives before we can determine whether military action would contribute to ending this most recent violence, create a climate for political stability, and protect civilians from greater harm.”
Deep caution with regard to military intervention has a deep history in the United States of Thomas Jefferson, who warned that America should “have nothing to do with conquest,” and James Madison, who declared, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
On July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams used the anniversary to describe the thinking of the nation with regards to its place in the world—and the concerns that underpinned that thinking.
Adams’s statement remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire.
Above all, Adams reminded Americans that while they have a responsibility to speak up for global democracy clearly and without apology, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoil of other lands. Echoing the warnings of George Washington, the great diplomat warned that such entanglements would ultimately undermine liberty in the United States—as they would require of America economic and political compromises that were inconsistent with domestic democracy.
After reading aloud the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, Adams said of America:
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. [But] she well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
“The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit…”
The genius of the American experiment, said Adams, was found in the revolutionary spirit of 1776, which rejected the corruptions of empire—the worst of which stem from the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other countries.
“Her glory is not dominion, but liberty,” Adams said of the United States. “Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
Adams concluded his address by urging Americans to renew their acquaintance with the revolutionaries against colonial meddling and empire who founded the American experiment, to celebrate their example and to: “Go thou and do likewise!”
Barbara Lee and Scott Rigell are doing likewise, and the House members who have signed their vital letter are wise to recognize the danger that arise when the United States involves herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
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The Republican Party was, for a vital century, the major American political party that most frequently aligned with the cause of civil rights. The invariably realistic Frederick Douglass explained, “I knew that however bad the Republican Party was, the Democratic party was much worse. The elements of which the Republican Party was composed gave better ground for the ultimate hope of the success of the colored man’s cause than those of the Democratic Party.”
Well into the twentieth century, many leading Republicans took seriously their party’s history and the responsibility that went with it. They worked to earn the votes of African-Americans and all supporters of equal justice under law, declaring in the party’s 1960 platform that
[t]his nation was created to give expression, validity and purpose to our spiritual heritage—the supreme worth of the individual. In such a nation—a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—racial discrimination has no place. It can hardly be reconciled with a Constitution that guarantees equal protection under law to all persons. In a deeper sense, too, it is immoral and unjust. As to those matters within reach of political action and leadership, we pledge ourselves unreservedly to its eradication.
True to their word, top Republicans in Congress provided advice, counsel and support that was essential to the development and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
While Democrats struggled with their party’s internal contradictions on the issue—deferring far too frequently to the demands of Southern segregationists who held powerful committee chairs in the House and Senate, and who commanded machines that delivered needed electoral votes—Republicans demanded action. “When President John F. Kennedy failed to submit a promised civil rights bill, three Republicans (Representatives William McCulloch of Ohio, John Lindsay of New York and Charles Mathias of Maryland) introduced one of their own,” noted The New York Times in recalling the great struggles of the era. “This inspired Mr. Kennedy to deliver on his promise, and it built Republican support for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
When the key votes in the House and the Senate came fifty years ago, Republicans were significantly more supportive of the Civil Rights Act than were Democrats. The measure passed the House on a 290-130 vote, with support from 61 percent of House Democrats (152 in favor, ninety-six opposed). But Republican lawmakers gave it 80 percent backing (138 in support, just thirty-four against).
The critical test came in the Senate in June, 1964. Republicans aligned with northern Democrats to break the segregationist filibuster. Then, 82 percent of Republican senators backed the final passage of the measure, as opposed to two-thirds of Senate Democrats.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he is said to have told an aide, “We [Democrats] have lost the South for a generation.”
But that statement did not just apply to the Democrats. Republicans were, necessarily, part of the change equation.
The change began to develop quickly. Two weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the Republican National Convention in San Francisco nominated for the presidency Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the handful of Republican senators who had opposed the measure.
Two months later, a key Democratic foe of civil rights, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, switched his party affiliation and began working to remake the Republican Party so that it could appeal to Southern white voters. Thurmond was an essential backer of the campaigns of Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. His influence on Nixon, who developed a so-called “Southern strategy” to help realize Thurmond’s vision of a transformed political map, was immense. It extended deep into the decision-making process for the selections of a vice president and Supreme Court nominees.
At the same time, civil rights advocates within the Republican Party either left or were defeated. House minority leader Charles Halleck, the Indiana Republican who worked closely with the Johnson administration to pass muscular civil rights protections was deposed the following January by his own caucus. John Lindsay, who was rejected in his own party’s 1969 New York City mayoral primary (winning instead on the Liberal Party line), became a Democrat in 1971. His ally in the 1963 civil rights push “Mac” Mathias was so unsettled by the GOP’s move to the right that he threatened to run for the presidency in 1976 as a progressive independent. Others champions of civil rights, such as California Senator Thomas Kuchel (the Republican floor manager in the fights to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), New Jersey Senator Clifford Case and New York Senator Jacob Javits, would eventually lose primaries to conservative challengers.
The senators who were rejected did not lose merely because of their civil rights advocacy but because of their Lincolnesque vision of a progressive Republican Party that, in Kuchel’s words, “brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many.”
That philosophy was replaced by a more rigid and divisive politics. “The Republican Party that had been ceased to be sometime in the 1980s, and the modern party—the radical conservative party—not only has little or no interest in honoring its history, it is actively hostile to it,” Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of the brilliant 2012 book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party explained to Todd Purdum.
Purdum, who has written his own fine book on the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked the anniversary of the signing of the act with an article headlined, “Why the Civil Rights Act Couldn’t Pass Today.”
Purdum is appropriately critical of both major parties, but his most damning statement is an observation that “the Party of Lincoln became the party of white backlash, especially in the South.”
Thurmond was certainly not the only Southern Democrat to switch his party affiliation in the period following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act—Jesse Helms made the change in 1970; Trent Lott, an aide to a segregationist Democratic congressman, ran for the House as a Republican in 1972; Virginian Mills Goodwn Jr., whom The New York Times described as “a pillar of his state’s policy of ‘massive resistance’ to the racial integration of schools” during his years as a Democratic state legislator, was elected governor as a Republican in 1973. But Thurmond was the most prominent, and the most influential of the party switchers. Over time, he evolved his rhetoric away from the crude language of his 1948 States Rights Democratic Party presidential run and his Senate filibusters to a more politically palatable critique of “big government.” The senator would eventually say that “if I had been elected president in 1948, history would be vastly different. I believe we would have stemmed the growth of Big Government, which had begun with the New Deal and culminated with the Great Society.”
That statement conveniently neglected the fact that Thurmond and his allies in 1948 did not just talk about the size of the federal government. The same States Rights Democratic Party platform that declared its opposition to “the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions” also announced, “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”
Thurmond left the Democratic Party the first time, in 1948, because the Democrats were becoming more like the Republicans on the issue of civil rights—as both parties moved, slowly but surely, toward a recognition that Hubert Humphrey was right when he told the 1948 Democratic National Convention it was time “to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, enlightened Democrats and Republicans competed to be the party of civil rights. And the Republicans were in the lead through much of the period—encouraging Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate in the modern era, to observe that the Republican Party “was, I believe, much more progressive than the Democratic Party.”
Republicans were not the party of Thurmond, they were explicitly and proudly the party of Lincoln. That 1960 GOP platform read:
Equality under law promises more than the equal right to vote and transcends mere relief from discrimination by government. It becomes a reality only when all persons have equal opportunity, without distinction of race, religion, color or national origin, to acquire the essentials of life—housing, education and employment. The Republican Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln—from its very beginning has striven to make this promise a reality. It is today, as it was then, unequivocally dedicated to making the greatest amount of progress toward the objective.
The tragedy of the Democratic Party through much of its history was an unwillingness to stand strong against its Southern wing and to clearly align itself with the cause of social and economic justice. The tragedy of the Republican Party is that when Democrats began to do the right thing, key figures in the GOP welcomed Thurmond into its fold and began to craft not just a “Southern strategy” but a politics of reaction. There were plenty of Republicans who resisted the trend at the time, and there have been plenty of Republicans since (notably former Congressman Jack Kemp and former Secretary of State Colin Powell) who have sought to broaden the party’s focus and appeal.
But as one of the great Republican advocates of civil rights, John Lindsay, noted when he left the GOP in 1971, “Today the Republican Party has moved so far from what I perceive as necessary policies…that I can no longer try to work within it.”
John Avlon, the longtime speechwriter for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has since become a prominent advocate for centrist projects such as the “No Labels” movement, wrote several years ago: “The Republican Party was right on civil rights for the first one-hundred years of its existence. It was right when the Democratic Party was wrong. Its future strength and survival will depend on rediscovering that legacy of individual freedom amid America’s essential diversity. To win in the 21st century, the Party of Lincoln needs to start looking like the Party of Lincoln again.”
This is true.
It is also true that Republicans have a right to reflect proudly on the role the GOP played in securing approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This anniversary belongs to both parties—to Democrats who recall Johnson’s leadership, to Republicans who recall the role played by congressional Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party that has spent much of its energy in recent years promoting restrictive Voter ID laws and that is currently entertaining a telling debate about Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s outreach to African-American voters in last month’s runoff election fight, often finds itself at odds with the legacies of Lincoln and the Republicans who championed civil rights in the mid-1960s.
“There’s also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” Powell said on NBC’s Meet the Press last year. “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities.”
Powell recommended that his party “take a very hard look at itself.” In particular, the Republican Party should take a very hard look at its past—and it should embrace that past.
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There were undoubtedly justices on the most anti-labor US Supreme Court in modern judicial history who wanted to strip public-sector unions of their ability to collect dues from workers they represent.
But they were not quite prepared to strike the devastating blow that labor activists feared would be delivered Monday.
Since the High Court’s 2012 decision in Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000—which complicated the processes by which public-employee unions can engage politically—there has been a general sense that conservative justices were angling for an opening to gut the twenty-six state laws that require workers who benefit from union representation to pay dues. The case of Harris v. Quinn, in which a small number of Illinois homecare workers sought to avoid paying dues to the Service Employees International Union, seemed to create that opening.
But the Court’s conservative majority stopped short of making a ruling that would have allowed public employees to stop paying dues to the unions that negotiate contracts guaranteeing them higher wages and benefits, protect them from employer abuses and advocate in the legislative and political arenas on their behalf. In so doing, they allowed public-sector unions to remain vital forces in the majority of American states.
Make no mistake, however, the Court did so grudgingly.
Writing for the five conservative justices who made up the majority, Justice Samuel Alito let the eight homecare workers involved in the Harris case opt out of paying dues because the Court determined they were not “full-fledged public employees.” The majority (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) determined that, because the workers are hired by individual patients and work in private homes, they are not actually state employees—even though they are paid via Medicaid, and even though SEIU’s negotiations with the state yielded substantial improvements in the pay and benefits of the represented workers.
That dodge allowed a sharply divided court—where Justice Scalia surprised observers of oral arguments on the case with a line of questioning that seemed somewhat sympathetic to the arguments of the unions—to avoid making a sweeping determination.
It is important to recognize, however, that the Court’s decision is an ominous one for domestic workers and the unions that are speaking to represent them.
And Alito, who has emerged as the steadiest foe of labor rights on the Court, still seems to be looking for an opening to further undermine labor rights.
Alito ripped the Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that permitted states to require payment of union dues by represented workers, referring to the precedent as “questionable” and “anomalous.”
Translation: the Harris case wasn’t quite the right vehicle, but the majority would entertain a case they could eliminate vital protections for unions and their members—creating a circumstance where they would no longer have the resources to fully represent workers at the bargaining table, in the corridors of power and at election time.
“While the Court upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities, let’s be clear that working people, who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families, have taken it on the chin for years,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “Stagnating wages, loss of pensions and lack of upward mobility have defined the economic distress they have experienced. Today’s decision makes it worse.”
Weingarten is right.
While this ruling was certainly not as bad as it might have been, the threat of a Court decision that severely undermines public-sector unions remains. And that is a threat that has much broader ramifications, as public-sector unions have become key defenders of public services and public education in an era of funding cuts and privatization schemes.
Indeed, along with the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that was issued at the same time, the Harris decision provides a powerful reminder of the importance of elections this fall for US senators who could be asked to confirm one or more High Court nominees in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, SEIU activists and leaders pledged to redouble efforts to organize and represent Illinois homecare workers.
“They are trying to divide us and limit our power, but we won’t stop standing together for our families and our consumers,” Flora Johnson, a homecare provider from Chicago, said in a statement released by the union. “Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year. I know from experience that we are stronger together.”
SEIU president Mary Kay Henry added, “For our parents and grandparents to get the care they need to live at home, workers need a strong voice in a union. I know that Flora Johnson other SEIU members are determined to keep up the fight to end poverty wages and ensure quality care.”
This Supreme Court has made that work a little tougher. But an even slightly more anti-labor Supreme Court could make it dramatically more difficult. That argues for a response that combines serious voting and serious organizing.
“With a Supreme Court that is increasingly moving hand in hand with Wall Street and corporate interests to eviscerate our democracy,” says National Nurses United union executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “it’s a reminder working people can not count on the courts for justice, and must rely on our own stepped up activism for a more just society.”
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Thad Cochran just did Democrats a favor.
Yes, yes, of course, the veteran Republican senator’s comeback win in Tuesday’s Mississippi Republican primary runoff made it a lot less likely that the Magnolia State will join Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina on the list of Southern states where Democrats could win Senate seats this fall. And, yes, that will make it harder for Democrats to hold their majority in the chamber.
But Cochran’s win taught a pair of lessons that Democrats must learn -- not as talking points but as a core concepts -- if they hope to secure positive results in November.
Lesson One: Turnout is definitional.
Lesson Two: Turnout can be substantially increased, even in the most difficult of circumstances, with focused energy, resources and messaging.
In the initial Mississippi Republican Senate primary, Cochran’s Tea Party–backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, narrowly led the conservative—yet relatively genteel—incumbent. McDaniel fell just short of winning 50 percent, however, and under Mississippi law a runoff was required between the top two finishers.
By most measures, that should have been the end of it for Cochran.
Runoffs usually attract lower voter turnout than initial primaries, and Tea Party candidates thrive in low-turnout contests—when the most extreme voters are the most likely to show up.
Cochran was advised to give up.
The strategy worked.
Instead of declining, turnout for the runoff increased. A lot.
Much of that spike came in counties with substantial African-American populations. Mississippi’s African-American population provides much of the base vote for the Democratic Party in the state. But under Mississippi law, Democrats can “cross over” and vote in Republican primaries and runoffs—just as Republicans can, and often have, voted in Democratic primaries and runoffs.
The crossover vote appears to have helped Cochran a good deal. As veteran political scientist Larry Sabato points out, “The Mississippi counties with a black population higher than the state’s county median saw turnout increase by 27 percent over the runoff, and Cochran won these counties by about 25,000 votes. Meanwhile, the counties with a black population lower than the median had a turnout increase of 13 percent, and McDaniel won these counties by about 19,000 votes. Cochran’s overall victory margin of nearly 6,400 votes is about the difference between those two numbers.”
In the first primary, Cochran battled McDaniel for right-wing votes, emphasizing his pro-gun record and social consevatism. In the runoff, however, Cochran switched to a more mainstream message that emphasized his support for federal programs that aid Mississippi and especially for education.
The senior senator also, as The New York Times reported, “attacked Mr. McDaniel for his vows of austerity.”
“Those attacks seemed to work with voters—at least enough to spook Democrats, and even some Republicans, who are accustomed to the protection and seniority of a long line of Congress members going back almost 100 years, including Senators John C. Stennis, James Eastland and Trent Lott and Representatives Sonny Montgomery and Jamie L. Whitten,” explained the Times.
Voters like Jeanie Munn, of Hattiesburg, came to the conclusion that—whatever they might think of Cochran—they needed to get to the polls to stop McDaniel and what they saw as “a threat to the state.”
Of course, McDaniel and his “Tea Party” allies cried foul—refusing even to concede the close race. Sarah Palin objected to the turnout "shenanigans" that saved Cochran. Their griping was rooted in the fact that their faction lost a “sure thing” election because the electorate grew.
The growth in voter turnout on Tuesday helped a mainstream conservative Republican win on Tuesday. But similar growth could help Democrats win in November.
By most measures, 2014 is going to be a tough year for Democrats. They are defending a lot more competitive Senate seats than the Republicans, as this is the election when senators elected on the Barack Obama wave of 2008 are up for re-election. They also face the daunting task of trying to win House seats that were redrawn to favor GOP candidates after the “Republican wave” election of 2010.
If turnout levels remain the same in 2014 as they were in 2010—roughly 38 percent of the voting age population cast ballots that year, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University—this could be another “Republican wave” year.
No one expects that 2014 turnout will rival that of 2012.
But Thad Cochran has proven that focusing on turnout—with resources, organizing and a targeted message that highlights the threat posed by austerity-prone Republicans—can significantly increase voter participation in critical races. And that participation can change the electoral calculus.
If Democrats learn that lesson, they could rewrite the rules of the 2014 general election— just as Cochran rewrote the rules of the Mississippi runoff race.
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Scott Walker, an ardent Ronald Reagan fan from his youth, was never likely to follow Reagan’s footsteps to the White House. The Wisconsin governor lacks his hero’s way with words, skill for crossing lines of partisan and ideological division (especially within the Republican Party) and confidence on the national campaign trail.
Yet Walker has wanted to believe in the possibility so badly that he has spent the two years since his 2012 recall election win positioning himself as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He penned a campaign book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, which was so transparent in its ambitions that Glenn Beck’s The Blaze refers to it as “the prototypical book about someone running for president who doesn’t want to come out and actually say that he is running for president.” He jetted off to Las Vegas to to try and impress Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, but Adelson missed the Wisconsinite´s speech. He even persisted in making the rounds nationally after polls showed that his enthusiasm for presidential politics did not sit well with the Wisconsin voters he must face in a November re-election bid.
But with the release of documents in which Wisconsin prosecutors allege Walker helped to engineer an expansive “criminal scheme” to coordinate efforts by conservative groups to help his recall campaign—by circumventing campaign finance laws—Walker’s presidential prospects look less realistic even than those of his mentor, scandal-plagued New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The headlines in Wisconsin Thursday were damning:
“John Doe prosecutors allege Scott Walker at center of ‘criminal scheme’”
“Prosecutors accuse Walker of running ‘criminal scheme’”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for the Republican in response to efforts to recall him and state senators from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday.
Walker, his chief of staff and others were involved in the coordination effort with “a number of national groups and prominent figures,” including Karl Rove, says special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.
“[T]he evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities during the historic 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin Senate and Gubernatorial recall elections,” Schmitz wrote in a December motion, on behalf of five attorneys from some of the state’s most liberal counties, just now unsealed by an appellate court judge.
Even worse for a governor who has already had to try an explain away highly controversial emails from former aides, as well as the investigations, prosecutions and convictions of aides, appointees, allies and campaign donors, are the actual details of the documents that were ordered unsealed by Federal Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook.
“The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that (veteran Wisconsin Republican operative R.J.) Johnson would lead the coordination campaign. Johnson is also Walker’s longtime campaign strategist and the chief adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group active in the recall elections,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest paper.
The May 4, 2011, e-mail to Rove read: “Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”
Walker, who is certainly no stranger to controversy, claimed Thursday that he had been vindicated by judges who have restricted—and even attempted to shut down—the “John Doe” investigation into political wrongdoing. But other judges have sustained the inquiry.
Walker allies argue that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” organized by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and other top prosecutors, who they allege are out to silence conservatives and harm Republicans. Chisholm is a Democrat, but he is also a respected prosecutor who has gone after Democrats and worked with Republicans.
Lawyers for targets of the probe are fighting to shut it down and, in this unsettled and uncertain post–Citizens United period with regard to state and national campaign finance laws, they believe they will succeed.
Attempts to halt the probe, which have been cheered on by advocates for a no-holds-barred “big money” politics, are part of a broader strategy to gut remaining campaign-finance laws. One way to super-charge the influence of major donors and corporate interests is to undermine bans on coordination between candidates and their campaigns with “independent” groups that operate under different and more flexible rules for raising and spending money during a campaign.
“If you don’t have restrictions on coordination, then the contribution limits become meaningless,” Paul S. Ryan, the senior counsel for the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, explained. Ryan told Politico that without the restrictions, a donor “could max out under the limits [for donating to a candidate], but then you could also just say to the candidates, ‘Hey give me an ad script and we’ll walk down to the TV station and do this ad for you.’”
But even if the probe is prevented from going forward, the documents that have now been released—in combination with the February release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized from the “secret e-mail system” computers of a former Walker aide who has been convicted of political wrongdoing—paint a picture of a governor whose political style does not say “statesman.”
There is no question that Walker is a hero to some Republicans, and to some conservatives.
But Republicans and conservatives who want to win back the White House have to be realistic enough to recognize that Walker has a paper trail that is unlikely to read well on the 2016 campaign trail.
In fact, if the Wisconsin polls that have Walker tied with Democratic challenger Mary Burke are to be believed, Walker might have trouble getting past the 2014 election.
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Americans do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
Americans really do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
A fresh Public Policy Polling survey finds that 74 percent of voters oppose sending troops to the country where in 2003 former Vice President Dick Cheney claimed US troops would be “greeted as liberators”—but where in fact 4,486 Americans were killed, and where even the most cautious estimates put the Iraqi death toll (military and civilian) in the hundreds of thousands.
Americans recognize the damage that was done, as well, to their country’s international reputation, and to its sense of priorities when it came to policymaking and federal budgeting. That does not mean that they are unaware of, or unconcerned with, the degenerating circumstances in Iraq. That does not mean they have suddenly gone isolationist. That does not mean that they oppose diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives.
What it means is that they have a sense of perspective that is lacking among the neoconservative elite that is always so ready for war.
So it is that, while Cheney is busily repurposing his pro-war rhetoric of 1991 and 2003—while at the same time accusing President Obama of “betraying” US freedom, “abandoning” Iraq, being a “very very weak president” and generally failing to follow the neocon playbook—Americans are remembering what happened the last time the war hawks had their way.
In fact, if there is one thing that unites Americans, it is their skepticism about steering back into Iraq.
Eighty-two percent of Democrats oppose sending US troops to Iraq, as do 86 percent of independents. Notably, 57 percent of Republicans are also opposed.
Just 28 percent of Republicans favor the ground-troops option.
Overall, just 16 percent of Americans are inclined toward the sort of approach that might satisfy Cheney.
Given a choice between President Obama’s relatively cautious response—with its emphasis, so far at least, on regional diplomacy—and the more aggressive approach of the man Obama beat for the presidency in a 2008 campaign that offered a stark choice with regard to foreign policy, 54 percent of those surveyed favored Obama’s way of handling things. Just 28 percent were inclined toward McCain’s hawkish rhetoric.
Of course, it’s more nuanced than that. Obama has already sent a contingent of 275 troops to provide embassy security in Baghdad, and there is talk of sending Special Forces units. Additionally, the prospect of a bombing campaign to support Iraqi forces has been raised.
Even more limited strategies inspire skepticism, however.
For instance, there is not majority support for military airstrikes.
According to the survey conducted by PPP for Americans United for Change, 46 percent of likely voters say they could support airstrikes. But 32 percent oppose them, and another 22 percent say they are unsure.
Respecting that skepticism, Congressman John Garamendi, D-California, and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, on Wednesday introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would require the administration to seek the advice and consent of Congress before engaging in any sustained military action in Iraq.
“Before we ever consider sending our brave men and women in uniform back into the Iraq powder keg, we owe it to our servicemembers and to the American people to at least have a frank and public debate in the Halls of Congress,” said Garamendi, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The amendment would not block moves to increase security at the US Embassy in Baghdad. But it would limit the use of defense funds in Iraq for actions deemed to violate requirements outlined in the War Powers Resolution.
“In 2003, Congress should have resisted the rush to a war of choice with Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of my predecessors,” announced Garamendi. “I am deeply skeptical of reigniting America’s involvement in Iraq’s civil war, and if my amendment is adopted, we’ll at least ensure a serious debate on the merits of returning to Iraq.”
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Bernie Sanders does not believe that government always gets things right.
But the independent senator from Vermont does believe that where government has the capacity to act on behalf of those in need, it should do so.
In a capital where an awful lot of folks still buy into Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” calculus, Sanders knows that government can be the solution. Indeed, he recognizes that for those most neglected by an economy that almost always takes care of CEOs and celebrities but often fails clerks and construction workers, government is able to provide answers that the private sector cannot or will not produce.
“In the US Senate today, my right-wing colleagues talk a lot about “freedom” and limiting the size of government,” says Sanders. “Here’s what they really mean: They want ordinary Americans to have the freedom not to have health care in a country where 45,000 of our people who die each year because they don’t get to a doctor when they should. They want young people in our country to have the freedom not to go to college, and join the 400,000 young Americans unable to afford a higher education and the millions struggling with huge college debts. They want children and seniors in our country to have the freedom not to have enough food to eat, and join the many millions who are already hungry. And on and on it goes!”
Sanders cannot always get the Senate to consider the alternative. But as the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he has the authority and the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention not just on the neglect of military veterans—an issue that has long been his focus—but on the solutions government can provide for them.
Even before the details of how veterans are forced to endure excessively long wait times to access VA medical care were revealed, Sanders had written and advanced major legislation to address the underfunding of VA services and a host of other programs for veterans.
Then came the revelations of the extent of the dysfunction at VA hospitals—most recently in the form of a Veterans Affairs Department audit describing how more than 57,000 veterans have been forced to wait at least three months for their first appointments. And that another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past ten years never got the attention they requested—and deserved.
Sanders saw an opening to talk about what could, and should, be done. He started looking for allies. He found one in Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and Vietnam War POW.
Together, Sanders and McCain crafted a response to the crisis. Yes, there were compromises. But the outlines of what Sanders had previously proposed were very much in evidence in the proposal to spend $35 billion over three years to dramatically improve VA staffing and to provide resources for vets seeking care from doctors close to home.
Sander told the Senate, “The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned on the battlefield.”
This time, the Senate agreed.
The often bitterly divided chamber voted 93-3 in favor of the Sanders-McCain plan.
When conservative Republicans objected to the price tag, McCain told them, “Make no mistake: this is an emergency.”
The most austerity-obsessed Republicans—Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—still voted “no.”
But most of Senate Republicans, including some of the chamber’s most conservative members, voted “yes,”
In so doing, they recognized the need for an ambitious expansion of government service, and of government aid to those who are most in need.
The Sanders-crafted measure the Senate backed seeks to
* Authorize leases for twenty-six new medical facilities in seventeen states and Puerto Rico.
* Designate funds for hiring more VA doctors and nurses to provide quality care in a timely manner.
* Expand existing VA authority to refer veterans for private care. Veterans experiencing long delays at the VA could seek care instead at community health centers, Indian health centers, Department of Defense medical facilities or private doctors. The two-year program also would offer those same options to veterans who live more than forty miles from a VA hospital or clinic.
The measure also expands accountability, giving the VA the authority to remove or demote administrators who have failed to meet the needs of vets, while creating incentives for reducing wait times at VA facilities. It also recognizes that healthcare is not the only need vets have; so the measure includes language to assure that “all recently-separated veterans taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill get in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.”
And, notes Sanders’s office, “for the first time, those same education benefits would be extended to surviving spouses of veterans who died in the line of duty.”
This is a big response to a big problem.
It still faces hurdles. The austerity hawks who are so good at thinking up reasons to go to war but so bad at paying for them—and so very bad at meeting commitments to those who serve—will keep raising objections. House Republicans are making predictable demands for “offsets” equaling the cost of the VA initiative, peddling the fantasy that other programs must be cut in order to find the money to aid veterans. The Philadelphia Inquireris hails the Senate measure as “an unusually swift and welcome response” that has “broad support and the potential to alleviate some of the department’s serious shortcomings.”
The prospect that a major problem will be met with a major response is real—as is the recognition that Senator Sanders has been right all along: sometimes government has to be part of the solution.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the upheaval in Iraq
The DC-insider storyline about this being a great year for the Republican establishment is undergoing a rapid rewrite. For the first time since the post was formally established in 1899, a House majority leader has been defeated in a bid for renomination. And as political prognosticators, Republican stalwarts and savvy Democrats search for explanations, they are being forced to consider complexities they had not previously entertained—including the prospect of conservatives who are ready and willing to criticize big business.
Eric Cantor, the face of the GOP establishment, one of the party’s most prodigious fundraisers and the odds-on favorite to become the next speaker of the House, lost his Virginia Republican primary Tuesday to a challenger who promised, “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.”
The result shocked the not just the Republican establishment but the DC establishment. The shockwaves continued Wednesday, as Republican aides said Cantor would step down July 31 from his position as the second most powerful figure in the House—ending the congressman’s run as a Washington power player who championed the interests of Wall Street and corporate America.
That Wall Street connection was a central theme of the challenge that displaced Cantor.
Dave Brat, who defeated the number-two Republican in the House by a 56-44 margin, tore into big business almost as frequently as he did the incumbent. “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers,” declared the challenger.
Cantor dismissed Brat as a “liberal college professor.”
That was false—at least the liberal part.
Though Brat is a professor who teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, he is definitely not a liberal. He ran to the right of Cantor on the issues; he outlined the premises of his campaign in an extended interview with the conservative National Review; and he announced on his Facebook page, “It’s time we elect a conservative, not just a Republican, to represent us.”
But Brat’s low-budget campaign came with a twist. He ran as something rare in American politics—so rare that many political commentators have a hard time comprehending the calculus. On a number of issues, the challenger positioned himself as an anti-corporate conservative. Indeed, as Politico noted during the course of the campaign, “The central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business—specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.”
That does not make Brat any sort of progressive, or even a populist by most contemporary measures; nor does it make his harsh right-wing positions on a number of issues any more noble than those same positions when they are taken by Republicans who regularly pocket checks from Wall Street interests. Brat has some ties to wealthy libertarians, and he’s written about “the moral foundations in Ayn Rand”—even if he “says…he isn’t a Randian.”
Yet Brat’s anti-corporate rhetoric distinguished him from Cantor, and from most prominent Republicans—whether they identify with the Republican “establishment” or the Tea Party wing of a party that in recent years has been defined by its subservience to corporate interests.
From the start of the campaign, Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. “Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,” the challenger argued.
Because Brat highlighted immigration policy as part of the campaign that upset Cantor, it is likely that Republican leaders will move toward an even sharper stance in opposition to meaningful reform. That likelihood led Dream Act Coalition co-director Cesar Vargas to say that with Cantor’s defeat—after being attacked as “too soft on immigration”—“there is no chance of getting anything done legislatively on the subject through the summer, after which it would be difficult to get anything done with presidential speculation beginning.”
Vargas argues that instead of offering House Republicans more time to act on immigration reform, the president “should offer deportation relief, and other forms of administrative relief, now.”
That’s an insightful response to the Cantor defeat. Americans are ready for immigration reform—polls suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans support a pathway to citizenship and reject mass deportation. A new Public Policy Polling survey, conducted Tuesday night in Cantor’s district, concludes that “72 percent of voters in Cantor’s district support the bipartisan immigration reform legislation on the table in Washington right now to only 23 percent who are opposed.”
It may be that hard-core Republican primary voters, particularly in Southern states where primary turnout is usually very low, will continue to threaten GOP members of the House and Senate who display even the slightest moderation on the issue. But the PPP data suggests that wasn’t the only factor in Cantor’s defeat. Indeed, recent polling by PPP and other firms suggests that the Obama White House and congressional Democrats would be unwise to imagine that a Virginia Republican primary result argues for an abandonment of immigration reform.
Are there other insights to be taken from Brat’s defeat of Cantor?
Perhaps. And they could have implications for the broader politics of 2014 and 2016.
Brat, whose campaign raised and spent roughly $200,000 versus Cantor’s $5 million campaign, attracted grassroots Tea Party support. But the professor actually missed meetings with top national conservatives that had been organized in Washington for mid-May—with the campaign explaining that Brat had to focus on preparations for final exams.
His distance from the national conservative establishment, much of which aligns with the same business interests as the Republican establishment, was evident in Brat’s harshest criticism of Cantor.
“In my view, the greatest moral failure—which disqualifies Cantor for high public office—was his abuse of the public trust concerning the STOCK Act, a bipartisan bill that was going through after the financial crisis,” the professor wrote in a pre-election article for the opinion pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the dominant newspaper in the region. “The Stock Act,” noted Brat, “was intended to ban insider trading on congressional knowledge for congressmen and their families. CNN discovered that Cantor altered the language of the House version in order to allow family members and spouses to continue insider trading on congressional knowledge. In my view, this action was beneath the dignity of the office. Virginians deserve better and I pledge to treat everyone equally under the law.”
Brat is so little known at this point that it is hard to say where he will end up politically. He’ll face a solid Democrat in November—fellow Randolph-Macon College professor Jack Trammell—but his chances of winning the November election in an overwhelmingly Republican district are good.
If Brat does go to Congress as a conservative critic of big business, and of the GOP’s alliance with corporate interests, he could open up a lot of new debates within the party, and beyond its boundaries. On election night, he was telling Fox News, “The issue is the Republican Party has been paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough to Main Street.” He spoke of “a fissure between Main Street and Wall Street,” arguing that Republican leaders had forgotten that, “Dollars dont vote, people do.”
That language suggests Brat could align with others, such as North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., an old-right conservative, and Michigan’s Justin Amash, a younger libertarian-leaning member, who have run afoul of Republican leaders—including Cantor.
Both Jones and Amash have reached across party lines and worked with progressive Democrats on a host of issues, including efforts to restrict NSA surveillance, to block free-trade deals and even (in Jones’s case) to amend the US Constitution to get corporate cash out of politics.
After his victory, Brat told interviews, “Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of right and left.”
On at least one issue, privacy rights, Brat seems to be very much in agreement with Amash and Jones—and progressives such as Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who has worked with Amash to address NSA abuses. The Virginian’s issue primer declares, “Dave believes that the Constitution does not need to be compromised for matters of national security. He supports the end of bulk phone and email data collection by the NSA, IRS, or any other branch of government.”
In his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Nation Books), Ralph Nader argues that there are many issues on which an anti-corporate left and an anti-corporate right could achieve “convergence” in opposition to policies advanced by “corporate conservatives and corporate liberals.” Nader’s point is not to suggest that the left and the right will be in specific agreement on issues ranging from fair trade to restricting domestic surveillance to whittling down the military-industrial complex. He suggests that “they [can] come at it for different reasons, but they [can] have the same conclusion.”
That’s an intriguing notion, especially after one of the most powerful corporate Republicans in Washington just lost to a guy who decries “large corporations seeking insider deals” and “crony bailouts.”
Read Next: George Zornick on why Eric Cantor’s defeat may doom chances for immigration reform.
Former Vice President Al Gore did not exactly break new ground when he said Tuesday that Edward Snowden had “provided an important service” by revealing to the extent to which the American government spies on people in the United States and abroad.
Yes, Secretary of State John Kerry and others in the Obama administration and in Congress may casually toss around words like “traitor” when discussing the former National Security Administration contractor. But The New York Times has made the case that
[c]onsidering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.
Some in Congress have gone further.
Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s more of a whistle-blower than a villain.… I think the outrage people in the administration have expressed toward Edward Snowden ought to be more focused on how the NSA broke privacy laws.”
So Gore was, in many senses, simply restating a relatively mainstream view when, during a session at Tennessee’s Southland Technology + Southern Culture Conference, he was asked what PandoDaily refers to as the “Is he a traitor or a hero?” question. Gore responded:
I’m like most people, I don’t put (Snowden) in either one of those categories. But I will be candid—if you set up a spectrum, I would push it more away from the traitor side. He clearly violated the law; you can’t say OK what he did is alright. It is not.
But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the Constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important laws he also provided an important service because we did need to know how far this has gone.
But it does matter when a former vice president, who also happens to be the former presidential nominee of the party that now holds the White House, is rejecting the simple calculations of many top Democrats regarding Snowden, who has chosen to remain in Russia rather than return to the United States and face charges of espionage and theft.
And it matters even more when one of the most tech-savvy public figures in the United States says of NSA surveillance: “This is a threat to the heart of democracy.”
Indeed, what Gore has been saying about the state of US democracy in recent years has been very important—and very true. “Our democracy has been hacked in the United States,” he says. “The operating system has been taken over and it no longer serves the purposes our founders intended it serve.”
Gore’s right about that. And he is right when he says, as he did on Tuesday, that the democratic discourse its harmed—as are basic concepts of individual freedom and liberty—when citizens feel intimidated.
“Democracy is among other things a state of mind,” explained the former congressman, senator and vice president.
If any of us are put in a position where we have to self censor, and think twice about what we write in an e-mail, or what we click on for fear that somebody reading a record of this may misunderstand why we looked up some disease or something, some young people who might otherwise get help with a medical condition, might think oh my gosh if I put down a search for bipolar illness I will be stigmatized if my online file is hacked or accessed by my employer. That kills democracy.
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