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The constitutional crisis that has developed in Ferguson, Missouri, begins as is so often the case with a human tragedy. Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager has lost his life, following an incident—now under investigation not just by local authorities but by the US Department of Justice—in which a witness tells CNN, “I saw the police chase him…down the street and shoot him down.”
When circumstances spin out of control, as they clearly have in Ferguson, it is essential always to remember the human element at the heart of the matter. In another time and another place, the singer Peter Gabriel nailed this with the gripping refrain of “Biko,” his anti-apartheid anthem that steadily reminded the world, “A man is dead, a man is dead.”
What has evolved since the death of Michael Brown, however, illustrates the challenges that arise when law-enforcement officials fail to fully recognize and embrace their dual responsibility: to maintain public safety while at the same time guaranteeing the rights of Americans to speak, to practice journalism, to assemble for the purpose of making demands on those in power.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a former state attorney general, seems to recognize that something had gone badly awry. After another turbulent night in Ferguson, the governor finally canceled appearances in other parts of the state on Thursday and announced he was going to the community where heavily armed police have confronted, arrested and detained protesters and journalists.
“The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans,” declared Nixon, a Democrat who on Thursday afternoon announced plans for an “operational shift” and a “different tone” in the policing of Ferguson. “While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.”
Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill was blunt : “We need to demilitarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution. I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right.”
When President Obama spoke about Ferguson on Thursday, he too highlighted constitutional concerns. While the president said there was “never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting,” he emphasized that there is “no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be arresting or bullying journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.”
It is getting difficult to keep count of the number of constitutionally defined protections that have been undermined and neglected in Ferguson. Surely, most lists begin with evidence of a disregard for the promise of equal protection under the law. But they do not end there. The reports from each new day, and especially from each new night, point to a disregard for the First Amendment that tells us no law shall be made “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Law enforcement agencies have a duty to maintain public safety, to arrest and prosecute those who commit crimes, and to take reasonable steps to prevent violence, looting or riots that might threaten communities. But there is a parallel duty to protect against abridgments of First Amendment rights. The balance can be difficult to strike, but it is when the difficulty arises that the striking of the balance is most important.
When the balance is not kept, there is, as Demos president Heather McGhee says, “an affront to democracy” that must be addressed by local, state and federal officials.
“There is nothing more American than a community uniting in the face of tragedy, than ordinary people organizing to peacefully protest injustice,” says McGhee. “The police reaction—to protests of their own violence—has been more violence, less transparency, and an active suppression of first amendment freedoms.”
In Ferguson, there have been chaotic moments. But there have also been sincere efforts by religious and community leaders to peacefully protest police actions. What is unsettling is the extent to which these protests have been met with overwhelming force and responses that appear to rescind basic rights during much of the day. For instance, citizens were told by the police that they should assemble only during daylight hours and protest only in a “respectful manner.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri correctly labeled that police statement as “a direct attack on protected expressive liberty.”
“The protests in Ferguson are at the core of the First Amendment’s protection because they deal with matters of public concern,” wrote Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the Missouri ACLU, in a letter to the Ferguson police chief. The letter notes that “the protests in Ferguson are subject to a heightened protection for the additional reason that they are peaceful and conducted on public streets and sidewalks.”
Mittman’s letter pays particular attention to the police demand that protests proceed in a “respectful manner.” That, he explains, “is far beyond the bounds of permissible government activity. Government agencies do not get to demand respect from protesters. Respect is something that government officials earn from citizens, and citizens are entitled to express their lack of respect by protest on public streets and sidewalks. Actions to suppress peaceful expressive activity dilute that respect and, thus, are contrary to your request.”
Evidence of the constitutional crisis is also found in reports that journalists who are attempting to cover the story are being harassed, arrested and told to exit the scene. On Wednesday night, reporters for The Washington Post and the Huffington Post were detained by police in Ferguson, in what Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron described as a “wholly unwarranted…assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” Later, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has used his Twitter account and interviews to report on developments in the St. Louis suburb, was jailed for most of the night.
“In an American city, people are being tear-gassed and snipers are pointing rifles at them,” French told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after his release Thursday morning. “Everybody should be upset.… [the] heavy-handed police approach is actually making the situation worse.
In particular, French objected in media interviews to police crackdowns on peaceful protests during the evening.
“We have a right to protest 24 hours a day,” the alderman said. “Our constitutional rights don’t expire at 9 p.m.”
Antonio French is right.
That is a basic premise of the American experiment.
It is, as well, a basic premise of effective policing.
During the mass protests at the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011, the top local law enforcement officer on the scene was Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney. Protests went on around the clock for weeks with no serious violence or arrests. The situation was tense at times. But police officers and protesters generally got along. As Mahoney explained, “Law enforcement agencies have responsibilities: They have to keep the peace. And they have to assure that citizens are able to exercise their First Amendment rights. There’s something very troubling about the notion that law enforcement agencies should play a role in preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights. That’s not how it is supposed to work.”
The police can strike the proper balance. And the people will respect them when they do so. This week, Mahoney was up for re-election. The sheriff beat his challenger, winning 89 percent of the vote.
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Mary Burke’s name appeared for the first time on a statewide ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor of Wisconsin.
In fact, it was the first time that Burke’s name had ever appeared on a partisan ballot.
Aside from a successful nonpartisan bid for a seat on the Madison School Board in 2012, Burke has never before contended for elective office.
Yet, on Tuesday, the former Trek Bicycle executive and Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce won the highest vote of anyone on the ballot for any statewide office, taking 83 percent of the vote against state Representative Brett Hulsey, D-Madison. Despite his long record in state politics, Hulsey’s run was weakened by personal and political stumbles; yet in a year of political frustration and disenchantment that has seen top-of-ticket contenders in other states (such as Kansas Governor Sam Brownback) lose as much as 35 percent of the vote to little-known primary challengers, Burke’s finish was robust and significant. Notably, in many western and northern Wisconsin countries where she must renew her party’s appeal, Burke was winning well over 90 percent.
The scope of the statewide win builds on the sense created by recent polls—which have since May portrayed the race as a toss-up, with Walker and Burke both capturing around 47 percent of the likely November vote—that Burke has evolved into a serious challenger to Republican Governor Scott Walker, the anti-labor, pro-austerity, extreme social conservative who began the 2014 race as a prohibitive favorite.
That does not necessarily mean that she will beat Walker, the all-but-announced 2016 Republican presidential contender who was unopposed in Tuesday’s GOP primary. But the strong primary finish provides another indicator that Burke, an unlikely and unexpected contender for the governorship, might well be putting together the campaign that Democrats lacked in their 2010 and 2012 attempts to beat Walker.
A favorite of the Koch brothers and conservative donors across the country, Walker will still have a lot more money to spend in 2014. And he has already confirmed that he will use it wage a scorched-earth campaign, characterized by brutally negative television ads. Unfortunately for the governor, however, his ads may actually have strengthened Burke—especially after the governor launched a bumbling attack on outsourcing by Burke family’s firm, Trek, that drew criticism even from Walker-friendly media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal.
Walker will also have the power of incumbency—no small factor in the hands of a Chris Christie–style electoral micromanager who has done more to politicize appointments and policymaking than any Wisconsin governor in modern times.
But Burke brings to the fall race two strengths that go to the heart of Walker’s vulnerabilities in a state that has not backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Even now, Burke remains relatively unknown—almost half of voters tell pollsters that their opinions of her are not fully formed. That gives Walker an opening for more attacks, of course. But it also means that the challenger has room to build on her strengths, which are:
1. Burke is the first woman ever nominated by a major party for governor of Wisconsin. And polls show that she has benefitted from a gender gap that has been an increasingly significant factor in the state’s elections. Like US Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, who coasted to victory in 2012 on the strength of a 56-41 advantage among women voters (as opposed to a much narrower 51-46 advantage with men for Republican former Governor Tommy Thompson), Burke’s position is bolstered by support from women. Marquette University Law School polls have given Burke a seven- or eight-point lead among likely women voters, while Walker maintains a solid advantage with men.
As women make up more of the electorate, the female voters who are putting Burke into contention could be a determining force in November. If the Democrat builds even marginally on her advantage among women, Burke’s chances of winning expand exponentially. If she can get anywhere near Baldwin’s numbers, she wins. And Burke got a good break on primary night, when voters chose Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ as the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. That means that the Wisconsin Democratic party will, for the first time in history, be running women in both of the state’s marquee races. This could help to attract a crossover vote from moderate Republican women and Republican-leaning independents. But, far more significantly, it could help with generating turnout among young women—a critical factor in a low-turnout off-year election.
2. Burke is, by most reasonable measures, a political newcomer, a relative outsider in a year when voters are very upset with the political class—and when polls show that voters much prefer candidates with a background in business to candidates with a background in politics.
The contrast with Walker is stark. The incumbent has since 1990 run twenty-five primary and general election campaigns (counting a scrapped gubernatorial bid in 2006, but not counting the 2016 presidential bid he is furiously advancing). Few figures in Wisconsin, or national, history more fully fit the definition of a political careerist than Walker. His ambition is intense; he lives for politics and he surrounds himself with political junkies—several of whom have gotten into serious trouble for political abuses. Yet the governor shows few signs of being satisfied with his current position; he has already published a 2016 campaign book, made trips to key Republican primary and caucus states and nurtured a national network of billionaire donors and friendly operatives.
When the Marquette Poll asked Wisconsin voters about Walker’s national ambitions, however, the response was strikingly unenthusiastic. A overwhelming 67 percent of Wisconsinites said they did not want Walker to seek the presidency. And 65 percent (including a majority of Republicans) said they did not think a governor could run for president and handle his state duties.
Like fresh contenders who have won Wisconsin’s governorship in previous periods of political turbulence—most notably Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus in 1978—Burke is not harmed by the fact that she is a first-time statewide candidate. Indeed, in this election, against this incumbent, it could prove to be a decisive strength.
It is not a lack of sympathy with the historic and current circumstance of Iraq’s religious minorities—or of other persecuted peoples in that traumatized country—that leads some of the most humane and responsible members of Congress to say that President Obama must seek approval from the House and Senate before committing the United States military to a new Iraq mission.
Nor is it isolationism or pacifism that motivates most dissent.
Rather, it is a healthy respect for the complex geopolitics of the region combined with a regard for the wisdom of the system of checks and balances and the principles of advice and consent outlined in the US Constitution.
Consider the case of Barbara Lee.
Few members of the House of Representatives have a so long and distinguished a record of commitment to respecting and protecting the interests of vulnerable populations in distant lands than Lee, a California Democrat who has been deeply engaged in international human rights advocacy since her days as an aide to former Congressman Ron Dellums, D-California.
Since her election to Congress in 1998, Lee has been the essential author or co-author of major pieces of legislation dealing with international HIV/AIDS issues, including the measure that created the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria. She organized bipartisan coalitions to respond to genocide in Darfur.
She was a leader the effort to establish the position of special adviser for orphans and vulnerable children. She has served as a US representative to the United Nations. And she has argued, well and wisely, that the hard work of diplomacy, the provision of humanitarian aid, the steady support of international institutions and the recognition of distinct regional issues is invariably more likely to help the world’s most vulnerable peoples than war-making.
Of course Barbara Lee supports immediate and intensive efforts to provide vital aid to the Yazidi people, a religious minority facing harrowing threats from the militant forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Of course, she wants to aid and protect religious, cultural and ethnic minorities.
That is why she was one of the first members of the House to express support for “humanitarian efforts to prevent genocide in Iraq.”
Lee praises the president for announcing that “there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”
But she still expresses legitimate concern about “US mission creep in Iraq and escalation into a larger conflict, which I oppose.”
Within hours of President Obama’s announcement that, in addition to humanitarian efforts, he was authorizing military airstrikes on ISIS forces, Lee called for the president “to seek congressional authorization before any combat operations.”
“For too long, Congress has abdicated its Constitutional role in matters of war and peace,” she explained. “The President should come to Congress for authorization of any further military action in Iraq.”
Lee is not alone in w orrying about the threat of US mission creep in Iraq .
Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for hunger relief and related humanitarian initiatives, warned with regard to the airstrikes ordered last week by the president, “These strikes do involve the United States directly in hostilities, regardless of how limited they are and regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian purpose involved. “
In July, the House voted overwhelmingly for a resolution written by McGovern, Lee and Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, which explicitly signaled opposition to any prolonged US military intervention in Iraq without congressional approval. “We made it very clear that we believe Congress has a significant constitutional role to play,” says McGovern, who explains, “When we bomb ISIS, which is a horrible group, we have to realize that we are heading down the path of choosing sides in an ancient religious and sectarian war inside Iraq. While choosing sides may be something Congress decides that it wants to support, it goes beyond the humanitarian mission of providing relief to civilians stranded on a mountain in imminent danger of dying of hunger and thirst. It goes beyond protecting our military and diplomatic personnel. I am concerned that we are already seeing these different missions blur into one in the press and in Congress. That is deeply troubling.”
Congressman John Garamendi, a California Democrat who has remained deeply involved with conflict resolution in the African region where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer, was quick to voice support for the “ongoing humanitarian mission of airdropping food and water” into Iraq. But he added, “I am seriously concerned that these targeted strikes may become a slippery slope.”
Garamendi says, “Congress needs greater clarity on the objectives of this expanding action.”
That clarity will benefit not just Congress but President Obama.
Even close allies of the president, such as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the number-two Democrat in the Senate, insist that escalation “is not in the cards.”
“We cannot send the troops, we must not send the troops,” Durbin argued on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Escalating it is not in the cards. Neither the American people nor Congress are in the business of wanting to escalate this conflict beyond where it is today. I think the President’s made it clear this is a limited strike. He has, I believe, most Congressional support for that at this moment. To go beyond is really going to be a challenge.”
Arizona Senator John McCain and his neoconservative allies take a different view, as do some liberal interventionists. But the necessity of congressional debate is about more than partisanship and ideology. All sides should recognize not just the requirement of congressional consent but the value of the process.
There is a mistaken notion that the system of checks and balances threatens the authority of the presidency. In fact, it can, and often does, provide necessary definition for a commander in chief. When a president seeks the advice and consent of Congress for military intervention, the process itself conveys authority—along with a broad understanding of the mission that is being proposed.
This is as the founders of the American experiment intended, and that intent remains entirely appropriate. If a president proposes a fool’s mission, Congress should be able to prevent him from embarking upon it. If a president proposes a necessary mission, Congress can and in all likelihood will give approval—not always as quickly as the commander in chief would prefer, but on a timeline (and wi th parameters) that will balance executive urgency with legislative caution.
It is not a lack of conscience, or humanity, that inspires the demand that every president—be he a Democrat or she a Republican, be he a conservative or she a liberal—seek the approval of Congress before intervening militarily in a distant land. It a basic premise of the American experiment, as outlined in our Constitution and in our common sense of who we are and how we might best respond to a dangerous and difficult world.
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“I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States,” declared Oregon Democrat Wayne Morse during the August 7, 1964, debate that preceded the US Senate’s 88-2, vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.”
After just forty minutes of debate on August 7, 1964, the US House voted 416-0 to authorize President Lyndon Johnson to use of “conventional” military force in Southeast Asia. The Senate debate took longer—roughly nine hours—giving voice to the deceit, deception and fantasy that would serve as the excuses for what came to be known as the Vietnam War. Yet it also solidified the reputations of two dissenting senators as visionaries.
Senator Morse formally opposed the resolution on constitutional grounds, declaring that Article I of the Constitution would be violated if Congress surrendered its authority to check the President’s power. The Constitution establishes the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but to balance and check this power the Constitution invests Congress with the power to declare war.
When the resolution passed, Morse declared that Congress had surrendered its authority, and therefore the authority of the people it was elected to serve. Morse also deplored the open-ended nature of the approval and condemned Congress for giving the president and the military a “blank check” that would be cashed with taxpayer’s money and citizens’ lives.
The other foe was Ernest Gruening, a former editor of The Nation who helped lead the territory of Alaska to statehood before his election as the new state’s senator.
Gruening shared Morse’s constitutional concerns. But as a long-time participant in great debates about issues of colonialism, empire and democracy, Gruening outlined a second set of reasons for opposing the resolution.
Echoing arguments made by the Johnson administration, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution claimed that “naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace.” Historians and scholarly analysts would eventually call much of what was claimed into question, debunking key practical and political arguments for the resolution; but Gruening acknowledged a measure of conflict.
What he argued was that the troubles in the region needed to be seen context. And he said that they did not justify providing what The New York Times described as “Congressional prior approval of ‘all necessary measures’ that the president may take ‘to repel any armed attack’ against United States forces and ‘to prevent further aggression.’”
To Gruening and a few others, that seemed dangerously open-ended. One of the youngest members of the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Gaylord Nelson, proposed an amendment explicitly stating that Congress wanted no extension of the existing military conflict and no direct military involvement by the United States. Nelson was told by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman William Fulbright, D-Arkansas, that the amendment was not “contrary to the joint resolution,” but Fulbright said it could not be added for procedural reasons. With that assurance, Nelson grudgingly supported the resolution.
But Gruening, a World War I veteran who in the aftermath of that awful conflict campaigned for anti-imperialist Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr.’s 1924 presidential run (as did a young Wayne Morse), refused to write the blank check. The Alaskan had already advised the Johnson administration, to “disengage immediately, to relieve all our military of combat assignments and bring them home at once”—telling the Senate in March 1964, “I consider the life of one American boy worth more than this putrid mess. I consider every additional life that is sacrificed in this forlorn venture a tragedy. Some day…if this sacrificing is continued it will be denounced as a crime.” Now, he announced on the Senate floor that he would oppose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
“Regrettably, I find myself in disagreement with the President’s Southeast Asian policy,” he told the chamber. “The serious events of the past few days, the attack by North Vietnamese vessels on American warships and our reprisal, strikes me as the inevitable and foreseeable concomitant and consequence of U.S. unilateral military aggressive policy in Southeast Asia.”
Gruening described, with eerie foresight, how Johnson and then President Richard Nixon might use the resolution to extend an undeclared war.
“We now are about to authorize the President if he sees fit to move our Armed Forces…not only into South Vietnam, but also into North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and of course the authorization includes all the rest of the SEATO [Southeast Asia Treaty Organization] nations,” the 77-year-old senator said. “That means sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated. This resolution is a further authorization for escalation unlimited. I am opposed to sacrificing a single American boy in this venture. We have lost far too many already.”
More than 58,000 Americans would be killed in action, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, and hundreds of thousands more in neighboring countries.
But, as is so often the case in politics, foresight was not rewarded. In 1968, Gruening was defeated for re-election, as was Morse. Gaylord Nelson, who within weeks of the vote was warning that the president was exceeding the authority he had been granted, survived politically and became a leading antiwar voice in the Senate. Long after a 1970 amendment vote in the Senate renounced the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Nelson was still paying homage (in interviews with this writer and others) to Morse and Gruening for getting it right when it mattered.
American history contains the stories of a number of brave representatives and senators who have recognized the folly of surrendering “blank-check” authority over matters of war and peace to the executive branch.
Bob La Follette, the Wisconsin progressive who so inspired Gruening and Morse, led a lonely band of senators and House members who in 1917 opposed Woodrow Wilson’s rush to enter World War I.
Jeannette Rankin, who as a young House member from Montana joined La Follette in opposing World War I, cast the sole vote and against declaring war following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Montana, cast the only vote against authorizing President George W. Bush to wage an initially ill-defined and open-ended “war on terror” in 2001.
Like the others, Ernest Gruening well understood the constitutional risks. What remains striking, even now, fifty years on, is the extent to which he also saw the overarching threat posed by entry into wars in which “we have no business” and of the ensuing “escalation unlimited.”
It gave Gruening no pleasure that he was right. Indeed, he devoted the last years of his life, in the Senate and then as a citizen, to ardent opposition to the war—opening a 1969 article for The Nation by declaring, “It is, and for some time has been, obvious that the most important issue facing our nation is to get out of the war in Southeast Asia. All our other issues and problems are slighted, impaired and unresolved until we halt the fighting, stop the concomitant continuing drain of blood and treasure, and turn to the long-neglected and pressing needs at home.”
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The US House of Representatives voted 225-201 last week for a measure “providing for authority to initiate litigation for actions by the President or other executive branch officials inconsistent with their duties under the Constitution of the United States.”
Translation: House Republicans approved the use of public time and resources to support Speaker John Boehner’s strategy to stir up the conservative base with a lawsuit challenging President Obama’s authority to do what previous presidents have done.
So, despite the fact that a majority of Americans see the lawsuit as a “political stunt,” it will be pursued because, as House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan says, “We want to show that we’re not going to take this lying down.”
The timing of the vote—just before the August congressional break in a critical election year—certainly suggests that this lawsuit is more about politics than the Constitution. But political moves matter, especially at the presidential level. They matter electorally. And they matter from a policy standpoint.
So what’s significant here is the question of whether Obama will be intimidated by Boehner’s initiative.
The immediate answer would appear to be “no.”
Though they have many complaints—topped by the usual objections to implementation of the Affordable Care Act—Boehner’s minions have repeatedly raised particularly loud objections regarding the issuance of executive orders that that they see as too ambitious in their intention to protect the environment, aid vulnerable children and better the condition of workers. Yet, after the House voted to back Boehner, Obama issed another order.
In fact, he issued one of the most important orders of his presidency. The Fair and Safe Workplaces Order outlines a set of requirements that are designed to steer federal contracts toward companies that respect labor and civil rights laws.
The president’s order is important. “Currently, there are about 24,000 contractors doing business with the federal government, employing about 28 million workers,” explains Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen. “By requiring prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations, including illegal discrimination and firing of workers who want to exercise their right to organize, more companies may decide that obeying the law and respecting workers’ rights is the smart move after all.”
While Obama’s order is significant, it is not radical—in practice or in the context of past presidential orders.
The order uses transparency (disclosure and reporting requirements for companies) to assure that agencies awarding federal contracts can take into consideration whether bidders for federal contracts have complied with health and safety requirements, wage and hours protections, collective bargaining rules and civil rights laws.
“Requiring companies to disclose their recent compliance with labor and employment laws and allowing agencies to consider those records in the bid process will better ensure that companies receiving taxpayer-funded contracts actually satisfy our nation’s basic wage and workplace standards,” explains National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens. “Formal consideration of compliance records in the bidding process will also level the playing field between bidders, reducing the ability of bottom-feeders to shortchange their employees in order to gain an unfair advantage over law-abiding competitors. And incentivizing federal contractors to obey the law protects taxpayers’ interest in ensuring that their tax dollars do not underwrite illegal conduct such as wage theft, health and safety violations, and other unlawful practices that are not only inconsistent with our values but ultimately shift greater costs onto the American public.”
The executive order creates new avenues for encouraging companies to respect protections for minorities and women in the workplace. In particular, notes National Women’s Law Center co-president Marcia D. Greenberger, Obama’s order “will prohibit companies with contracts of more than $1 million from forcing their employees to arbitrate violations of federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, or religion or tort claims arising out of sexual harassment or sexual assault.”
The notion that this is overreach, worthy of a legal action by Congress, is a stretch. After all, while Obama is doing something important here, he is not blazing a new trail as regards protection of the civil rights of federal contract workers.
Consider the record:
§ In 1941, under pressure from Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union president A. Philip Randolph and a burgeoning civil rights movement, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which required that defense contracts include provisions to bar private contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin. The order also established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which was empowered to investigate discrimination cases and “to take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid.”
§ In 1943, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9346, which applied the anti-discrimination requirement to all government contractors.
§ In 1948, again under pressure from Randolph and his allies, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which banned discrimination in the US military. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” read the order, which established a high-level committee to investigate instances of bias and to make recommendations for how to eliminate it.
§ In 1951, President Truman issued Executive Order 10308, which created the federal Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which was charged with assuring that federal contractors continued, in the post–World War II era, to comply with the non-discrimination provisions of Executive Order 8802
§ In 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10479, which established the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization (an expansion of the Government Contract Committee) to assure that federal contractors respected all anti-discrimination orders and initiatives. Eisenhower’s order declared, “It is the obligation of the contracting agencies of the United States Government and government contractors to ensure compliance with, and successful execution of, the equal employment opportunity program of the United States Government.”
§ In 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” Kennedy’s order also created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which was to work with federal agencies to advance the initiative. It was chaired by Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
§ In 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which expanded federal programs to combat discrimination and implement affirmative action programs. The order specifically prohibited “federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do over $10,000 in Government business in one year from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” And it gave the secretary of Labor the job of administering the order’s anti-discrimination protections and initiatives. “Today,” according to the Department of Labor, “Executive Order 11246, as amended and further strengthened over the years, remains a major safeguard, protecting the rights of workers employed by federal contractors—approximately one-fifth of the entire US labor force—to remain free from discrimination on the basis of their gender, race, religion, color or national origin…and opening the doors of opportunity through its affirmative action provisions.”
Presidents, from George Washington on, have issued executive orders. And in the last century, executive orders have been closely—and consistently—tied to the improvement of the circumstance of workers employed by federal contractors.
In issuing executive orders that respect workers and advance civil rights, President Obama is doing what past presidents have done. The only difference is that he faces a lawsuit from a Congress that, in addition to failing to act on its own, wants to prevent the president from acting to get things done.
Reasonable people can and should debate the limits of presidential power, particularly when it comes to issues of war and peace, and questions about spying on Americans or politicizing positions of public trust. Any serious discourse on executive overreach would find plenty to criticize in the approaches of all recent presidents—including President Obama.
But “reasonable” and “serious” are not the words that come to mind as the most powerful and prominent Republicans in Congress attack their president’s executive orders with regard to federal contracts and contractors. The word that comes to mind is “obstruction.” Presidents have often faced obstruction when it comes to protecting workers. And from FDR’s day to today, the response has been to issue executive orders.
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With due respect to congressional Republicans who want to hold President Obama to account for supposedly exceeding his executive authority, and to congressional Democrats who want to hold House Republicans to account for failing to live up to their legislative responsibilities, members of both parties should be focusing now on the question of how to hold the Central Intelligence Agency to account.
CIA officials on Thursday acknowledged that agency operatives spied on computers that were being used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers who were using to prepare report on an investigation of “enhanced interrogation” techniques and related detention issues. An inquiry by CIA Inspector General David Buckley determined that five CIA employees, two lawyers and three information technology specialists obtained access to what was supposed to be a secure network for the Senate staffers.
The CIA says agency employees “acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding” of how the agency and the Senate are supposed to communicate.
The translation from Colorado Senator Mark Udall adds clarity: “The CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress by hacking into Senate Intelligence Committee computers.”
CIA director John Brennan has apologized to Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss.
But if Congress is to maintain meaningful oversight over the federal intelligence agencies, the need for a meaningful response to what Senator Patrick Leahy describes as “a very dark chapter in our nation’s history” cannot be lost amid the usual flurry of internal inquiries, official apologies and “expressions of concern.” As Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, says, “We’re the only people watching these organizations, and if we can’t rely on the information that we’re given as being accurate, then it makes a mockery of the entire oversight function.”
King is right. But what, then, is the appropriate response?
Udall argues that Brennan should resign. “This grave misconduct not only is illegal, but it violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of powers,” says the Colorado Democrat. “These offenses, along with other errors in judgment by some at the CIA, demonstrate a tremendous failure of leadership, and there must be consequences.”
Holding the head of the agency to account is one element of accountability. But the shuffling of those in leadership positions is only a part of a reassertion of the oversight function outlined in the Constitution. As Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, says, there must be a signal that it is “absolutely unacceptable in a democracy” for an intelligence agency to break into Senate computer files and to try to point fingers of blame at innocent Senate staffers.
Christopher Anders, the senior legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, says the matter should be referred to the Justice Department for investigation.
“It is hard to imagine a greater threat to the Constitution’s system of checks and balances than having the CIA spy on the computers used by the very Senate staff carrying out the Senate’s constitutional duty of oversight over the executive branch. It was made worse by CIA Director John Brennan’s misleading the American people in denying any wrongdoing,” explains Anders. “These latest developments are only the most recent manifestations of a CIA that seems to believe that it is above and beyond the law. An uncontrolled—and seemingly uncontrollable—CIA threatens the very foundations of our Constitution.”
A Justice Department inquiry is appropriate.
Ultimately, however, it becomes vital for the Senate to reassert its own authority.
That’s what happened in the 1970s. As the Senate’s own history recalls, “In 1973 the Senate Watergate committee investigation revealed that the executive branch had used national intelligence agencies to carry out constitutionally questionable domestic security operations. In 1974 investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an exposé in The New York Times uncovering a CIA domestic spy operation in violation of the agency’s charter that had been ongoing for more than a decade. Former CIA officials and some lawmakers, including Senators William Proxmire and Stuart Symington, called for a congressional inquiry.”
Senate leaders tapped Idaho Democrat Frank Church to lead an investigation that would—after “holding 126 full committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewing some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and combing through 110,000 documents”—produce a 1976 report that concluded, “Intelligence agencies have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens, primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.”
Acting on a Church Committee’s recommendation, the Senate in 1976 approved the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It’s responsibility was to provide “vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
The Intelligence Committee should do just that.
As the senior member of the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Leahy says, “Congressional oversight of the executive branch, without fear of interference or intimidation, is fundamental to our Nation’s founding principle of the separation of powers. The CIA’s misconduct threatens the institution of the Senate and its role in ensuring the proper oversight of our government.”
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Election seasons are supposed to provide an opportunity for sitting officials to explain their records, and for challengers to question them. And when a top official is facing intense scrutiny based on recent revelations—as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is in the aftermath of reports regarding his administration’s handling of a corruption inquiry—the need for election season accountability is that much greater.
So it only makes sense that Cuomo should accept the debate challenge posed by his Democratic primary foe, Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.
Cuomo took a hard hit when The New York Times reported on July 23 that a high-powered commission he established to root out corruption “was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.” That followed an earlier report in the New York Daily News that “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission killed a subpoena to the state Democratic Party that he controls.”
Cuomo says it is “false” to suggest that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption had its independence “trumped” by his aides. But the Daily News says, “Cuomo insisted Monday that the commission operated independently—a rather stunning statement, given his past gyrations.” And the Times says, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran for office four years ago promising first and foremost to clean up Albany. Not only has he not done that, but now he is looking as bad as the forces he likes to attack.”
No matter how hard Cuomo and his allies may try to defuse the issue, it’s going to stick with him through this election year. And the governor will only make things worse for himself if he is seen as avoiding public forums for addressing the issues that have arisen.
That’s one of the reasons Cuomo should accept Teachout’s proposal for at least three debates before the September 9 Democratic primary.
Teachout lacks Cuomo’s name identification and campaign treasury. But she is a uniquely credible challenger in this race, and for this debate. As the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, which has been in the forefront of advocacy for increased transparency and accountability government and politics, she’s an actual expert on corruption issues—and on how to address them. She has written widely on, spoken about and debated issues of money in politics at the local, state and national levels for years. And she has earned national acclaim as a lawyer, an academic and an author on numerous books, including the upcoming Corruption in America, which will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.
And Teachout has made a uniquely credible case for why debates are needed.
“The Cuomo administration’s handling of the Moreland Commission distills what plagues our democracy: a special class of insiders in Albany, connected through financial and political clout, have immunized themselves from the law,” she says. “Governor Cuomo has taken this corruption and elevated it to new levels.”
The governor would, undoubtedly, disagree with that assessment, as he would with Teachout’s argument that “[t]he corruption in our Government is threatening the very basis of our democracy. Albany is working for big money, instead of the people of the state.”
But when a credible challenger, with background and expertise on a central issue, makes such a charge, that is precisely the point at which an incumbent officeholder should be expected to respond.
What makes Teachout’s invitation even more worthy of a response is the fact that she makes it not as a partisan who has always been at odds with Cuomo but as someone who once backed the governor. “I supported Andrew Cuomo in 2010 because I believed he would follow through on his promises to clean up Albany. In his campaign booklet of 2010, Andrew Cuomo said that State government was plagued by scandal,” says Teachout. “I believed him when he said, ‘In many cases the dysfunction has metastasized into corruption that would make Boss Tweed blush.’ I believed him when he said we must restore honor and integrity to Government.”
Now, argues the challenger, Cuomo has become an example of what he said he would address. “Shutting down your own anti-corruption commission when it gets too close to power,” explains Teachout, “ is something that would make Boss Tweed blush.”
Incumbents and front-runners don’t like to debate primary challengers.
But primary debates have a great history in New York Democratic politics. When Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch were running against each other for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, they debated close to a dozen times—taking their sometimes intense discourse to every corner of the state. Mario Cuomo won the primary and the governorship.
Twenty years later, when Andrew Cuomo first bid for New York’s governorship in 2002, he participated in a series of debates with his Democratic primary foe, State Comptroller Carl McCall. Cuomo lost that year, but he came back eight years later. In 2010, he secured the Democratic nod without a serious fight, but Cuomo willingly participated in a wild fall debate that included not just Republican nominee Carl Paladino but five candidates representing smaller parties. (Primary and general election debates should include all the candidates who have qualified for the ballot.) Stressing his determination to root out fraud, abuse and corruption, Cuomo was generally seen as having won the debate—as he did the ensuing election.
Debates are good for democracy. But they are not merely exercises in civil duty. Debates allow for the airing of complex issues of personal and political integrity that can never be adequately addressed in thirty-second attack ads on television.
A debate -- preferably, multiple debates -- before the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New York would allow capable candidates an opportunity to wrestle not just with questions about the Moreland Commission and money in politics but with a range of pressing issues.
Teachout wants debates on education, immigration and hydrofracking.
“But,” she adds, well aware of the turn New York’s 2014 campaign has taken, “all three would end up in a debate about corruption.”
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Paul Ryan’s fellow Republicans are quick to dismiss Elizabeth Warren as too radical, too progressive, too populist.
But Ryan is trying—a bit clumsily, but trying all the same—to borrow a page from the Massachusetts senator as he seeks to remake himself in anticipation of a potential 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s talking about poverty, about inequality, about shifting the focus away from meeting the demands of corporations and toward meeting the needs of Americans.
Mitt Romney’s running mate is abandoning Romneyism for populism—or what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has referred to as “Paul Ryan’s Faux Populism.”
Instead of repeating the Mittnomers of 2012—“Corporations are people, my friend”—Ryan is suddenly informing fellow conservatives, “There’s another fallacy popular among our ranks. Just as some think anything government does is wrong, others think anything business does is right. But in fact they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.”
True enough. Populists and progressives have warned for more than a century that corporations are “boldly marching, not for economic conquests only, but for political power.” The author of those words, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan , asked in 1873: “Which shall rule—wealth or man; which shall lead—money or intellect; who shall fill public stations—educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?” Edward Ryan’s worst fears have been confirmed, as Elizabeth Warren noted when she told Netroots Nation activists, “The game is rigged and the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much.”
Cue Paul Ryan, announcing as only a career politician can, that “our country has had enough of politics.” He’s proposing to “reconceive the federal government’s role in the fight against poverty.” And he is even ripping corporations, decrying the way in which big government has become “a willing accomplice” of big business.
Ryan explained last week at Hillsdale College’s Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship session that “crony capitalism isn’t a side effect; it’s a direct result of big government.”
Grab the pitchforks!
But don’t look for Paul Ryan on the front lines of actual fights to reduce inequality or address injustice.
The House Budget Committee chairman, who on Thursday released an “anti-poverty proposal” that rehashed decades-old schemes to scale back safety-net programs and regulatory protections for low-income Americans, offers scant evidence of a serious determination to solve the problems that have got Americans up in arms. If Ryan was serious, he wouldn’t be proposing, as his “Opportunity Grant” plan does, to “consolidate” existing federal programs to aid the poor into block grants to the states—an approach that would give Republican governors, who have already shown a penchant for undermining healthcare, food-stamp and education initiatives, the “flexibility” to do even more harm.
Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who serves with Ryan on the Budget Committee, nails it when he warns about a proposal that “uses the sunny language of ‘reform’ as a guise to cut vital safety-net programs.”
Marian Wright Edelman was even blunter.
“House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s draft is a small, mean and worn idea that picks on poor children and families while not asking for one cent of sacrifice from rich corporations and rich individuals. His proposal would dismantle the safety net that is working,” said the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, who ticked off federal programs that would be threatened by Ryan’s scheme. “Head Start works, it gets poor children ready for school. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) works, it keeps the wolves of hunger at bay. Title I works, the funds are going to help our most disadvantaged schools and students, but the funds need to be increased and accountability tightened. I look forward to the next draft from Chairman Ryan that is fair to poor children and families and asks the rich corporations and individuals to pay their fair share.”
Edelman could end up waiting for a long time, as the congressman has not coupled his momentarily populist rhetoric with anything akin to a call for corporate responsibility or fair taxation.
So if Ryan is not really worried about holding corporations to account, and if he is not evidencing a serious intent address the problem of inequality, what is on his mind?
The answer, of course, is that Ryan is worried about addressing his own problem: an association in the public’s mind with the failed messages of the 2012 Romney-Ryan campaign.
Last week’s populist speech at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship and this week’s poverty speech at the American Enterprise Institute begin the roll-out of Paul Ryan Version 2.0. Next comes the August publication of Ryan’s 2016 campaign book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, complete with its epic cover shot of Americans reaching out to touch a triumphal Ryan. Then there’s the bus tour.
Yes, the bus tour.
So Ryan is campaigning. To the extent that it is possible he will do so in populist style and with populist rhetoric about crony capitalism and fighting poverty.
But don’t be confused.
This is still the same Paul Ryan who went to the floor of the House in 2008 and rallied Republicans to support the Wall Street bailout. This is still the same Paul Ryan who opposed regulation of the big banks. This is still the same Paul Ryan who supported and continues to support) the free trade deals demanded by multinational corporations. This is still the same Paul Ryan who has peddled Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare “reforms” that would turn sound programs into vehicles for steering federal funds into the accounts of Wall Street speculators and health-insurance corporations.
This is still the same Paul Ryan who during the current election cycle has padded his campaign committee and “leadership PAC” accounts with almost $9 million in donations—with Wall Street securities and investment interests and the health-insurance industry giving most generously. And this is the same Paul Ryan who, when Congress took its August break in 2013 jetted home to Wisconsin via Arizona—where he was a featured speaker at the annual retreat for billionaire donors organized by the Koch brothers.
The other featured speaker was then–House majority leader Eric Cantor, for whom the ensuing months did not go well. Cantor’s Republican primary defeat—at the hands of a critic of “crony capitalism”—provided an indication that the American people are increasingly agitated. And increasingly disinclined toward the sort of insider politics practiced by career politicians such as Ryan.
Ryan got the signal.
He is rebranding himself.
He has downloaded some populist rhetoric to go with his “kinder, gentler” talk about poverty.
But Paul Ryan’s populism is not the real thing. It’s the Koch-tested, Koch-approved version.
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The austerity agenda as it plays out on the ground in American cities is often so relentless in demanding cuts in public services that it is easy to imagine that it cannot be upended. And that goes double for Detroit, where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has given his appointed “emergency manager”—rather than local elected officials—control over critical decisions regarding city operations.
But that does not mean that austerity always wins.
Last week, protests by Detroiters and allies from across the country focused local, national and international attention on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s program of shutting off water service for thousands of low-income families that have fallen behind in paying bills. On Friday, religious leaders and community activists were arrested after blocking trucks operated by the private contractor that was responsible for the shutoffs. At the same time, a mass march filled the streets of downtown Detroit with protesters arguing that the most vulnerable citizens of a city hard hit by deindustrialization ought not be further harmed by the loss of a basic necessity that the United Nations deems a human right.
Members of National Nurses United and the Michigan Nurses Association declared the city to be “a public health emergency zone.” And Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, told the crowd, “Water should be available to everybody. It shouldn’t be something that only people who can afford it can get.”
On Monday, the Water and Sewerage Department announced that it was suspending water shutoffs for fifteen days. The department says it is merely “pausing” to do more education about what it refers to as a “collection campaign” to get payment for unpaid bills from residents of a city that is itself in the midst of a bankruptcy process. Activists with the People’s Water Board coalition say, “We have a little over two weeks to make [the halt to shutoffs] permanent.”
There is actually a great deal that must be done. “The city of Detroit’s fifteen-day moratorium on water shut-offs, announced [Monday] nearly four months after the shut-offs began, is welcomed but inadequate relief for a city in which thousands of residents either have lost or face the continuing threat of losing access to water,” announced the ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, both of which have argued that the water shutoffs violate both civil and human rights.
That focus on civil and human rights has been central to what has developed into a powerful challenge to to a specific manifestation of austerity in Detroit—a challenge that could serve as a model for other fights on the local, state and national levels.
The decision to suspend shutoffs came just three days after the arrests and the mass march brought the issues into clear focus—as was duly noted in local media. “The decision comes after the city has put into national spotlight for a policy that has been framed as a human rights issue for low-income residents who can’t afford to pay their bills,” the Detroit Free Press explained Monday. “It also was announced on the same day that a group of Detroit residents filed a lawsuit in the city’s bankruptcy case asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to restore water service to residential customers.”
Last week, Judge Rhodes told a representative of the Water and Sewage Department at a hearing, “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city and also a lot of hardship”— adding, “It’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now.”
Those statements came before Friday’s march and rally, which garnered significant media attention and featured an appearance by actor and water rights activist Mark Ruffalo, who said, “The American people have got to know that this is wrong, and that it’s happening here and that it should be stopped.”
At Friday’s rally, Jean Ross, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, read an NNU declaration that warned, “We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics. We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”
That message echoed the demands of local groups such as Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board and the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network and Moratorium Now!—all of which are supporting the lawsuit—for an end to the shutoffs that have left some families without water while forcing others to sacrifice other necessities in order to pay what critics decry as excessive water fees.
Friday’s protests in Detroit also addressed the broader question of how cities, states and the nation should respond to financial turbulence. At several Detroit events over the weekend (when Netroots Nation met in Detroit) this writer joined Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, in discussions that focused attention on the unfairness of austerity responses that put too much pressure on low-income families while paying too little attention to the role of financial speculators. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that a recent Demos study concluded, “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”
Ellison, the author of legislation to create a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation, asked Friday’s rally, “Instead of shutting peoples water off why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations? We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”
Making that connection is important. What is happening in Detroit is part of a much broader scenario, in which decisions about how to pay bills and cover costs are too frequently made with little attention to human needs.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that when those human needs are brought into focus, the policymakers start to pay attention—and sometimes, they start to change the policies.
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Detroit—Elizabeth Warren says she is not running for president in 2016—despite the enthusiastic “Run, Liz, Run” chanting that erupted when the senator from Massachusetts took the stage at this year’s Netroots Nation conference. But Warren came to Detroit with the platform on which Democrats should be running in 2016.
And in 2014.
Warren is frequently described as a populist. And she can certainly frame her message in populist terms, as was well illustrated by the strongest statement of her Friday Netroots Nation address: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail, but a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested. The game is rigged.”
But as the Rev. William Barber, of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement, reminded the conference in a Thursday evening keynote address, populism is not an ideology or a program unto itself. Populism can go left or go right. Populism can be cogent or crude. What matters is the vision that underpins a populist appeal.
What Elizabeth Warren brought to the Netroots Nation gathering was a progressive vision that is of the moment—a vision rooted in the understandings that have been established in the years since the “Republican wave” election of 2010. As Republicans in Congress practiced obstructionism, and as an increasingly activist Supreme Court knocked down historic democratic protections, Republican governors aggressively attacked labor rights, voting rights and women’s rights. Citizens responded with rallies, marches and movements—in state capitals, on Wall Street, across the country. They developed a new progressive vision that is more aggressive and more precisely focused on economic and social justice demands, and on challenging the power of corporations and their political allies.
Warren’s Netroots Nation speech incorporated what has been learned, and what has been demanded. She made a connection between the movements and the political process that has tremendous significance for the coming election cycles.
Warren’s Democratic Party has not fully recognized that connection—not by a long shot—but Warren gets it. And the response of the thousands of activists, organizers and communicators gathered at the Netroots conference suggests that “the base” is ready to rally around it.
So what is it?
“This is a fight over economics, a fight over privilege, a fight over power,” says Warren. “But deep down it’s a fight over values. These are progressive ideas; these are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.”
They are specific ideas, rooted in recent struggles and using the language of those struggles to form an agenda:
1. “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”
2. “We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth. And we will fight for it.”
3. “We believe that the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality. And we will fight for it.”
4. “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage. And we will fight for it. We will fight for it. And let me add to that: We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”
5. “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt. And we are willing to fight for it. We are willing.”
6. “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. And we will fight for them. We will fight.”
7. “We believe— only I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work. And we’re willing to fight for it."
8. “We believe that equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in all of America. And we’re willing to fight for it.”
9. “We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform. And we are willing to fight for it.”
10. “And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it."
The specificity of the agenda matters as much as the promise to fight.
Unlike too many prominent Democrats—including Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke the day before Warren at Netroots Nation—the senator from Massachusetts is both passionate and precise.
“I think the views she expresses are not necessarily accepted Washington views on things. There are different ways of being a fighter,” says Erica Sagrans, a key organizer of the “Ready for Warren” movement that was a huge presence at Netroots Nation. “There are some people talking about similar policy positions, but the difference is the way she’s doing it.”
Warren does not get personal. She does not mention other Democrats—except the Senate candidates she campaigns for, including progressive populists such as South Dakota’s Rick Weiland, who hailed Warren as “a tremendous supporter, a tremendous help” to his determined run.
Warren's focus is on a set of essential issues and on bold responses to them. She says things that need to be said—about the agenda and about the attitude that might get Americans excited about not just a particular campaign (for president in 2016 or for US Senate seats in 2014) but about a political agenda that extends beyond individual elections.
“The game is rigged. And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much. So the way I see this is we can whine about it, we can whimper about it or we can fight back. I’m fighting back!”
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