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President Obama kicked off what he refers to as “the fourth quarter” of his presidency with a State of the Union address that detailed a pragmatic progressive agenda with the potential to influence much of this year’s DC wrangling and all of next year’s presidential race. In so doing, Obama rejected the “lame-duck” status his Republican rivals were desperately hoping he would accept. The president’s rhetoric was often bolder than his specific proposals; and this was certainly not the “very European” manifesto that New York Times columnist David Brooks imagined in his post-speech assessment for PBS.
Yet there is good reason to cheer any address that recognizes, however cautiously, that a serious effort to address income inequality must redistribute some of the wealth that has been locked up by the billionaire class and their banks. At the very least, with proposals to hike capital gains taxes and close loopholes in order to fund tax breaks for working families and provide free access to community colleges, Obama has offered up an appealing alternative to the relentless austerity agenda of Republican stalwarts such as House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
Unfortunately, Obama’s playing this fourth quarter against the most conservative Congress of his presidency. If there was any question of the difficulty the president will face in advancing proposals for taxing the rich, regulating too-big banks, funding free community-college education and making real the democratic promise of the Internet, leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate confirmed their rigidity by handing State of the Union “response” duties off to Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. An acolyte of the right-wing Koch brothers, Ernst’s answer to Obama’s appeals for cooperation on behalf of the common good could essentially be translated as “not gonna happen.” Indeed, the major initiative from the president’s sixth State of the Union address that most excites newly empowered Republicans—granting the president “fast track” authority to negotiate corporate-friendly “free trade” agreements—is the major initiative on which both the president and the Republicans are most wrong.
So what’s the point of a reasonably progressive, and at times strikingly populist, State of the Union address delivered to stone-faced Republicans? Aside from inspiring justified grumbling among progressives about the president’s timing—“Where was this Obama the last six years?—what comes of a presidential address that proposes good ideas to a Congress that is disinclined to embrace any of them?
The answer has a little to do with 2015 and a lot to do with 2016. Since Obama adopted a more activist and progressive approach in the aftermath of what for Democrats was a disastrous 2014 midterm election cycle, his approval ratings have spiked. Aggressive moves to ease the circumstances of immigrant families, defend net neutrality, end the embargo against Cuba and develop global alliances to address climate change have proven popular with Obama’s base, and an improving economy is helping to restore some of the president’s political swagger. That bugs Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who says, “Any president in this situation has a choice. He can sort of act like he’s still running for office or he can focus on the things that we have a chance to reach an agreement on.”
McConnell obviously hopes the president will acquiesce. But why should Obama take advice from a fierce Republican partisan who proudly serves as Wall Street’s man on Capitol Hill? Why shouldn’t Obama take his cue from previous presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who responded to midterm setbacks by seizing the bully pulpit to promote agendas that might prove to be more popular with the American people than the congressional opposition? On some issues—raising the minimum wage, developing paid sick-leave protections, expanding access to education, investing in infrastructure—he might be able to generate enough popular pressure to get even this Congress to take modest steps in the right direction. On other issues, such as defending net neutrality and clearing the way for municipalities to develop broadband Internet service as a high-speed, low-cost “public option” alternative to telecommunications monopolies, he can create cover for the Federal Communications Commission and other regulators to do the right thing. On issues such as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, defending abortion rights and blocking ill-thought sanctions against Iran, he can generate support for vetoes—and energize grassroots activists to keep wavering Democrats in line when the inevitable House and Senate override votes are scheduled.
Even on issues where he and the Congress are likely to remain aggressively at odds, including his centerpiece plan to increase taxes on capital gains and close loopholes that currently shelter America’s wealthiest families from fair taxation, Obama can position himself and his party on the right side of history.
That may not get Obama immediate legislative wins in the fight to address income inequality. But if he uses his bully pulpit to forge a genuine economic-justice message—and if he avoids the coalition-splintering damage that would be done by engaging in a foolhardy push for “fast track” (and the inevitable compromises of principle and policy that go with attempts to enact unpopular trade deals)—he could build sufficient momentum to frame the 2016 election debate . In so doing, the president could set the stage for electing a new Democratic president, restoring Democratic control of the Senate and developing a governing trajectory where—as with FDR and Truman, and as with Reagan and George H.W. Bush—initiatives begun by one president are completed by the next. In such a scenario, this president can reject the lame-duck status to which McConnell so hopes to consign him and make his “fourth quarter” an essential pivot point in what Obama hails as “the work of rebuilding America.”
Considering the sorry circumstance of Republicans who have been tapped to deliver responses to President Obama’s State of the Union addresses, the party leaders who chose Joni Ernst to answer this year’s speech may not have been doing the newly elected senator from Iowa any favors.
But the party bosses were respecting the influence of billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch, who were early and enthusiastic proponents of Ernst’s leap from the Iowa legislature—where she had served a mere three years—to the United States Senate. A year ago, Ernst was still something of a long-shot contender, even in the race for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Polls had her trailing former energy-industry CEO Mark Jacobs, a millionaire who was prepared to spend a lot of his own money to secure the nomination, and to take on Democrat Bruce Braley, a sitting congressman who had the advantages of name recognition and a substantial campaign treasury.
But Ernst had some friends who would help her beat the odds. She had been active with the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, a network of right-wing legislators who sponsor “model legislation” crafted in conjunction with representatives of multinational corporations.
According to The Hill, the Kochs took a “particular interest in helping her campaign.” Ernst was the first candidate in an open 2014 Senate race to benefit from “maxed out” personal contributions by the Kochs. And Koch-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Freedom Partners Action Fund poured millions of dollars into Iowa, where Ernst enjoyed a $14 million outside-spending advantage over Braley.
Ernst was appreciative.
Last June, she flew to California to attend a Koch-sponsored summit at the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort. There, she credited the Kochs and their billionaire allies for making her a contender.
Noting that she had attended a secretive summit, held in New Mexico in August of 2013, at which the Koch brothers had introduced candidates they liked to major donors, Ernst said at the June, 2014, event:
I was not known at that time—a little-known state senator from a very rural part of Iowa, known through my National Guard service and some circles in Iowa. But the exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory.
A tape of the closed-door event (obtained by The Undercurrent and shared with The Nation and Huffington Post), revealed Ernst and other candidates offering effusive thanks to the billionaires for the money they had provided at critical points in their campaigns. Ernst is heard praising “the folks in this room that got [me] my start…that backed me in this election cycle and primary…” And she told them that what they were investing in was more than just a Senate candidate in Iowa. Ernst declared that “we’re setting the stage for the presidency”—referencing the 2016 presidential race that will get its start with the Iowa caucuses.
Keep that in mind when Joni Ernst responds to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight. She probably won’t mention the Koch brothers or the other billionaire donors she praises in private for putting her in position to answer the president’s address. But she will be still be working on their behalf. As she challenges Obama’s message, she will be sounding the themes favored by her elite donors and setting the stage for their grab at the presidency in 2016.
Read Next: John Nichols on Obama’s economic calculus
Warren Buffett explained the secret to addressing a lot of the economic challenges facing the United States during President Obama’s first term. In a short commentary written for The New York Times—headline: “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich”—Buffett explained, “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”
President Obama was always cautious when it came to taking Buffett’s advice.
But as Obama enters what he refers to as “the fourth quarter” of his presidency, he has begun to embrace a proper, if still judicious, populism.
With an eye toward addressing income inequality, the president will use his State of the Union Address to propose new taxes and fees on very rich people and very big banks. In any historical context, the tax hikes and fees are “modest.” But after a period of absurd austerity and slow-growth economics (in which all the sacrifices were made by working families, while all the advantages accrued to very rich families and very big banks), Obama’s move is as important as it is necessary.
At a point when there is broadening recognition of the social and economic perils posed by income inequality, the president is talking about taking simple steps in the right direction. Congress is unlikely go along with him, but the American people will—Gallup polling finds that 67 percent of likely voters are dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution in the United States. And as this country prepares for the critical presidential and congressional elections of 2016, the president’s clarifying of the terms of debate on taxes becomes vital.
According to Obama aides, the president will on Tuesday propose to alter a “trust-fund loophole” provision that, according to The New York Times, “shields hundreds of billions of dollars from taxation each year.” Obama also wants to raise the highest capital-gains tax rate from 23.8 percent to 28 percent for couples with incomes above $500,000 annually.
The president will, in addition, propose a new fee on huge financial firms—those with more than $50 billion in assets—in order to discourage risky borrowing. Under the plan, a fee of seven basis points would be imposed on the liabilities of the biggest banks.
The White House calculus says these initiatives would raise roughly $320 billion over the next ten years. Most of the money would be used to provide tax breaks and benefits for working families: a $500 credit for families with two working spouses, improved structures for retirement saving, a tripling of the tax credit for childcare to $3,000 per child. In addition, the revenues would cover costs associated with the president’s recently-announced plan for free tuition at community colleges.
This is not a radical plan. It redistributes a very small amount of wealth, and most of that wealth will be steered right back into the economy by working families that—even as employment rates slowly improve—continue to struggle to make ends meet in an era of stagnant (or, at the very least, exceptionally slow) wage growth.
To get a sense of how modest the Obama proposal is, consider this: the capital gains tax rate increase he proposes will only return the rate to what it was when Ronald Reagan was president. So Obama is only undoing the damage done; he is not going anywhere near the robust rates seen under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nor is he even talking tax reforms that would return the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans to 91 percent: the rate seen during the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, a period during which a booming US economy saw rapid expansion of employment and wages.
Of course, these details will not inspire the Republicans of the current day—who long ago abandoned the fiscal realities understood by Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and even Reagan for a fantasy-based economics—to go along with Obama. Before even seeing the plan, the Wall Street–aligned leaders of the new Republican-controlled Congress were crying foul, with House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s office declaring, “This is not a serious plan.”
Perhaps not for this Congress.
But it is a serious plan for these times—or, at the very least, the beginning of a serious plan.
The State of the Union Address, when delivered by a lame-duck president to a Congress controlled by the opposition party, rarely sets the legislative agenda.
But a president, using his bully pulpit well and wisely, can frame the political debate. And that political debate in 2015 and 2016 should begin with the premise that it is time to stop coddling the super-rich.
Read Next: John Nichols on Obama and the digital divide.
If you are looking for fast and affordable broadband Internet service, go to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Or Lafayette, Louisiana.
Or Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Residents and businesses in these and a handful of other cities enjoy Internet speeds that are nearly 100 times faster than the national average. And the cost of getting online is substantially lower than in much of the rest of the country.
Because these communities didn’t simply rely on big cable and telephone companies to develop broadband networks. Citizens and their elected representative acted to assure that high-speed, high-quality and affordable Internet service would be broadly available. They did so by investing in infrastructure, developing partnerships with national and international innovators and encouraging genuine competition—as opposed to corporate monopoly.
The digital divide still exists in much of America. Indeed, the United States has fallen behind other countries when it comes to building out the sort of twenty-first-century communications infrastructure that is vital not just to commerce but to democracy itself.
But there are American communities that have taken charge of their digital destiny—many of the small, some of them rural— and they have put themselves on the global cutting edge by developing their own responses to the demand for high-speed, high-quality broadband Internet. In many cases, they have developed municipal broadband utilities—in what The Washington Post refers to as “efforts by cities to build their own alternatives to major Internet providers such as Comcast, Verizon or AT&T—a public option for Internet access, you could say.”
In Chattanooga, for instance, the Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB), a municipally owned utility, stepped up in 2007 with a ten-year plan to develop a fiber network that will serve all citizens and businesses on the diverse Tennessee city. In 2010, the EPB began developing the first one-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) service in the United States. That municipal investment has proven to be massively successful not just for citizens and consumers but for the city’s economy.
“EPB’s investments are reshaping Chattanooga’s economic landscape,” according to a new report released Tuesday by the by the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers. “The gigabit broadband service has helped the City attract a new community of computer engineers, tech entrepreneurs and investors. For example, local entrepreneurs have organized Lamp Post, a venture incubator that provides capital and mentorship to startups. Lamp Post now has over 150 employees in a 31,000 square foot office space in downtown Chattanooga. CO.LAB, a local nonprofit organization, provides shared working space, access to investor networks and hosts the annual summer GITANK program, a 14-week business accelerator. The investment community has responded in kind. Since 2009, Chattanooga has gone from close to zero venture capital to at least five organized funds with investable capital of over $50 million.”
Other communities have done the same.
Everyone’s happy, except the telecommunications conglomerates that have failed to invest in infrastructure and embrace innovation. Frightened by the prospect of real competition, they have sought to lock in monopolies—and slow, costly Internet service—by lobbying states to limit the ability of local officials and municipal utilities to provide state-of-the-art service. Nudged along by corporate lobbyists, legislatures in nineteen states have bent to pressure from the telecommunications monopolies and enacted laws that limit options for local innovation and investment, as well as honest competition. “The industry’s monopoly minded efforts to regulate away competition are part of a long history of abusive policies that have left too many Americans stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide,” explains Craig Aaron, president of the media reform group Free Press.
Cities across the country are pushing back against the special interests. Chattanooga and another city that has been in the forefront of municipal innovation—Wilson, North Carolina—have asked the Federal Communications Commission to prevent states from enacting laws that serve big cable interests but that harm consumers and communities. Prodded by tech-savvy mayors such as Madison, Wisconsin’s Paul Soglin and Tucson, Arizona’s Jonathan Rothschild, the US Conference of Mayors has weighed in with a resolution focusing on Internet access issues. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says that “Universal and affordable broadband access, and the free flow of information, is one critical area where we as mayors must focus in an effort to promote equality and close the opportunity gap.”
Responding to the calls, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler recently recognized that “If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition.” A vote on the petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson is expected in late February.
Wheeler is now getting top-level encouragement to support the municipal broadband and local innovation.
Following up on his November statement urging the FCC to safeguard Net Neutrality—which seems to have moved Wheeler toward clearer acceptance of the need to prevent the development of Internet fast lanes (for content from corporations and political elites that can pay to speed things up) and slow lanes (for content from grassroots activists and small businesses that cannot pay)—President Obama on Wednesday announced that his administration would launch a multi-front effort to promote Internet investment, innovation and competition in municipalities across the United States.
“In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors,” declared Obama, who addressed the issue in Cedar Falls, Iowa—a city of 40,000 where Cedar Falls Utilities has developed Internet service as fast as global leaders such as Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris. “Today, I’m saying we’re going to change that. Enough’s enough.”
Obama, who plans to raise the issue in his January 20 State of the Union Address, explains, “The good news is that there’s some steps we can take, through executive actions, that allow us to make sure that every community…will be able to make the investments they need to speed up broadband, bring in more competition, give consumers more choice.” Obama traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa—a city of 40,000 where Cedar Falls Utilities has developed Internet service as fast as global leaders such as Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris—to outline an agenda that will be included in his January 20 State of the Union Address.
The White House says those steps will include:
* Calling to End Laws that Harm Broadband Service Competition: Laws in 19 states—some specifically written by special interests trying to stifle new competitors—have held back broadband access and, with it, economic opportunity. Today, President Obama is announcing a new effort to support local choice in broadband, formally opposing measures that limit the range of options available to communities to spur expanded local broadband infrastructure, including ownership of networks. As a first step, the Administration is filing a letter with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging it to join this effort by addressing barriers inhibiting local communities from responding to the broadband needs of their citizens.
* Expanding the National Movement of Local Leaders for Better Broadband: As of today, 50 cities representing over 20 million Americans have joined the Next Century Cities coalition, a nonpartisan network pledging to bring fast, community-supported broadband to their towns and cities. They join 37 research universities around the country that formed the Gig.U partnership to bring fast broadband to communities around their campuses. To recognize these remarkable individuals and the partnerships they have built, in June 2015 the White House will host a Community Broadband Summit of mayors and county commissioners from around the nation who are joining this movement for broadband solutions and economic revitalization. These efforts will also build on the US Ignite partnership, launched by White House in 2012, and which has grown to include more than 65 research universities and 35 cities in developing new next-generation gigabit applications.
* Announcing a New Initiative to Support Community Broadband Projects: To advance this important work, the Department of Commerce is launching a new initiative, BroadbandUSA, to promote broadband deployment and adoption. Building on expertise gained from overseeing the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program funded through the Recovery Act, BroadbandUSA will offer online and in-person technical assistance to communities; host a series of regional workshops around the country; and publish guides and tools that provide communities with proven solutions to address problems in broadband infrastructure planning, financing, construction, and operations across many types of business models.
* Unveiling New Grant and Loan Opportunities for Rural Providers: The Department of Agriculture is accepting applications to its Community Connect broadband grant program and will reopen a revamped broadband loan program, which offers financing to eligible rural carriers that invest in bringing high-speed broadband to unserved and under served rural areas.
* Removing Regulatory Barriers and Improving Investment Incentives: The President is calling for the Federal Government to remove all unnecessary regulatory and policy barriers to broadband build-out and competition, and is establishing a new Broadband Opportunity Council of over a dozen government agencies with the singular goal of speeding up broadband deployment and promoting adoption for our citizens. The Council will also solicit public comment on unnecessary regulatory barriers and opportunities to promote greater coordination with the aim of addressing those within its scope.
For municipal leaders who have been fighting for the flexibility to invest and innovate, what the president has done is a huge deal. Now, however, the FCC must act. “The President’s announcement [and the release] of a White House report detailing what municipalities have been able to accomplish utilizing broadband are very welcome,” explained Madison’s Paul Soglin, who has for years objected to a Wisconsin law that limits options for municipal investment and innovation. “I recognize, however, as does the President, that the real legal action will come at the Federal Communications Commission, which has scheduled a vote on robust regulation of net neutrality next month. The FCC also has the legal authority to simultaneously pre-empt state laws that create barriers to municipal broadband, and I join President Obama is urging the Commission to do so.”
It’s not just mayors and net neutrality activists who should be engaged with this issue, however. Americans who understand the vital importance of expanding access to fast and affordable broadband Internet—not just for local and regional development but, in this digital age, for the maintenance of meaningful communications and robust debate—need to recognize that this debate is about more than Internet infrastructure. What the president is talking about is developing and maintaining the democratic infrastructure of the United States in the twenty-first century.
Read Next: John Nichols on Elizabeth Warren
Fortune magazine announced Tuesday that it had obtained “the final word on a White House run” from Elizabeth Warren.
And that word was “no.”
Interviewing Warren for Fortune, former FDIC chairman Sheila Bair asked: “So are you going to run for President?”
“No,”replied the senator from Massachusetts.
That blunt response came amid a burgeoning “Ready for Warren” movement to draft the outspoken critic of Wall Street abuses into the 2016 presidential race as a progressive populist alternative to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the as-yet-unannounced front-runner for the Democratic nod.
The draft movement is real, and it has gathered traction nationwide.
“Run Warren Run” activists are already working on the ground in the first caucus state of Iowa. And, on Saturday, in Manchester, New Hampshire, Democracy for America and MoveOn.org Political Action members are set to formally launch the “Run Warren Run” effort in the first primary state.
The advocates for a Warren run are not backing off.
“We understand that reporters are required to follow every twist and turn of the 2016 race, but let’s be clear: this isn’t a new position for Senator Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren has been clear for years that she isn’t planning on running. If she were running, there wouldn’t be a need for a draft effort,” explained MoveOn.org and Democracy for America activists in a Tuesday response to the Fortune interview. “We launched the Run Warren Run campaign to show Senator Elizabeth Warren the tremendous amount of grassroots enthusiasm and momentum that exists for her entering the 2016 presidential race and to encourage her to change her mind.”
Those grassroots groups are right.
Sincere draft efforts invariably begin with a reluctant candidate. The key is to stir up enough support to get a non-candidate—even one who says “no”—to reconsider.
Draft movements have in the past succeeded in drawing disinclined contenders into nomination contests. In some cases, such as that of Dwight Eisenhower, the candidates go all the way to the presidency. In some cases, such as that of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1964, they have shaken up the competition. In some cases, such as that of Mario Cuomo in 1992, they have never really gotten off the ground—but they have locked up activists who might have backed other contenders.
For now, it makes sense for the “Run Warren Run” initiative to continue. The caucuses and primaries are a year off. There are no looming filing deadlines. This is the clearest window of opportunity for activists who would draft a candidate into the presidential competition of either party.
The Democracy for America and MoveOn folks are right that, in politics, the word “no” is not always a conversation-closer. It’s clear that a lot of Democrats, as well as independents who lean toward the Democrats, want an alternative—or several alternatives—to Clinton, whose past positions on war and peace, trade policy and corporate power have troubled progressives and populists within the party, as well as independents who lean to the left.
Ultimately, there will come a point where activists must make a tougher choice: Do they turn the “Run Warren Run” campaign into a serious effort to secure support at the caucuses in Iowa? Do they launch a write-in effort in the New Hampshire primary? Do they do so even if other contenders—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, outgoing Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb, to name but a few prospects—have stepped up to place their names on the ballot? Do they run the risk of splintering support for an alternative to Clinton by steering votes toward a non-candidate when there are actual candidates?
Those are the sort of tough questions that activists who engage in draft efforts have always had to wrestle with. But the question of whether to continue when a candidate says “no” is not a tough one. An honest draft always begins with a candidate who says “no.” The whole point of a draft campaign is another question altogether: “Is it possible, is it imaginable, that a popular insurgency might turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’?”
Read Next: John Nichols on why it's time to embrace the Robin Hood tax.
Americans who are serious about addressing income inequality have long recognized that the United States needs a Robin Hood Tax—a charge on financial transactions proposed by campaigners who have argued since the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 that “banks, hedge funds and the rest of the financial sector should pay their fair share to clear up the mess they helped create.”
National Nurses United and other unions, along with Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders such as Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have for a number of years said that the United States should follow the lead of European countries that have developed financial-transactions taxes. Explaining his proposal for an Inclusive Prosperity Act as an alternative to the destructive austerity agenda of Republicans and some centrist Democrats, Ellison said in 2013:
A lot of people in Washington like to talk about reducing the debt and deficits. Well if you really care about reducing the deficit, how about asking Wall Street speculators to pay their fair share? This bill will add a tax of a fraction of a percent on transactions made by the same Wall Street firms and stock traders who crashed our economy in 2008. This tax alone will generate up to $300 billion a year in revenue, stabilizing the deficit and allowing us to invest in the things that matter—education, roads and bridges, and health care for our seniors and veterans.
Unfortunately, that logic tended to be dismissed not just by top Republicans but by top Democrats.
With backing from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen moved Monday to present an “action plan” that is designed to frame the Democratic message in the new Congress. At the heart of it is a proposal to address the rapid redistribution of wealth upward in the United States with a small tax on high-volume stock trades and a new initiative to aid working-class individuals and families.
“This is a plan to help tackle the challenge of our times,” declared Van Hollen, a key figure in the House Democratic Caucus and a particularly influential voice in debates on economic policy. “We want a growing economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”
The “action plan” calls for a 0.1 percent tax on transactions by high-volume traders—Wall Street’s “high rollers”—that would yield an anticipated $800 billion in fresh revenues over a decade. Reductions in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans would yield another $400 billion. The combined $1.2 billion windfall would, according to a Washington Post review of the plan, help to fund “a ‘paycheck bonus’ of $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for married couples, a bonus of $250 for people who save at least $500 a year and reduced ‘marriage penalties’ for couples.”
While the numbers may sound big, what Van Hollen has proposed is a modest plan that only begins to explore the potential of a financial transactions tax. The 0.1 percent tax on trades is far below what unions and activist groups have proposed. For instance, Ellison’s 2013 proposal called for a 0.5 percent tax rate on stock trades, along with a 0.1 percent tax rate on bonds and a 0.005 percent tax rate on derivatives or other investments.
Of course, any proposal for taxing the wealthiest Americans faces daunting odds in a Congress now wholly controlled by Wall Street–aligned Republicans such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Ryan can, in particular, be counted on to use his powerful new position to defend the financial interests that have so generously supported his campaigns.
Yet the decision of the top Democrats in Congress to embrace even a small Robin Hood Tax opens up the debate and provides space for a more serious discussion of income inequality and how to address it.
That discussion needs to include not just Democrats who have recently focused on the issue but also the unions such as NNU and the Amalgamated Transit Union, that have significant experience advocating for new approaches to taxation, along with activist groups such as Health GAP and National People’s Action and top economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and Robert Pollin.
The economists provide the context. “With the financial transaction tax we can raise the revenue we need and discourage excessive speculation on Wall Street,” explains Pollin. “It’s being done in the world’s second largest financial market, London and the fastest growing security markets in the world, including China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Russia. If they can do it, so can we.”
The activists provide the arguments. “We have a revenue crisis, and we know where the money is, it’s on,” says National People’s Action executive director George Goehl. “We’re going to ask the politicians are you going to stand with Wall Street or Main Street?”
That asking of politicians is not finished. It is just beginning. While progressive Democrats such as Ellison are on board for a bold approach to financial-transactions taxes, most congressional Democrats are only beginning to explore the prospect. They are taking a tentative step, and that is good. But real progress—in debates with Republicans and in the broader effort to change politics and policies—will only be made if top Democrats come to understand that, in order to address income inequality, America should develop a robust Robin Hood Tax.
In this case, it’s an especially good idea to listen to the prescriptions being recommended by the longest and strongest advocates for taxing financial transactions in order to free up resources for human needs.
“Nurses see the fallout of the wretched economic policy in the U.S. and globally and see people who have run out of solutions,” says NNU executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, who a number of years ago helped to develop the US campaign for a financial transactions tax. Frustrated with the narrow range of debate about how to find the resources to pay for healthcare, housing, education and so much more, DeMoro and the NNU began educating, organizing and rallying for a Robin Hood Tax.
The embrace of the concept by top Democrats such as Van Hollen is evidence of how far that campaigning has come. But DeMoro is right when she speaks of the need to accelerate and expand the campaign. “[The] financial transaction tax is seen by all of our allies internationally as a way of addressing the economy of the world,” DeMoro has noted. “And that’s why it’s not the financial transaction tax in and of itself, it’s the reconceptualization of what we should be as a society of people.”
Read Next: John Nichols on defending freedom of expression following the attack on Charlie Hebdo
Satirists and cartoonists have always been on the front line of the struggle to establish and defend freedom of expression. And the journalists and media workers of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo maintained that defense across decades of struggle to broaden and deepen the discourse about elite corruption, political extremism and religious intolerance.
They were known for their work, respected for their intellect and honored for their courage. They could be bold and blunt. They could cause offense and anger. They could and did spark sincere debates about the lengths to which satire should go. But they could also be sophisticated and nuanced. "They were leftists and never xenophonic or Islamophobic. Both were champions of immigrants in France,” Turkish journalist Ertuğrul Özkök wrote in an essay on cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut. Wolinski and Cabut were among the most prominent of the eight Charlie Hebdo editors and contributors killed (along with a guest, a building staffer and two police officers) in a Wednesday morning attack by masked gunmen who were quickly linked with extremists who have sought to exploit anger at the magazine’s publication of satires and cartoons that challenged Islamic fundamentalism.
It is important to remember these details, and to understand the core issue raised by the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Yes, this magazine confronted Islamic extremism (as it did all religious extremism), and yes, it had suffered previous attacks for ridiculing those who would do violence in the name of religion. Yes, editor Stéphane Charbonnier had declared after a firebomb gutted the Charlie Hebdo offices three years ago, “There is no question of giving in to Islamists.”
Charbonnier and his colleagues recognized that the cartoons they published might offend Christians, Jews, Muslims and even nonbelievers. “We want to laugh at the extremists—every extremist,” Laurent Léger, a Charlie Hebdo journalist, explained in 2012. “They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”
Reasonable people who care deeply about freedom may have differed with the approach taken by Charlie Hebdo. There were and are still thoughtful critics of the magazine's style and strategies.That was understood by Charlie Hebdo editors and contributors, who sometimes differed among themselves. And it will be understood as the magazine carries forward in the face of profound loss and ongoing threats.
Members of the Charlie Hebdo staff have for a very long time spoken of the publication’s satire as part of a much broader struggle for freedom of expression. They have understood the vital role of a free press in maintaining the space in which a democratic discourse can thrive. Yet, Charbonnier and his colleagues should be remembered as staunch advocates not just for freedom of the press but for the right to assemble and protest against the press.
When French officials proposed in 2012 to block demonstrations against the magazine, the editor objected, asking: “Why should they prohibit these people from expressing themselves? We have the right to express ourselves, they have the right to express themselves, too.”
This understanding is at the heart of a free society, and it is defended by journalists who are often attacked—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly; sometimes by terrorists, sometimes by governments—not so much for their recognition of the importance of freedom of expression as for something far more meaningful: their daily practice of that freedom.
The Charlie Hebdo journalists were not the first to die in this very young year.
The day before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the International Federation of Journalists (a group with which I have long been associated in support of freedom of expression and media diversity) condemned the first killing of a journalist in 2015: that of Al-Masirah TV channel correspondent Khalid Mohammed al Washali in Yemen.
The next day, the IFJ would condemn the murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, as an online counter that numbers dead media workers moved rapidly and ominously upward. On the morning after that condemnation came the news that Filipino journalist Nerlita Ledesmaon had been gunned down on her way to work with the Bataan tabloid Abante.
The sheer number of the dead in Paris was shocking, and it has inspired an appropriate and necessary response.
“Today, we are all Charlie in our thought but, as journalists, we very much share the reason for which they were targeted. Those bullets were also meant for all of us who stand up for press freedom,” declared IFJ General Secretary Beth Costa in a tribute (delivered along with leaders of the European Federation of Journalists) to the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists and to the dead police officers.
Wednesday’s tribute continued:
The lasting memory of yesterday will no doubt be the shock [and] horror we all felt at the sheer violence. But, I hope we can also look back at the incredible show of solidarity and defiance among journalists not to bow to intimidation. We are NOT AFRAID!
We should also take heart from the massive support and outpouring of sympathy and goodwill from ordinary members of the public whom we serve.
That is why Charlie Hedbo needs to overcome this devastating blow and get back on its feet. It is why we all need to stand up for journalism in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
It is vital for everyone who is now chanting "Je Suis Charlie" to note that reference to “elsewhere in the world." Just as the “sheer violence” of the Paris attack was shocking, so the steadily rising death toll of journalists in countries around the planet is chilling. Barely a week ago, on December 31, 2014, the IFJ published its annual list of journalists and media staff killed on the job. The number of those directly targeted for assassination, killed in crossfire violence and killed in natural disasters and work-related accidents rose to 135, with the highest totals in Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine.
The need to stand up for journalism, as a vital underpinning of liberty and democracy, will be much discussed in these days of sorrow, trauma and resolve. That discussion cannot, must not, go quiet as time passes, because, tragically, many more journalists will be attacked, injured and killed—often in circumstances that are less noted than those of the murdered satirists and cartoonists and media workers of Paris.
Je Suis Charlie!
Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo!
We who practice and appreciate the right to freedom of expression must stand now in solidarity with the journalists of Charlie Hebdo.
We who practice and appreciate the right to freedom of expression must stand now and always in solidarity with every journalist in every country who challenges corruption, abuses of power, violence and the intolerance that underpins violence. We must do so in the defense of freedom of expression, in the name of pluralism and in the knowledge that without the liberty of wide-ranging and controversial discourse, there can be no real debate nor anything akin to true democracy.
(John Nichols, a co-founder of the media reform group Free Press, has twice delivered keynote addresses as congresses of the International Federation of Journalists and joined IFJ leaders in presenting at the 2009 Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Oslo.)
The passing of former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke III, at age 95, gave obituary writers and political commentators a rare opportunity—perhaps one of the last—to put together the words “liberal Republican.” Brooke, who served as attorney general of Massachusetts before becoming the first African-American elected to the US Senate by a popular vote, was an epic figure in the politics of the 1960s and 1970s. With his ardent support for civil rights, faith in the ability of an active and engaged government to address economic and social challenges, and deep skepticism about the Vietnam War, he took the lead in a liberal Republican vanguard that included New York Mayor John Lindsay, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York Senator Jacob Javits, Michigan Governor George Romney, Maryland Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias, Michigan Congressman Don Riegle Jr., Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, New Jersey Senator Clifford Case, New Jersey Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, California Congressman Pete McCloskey and a young Ripon Society activist, Wisconsin legislator and future congressman named Tom Petri.
The list of liberal—or at least liberal-leaning “moderates”—in the Republican Party was once long and diverse. But as the party has veered further and further to the right, even politically engaged Americans have begun to forgot how influential those liberals were, and how close some of them came to changing their direction of their party and the course of history.
Brooke offers a remarkable reminder of what might have been.
Elected to the Senate in 1966, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine and the front page of The New York Times. He rose immediately to a position of great prominence in a party that was proud of its anti-slavery and anti-segregationist roots. Brooke was a speaker at the 1968 Republican National Convention, where he was speculated about as a potential vice presidential nominee. Later, he was offered a cabinet post and a nomination to serve on the Supreme Court by the Republican who was elected president that year, Richard Nixon.
As the man who became Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew, stirred more and more controversy, Brooke was frequently mentioned as a potential replacement for Agnew on the 1972 Republican ticket. The top Republican in the US Senate, Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott, told reporters that Brooke “would be an asset to the G.O.P. national ticket.” In October of 1971, Time magazine highlighted the “Brooke Talk” and speculated that adding the senator to the ticket might help Nixon and the Republicans to renew the party’s appeal to African-American and young voters.
In any scenario that made Brooke Nixon’s second in command—as a member of the 1968 and 1972 Republican tickets, as a replacement for Agnew on the 1972 ticket, or after Agnew’s 1973 resignation perhaps as an appointee to the nation’s number-two position—the Massachusetts senator would have been the first African-American vice president. And, upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Brooke would have been positioned to become the first African-American president.
Of course, Brooke did not get the nomination or the appointment. But he remained the subject of vice presidential speculation. When Ford replaced Nixon and had to name a new vice president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson organized a national campaign to urge the selection of Brooke. And Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, a fellow liberal Republican, publicly urged Ford to consider Brooke.
The man Brooke nominated for the presidency at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Nelson Rockefeller, got the nod from Ford in 1974. But, as it became increasingly clear that Rockefeller would not be on the 1976 ticket as Ford’s running mate the Council of 100, a group of prominent African-American Republicans, launched a national campaign to promote Brooke—an effort that drew considerable media attention.
Ultimately, after facing a tough challenge from Ronald Reagan and the Republican right for the party’s nomination, Ford opted for a conservative firebrand, Kansas Senator Bob Dole. The Ford-Dole ticket narrowly lost to the Democratic ticket led by Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Carter swept the south that year, while Ford won states such as California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, New Jersey and Vermont. And if the Republican ticket had shifted barely 25,000 votes in the states of Ohio and Wisconsin, the Electoral College would have tipped to Ford. With Brooke, as opposed to Dole, on the ticket, might the Republicans have picked up the needed votes in the African-American precincts of Cleveland and Milwaukee? After all, Brooke had a track record of getting Democratic voters to cross party lines and back him—in 1964, when Democrat Lyndon Johnson swept Massachusetts, Brooke (who refused to back Barry Goldwater) won reelection as the state’s Republican attorney general by almost 800,000 votes; and, in 1972, when Democrat George McGovern won Massachusetts by more than 200,000 votes, Republican Brooke was reelected to the Senate by almost 700,000 votes.
Beyond the fact that he would have been on the 1976 Republican ticket as a history-making nominee, Brooke’s progressive stances in support of anti-poverty programs, housing assistance and job creation would have been appealing not just to African-American voters but to liberals of all races. Long before Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1998, and Barack Obama’s campaigns of 2008 and 2012, Brooke noted that he had “shown that white voters are open to voting for black candidates.” (Elected in by a landslide in 1966, and r-elected by an even bigger landslide in 1972, he was only defeated in 1978 after facing a Republican primary challenge from the right and then a round of negative publicity stemming from a nasty divorce fight.)
Of course, running Brooke instead of Dole in the number-two position on the 1976 GOP ticket might have tipped the balance in a number of states, and in a number of directions. But had a Ford-Brooke ticket prevailed, there is good reason to believe that the win would have strengthened the moderate and liberal wings of the Republican Party as they headed toward the certain battles of the future with the Reaganites on the right. Even if the ticket had been defeated, it is quite possible that Brooke would have been considered as a 1980 presidential candidate.
The prospect that the Republican Party might have witnessed a more robust ideological struggle in the 1980s and 1990s, and that it might have competed far more seriously and effectively for the votes of minorities, moderates and liberals, offers a reminder that the Republican Party did not necessarily have to evolve into the right-wing vehicle that it is today.
There are never guarantees in politics, but there are possibilities—and the late senator from Massachusetts believed in the possibility that the “Party of Lincoln” could remain true to its heritage.
Brooke often noted that African-American voters had once been loyal supporters of a Republican Party that had historically been more closely aligned with the abolitionist cause and reconstruction, and that had championed civil rights at a time when southern segregationist Democrats were still key players in Congress. Indeed, when he refused to back Barry Goldwater in 1964, Brooke argued that “You can’t say the Negro left the Republican Party; the Negro feels he was evicted from the Republican Party.”
Brooke tossed the eviction notice aside in 1966 and made history. He continued throughout his life to work to steer the Republican Party to the left as opposed to the right. He decried the party’s “Southern strategy” courtship of segregationist Democrats as “not just morally wrong, but politically wrong.” And he counseled that the conservative “programs and political philosophy that presently controls the Republican Party” were a barrier to attracting the votes of African-Americans and young people. As time went on, he got fewer and fewer takers for that argument, even though his own record proved his point—and even though, with just a few twists of history, Edward Brooke might have transformed his party and his country in even more dramatic ways.
Read Next: John Nichols on what Mario Cuomo got right
Mario Cuomo was so very right about so many things.
Cuomo was certainly right in the midst of the dismal Reagan era to reject an oblivious president’s “morning in America” sloganeering and “shining city on a hill” fabulism. And Cuomo did so not do this with the empty language of bipartisanship but rather in a gloriously unapologetic appeal to the 1984 Democratic National Convention that heard the newly elected governor of New York declare:
Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” than it is just a “Shining City on a Hill.”
Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visited some more places; maybe if you went to Appalachia where some people still live in sheds; maybe if you went to Lackawanna where thousands of unemployed steel workers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel. Maybe—Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use.
Maybe—Maybe, Mr. President. But I’m afraid not. Because the truth is, ladies and gentlemen, that this is how we were warned it would be. President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of social Darwinism. Survival of the fittest. “Government can’t do everything,” we were told, so it should settle for taking care of the strong and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.
You know, the Republicans called it “trickle-down” when Hoover tried it. Now they call it “supply side.” But it’s the same shining city for those relative few who are lucky enough to live in its good neighborhoods. But for the people who are excluded, for the people who are locked out, all they can do is stare from a distance at that city’s glimmering towers.
Cuomo was right when he rejected the false morality of a rising religious right and said in his 1984 speech to the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology what too many cautious and confused liberals—and too many responsible conservatives—neglected to say:
I think it’s already apparent that a good part of this Nation understands—if only instinctively—that anything which seems to suggest that God favors a political party or the establishment of a state church, is wrong and dangerous.
Way down deep the American people are afraid of an entangling relationship between formal religions—or whole bodies of religious belief—and government. Apart from constitutional law and religious doctrine, there is a sense that tells us it’s wrong to presume to speak for God or to claim God’s sanction of our particular legislation and His rejection of all other positions. Most of us are offended when we see religion being trivialized by its appearance in political throw-away pamphlets.
The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman.
Cuomo was right, at a time when Catholic politicians were being pressured to impose a narrow morality upon public policy, to anticipate the more generous and inclusive vision of Pope Francis. As Cuomo explained:
In addition to all the weaknesses, dilemmas and temptations that impede every pilgrim’s progress, the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy—who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics—bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones—sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.
In fact, Catholic public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees this freedom. And they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholics: our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.
The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.
I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose.
We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.
Cuomo was right when he rejected the madness of an arms race and the expansion of a military-industrial complex when politicians of both parties neglected the human cost of misplaced priorities. He willed his party to be better, arguing:
We believe as Democrats, that a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world’s history, one that can spend trillions on instruments of destruction, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.
Cuomo was right to join another liberal lion—the late US Senator Edward Kennedy—in offering a humane and embracing definition of liberalism in the modern era when he announced that:
We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need.
We believe in a government that is characterized by fairness and reasonableness, a reasonableness that goes beyond labels, that doesn’t distort or promise to do things that we know we can’t do.
We believe in a government strong enough to use words like “love” and “compassion” and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities.
We believe in encouraging the talented, but we believe that while survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution, a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order.
Cuomo, who died on New Year’s Day at age 82, was the first to admit that he was not always right. He faced criticism for mounting crude campaigns in the early stages of a political journey that took from the streets of Queens to the cusp of presidential politics. He was defeated in races for lieutenant governor of New York, for mayor of New York City, for reelection to a fourth term as governor of New York State. He will always be second-guessed for his “Hamlet on the Hudson” indecision about seeking the presidency in 1988 and 1992, and for rejecting the prospect of nomination to serve on the US Supreme Court.
Yet, in three terms as governor of New York, as a champion of liberalism in the face of what conservatives proclaimed to be the “Reagan revolution,” as a keeper of the New Deal and Fair Deal and Great Society faith in a possibility of a more perfect union, as a thoughtful proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment and of reproductive rights, as an early supporter of research and funding of programs to address the HIV/AIDS crisis, as a sometimes lonely defender of social-welfare programs, as an innovative thinker who recognized that economic development did not have to be at odds with environmental sanity, Mario Cuomo was so frequently right that he came to be understood more as a statesman than a politician.
And on one issue, above all others, he was the most rigorously and necessarily right of all the prominent political figures of his time.
That issue was the death penalty.
Cuomo was the steadiest high-profile foe of capital punishment in an era when most Republicans and many leading Democrats—including President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Ed Koch—supported state-sponsored executions.
Again and again as governor, Cuomo vetoed legislation to establish capital punishment in New York State, explaining when he issued one of those vetoes in 1991 that “The death penalty legitimizes the ultimate act of vengeance in the name of the state, violates fundamental human rights, fuels a mistaken belief by some that justice is being served and demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity.”
Long after he left office, Cuomo remained consistently outspoken in his opposition to the death penalty, and it can he argued that this consistency played a role in shifting Democrats and the country as a whole toward a more enlightened view. But even if he had been required to stand alone on the issue, Mario Cuomo would have done so. It was his chosen mission in the realm of politics, and in the realm of moral discourse, to argue for outlawing capital punishment.
“Because the death penalty was so popular during the time I served as governor, I was often asked why I spoke out so forcefully against it although the voters very much favored it,” former Governor Cuomo wrote in 2011. “I tried to explain that I pushed this issue into the center of public dialogue because I believed the stakes went far beyond the death penalty itself. Capital punishment raises important questions about how, as a society, we view human beings. I believed as governor, and I still believe, that the practice and support for capital punishment is corrosive; that it is bad for a democratic citizenry and that it had to be objected to and so I did then, and I do now and will continue to for as long as it and I exist, because I believe we should be better than what we are in our weakest moments.”
David Duke is vouching for House majority whip Steve Scalise, the Louisiana conservative who is now the third-most-powerful Republican in the US House. As Scalise faces tough questions and criticism following the revelation that he was a presenter at a gathering of the former Klan leader’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization, Duke attests that the congressman is “a fine family man and a good person.”
Duke is even volunteering theories about how Scalise ended up at the 2002 meeting of a reasonably high-profile white supremacist group. The former grand wizard explains that the top Republican was “friendly” with a key campaign strategist for Duke’s gubernatorial and US Senate bids in Louisiana. In fact, Federal Election Commission records reveal that the longtime Duke political aide in question, Kenny Knight, donated $1,000 to the 2008 campaign that saw Scalise make his move from state politics to Congress.
“All I know is that Kenny liked him,” Duke told The Washington Post Tuesday. “He thought Scalise, who remember was just a state representative, was sharp. They’d talk about the Hollywood system, about the war, whatever I was concerned about.” Knight confirms that he invited Scalise to the EURO meeting but suggests that Scalise was oblivious. “Steve was someone who I exchanged ideas with on politics,” explained Knight, who was apparently trying to be helpful when he added, “We wouldn’t talk about race or the Jewish question.”
Perhaps the friendly prodding from Duke and Knight is helping Scalise to focus a bit. The Republican rising star struggled for the better part of two days to get clarity with regard to his appearance at a “white pride” event. Initially, his office tried to keep things vague, suggesting only that it was “likely” Scalise attended. Then, when it became clear he had been not just present but a presenter, Scalise started spinning scenarios that might explain it all away. Though he was a veteran state legislator by 2002, Scalise initially portrayed himself as a confused innocent when it came to accepting invitations. “I didn’t know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group,” he said, while the Post reported that the congressman’s “confidants [are] e-mailing reporters and House members, assuring them that Scalise did not know the implications of his actions in 2002 and describing him as a disorganized and ill-prepared young politician who didn’t pay close attention to invitations.”
Only after more than a day of backlash did Scalise finally admit that he might have erred in speaking to Duke’s allies. “It was a mistake I regret,” he said Tuesday, “and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”
Yet, even as he made his apology, Scalise was playing politics, suggesting that those who have criticized his appearance with white supremacists were doing so “for political gain.”
The victim-of-partisanship gambit was undermined when conservative commentator Erick Erickson asked, “How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke–organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?”
Amid all the wrangling, one thing is certain: No matter how Scalise ended up peddling anti-tax and anti-big government dogma to Duke’s allies, the newly minted top Republican (who moved up in the shuffle following former House majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat and resignation) is not being introduced to America in a manner that reinforces the message that the Grand Old Party has evolved into a twenty-first-century political home for all Americans.
Scalise became the fresh face of the Republican Party in 2014, the pick of the House Republican Caucus to play a critical leadership role as the party takes full control of Congress in January, 2015.
His leadership position and the recent revelations about his relatively recent past have combined to get everyone interested in learning more about Steve Scalise, a political careerist with a record.
Unfortunately for Scalise, that record does not respond well to scrutiny.
On Tuesday, it was recalled that the current House majority whip once told the Washington-insider newspaper Roll Call that, while he shared positions with Duke, Scalise thought he was more electable. Back in 1999, Roll Call reported:
Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same “conservative” views as Duke, but is far more viable.
“The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” said Scalise. “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”
As a state legislator who did get elected from the same precincts where Duke once ran strong, Scalise voted against legislation to establish protections for victims of hate crimes based on race. He also voted at least twice against recognizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday.
In 1999, Scalise was one of just three “no” votes on a King holiday measure. Five years later, Scalise was one of just six Louisiana legislators who opposed King holiday legislation, versus 90 who supported it. He did this in 2004, two decades after the federal King holiday was established.
Scalise will continue to take hits for appearing at the European-American Unity and Rights Organization event. Presumably, he will continue to offer his regrets, along with the “disorganized and ill-prepared” excuse. And, presumably, that will continue to be a plausible enough explanation for House Speaker John Boehner—who says Scalise merely made an “error in judgment” —and the rest of Scalise’s House Republican Caucus.
But, no matter what the congressman says about his presentation at an event organized by allies of David Duke, Scalise has more explaining to do.
For instance, the number-three Republican in the House really does need to explain what led him—years after the debate over the King holiday had ended even for dead-enders like Dick Cheney—to continue to vote against broadly supported measures honoring the nation’s most iconic civil rights campaigner.
The Republican Party, which was founded by militant foes of the expansion of slavery, and which played a critical role in advancing the cause of civil rights in the 1950s and the 1960s, has in recent decades been accused—even by some Republicans—of abandoning its historic legacy. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has focused a good deal of energy and resources on trying to improve the party’s outreach to minority voters; “We’ve got to get this right,” the chairman says of programs and messages directed at African-American, Latino and Asian-American voters.
Prominent national Republicans such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (a potential 2016 presidential candidate) have made a serious effort to address issues of concern to African-American voters. Last year, for instance, Paul made what Talking Points Memo referred to as an “earnest, yet awkward, attempt at minority outreach” when he appeared at Howard University.
It will be hard for Republicans to suggest that they are on the side of the future when, at this point in American history, they have someone in a top leadership position in the House facing questions about his appearance at a white-supremacist event and who opposed the King holiday. If Boehner, Scalise and the rest of the Republican leadership team does not recognize this political reality, it is hard to imagine how the GOP is going to resolve the challenge that Priebus says is essential to its prospects as a national party
“Everyone has a story to tell,” Priebus told the National Association of Black Journalists convention earlier this year, “and it’s up to me and other people in the party to tell our story.”
As a top congressional leader, Steve Scalise is now a central player in that Republican story. For so long as Scalise remains in leadership, it is not just the congressman but his party that has a lot of explaining to do.