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Bernie Sanders says he is “prepared to run for president of the United States.” That’s not a formal announcement. A lot can change between now and 2016, and the populist senator from Vermont bristles at the whole notion of a permanent campaign. But Sanders has begun talking with savvy progressive political strategists, traveling to unexpected locations such as Alabama and entertaining the process questions that this most issue-focused member of the Senate has traditionally avoided.
In some senses, Sanders is the unlikeliest of prospects: an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but has never joined the party, a democratic socialist in a country where many politicians fear the label “liberal,” an outspoken critic of the economic, environmental and social status quo who rips “the ruling class” and calls out the Koch brothers by name. Yet, he has served as the mayor of his state’s largest city, beaten a Republican incumbent for the US House, won and held a historically Republican Senate seat and served longer as an independent member of Congress than anyone else. And he says his political instincts tell him America is ready for a “political revolution.”
In his first extended conversation about presidential politics, Sanders discussed with The Nation the economic and environmental concerns that have led him to consider a 2016 run; the difficult question of whether to run as a Democrat or an independent; his frustration with the narrow messaging of prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton; and his sense that political and media elites are missing the signs that America is headed toward a critical juncture where electoral expectations could be exploded.
John Nichols: Are you going to run for president in 2016?
Bernie Sanders: I don’t wake up every morning, as some people here in Washington do and say, “You know, I really have to be president of the United States. I was born to be president of the United States.” What I do wake up every morning feeling is that this country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country. So I am prepared to run for president of the United States. I don’t believe that I am the only person out there who can fight this fight, but I am certainly prepared to look seriously at that race.
When you say you are “prepared to run,” that can be read in two ways. One is to say you have the credentials, the prominence, the following to seek the office. The other is to say that you are making preparations for a run. How do you parse that?
If the question is, am I actively right now organizing and raising money and so forth for a campaign for president, I am not doing that. On the other hand, am I talking to people around the country? Yes, I am. Will I be doing some traveling around the country? Yes, I will be. But I think it’s premature to be talking about (the specifics of) a campaign when we still have a 2014 congressional race in front of us.
I want to push back at some of what you are saying. Political insiders define presidential politics, and they are already hard at work, in both major parties and in the broader sense, to erect barriers to insurgent, dissident, populist campaigns. Don’t progressives who come at the process slowly run the risk of finding that everything has been locked up by the time they get serious about running?
Obviously, if I run, both in terms of the positions that I’ll be advocating, and the process itself, it will have to be a very unconventional campaign. I hear what you are saying, and I think there is truth in what you are saying. But, on the other hand, I think there is profound disgust among the American people for the conventional political process and the never-ending campaigns. If I run, my job is to help bring together the kind of coalition that can win—that can transform politics. We’ve got to bring together trade unionists and working families, our minority communities, environmentalists, young people, the women’s community, the gay community, seniors, veterans, the people who in fact are the vast majority of the American population. We’ve got to create a progressive agenda and rally people around that agenda.
I think we’ve got a message that can resonate, that people want to hear, that people need to hear. Time is very important. But I don’t think it makes sense—or that it is necessary—to start a campaign this early.
If and when you do start a full-fledged campaign, and if you want to run against conventional politics, how far do you go? Do you go to the point of running as an independent? That’s a great challenge to conventional politics, but it is also one where we have seen some honorable, some capable people stumble.
That’s an excellent question, and I haven’t reached a conclusion on that yet. Clearly, there are things to be said on both sides of that important question. Number one: there is today more and more alienation from the Republican and Democratic parties than we have seen in the modern history of this country. In fact, most people now consider themselves to be “independent,” whatever that may mean. And the number of people who identify as Democrats or Republicans is at a historically low point. In that sense, running outside the two-party system can be a positive politically.
On the other hand, given the nature of the political system, given the nature of media in America, it would be much more difficult to get adequate coverage from the mainstream media running outside of the two-party system. It would certainly be very hard if not impossible to get into debates. It would require building an entire political infrastructure outside of the two-party system: to get on the ballot, to do all the things that would be required for a serious campaign.
The question that you asked is extremely important, it requires a whole lot of discussion. It’s one that I have not answered yet.
Unspoken in your answer is the fact that you have a great discomfort with the Democratic Party as it has operated in recent decades.
Yes. It goes without saying. Since I’ve been in Congress, I have been a member of the Democratic caucus as an independent. [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid, especially, has been extremely kind to me and has treated me with enormous respect. I am now chairman of the Veterans Committee. But there is no question that the Democratic Party in general remains far too dependent on big-money interests, that it is not fighting vigorously for working-class families, and that there are some members of the Democratic Party whose views are not terribly different from some of the Republicans. That’s absolutely the case. But the dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party, then what you’re doing—and you have to think hard about this—you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma
You’re not really saying whether you could run as a Democrat?
I want to hear what progressives have to say about that. The more radical approach would be to run as an independent, and essentially when you’re doing that you’re not just running for president of the United States, you’re running to build a new political movement in America—which presumably would lead to other candidates running outside of the Democratic Party, essentially starting a third party. That idea has been talked about in this country for decades and decades and decades, from Eugene Debs forward—without much success. And I say that as the longest serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. In Vermont, I think we have had more success than in any other state in the country in terms of progressive third-party politics. During my tenure as mayor of Burlington, I defeated Democrats and Republicans and helped start a third-party movement. Today, there is a statewide progressive party which now has three people in the state Senate, out of 30, and a number of representatives in the state Legislature. But that process has taken 30 years. So it is not easy.
If you look back to Nader’s candidacy [in 2000], the hope of Nader was not just that he might be elected president but that he would create a strong third party. Nader was a very strong candidate, very smart, very articulate. But the strong third-party did not emerge. The fact is that is very difficult to do.
You plan to travel, to spend time with activists in the Democratic Party and outside the Democratic Party. Will you look to them for direction?
Yes. The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system. Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history? On the other hand, do people believe that operating in framework of the Democratic Party, getting involved in primaries state-by-state, building organization capability, rallying people, that for the moment at least that this is the better approach? Those are the options that I think progressives around the country are going to have to wrestle with. And that’s certainly something that I will be listening to.
You have always been identified as a democratic socialist. Polling suggests that Americans are not so bothered by the term, but it seems to me that our media has a really hard time with it. Is that a factor in your thinking about a presidential race?
No, that’s not a factor at all. In Vermont, people understand exactly what I mean by the word. They don’t believe that democratic socialism is akin to North Korea communism. They understand that when I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m saying is that I do not want to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling the economic and political life of the country. That I do believe that in a democratic, civilized society, all people are entitled to health care as a right, all people are entitled to quality education as a right, all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income, and that we need a government which represents ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful.
The people in Vermont know exactly when I mean, which is why I won my last election with 71 percent of the vote and carried some of the most conservative towns in the state. If I ran for president, and articulated a vision that speaks to working people, I am confident that voters in every part of this country would understand that.
The truth is that, very sadly, the corporate media ignores some of the huge accomplishments that have taken place in countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. These countries, which have a long history of democratic socialist or labor governments, have excellent and universal health care systems, excellent educational systems and they have gone a long way toward eliminating poverty and creating a far more egalitarian society than we have. I think that there are economic and social models out there that we can learn a heck of a lot from, and that’s something I would be talking about.
What you seem to be saying is that, as a presidential candidate, you would try to make the very difficult combination of not just being a personality that people would like, or at least want to vote for, but also educate people about what is possible.
My whole life in politics has been not just with passing legislation or being a good mayor or senator, but to educate people. That is why we have hundreds of thousands of people on my Senate email list, and why I send an email to all Vermonters every other week. It is why I have held hundreds of town meetings in Vermont, in virtually every town in the state.
If you ask me now what one of the major accomplishments of my political life is, it is that I helped double the voter turnout in Burlington, Vermont. I did that because people who had given up on the political process understood that I was fighting for working families, that we were paying attention to low and moderate-income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or the big-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. People understood that; they said, “You know what? Bernie is standing with us. We’re going to stand with him.” The result is that large numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.
I think one of the great tragedies that we face today politically, above and beyond the simple economic reality of the collapse of the middle-class, more people living in poverty, growing gap between the rich and poor, the high cost of education—all those objective, painful realities in American society—the more significant reality from a political perspective is that most people have given up on the political process. They understand the political deck is stacked against them. They think there is no particular reason for them to come out and vote—and they don’t.
So much of what [media-coverage of] politics is about today is personality politics. It’s gossip: Chris Christie’s weight or Hillary’s latest hairdo. But the real issue is how do you bring tens of millions of working-class and middle-class people together around an agenda that works for them? How do we make politics relevant to their lives? That’s going to involve some very, very radical thinking. At the end of the day, it’s not just going to be decisions from Washington. It really means empowering, in a variety of ways, ordinary people in the political process. To me, when you talk about the need for a political revolution, it is not just single-payer health care, it’s not just aggressive action on climate change, it’s not just creating the millions of jobs that we need, it is literally empowering people to take control over their lives. That’s clearly a lot harder to do than it is to talk about, but that’s what the political revolution is about.
One of the things that I find most disturbing—in fact, beyond comprehension—is that the Democrats now lose by a significant number the votes of white working-class people. How can that be? When you have a Republican Party that wants to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, ect., ect., why are so many people voting against their own economic interests? It happens because the Democrats have not been strong in making it clear which side they are on, not been strong in taking on Wall Street and corporate America, which is what Roosevelt did in the 1930s.
So, to me, what politics is about is not just coming up with ideas and a legislative program here in Washington—you need to do those things—but it’s about figuring out how you involve people in the political process, how you empower them. It ain’t easy, but that is, in fact, what has to be done. The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party. The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.
One of the goals that I would have, politically, as a candidate for president of the United States is to reach out to the working-class element of the Tea Party and explain to them exactly who is funding their organization—and explain to them that, on virtually every issue, the Koch brothers and the other funders of the Tea Party are way out of step with what ordinary people want and need.
You have made it very clear that you have no taste for personality politics. But a part of why you are thinking of running for president has to be a sense that the prospective Democratic candidates are unlikely to do that or to do that effectively.
Is it your sense that Hillary Clinton, the clear front-runner at this point, is unlikely to do that?
Look, I am not here to be attacking Hillary Clinton. I have known Hillary Clinton for a number of years; I knew her when she was First Lady a little bit, got to know her a little bit better when she was in the Senate. I like Hillary; she is very, very intelligent; she focuses on issues. But I think, sad to say, that the Clinton type of politics is not the politics certainly that I’m talking about. We are living in the moment in American history where the problems facing the country, even if you do not include climate change, are more severe than at any time since the Great Depression. And if you throw in climate change, they are more severe.
So the same old same old [Clinton administration Secretary of the Treasury] Robert Rubin type of economics, or centrist politics, or continued dependence on big money, or unfettered free-trade, that is not what this country needs ideologically. That is not the type of policy that we need. And it is certainly not going to be the politics that galvanizes the tens of millions of people today who are thoroughly alienated and disgusted with the status quo. People are hurting, and it is important for leadership now to explain to them why they are hurting and how we can grow the middle class and reverse the economic decline of so many people. And I don’t think that is the politics of Senator Clinton or the Democratic establishment…. People want to hear an alternative set of policies that says to the American people: with all of this technology, with all of this productivity, the truth of the matter is that the average person in this country should be living better than ever before—not significantly worse economically than was the case thirty years ago. That’s what we need. That’s what I want to talk about… I think that the class message, that in this great country, especially with all kinds of new technology and increased productivity, that we can in fact provide a decent standard for all people, I think that resonates in fifty states in America. I think what people are looking for is leadership that is prepared to take on the big money interests (to deliver that message). That’s not what we’re seeing, by and large, from most Democrats.
Are they missing something?
I think so. My experience and my political instinct tells me that a lot of the discussions about 2016 are minimizing the profound disgust that people are having now with the status quo—and they’re desperate for a message that addresses that disgust. If I run, I’m not going to be raising hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. I think I have the capability of raising a lot of money and that’s important, but that at the end of the day is not going to be what’s most important. What’s most important is this idea of a political revolution—rallying the working families of this country around a vision that speaks to their needs. People need to understand that, if we are prepared to stand up to Wall Street and the big-money interests, we can create a nation that works for all Americans, and not just the handful of billionaires.
Editor’s Note: The following additional material was added to this blog post on March 19, 2014:
You speak frequently about this idea of a “political revolution.” What do you mean by that?
We have to take a deep breath and look at what politics in America today is all about.
First of all, in off-year elections—nonpresidential elections—you’ll have 50 to 60 percent of the people not voting. So the first thing, the obvious argument about the need for a political revolution, is that in a democratic society, we need the vast majority of the people to participate in the political process. If we had an 85 to 90 percent voter turnout, as countries like Denmark do, the nature of politics would be fundamentally different—because lower-income and working-class people would be involved and would be fighting for their interests.
Second of all, when you look at politics today, you have the absurdity of any billionaire, any millionaire out there saying, “I want to run for office.” You hire a consultant, you put some TV ads on and you are, according to the media, a serious candidate because you’re rich. Very few campaigns now revolve around candidates who have strong grassroots support.
When we talk about a political revolution, we have to talk about political consciousness, which is abysmally low. You do polling and you find out that people do not even know the name of the person who represents them in Congress…. If you don’t know which party controls the House and Senate, how do you form a judgment, how do you evaluate what’s going on in Washington?
Furthermore, all of us take for granted the fact that when you turn on talk radio, it is overwhelmingly right-wing, and some of it is incredibly extreme right-wing. There are parts of America today where if you turn on the radio, you cannot hear anything vaguely representing a progressive voice. In addition to that, of course, we have a major television network, Fox, that is an adjunct of the Republican Party.
So when I talk about a political revolution, what I am referring to is the need to do more than just win the next election. It’s about creating a situation where we are involving millions of people in the process who are not now involved, and changing the nature of media so they are talking about issues that reflect the needs and the pains that so many of our people are currently feeling.
Essentially, what a political revolution means is that we organize and educate and create grassroots movements, which we certainly do not have right now.
Do you believe a campaign can be the catalyst for developing the consciousness and the movement that can achieve that change?
A campaign has got to be much more than just getting votes and getting elected. It has got to be helping to educate people, organize people. If we can do that, we can change the dynamic of politics for years and years to come. If 80 to 90 percent of the people in this country vote, if they know what the issues are (and make demands based on that knowledge), Washington and Congress will look very, very different from the Congress currently dominated by big money and dealing only with the issues that big money wants them to deal with.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson ran an outsider campaign in 1988 that talked about trying to open the process. You were a part of that. Do you see a connection to what you are talking about now?
Absolutely. I think Jackson has not gotten the credit he deserves. His campaigns were revolutionary: we had an African-American minister going to states like Iowa—predominantly white states—and rallying farmers. He came to Vermont; I remember I introduced him, and we had hundreds and hundreds of people out to hear him speak in a state that was then virtually all-white. The idea of bringing together people—the Rainbow Coalition concept of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays and lesbians—is absolutely right, and the emphasis, in my view, can be on economic issues. I happen to believe that the frustration and disgust with the status quo is much, much higher now—much, much higher than many “pundits” understand. The job right now, the main focus, is to bring people together from an economic perspective, on class lines, and talk about an America that works for the vast majority of our people and not just the top 1 percent.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), for which Senator Bernie Sanders wrote an introduction.
It won’t get as much notice as his budget proposal, but President Obama’s “2014 Trade Policy Agenda,” which was released this week, sends an exceptionally powerful signal regarding the administration’s economic vision.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong signal.
While the president—in his public pronouncements and his budget—is saying a lot of the right things about income inequality and investment in infrastructure and job creation, the White House has yet to recognize the harm that is done to the American economy—and to prospects of economic renewal that the president envisions—by failed trade policies.
At a time when the United States continues to experience overwhelming trade deficits—$38.7 billion in December—there is little in the way of new thinking in the report. In fact, as Public Citizen’s authoritative “Eyes on Trade” blog notes, “Much of the 2014 agenda is a copy and paste of the 2013 agenda, reiterating USTR’s stock set of talking points, such as the tired, counterfactual promise that a more-of-the-same trade policy will boost exports.”
The 2014 agenda statement outlines the efforts of the administration to advance new free-trade initiatives—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—that build on the approach of the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China.
The problem with the old way of doing things is that it has not worked. US Senator Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who authored the book, The Myths of Free Trade (New Press, notes that “we’ve seen more than five million jobs lost to our ‘trading partners,’ in NAFTA, CAFTA, and China…”
Brown argues that, in an increasingly globalized economy, “we should export American products, not American jobs.”
There are sections of the “2014 Trade Policy Agenda” that talk a good line in that regard. But the rhetoric is not matched by a shift in approach. The agenda contains nothing in the way of a vision for breaking the pattern described by the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders:
After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Mexican agricultural sector has been decimated by cheap exports from American agribusiness. Poverty has increased, the middle class has declined and people are literally dying in the desert trying to flee Mexico for the US. It is not only Mexico and other developing countries that have been hurt by these unfettered pro-corporate free-trade agreements. It’s also the working families in the US, who are now engaged in a horrendous “race to the bottom.” Despite an explosion of technology and a huge increase in worker productivity, poverty in America is increasing, the middle class is shrinking and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. In the past 6 years, millions of good-paying jobs in the US have been lost as companies continue to shut down here and move to China and other low-wage countries.
Just as it clings to a flawed vision regarding trade policies, the administration’s agenda recycles a wrongheaded approach to negotiating international agreements. “To facilitate the conclusion, approval, and implementation of are market-opening negotiating initiatives (on TPP and T-TIP) negotiations,” the administration’s statement announces, “we are working with Congress to support broad bipartisan passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).”
The broad bipartisan stance in Congress at this point is one of opposition to passage of TPA, a tool that diminishes the role of Congress in shaping agreements by “fast tracking” the process. More than 150 House Democrats have expressed their opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. “Fast Track is simply not appropriate for 21st Century agreements and must be replaced,” the Democrats wrote. “The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past. We can and must do better.”
Several dozen House Republicans have broken with their party’s congressional leadership to express their opposition to Fast Track.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, says, “I am against Fast Track.” He has urged the administration to back off on its request for Trade Promotion Authority. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, though she is less skeptical than Reid, has says the Fast Track proposal that is currently on the table—a measure sponsored by US Congressman David Camp, R-Michigan, and former Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana—is “unacceptable.”
The Obama administration needs to rethink a trade agenda that is at odds with much of the rest of what the president is saying about job creation, renewal of manufacturing and the strengthening of the US economy.
Instead of recycling failed approaches and flawed strategies, it should listen to Democrats like Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been a frequent ally of the administration but says:
Given how previous trade agreements have devastated local manufacturing sectors and shipped American jobs overseas, it would be unwise for Congress to ram through new trade deals without offering proper oversight. Massive trade deals—such as the Trans Pacific Partnership—now affect everything from America’s economy, to consumer and food safety, to labor standards and our environment. Blindly approving or disapproving agreements that have largely been negotiated in secret would represent a derelict of duty for Congress. If there is nothing to hide in these agreements, we should be allowed to debate and amend these deals in the open. I am committed to doing all that I can to prevent the inappropriate use of Fast Track in Congress.
Read Next: Lee Fang on Obama’s nomination of a SOPA lobbyist for a key trade post.
The crowds that marched on the White House Sunday in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline project arrayed themselves behind a banner that read, “We did NOT vote for KXL.”
That was the most vital political message of a day that saw almost 400 Americans—the overwhelming majority of them young people—arrested as part of a dramatic protest against the oil pipeline project that has drawn outspoken opposition from environmental groups.
A lot of Washington politicians, pundits and professional strategists miss the political dynamic that goes with the pipeline debate. Polling shows that young people “get” the climate change issue, and that they see it as a high political and personal priority.
Indeed, they care about it so much that they marched on the White House to urge the Obama administration not to approve the Keystone proposal. Hundreds were willing to be arrested. They recognize, as notes Smith College student Aly Johnson-Kurts, an organizer of Sunday’s protest, that “the traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient…so we needed to escalate.”
This notion that traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient is significant, especially for Obama and his party.
The Democrats have relied in recent presidential election years on overwhelming support from voters under the age of 30. And they have suffered as enthusiasm among young voters has declined in off-year congressional elections.
In 2008, exit polls suggested, voters aged 18–29 accounted for 18 percent of the 131,313,820 Americans who turned out. Obama won their votes by a striking 66-31 margin over Republican John McCain. Obama’s winning margin was roughly 10 million votes, of which more than 7 million came from young people.
In 2012, according to exit polling, younger voters increased as a percentage of the overall electorate, with 18–29-year-olds making up 19 percent of the 129,085,403 who turned out. They favored Obama by a 60-36 margin. That translates to an advantage of more than 5 million votes for Obama. Notably, Obama won the national popular vote by 4,982,296 votes.
There are analyses that suggest an even more significant youth-vote benefit for Obama and the Democrats in battleground states. But the national numbers should establish the importance of the youth vote.
Unfortunately, turnout among young people tends to slide in off-year congressional elections—like the critical one that the US faces in 2014. In 2010, when Democrats suffered serious setbacks at the federal and state levels, voters under 30 made up just 11 percent of the overall electorate. They still backed Democrats—indeed, they were the only age demographic to do so—but their ability to influence election results was reduced by the sharp reduction in numbers.
The Obama administration must make its call regarding Keystone based on science and sound long-term thinking regarding energy, environmental and agricultural policy.
But those who talk about the political ramifications of this decision should keep in mind that sign that read “We did NOT vote for KXL.”
A 2013 poll found that more than 60 percent of young Americans felt that, were the administration to approve the pipeline, Obama would be breaking a campaign promise. And a significant percentage of those surveyed said they would feel betrayed by a decision to let the Keystone project go forward.
If young voters get a signal that they are not being heard, if they feel disappointed and disenfranchised, there is every reason to believe it will be harder for Democrats to mobilize them in 2014.
That does not mean that all young voters will stay home. Younger voters are not single-issue voters. Millions will still go to the polls in 2014, including, undoubtedly, the vast majority of those who marched on Washington Sunday. But if their percentage of the overall electorate is low, and if a portion of those who do turn out opt out of frustration or hope for a Green alternative, an already tough election season could get dramatically tougher for the Democrats.
Read Next: Keystone XL might be making you sick, literally.
When Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released its report on “The Worst Governors in America” last summer, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was not even on the list. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did make the “cronyism, mismanagement, nepotism, self-enrichment” list, but the review of his tenure was not necessarily the most scathing in CREW’s assessment of Republicans and Democrats who had gone astray. And Ohio Governor John Kasich was ranked as nothing more than a “sideshow.”
Now Christie is busy answering questions about blocked traffic, misdirected Sandy aid and political misdeeds. Walker’s facing national and state scrutiny of secret e-mails and illegal campaign operations so intense that even Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace interrupted him to say, “But sir, you’re not answering my question.” And Kasich is scrambling to deal with a “Frackgate” controversy touched off by the exposure of a public-relations scheme—apparently developed by his administration, Halliburton and oil and gas industry lobbyists—to “proactively open state park and forest land” for fracking.
The scandals surrounding these prominent Republican governors, some of them potential presidential contenders, are serious. And they raise the question: Could there really be a governor who is more controversial? And whose actions might be even more troubling?
The first-term governor packed his administration with lobbyists and used his office to promote their environmental-deregulation agenda, and allegedly went so far as to fire a state employee who testified in favor of policies the administration opposed.
Gov. LePage also attempted to gut his state’s open records act, and is under investigation by the federal government for trying to bully employees of the state Department of Labor into deciding more cases in favor of business.
Now, the federal investigation has been completed, and LePage is still very much in the “worst governor” competition. A report from the US Department of Labor Office of the Solicitor General concluded that LePage and his appointees meddled with the process by which unemployment claims are reviewed—apparently with an eye toward advantaging employers and disadvantaging the jobless.
When the governor and his appointees pressured officials who consider appeals from Mainers seeking unemployment benefits, the federal investigation concluded, they acted with “what could be perceived as a bias toward employers.” Specifically, the investigators determined, “hearing officers could have interpreted the expectations communicated by the Governor…as pressure to be more sympathetic to employers.”
The headlines from Maine newspapers Thursday were blunt:
In the Maine legislature, there were immediate calls for hearings into the governor's actions. State Senator John Patrick, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Labor Committee, said, "After this, I wonder how you can trust the governor to move forward fairly and in an unbiased way." Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, a veteran Democratic legislator, went further, suggesting that LePage should be removed from office. “I think he should be impeached,” said Jackson. “The governor thinks he should be the next [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker, but he should be thinking about being the next [impeached Illinois Governor] Rod Blagojevich.”
Bombastic as ever, LePage on Saturday responded to the impeachment talk by declaring "if (Jackson) has cause, bring it on."
But Mainers were unimpressed.
The "It's Time for Paul LePage to Resign" petition circulated by state Representative Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, had attracted almost 20,000 signatures by Friday afternoon.
For his part, LePage was complaining that he was targeted unfairly by the Obama administration. But the investigation into LePage’s actions go back almost a year and has deep roots in Maine, as noted by the state's Sun Journal newspaper in a front-page story Thursday:
An April 11 Sun Journal investigation cited sources who said the governor had summoned DOL employees to a mandatory luncheon at the Blaine House on March 21 and scolded them for finding too many unemployment-benefit appeals cases in favor of workers. They were told they were doing their jobs poorly, sources said. Afterward, they told the Sun Journal they felt abused, harassed and bullied by the governor.
Emails released under a Freedom of Access Act request echoed complaints made to the Sun Journal by the hearing officers who attended the meeting.
LePage denied the charges and claimed his communications with the hearing officers were “cordial.” When the US Department of Labor investigation was launched—because hearing officers are paid with federal funds and must follow federal rules—the governor denied it was going on.
But there is no denying now that LePage has been called out for creating what reasonable people would interpret as an unfair “bias” against the jobless in a state that has a significantly higher unemployment rate than its northern New England neighbors New Hampshire and Vermont.
LePage is expected to seek re-election this year. Among the candidates he will face is Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, a third-generation paper mill worker who says, “I understand what people are going through, the hard times that they are facing. Whether or not they have a job today or tomorrow, the uncertainty is real.”
Providing a fair process for reviewing unemployment claims helps to address that uncertainty. Infusing bias into the process is not just wrong, it’s cruel. And that cruelty—as much as any political abuse or ethical excess—provides a vital measure for assessing the worst of the worst governors.
Read Next: John Nichols on the Governor Scott Walker investigation
Chokwe Lumumba maintained a civil rights commitment that was rooted in the moment when his mother showed her 8-year-old son the Jet magazine photograph of a beaten Emmett Till in his open casket. The commitment was nurtured on the streets of Detroit, where Lumumba and his mother collected money to support the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s.
Half a century later, he would be the transformational mayor of a major Southern city, Jackson, Mississippi. But just as his tenure was taking shape, Lumumba died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 66.
The mayor’s death ended an epic journey that challenged conventions, upset the status quo and proved the potential of electoral politics to initiate radical change—even in a conservative Southern state.
As a young man, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to address “infectious discrimination, racism and apartheid,” and shocked into a deeper activism by King’s assassination, Lumumba changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro—taking his new first name from an African tribe that had resisted slavery and his new last name from the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Chokwe Lumumba became a human rights lawyer “defending political prisoners.” His clients would eventually include former Black Panthers and rapper Tupac Shakur. His remarkable list of legal accomplishments included his key role in the 2010 decision of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to suspend the sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott, Mississippi sisters who were released after serving sixteen years of consecutive life sentences for an $11 robbery—a punishment that came to be understood as a glaring example of the extreme over-sentencing of African-Americans.
When he was not in court, Lumumba was agitating, as a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist, as a leading figure in the Republic of New Afrika, and as a co-founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
That’s not the usual résumé for the mayor of a major Southern city.
But Chokwe Lumumba had no intention of becoming a usual mayor when he launched his bid last year for Jackson’s top job. After a campaign in which the city councilman was outspent 4-1 and attacked as a militant, Lumumba defeated an incumbent mayor and a business-backed contender in the Democratic primary and then won more than 85 percent of the vote in the June 2013 general election.
He took office not merely with the intent of managing Jackson but with the goal of transforming it. “People should take a note of Jackson, because we have suffered some of the worst kinds of abuses in history, but we’re about to make some advances and some strides in the development of human rights and the protection of human rights that I think have not been seen in other parts of the country,” he told Democracy Now! just days after his election.
For Lumumba, that meant building unprecedented coalitions that crossed lines of race, class, gender, ideology and politics. “Our revolution is for the better idea it’s not just for the change in colors.” he told the Jackson Free Press.
Lumumba wanted Jackson to create a “solidarity economy,” with an emphasis on developing cooperatives and establishing models for local development and worker ownership.
“We have to make sure that economically we’re free, and part of that is the whole idea of economic democracy,” said the mayor, who explained in an interview shortly after his election:
We have to deal with more cooperative thinking and more involvement of people in the control of businesses, as opposed to just the big money changers, or the big CEOs and the big multinational corporations, the big capitalist corporations which generally control here in Mississippi. They are a reality.
And so it’s not that we’re going to throw them out of Mississippi. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I do believe that we can develop ways of working to have Blacks and other—indeed, not just Blacks but other poor people, or people who are less endowed with great wealth—to participate in the economy on an equal basis.
Lumumba was building the coalitions, and gaining a striking level of support for his vision, when he died unxpectedly Tuesday from heart failure.
Lumumba had run for the mayoralty as “a Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and promised to renew the small-“d” democracy vision of Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. True to his campaign slogan, “The People Must Decide,” he sought to organize new social and economic networks (with a special emphasis on developing cooperatives) in Mississippi’s capital city, and boldly asked citizens to vote to raise their own taxes in order to repair the city’s crumbling infrastructure. While most politicians avoid association with tax hikes, Lumumba campaigned across the city of 175,000—announcing that “we can fix the problem”—and on January 14, 2014, the mayor won a 9-1 vote of confidence.
Celebrating that victory, Lumumba declared, “I want to just say that it’s been a resounding victory here, and there’s only one way to go—that’s up. We’re going to do exactly what we said. We said at the very beginning that we were going to take infrastructure and revitalize infrastructure and transition infrastructure into economy.”
The mayor’s enthusiasm extended to his efforts to convince Mississippi’s conservative legislature to support aid to Jackson. He created a sense that just about anything was possible in a city that embraced his activist agenda on human rights and economic justice issues.
“I have known Mayor Lumumba since 1974,” said Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi. “One of the reasons I was so public about my support for the mayor, was that I believed once people got to know the real Chokwe Lumumba they would find him to be an extremely bright, caring and humble individual. His election as mayor and very short term in office demonstrated exactly that.”
Lumumba’s death, from heart failure, came as a shock. And a shocking loss for a city that had elected him just months earlier. Crowds gathered at Jackson’s city hall to mourn that loss. “Words cannot do justice to the emotions we all feel right now. Our great captain has fallen. Our hearts are broken,” said Hinds County (Jackson) Democratic Party chair Jacqueline Amos. “The legacy of Chokwe Lumumba must not be buried with the man.”
Amos is so very right.
Cities are the places where radical reformers can still break the political mold and make real change, where the politics of concession and compromise can be replaced with the politics of people power and renewal. Chokwe Lumumba proved that, and the best way to honor his accomplishment is to elect more mayors who are as determined as he was to be transformative leaders.
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Even before Chris Christie’s traffic troubles took the shine off his presidential prospects, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was moving to position himself as an acceptable alternative for Republicans who might still be thinking that a governor would make a good 2016 nominee.
Walker has a long history of arguing choosing a state official with little experience in Washington—like, perhaps, Scott Walker—is the Republicans’ best option for retaking the White House. “An ideal candidate to me would be a current or former governor,” Walker said last fall. “Just because I think governors have executive experience and, more importantly, I think there’s a real sense across America that people want an outsider.”
But in January, as attention was turning toward him, Walker got more specific.
“There are similarities between a governor and a president,” he explained.
Asked how voters might judge governors who bid for the presidency, the Wisconsinite replied, “Governors should be defined not just by what they do and say, but who they surround themselves with, making sure to have the smartest person for a particular task or to head a specific agency. They should be judged on that basis and who they take advice from.”
Just as Christie did in January, Walker has responded to the release of controversial e-mails from an "inner circle" of top aides by suggesting that he did not know what was going on around him. But the people both men put in positions of authority and public trust certainly did know.
When he was bidding for the governorship of Wisconsin, Scott Walker selected aides who have since been convicted of engaging in illegal activities, disregarding the trust and the responsibilities that are supposed to go with public positions. At the same time, their communications included slurs on women, people of color, gays, Jews, immigrants and people with disabilities.
The release of 28,000 pages of e-mails and more than 400 legal documents associated with the John Doe investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of aides who served with Walker when, as the Milwaukee county executive, he was seeking the governorship.
In addition to doing campaign work on public time—a theft of taxpayer funds—Walker’s aides circulated e-mails that portrayed poor people and African-Americans as dogs. One top aide referred to the image as “hilarious” and “so true.” Another top aide used his e-mail account to circulate an e-mail that mocked racial and ethnic minorities, as well as gay men and people suffering from AIDS.
An unsettling disregard for the human beings they were supposed to be serving showed up on a frequent basis in the e-mails of the people closest to Scott Walker. And when an aide pondered attacking the use of respectful terms for immigrants, gubernatorial candidate Walker replied, “Don’t hold back!”
Walker’s aides rarely held back. Discussing an incident in which a woman died of complications related to starvation she experienced while committed to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, Walker and his aides communicated with one another about how to keep developments in the tragic story under wraps until after the 2010 gubernatorial election.
The callous conversations were summed up by an e-mail in which one of the aides, Kelly Rindfleisch, announced that “no one cares about crazy people.”
Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
There is great truth in that statement, as there is in Scott Walker’s suggestion that “governors should be defined not just by what they do and say, but who they surround themselves with.”
Read Next: Nichols on what Chris Christie and Scott Walker have in common
When John Dingell was a child, he met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dreamed eighty years ago that a groundbreaking Social Security proposal might feature a publicly funded national healthcare program.
Under pressure from the American Medical Association, FDR and his congressional allies scaled back the Social Security proposal.
But the Dingell family kept the dream alive.
In 1943, Dingell’s father, a congressman from Michigan who had played a critical role in enacting the initial Social Security Act of 1935, joined a pair of New Deal stalwarts from the Senate—New York Senator Robert Wagner and Montana Senator James Murray—to propose the rough outline for a single-payer national healthcare system.
Seeking re-election in 1944, Roosevelt campaigned for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that included both “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”
There was a powerful sense that the Dingell-Murray-Wagner bill would frame the underpinnings for that initiative. Its sponsors traveled the country promising to “not give up until the fight is won.”
After Roosevelt died at the beginning of his fourth term in 1945, Harry Truman pressed the issue—only to be blocked by the combination of Republican obstruction, red-baiting and an expensive campaign of opposition.
But John Dingell Sr. kept introducing his national healthcare proposal through the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. And after John Dingell Jr. took his late father’s House seat in 1955, he continued to introduce it as “The United States National Health Insurance Act.”
Much will be made, with the news that John Dingell Jr. will retire from the House at the close of his twenty-ninth full term, of the congressman’s remarkable tenure—elected during President Dwight Eisenhower’s first term, he will leave as the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. As Michigan political veteran Steve Mitchell noted, “With the exception of John Quincy Adams, there’s no one with a longer participation in the affairs of the United States than John Dingell.”
Surely, something will be made of the fact that the dean of the House of Representatives says that serving in the chamber has become “obnoxious…because of the acrimony and bitterness,” in Congress. And of his fierce condemnation of congressional backbiting and obstruction: “The American people could get better government out of monkey island in the local zoo.”
There will, among those who know his record, be recognition that Dingell is leaving as an epic champion of organized labor who opposed flawed trade deals—even when they were sponsored by Democratic presidents. Of his determined opposition, as the guardian of the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society legacies, to any move to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Of his courageous leadership in fights for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and—as the representative of one of the largest Arab-American communities in the United States—of comprehensive and humane immigration reform. And of his prescient votes against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.
There will be some mention of his history of opposing gun control measures and of his occasional clashes, as the representative from an auto-making district, with environmentalists—as well as his key role in shaping the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. And there should be note of his determined advocacy, as a key committee chairman and exceptionally engaged legislator, for scientific research and safe food and drug laws.
But Dingell’s great legacy remains his advocacy for the healthcare reforms that FDR imagined and his father proposed. He presided over the House vote that approved Medicare in 1965 and was so instrumental in crafting the Affordable Care Act that when a critic asked if he had read the bill, Dingell reportedly replied, “Read it? I wrote it.”
The measure as it was finally enacted—after months of negotiation and compromise—was different from what Dingell initially proposed, and from the single-payer approach long championed by the congressman and his father. But, like many veteran advocates for healthcare reform, Dingell saw the ACA as a vital step—one that moved the country closer to the vision of universal healthcare he had advanced across six decades.
Even as he referred to the ACA as “the first truly transformative piece of social reform legislation in the twenty-first century,” Dingell admitted that it did not contain “as much [control on insurance firms] as I think we ultimately are going to need.”
But he did not hesitate to declare, with the passage of the ACA, that “healthcare is no longer a privilege, it is now a right.”
The struggle to guarantee that right continues. Savvy activists, with unions such as National Nurses United and organizations such as Physicians for a National Health Program and Progressive Democrats of America, argue that it will not be fully realized until the United States adopts a “Medicare for All” approach that operates on a single-payer model.
With the retirement of John Dingell, the House will lose its longest-serving champion of fundamental, and fundamentally humane, healthcare reform. As the wrangling over the ACA and other measures continues, it is valuable to recognize the long arc of history that the Dingells bent toward reform. John Dingell Sr., speaking in 1946, decried “a deadly barrage of baseless propaganda” against his initial proposal. But he reminded Americans then, just as his son did across the ensuing decades, that healthcare must not be the privilege of a wealthy few. It must be the right of all Americans.
Watch Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel speaks about this important month for Obamacare.
If a United States senator claims that a key manufacturing facility in his home state would lose a new product line if workers were to vote for a union, might the workers be less inclined to vote for the union?
If legislative leaders in that state threaten to withhold tax incentives for future expansion of the manufacturing facility if a pro-union vote was recorded, might that influence the election?
It would be absurd to try to deny the influence that top elected officials, with powerful connections and control of treasuries and tax policies, could have were they to intervene in this way.
It would be equally absurd for the union to simply walk away from such a blatant assault on not just the rights of workers but the rule of law.
The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, with it’s almost eighty-year history of fighting not just for labor rights but for civil rights and civil liberties in the United States and around the world, is not inclined toward absurdity. So UAW President Bob King announced Friday that the union has asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate the extraordinary level of interference by politicians and outside special interest groups in the mid-February representation election at Volkswagen’s state-of-the-art plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“It’s an outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee,” says UAW president Bob King. “It is extraordinary interference in the private decision of workers to have a U.S. senator, a governor and leaders of the state legislature threaten the company with the denial of economic incentives and workers with a loss of product.”
In the complaint that could lead to an NLRB decision to set aside the controversial result of the first vote and arrange a new election, the UAW argues that top Tennessee Republicans “conducted what appears to have been a coordinated and widely-publicized coercive campaign, in concert with their staffs and others, to deprive VWGOA workers of their federally-protected right, through the election, to support and select the UAW.” The campaign by the elected officials, in combination with efforts by anti-union groups from outside Tennessee to publicize it, was “clearly designed to influence the votes” of Volkswagen workers.
“No VWGOA employee could cast a vote without a well-founded fear that the exercise of the franchise could mean both that their job security at VWGOA and the financial health of their plant could be in serious jeopardy,” reads the detailed complaint of the UAW, which cites NLRB standards and precedents regarding similar forms of interference. “Such an environment, foisted on VWGOA workers by politicians who have no regard for the workers’ rights under federal law, is completely contrary to the environment that the National Labor Relations Act demands for union certification elections.”
The process of challenging the vote is likely to be costly and complex. Success is far from guaranteed. But the complaint is credible, and it is vital to the discourse about the future of unions—and the role that right-wing politicians hope to play in thwarting labor organizing not just in the South but nationally. At a time when Republican governors and legislators across the country are using the authority of government to undermine union organizing and to weaken existing unions, it is entirely appropriate—and increasingly necessary—to raise objections to obvious abuses of power and the public trust.
The Volkswagen vote provides a glaring example of the extremes to which anti-union politicians will go.
By any reasonable measure, the most aggressive campaign to prevent Tennessee Volkswagen workers from deciding for themselves about whether to join the UAW was not waged by the company, nor even by the usual cabal of Koch Brothers-funded zealots from Washington.
As the high-stakes vote at the Chattanooga plant approached, the most prominent and powerful Republican elected officials in the region used their positions of public trust and responsibility to attack the UAW and to suggest that a pro-union vote would harm efforts to expand the plant and bring new jobs to the region.
Republican US Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, began claiming just hours before the voting began that a new product line would come to the plant if workers voted against the union—and indicated that the line might be lost if the workers chose UAW representation. Volkswagen officials vigorously denied that this was the case, and Corker was never able to produce any evidence to support his claims. Yet, because he made them on the eve of the vote, they were not effectively refuted.
Similarly, State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, a powerful Republican legislator, held a news conference two days before the vote in which he declared that a vote for the union would be “un-American” and announced that the Republican-controlled state Legislature would be disinclined toward providing aid that would assist in the expansion of production at that plant. That was no idle threat, as the state provided a $500 million incentive package to help lure Volkswagen to Chattanooga in 2008.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam played along with the anti-union campaign, lending further credence to the threats.
“In my twenty years on the hill [in the Tennessee legislature], I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company,” said Tennessee state Representative Craig Fitzhugh, a senior Democrat.
The intimidation and threats were covered on a daily basis in Chattanooga newspapers and on radio and television stations. The message was clear. “It’s essentially saying, ‘If you unionize, it’s going to hurt your economy. Why? Because I’m going to make sure it does,’” Volkswagen worker Lauren Feinauer said of what she termed an “underhanded threat.”
When the NLRB counted the votes, the UAW organizing drive was narrowly defeated. Very narrowly. If just forty-four votes swung—out of almost roughly 1,400 cast—the union would have won.
Might the underhanded threats from politicians have shifted forty-four votes?
And might those underhanded threats amount to an inappropriate intervention in the election process?
Anti-union politicians, their allies and financial benefactors will, of course, say “no.”
But Volkswagen officials, who adopted a neutral stance with regard to the initial vote, could say “yes.” If they do, key hurdles to a new election would collapse. The company has made no secret of its desire to establish a European-style labor-management “works council” at the plant. Experts on US labor relations have argued that approval of the union must be a part of that process.
So the UAW’s long struggle to organize the VW plant—and foreign auto manufacturers in other parts of the South—is far from finished. Indeed, as union president Bob King says: “We’re committed to standing with the Volkswagen workers to ensure that their right to have a fair vote without coercion and interference is protected.”
Read Next: Ari Burman's feature on the Southern-led Moral Monday protests.
The political and pundit class loves to identify “outsider” candidates for the presidency, looking in particular to governors who have not been tarnished by the compromises and corruptions of Washington. But the trouble with being an “outsider” candidate is that, eventually, you face the same sort of scrutiny as the insiders.
Just as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suffered a blow when the media started to examine the extent to which he mingled politics and governing, so Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is now taking a hit that will inspire serious doubts—even among his admirers—about whether he is ready for the political prime time.
The release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized computers of a former Walker aide who has since been convicted of political wrongdoing, along with more than 400 documents from the first of two major probes into scandals associated with Walker’s service as Milwaukee County executive and his gubernatorial campaigns, is shining new light on the extent to which the controversial governor’s legal, ethical and political troubles will make his transition to the national stage difficult.
The e-mails offer a powerful sense of how Walker and his aides appeared to have blurred the lines between official duties and campaigning when he was seeking the governorship in 2010—taking actions that would eventually lead to the convictions of key aides. Walker, who has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account into a legal defense fund, has not been charged with wrongdoing himself. But the e-mails and legal documents paint a picture of an elected official who was so focused on political positioning that he felt it necessary to order daily conference calls to "better coordinate" between aides in his Milwaukee County Executive office and campaign staff.
Walker’s county aides used a secret e-mail routing system to coordinate campaign events and fundraising, and to trash the woman who would eventually serve as Walker’s lieutenant governor as “the bane of your existence.” They circulated crude, sometimes racist messages. And as news outlets sifted through the e-mails, they found one from a top Walker appointee, administration director Cynthia Archer, telling another aide who had accessed the secret network that she was now “in the inner circle.” “I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW…” wrote Archer.
Scott Kevin Walker identified himself on e-mails as “SKW.” Indeed, among the thousands of e-mails released Wednesday was one from a top Walker aide—Tim Russell, who has since been convicted and hailed. In it, he forwards a link to video of Chris Christie yelling at a reporter with the line: "skw should talk like this."
The largest paper in Wisconsin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which endorsed the governor in the past, featured a banner headline on its Thursday edition that read: "Records Link Walker to Secret Email System."
Walker—who the e-mails reveal thought “9 out of 10 requests [from reporters] are going to be traps” and ordered his county aides to generate “positive and bold stories”—was scrambling Wednesday to dismiss the download of e-mails and legal documents as “old news.” A particularly defensive governor griped about all the attention to the e-mails and documents, saying, “these people are naysayers who want things bad to happen in Wisconsin so they are going to be circling again today. It’s exactly what’s wrong with the political process that they’re hoping for something bad to happen in Wisconsin. It’s not.”
At the same time, the Republican Governors Association—which is chaired by Christie—made a six-figure television ad buy in Wisconsin to protect the governor’s position in a 2014 re-election race where polls show him leading but with support levels below 50 percent.
The e-mails and documents—which media outlets have sought for months—were released by a judge dealing with ongoing legal wrangling over the conviction of former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch for misconduct in public office.
Rindfleisch did not just work for Walker before he was elected governor. She was also associated with him after he took his state post, as a key fund-raiser who traveled with the governor while he raised money nationally. And her name has been linked to a new John Doe probe that reportedly has focused on wrongdoing by individuals and groups that backed the governor’s 2012 campaign to beat a recall vote.
That’s not exactly “old news.” And it comes at a particularly unfortunate moment for Walker, who cannot have been happy with a Wednesday Washington Post headline that read: “Scott Walker, eyeing 2016, faces fallout from probes as ex-aide’s e-mails are released,” and “E-mails may spell trouble for Scott Walker.” Or a Thursday New York Times report that said the emails and documents portray Walker as "having presided over an office where aides used personal computers and email to conceal that they were mixing government and campaign business."
There’s no question that Walker wants to be considered as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Even as he seeks re-election this year, he has been busy touring a new book that conservative commentators say “reads like one gigantic presidential trial balloon,” making the rounds of the same talk shows once frequented by Christie, and maintaining a relentless schedule of national appearances to aid Republican candidates and raise money.
With one-time GOP front-runner Christie mired in scandal, pundits who don’t know much about Walker like to imagine that he might be the next “shiny penny” for Republicans seeking a candidate from outside Washington.
But Walker’s national prospects have never looked as good as his admirers imagine. Even after Christie’s downfall, the Wisconsinite was wrestling with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for last place in most state and national polls of likely Republican caucus and primary voters.
Now, just as Christie faces fallout from an aide’s revealing e-mails, so Walker faces fallout from an aide’s revealing e-mails. The circumstances may be different, and Walker has certainly tried to present himself as a less politically contentious figure than the governor of New Jersey. But when the headlines in Washington are talking about a governor facing “fallout from probes,” and the governor in question is not Chris Christie, there’s a good chance that even the most ardent Republicans will start noticing the tarnish on their shiny penny.
Read Next: The Nation launches "Project 45" to critique the 2016 presidential election.
Rand Paul says he wants a “new” Republican Party.
“I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime for the presidency unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” the senator from Kentucky and all-but-announced 2016 presidential contender said last week.
Paul’s not talking cosmetic changes. He says the GOP must undergo “a transformation, not a little tweaking at the edges.” He 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 wants the party to defend basic liberties. And he reminds his fellow partisans that serious conversations about “big government” must deal with the looming presence of the military-industrial complex.
Paul’s points are well taken—up to a point.
But if he’s serious about making the Republican Party viable nationally, he’s got his directions confused.
This talk of a “new Republican Party” is silly.
If the GOP wants to get serious about reaching out to people of color, defending civil rights and civil liberties, and addressing the military-industrial complex, it doesn’t have to become “new.” It has to become old.
It must return to the values that gave it birth and that animated its progress at a time when the party contributed mightily to the advance of the American experiment.
The Republican Party was, after all, founded by abolitionists and radical immigrants who had fled Europe after the popular revolutions of 1848. They dismissed existing parties that compromised America’s founding promise of equality, and secured the presidency for a man who declared that “Republicans…are for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar.”
The Republican Party became the home of the trust-busters and progressive reformers who laid the groundwork for a New Deal that borrowed ideas from not just Democratic platforms but from Republican agendas. It served as the vehicle of Wendell Willkie, who promoted racial justice at home, supported unions and outlined a “one-world” internationalism that sought to assure that a United Nations, rather than an overburdened United States, would police the planet in the aftermath of World War II. And it ushered into the presidency one Dwight David Eisenhower, who would finish his tenure with this warning:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Indeed, if talk turns to changing the Republican brand into one that might appeal to the great mass of Americans—as Rand Paul suggests it does not now do—it must abandon the dictates of the Wall Street speculators, hedge-fund managers and right-wing billionaires who have defined its agenda toward such extremes.
Where to begin? Why not consider what made the party so appealng when it re-elected Eisenhower in 1956?
In that quite competitive election year, when the Republican ticket carried every state outside the Deep South except Missouri, the party platform declared, “We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance—improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.”
The Republicans of 1956 decried “the bitter toll in casualties and resources” of military interventions abroad, promoted arms reduction, supported humanitarian aid to struggling countries and promised “vigorously to support the United Nations.”
On the domestic front, the party of Lincoln pledged to:
· “Fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex.”
· “Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.”
· “Extend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable.”
· “Stimulate improved job safety of our workers.”
· “Strengthen and improve the Federal-State Employment Service and improve the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system.”
· “Protect by law, the assets of employee welfare and benefit plans so that workers who are the beneficiaries can be assured of their rightful benefits.”
But, recognizing that the government could not protect every worker in every workplace, the Republican Party declared its enthusiastic approval of trade unions and collective bargaining. Noting that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 million” since Eisenhower’s initial election in 1952, the party celebrated the fact that “the process of free collective bargaining has been strengthened by the insistence of this Administration that labor and management settle their differences at the bargaining table without the intervention of the Government.”
Eisenhower’s Republicans promised that a GOP administration and Congress would direct federal dollars toward the construction of schools, hospitals and public housing. The party pledged to fight for "the largest increase in research funds ever sought in one year to intensify attacks on cancer, mental illness, heart disease and other dread diseases” and to provide “federal assistance to help build facilities to train more physicians and scientists.”
And, of course, the Grand Old Party made a commitment to “continue to seek extension and perfection of a sound Social Security system.”
Eisenhower was no left-winger. Many Republicans who came before him (arguably Willkie, certainly Robert M. La Follette) were more liberal, as were a few (George Romney and John Lindsay) who came after him. The thirty-fourth president was, at most, a moderate, who urged the Republican Party to renew its attachment to “the overall philosophy of Lincoln: In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the people’s money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.” He spoke always of a balance that respected the power of government to address the great challenges of society while at the same time feared the excesses and abuses that could occur when government aligned with economic elites and industries at the expense of what he described as the nation’s essential goal: “peace with justice.”
Eisenhower closed his presidency with a prayer: “That all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
What Willkie, Eisenhower and their allies advocated was sometimes referred to as “modern Republicanism.” But, at its most fundamental level, what they advocated was an old Republicanism, renewed and repurposed for a modern age.
In the roughly fifty years since the party was wrestled from the grip of the “modern Republicans,” it has not become “new.” It has simply abandoned its values, its ideals, its basic premises.
Rand Paul says “you can transform a party,” and he notes, correctly, that “the parties have switched places many times throughout history.” But the transformation that the Republican Party needs—and that the United States needs the Republican Party to make—is not toward something “new.”
It is toward something older, and better, than its current incarnation.
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