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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Don’t Be Fooled: Scott Walker Is No Reformer

Scott Walker

Scott Walker (AP/Morry Gash)

Could there be irony greater than that of a career politician appearing before a gathering of political donors in a city far from his home state to declare that he is an outsider and a “reformer”?

Not likely.

Indeed, it would take a mighty tone-deaf politician to miss the surreal moment in which he found himself.

Meet Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin governor has spent much of the month of November scrambling around the television studios, luxury hotel suites and corporate-funded “think tanks” of Washington and New York, desperately attempting to position himself as a Republican presidential prospect. And he has done so without any sense of irony.

And an expectation that the national media will be gullible enough to believe that the most divisive governor in the modern history of Wisconsin—polls show that his classic swing state is almost evenly divided between those who approve and disapprove of the governor—can somehow run for the presidency as a consensus builder. Walker is now being pitched by the co-writer of the governor’s 2016 campaign book—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—as the ideal GOP candidate for the presidency.

Of all the “compelling potential standard-bearers” for the party, argues Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, “none is better positioned to energize the conservative grassroots while winning the center than Scott Walker.”

Thiessen imagines Walker “as an across-the-board, unflinching, full-spectrum conservative” with an ability to appeal “to persuadable, reform-minded, results-oriented independents.”

That may be what Walker says. But that’s not the assessment of state Senator Dale Schultz, a Republican who has worked with Walker for two decades and who enthusiastically backed Walker in 2010.

This year, Schultz opposed Walker’s approach to a state budget process that the senator said veered—on everything from school funding to academic freedom to tax policy to local control—into territory that was “way too extreme.”

Schultz, a veteran legislator from rural western Wisconsin, criticized Walker for “passing up an opportunity to show independent leadership.”

“No amount of rhetoric or sloganeering will cover up the influence of an out of state billionaire funded and driven agenda,” declared Schultz. “This is not the Wisconsin agenda I’ve fought for over 30 years, and it’s not the Wisconsin agenda I hear from people as I travel around my district and across the state.”

Walker and his allies are doing everything they can to foster the fantasy that the governor as an outsider, a reformer, the antithesis of poilitics as usual. That was certainly the agenda last week, when Walker appeared in New York City before a November 18 gathering of top check writers for Republican candidates, Walker ripped the Democrat he hopes to run against in 2016—Hillary Clinton—for her long record of public service. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t just secretary of state, wasn’t just a U.S. senator, wasn’t just the first lady. She’s been a product of Washington for decades.”

Always at the ready for some self-promotion, Walker told the Republican crowd in New York that “if we’re going to beat somebody like Hillary Clinton, we’ve got to have somebody from outside of Washington, who’s got a proven record of reform.”

So, let’s review: Clinton’s the insider and Walker’s the outsider, right?

Not so fast.

Though she spent many years in Arkansas, Clinton has certainly done her time in Washington. And she is certainly no innocent when it comes to the maneuverings and manipulations that take place in the capitals of states and nations. So even if she is not a “product” of Washington, she is certainly no newcomer to the political game.

And what of Walker?

The governor conveniently forgot to mention that he began his own political career at age 22 and has, since then, run twenty-three years primary and general election campaigns in twenty-three years—making him one of the most determined careerists in American politics. And even before he finishes his first term as one of the nation’s most embattled governors, Walker is bidding for the presidency—so much so that he did not bother to correct a questioner in New York who began: “Since you’re clearly running for president…

The problem with careerists is that they are often more interested in their careers than in challenging power.

In a word, they are: intimidated.

But Walker says that’s not him.

The governor’s new book seeks to portray this would-be presidential contender as an fearless political warrior, ever at the ready to advance his ideals.

That, like Walker’s suggestion that his austerity agenda has been successful, is a fantasy grounded in his ambition rather than reality.

In fact, Walker is one of the most intimidated politicians in America.

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When Walker ran for governor in 2006, he framed a reform message that talked about ending crony capitalism and addressing the influence of special-interest campaign money and lobbying on the state budget process. In meetings with the state’s newspaper editorial boards, he pitched himself as a different kind of Republican who would not play insider political games. Walker earned some high marks when he “vowed to run as an underdog battling party insiders”—except from party insiders, who were unimpressed with his campaign.

In March 2006, just days after Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman visited Wisconsin, and barely a week after a visit to the state by Vice President Dick Cheney, Walker folded his gubernatorial campaign.

No “unintimidated” stand against the Washington power brokers. No fight to the end on behalf of his ideals. No faith that a grass-roots campaign could beat the money power.

Four years later Walker was back, with a better fundraising operation. This time, he had all the right connections. National donors, like Charles and David Koch, made maximum contributions to his campaign, and then gave even more money to groups making “independent” expenditures on Walker’s behalf.

He won, and in February 2011, when he got a call from someone he thought was David Koch, Walker played along with the caller’s talk about “planting some troublemakers” to disrupt peaceful protests against the governor’s anti-labor policies. Walker writes in his book that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.” Yet, when he was talking to someone he thought was a billionaire campaign donor, the governor said: “We thought about that.” If we take Walker at his word—that he never considered using agents provocateurs—then why didn’t he say so at the time? Was he intimidated by someone he thought was a major campaign donor?

The same question arises regarding Walker’s conversation with Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who gave $500,000 to his 2012 campaign. Walker has said he has “no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation” to weaken private-sector unions. Yet, when Hendricks asked him about right-to-work legislation, Walker did not say, “We’re not going to do that.” Rather, he told Hendricks his “first step” would be to attack public-sector unions as part of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy.

Walker wants a frequently obtuse national media and grassroots Republicans to imagine that he is “unintimidated.” And perhaps that is the case when he is picking on teachers and nurses and anyone who might dare to join a public-employee union. But when the party bosses and billionaire donors come calling, he’s just another politician telling the money power what it wants to hear.

John Nichols catalogues how Scott Walker’s memories of his years as governor diverge from reality.

Senator Susan Collins Is the Barrier to Transparency, Accountability on Drones

Senator Susan Collins

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine (courtesy US Senate)

Susan Collins is supposed to be the last reasonable Republican in the Senate.

The pair of New England Republicans with whom she had aligned in something of a regional caucus—fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown of Massachusetts—are gone. So, elite media outlets frequently remind us, it’s up to Collins.

But on a fundamental question of democratic governance—accounting for civilians killed by US drone strikes—Collins does not appear to be up for it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Collins sits, voted this month to require the government to report on the number of civilians who have been being killed by drone strikes, as part of a broader effort to bring the Congress into a proper advise-and-consent role when it comes to killings that are committed in the name of the American people but without their informed consent.

The legislation is a big deal: “Because the U.S. government number is secret, we can’t have a normal democratic debate about the policy,” explains the group Just Foreign Policy. “Government officials anonymously tell the press that civilian deaths from drone strikes have been rare. Independent reporting says otherwise. Government officials anonymously tell the press that the independent reporting isn’t accurate, but they won’t say why it isn’t accurate and they won’t say what is accurate. So the broad public is left with ‘he said, she said.’ Media that reach the broad public won’t challenge the government’s claims about civilian casualties until we can force the government onto the public record to defend its claims.”

Unfortunately, notes Robert Naiman, the policy director for Just Foriegn Policy, Collins voted “no.”

“Because of the way the Senate works, Susan Collins’s opposition could keep this crucial reform of the drone strike policy from becoming law,” Naiman and his Just Foreign Policy colleagues argue.

This is how Collins fits into the equation: “Senator Collins’s support for this provision is crucial because it’s not likely that the Senate will pass it into law unless it attracts some Republican support. Republicans outside the committee tend to defer to Republicans on the committee. But no Republican supported the amendment in committee. Susan Collins is the Republican member of the committee considered most likely to change her position.”

Which takes this debate out of the Intelligence Committee, out of the Capitol and out of Washington.

Drone policy is unlikely to change unless Collins changes her position. But that is not likely to happen, Naiman suggests, “unless there’s some public agitation for it.”

To get that, there has to be a real debate about drone policy—nationally, but especially in Maine.

Nationally, there’s a MoveOn petition campaign urging Collins “to reverse her opposition to telling the public about civilian deaths from US drone strikes.” It has already attracted roughly 15,000 signatures, with thousands of new names being added daily.

But what about Maine?

Enter Shenna Bellows.

The longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, recently announced that she would challenge Collins in 2014 as a “Democrat. Libertarian. Progressive.”

Bellows is serious about all three words. And she has a record of taking on both parties on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to freedom of information to drone policy. In fact, she has been a national leader on the final issue, having organized a left-right coalition that got the Maine legislature to pass legislation requiring police agencies to obtain a probable cause warrant before using drones for surveillance. (Governor Paul LePage vetoed the bill but then issued an executive order directing the state’s commissioner of public safety to issue a policy governing law enforcement use and operation of drones.

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Bellows launched her campaign in October, with a declaration that

We need to repeal the Patriot Act and REAL ID.

We need to stop the NSA and the FBI from wasting their time and taxpayer dollars spying on ordinary Americans through our cell phones and email.

We need to place limits on drones.

Bellows argues that Congress has created a constitutional crisis by failing to defend basic liberties, and by failing to serve as a check and balance on executive overreach.

She is right.

And her candidacy highlights a vital constitutional question—that of the right of Congress and the people to information about military missions—on which Collins is wrong.

Political campaigns, by their nature, are competitions for power. But they are also competitions of ideas. They can put issues into play. And they can force entrenched politicians to think anew about stances they have taken. Even those who might not back Shenna Bellows must recognize the value of a candidacy that demands Collins think more deeply about the essential role of the legislative branch in checking and balancing the executive.

Robert Greewald’s film Unmanned adds fuel to the drone debate.

Honor JFK by Renewing His Constitutional Commitment to Extend Voting Rights

John F. Kennedy

“The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world—and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history—both recent and past—clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation, and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.”
    —John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963

There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures—including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic party.

Kennedy saw himself as a liberal reformer, declaring in 1960: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’ ”

Kennedy was ardently in favor of religious tolerance, respect for immigrants and labor rights (in 1962 he signed Executive Order 10988, which established the right of most federal workers to bargain collectively). Yes, in his service as a senator from Massachusetts and later as the nation’s thirty-fifth president, Kennedy was a politician of his times, which meant that he could disappoint; surely, he was slower than need be when it came to challenging Cold War dogmas and in calling out Southern resistance to social and economic justice. But Kennedy evolved, as did the nation he led, during the course of his short but transformational presidency.

Kennedy devoted much of the last year of his life to advocacy on behalf of voting rights. His great civil rights address—delivered in the last year of his presidency from the Oval Office to a national television and radio audience—argued that “it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.”

Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy can be honored in many ways. But a renewal of his liberal commitment to voting rights would surely be a fine place to begin. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the poll tax, was placed on the national agenda by Kennedy, who made it his personal mission to eliminate the wealth barrier to voting.

Politically savvy, the president knew that enacting a constitutional amendment would be difficult, but he argued for going “the hard way” because of an understanding of the need to go around Southern resistance in the Senate and because of a determination on lock in voting-rights gains.

Kennedy promoted the amendment in speeches and letters to the Congress, and then in a steady stream of telegrams and phone calls that prodded governors and legislators across the country to get their states on board.

In the last months before his death, Kennedy was in the thick of the struggle for voting rights, telling Americans: “Finally, the 87th Congress—after 20 years of effort—passed and referred to the states for ratification a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit the levying of poll taxes as a condition to voting. I urge every state legislature to take prompt action on this matter and to outlaw the poll tax—which has too long been an outmoded and arbitrary bar to voting participation by minority groups and others—as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.”

Beyond the bully pulpit, the president exchanged notes with governors such as Wisconsin’s John Reynolds regarding the details of legislative debates and votes. To a far greater extent than was known at the time, Kennedy personally managed the ratification process.

Thirty-six states ratified the amendment before Kennedy’s assassination—two short of the needed total. Kennedy and others hoped that Texas might break with other states and support the amendment. A statewide referendum on November 9, 1963, proposed to repeal that state’s poll tax and the campaign was intense. Opponents of repeal argued that people of color would “flood the polls” if the economic barrier to voting was removed. Supporters distributed literature that declared: “President Kennedy Wants You to Vote Saturday, November 9, to Repeal the Poll Tax.”

A special message from Kennedy read: “I share the conviction that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged because of the failure to pay a poll tax.”

The literature made the connection to the civil rights movement, urging a “yes” vote: “For Better Job Opportunities, For Better Housing, For Equality and Dignity, For Freedom.”

Unfortunately, a majority of Texas voters saw the change as a threat. The rejected repeal less that two weeks before Kennedy made his trip to Dallas. Yet the president continued his advocacy, getting prominent Texans such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and US Senator Ralph Yarborough to lend their names to the effort.

Kennedy died without seeing his amendment added to the Constitution.

But his labors were not in vain.

The final states, Maine and South Dakota, signaled their approval in the weeks after the president’s death

When the Twenty-fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution in January 1964, the change in the founding document was heralded with front-page headlines in newspapers and broadcast reports from coast to coast—except, notably, in Southern states where too many media outlets had aligned themselves with the massive resistance to civil-rights legislation, even when that legislation took the form of a constitutional amendment.

The constitutional elimination of the barrier Kennedy derided as “the property qualification” for voting signaled the arrival of what the late president had hoped for: “another turning point in the history of the great Republic.” With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed, finally, that the nation might move “beyond the new frontiers” of which Kennedy had spoken.

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Unfortunately, as the historian Eric Foner reminds us, the history of the right to vote in America is one of expansion and contraction. And the rights Kennedy and so many others fought to expand have been contracting with the passage of restrictive “Voter ID” laws, attacks on early voting and same-day registration, and a US Supreme Court move to gut the Voting Rights Act. Responding to the legislative and judicial assaults on the voting rights, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison have returned to the constitutional route that John Kennedy charted when he set out to end polls taxes and property qualifications as a barrier to voting.

With support from groups such as FairVote and Color of Change, the struggle for a constitutional guarantee of voting rights has gone national. Communities across the country are passing resolutions urging Congress to approve the amendment and send it to the states. As in the period before Kennedy embraced the campaign for an amendment banning the poll tax, there is a burgeoning grassroots campaign for constitutional intervention on behalf of voting rights.

The Pocan-Ellison proposal states in simple language the values that voting-rights campaigners have championed for decades: “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides,” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”

Or as John Fitzgerald Kennedy put it in 1963: “It is necessary [to] free the forces of our democratic system…promptly insuring the franchise to all citizens, making it possible for their elected officials to be truly responsive to all their constituents.”

Ari Berman describes the contemporary resurgence of Jim Crow throughout the United States.

Rep. Trey Radel Won’t Be Joining the More Than Half a Million Americans Jailed for Drug Offenses

Florida Rep. Trey Radel

Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who has wisely determined that he does not want to become an American version of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, says he will take a leave of absence from the US House of Representatives to address his penchant for cocaine.

“I’m struggling with this disease, but I know that I can overcome it,” explains the conservative Republican.

Fair enough. The congressman wants to finally deal with an addiction problem he says he’s struggled with “on and off for years.” And there is every reason to wish him well as he does so.

But it would be good for Radel and his colleagues to note that he has identified his challenge as a disease, not a bad habit.

That’s a very different line than was taken by the House Republicans Caucus (of which Radel has been an enthusiastic member) when the chamber this year gave voice-vote approval to an amendment that allows states to require drug-testing of food stamp recipients. Why would they seek to penalize victims of what the congressman says is a disease? Why would they go after the neediest Americans in what Congressman Jim McGovern—the House’s most ardent advocate for nutrition programs—with a “degrading and mean-spirited” approach?

Why, in general, is there a rush to penalize Americans who are in need far more aggressively than Radel, a former television reporter who was elected to Congress last year with the backing of Tea Party groups that have made it a priority to promote crackdowns on recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Radel’s penalty for an admitted purchase of cocaine from an undercover agent will be a year of supervised probation.

He will not lose his job, or the benefits that will allow him to overcome his disease. He even suggests that he wants to “continue to serve.”

Radel seems to be safe from the worst ravages of the drug war. He's getting a chance to "overcome" his problems.

But Americans who are not members of Congress continue to be harmed. Shouldn't they get the same chance that Radel has gotten?

As the Drug Policy Alliance notes:

§ The number of people behind bars for drug law violations rose from 50,000 in 1980 to more than a half of a million today—an 1100-percent increase.

§ Drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, totaling more than 1.63 million arrests in 2010. More than four out of five of these arrests were for mere possession, and forty-six percent of these arrests (750,591) were for marijuana possession alone.

§ Arrests and incarceration for drugs—even for first time, low-level violations—can result in debilitating collateral consequences for an individual and their family. A conviction for a drug law violation can result in the loss of employment, property, public housing, food stamp eligibility, financial aid for college, and the right to vote—even after serving time behind bars.

And Radel’s House Republican Caucus just led the fight to make it even harder on people suffering from what the congressman identifies as a disease—or for people who simply engage in recreational marijuana use—to get by.

There are lots of calls for Radel to step down.

But wouldn’t it be better for him to get his treatment and come around to the realization that penalizing and punishing people who use drugs is a bad policy? Wouldn’t it be better if he recognized, as a participant in future policy debates, that this bad policy is too frequently applied in a “new Jim Crow” manner that sees people of color and low-income Americans face far harsher penalties than wealthy and politically connected white folks?

Radel could be a leader in backing legislative proposals would change not just policies but the broader debate about how to end a failed “drug war.” So, too, could more members of a House Republican Caucus that still errs too frequently on the side of punishment of those in need rather than common sense.

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Some Republicans have already come around. There’s bipartisan support for some of the soundest legislative proposals. But the support has not been sufficient to get the House moving on what the Drug Policy Alliance identifies as essential reforms, such as:

§ The Safety Valve Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and in the U.S. House by Representatives Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Virginia, and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky. The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted. (Notably, Radel is a co-sponsor of this measure. Unfortunately, he’s one of just 18 House members—15 Democrats, 3 Republicans—who are now on board.)

§ The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the US Senate by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and in the House by Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Bobby Scott, which would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug law violations, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted. (Ten members—7 Democrats and three Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)

§ The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in the US House by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Bobby Scott, which would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.(Seventeen House members—12 Democrats and 5 Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)

These pieces of legislation represent vital steps in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the first step is to recognize that Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” has failed and that it is absurd to continue to respond to that failure with an unreasonable and unequal regimen of penalty and punishment.

Take Action: Ask President Obama to Pardon Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Zoë Carpenter describes how inequality is “literally killing America.”

Bernie Sanders Might Just Have to Run for President

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is not burning with presidential ambition. He doubts that he would consider bidding for the nation’s top job if another prominent progressive was gearing up for a 2016 run that would provide a seriously-focused and seriously competitive populist alternative to politics as usual.

But if the fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans—“the collapse of the middle class, growing wealth and income inequality, growth in poverty, global warming”—are not being discussed by the 2016 candidates, Sanders says, “Well, then maybe I have to do it.”

This calculation brings the independent senator from Vermont a step closer to presidential politics than he has ever been before. With a larger social-media following than most members of Congress, a regular presence on left-leaning television and talk radio programs—syndicated radio host Bill Press greeted the Sanders speculation with a Tuesday morning “Go, Bernie, Go!” cheer—and a new “Progressive Voters of America” political action committee, Sanders has many of the elements of an insurgent candidacy in place.

But the senator is still a long way from running.

In interviews over the past several days, Sanders has argued with increasing force that the times demand that there be a progressive contender in 2016.

“Under normal times, it’s fine, if you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” the senator told his hometown paper, the Burlington Free Press. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”

So, says Sanders, there must be a progressive alternative to the conservative Republican politics of cruelty and cuts and the centrist Democratic politics of compromise with the conservatives.

“[The] major issues of this country that impact millions of people cannot continue to be swept under the rug,” Sanders told Politico on Monday. “And if nobody else is talking about it, well, then maybe I have to do it. But I do not believe that I am the only person that is capable of doing this.”

The independent senator has high praise for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently been talked up by some progressives as a prospective primary challenger to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Warren has a reputation for taking on Wall Street, big banks and corporate CEOs, and Sanders hails the Massachusetts senator as a “real progressive.” But Warren says she is not running.

So what happens if Warren stands down? And what if other liberal and populist presidential prospects, such as Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, fail to gain traction?

Then, says Sanders, he’d consider a run.

That sounds casual. But it isn’t. Sanders has stipulations regarding a candidacy.

Though he is a proud independent, he would not run as a November “spoiler” who might take away just enough votes to throw the presidential election to a right-wing Republican.

And he has little taste for “educational” campaigns that seek to raise issues—either on an independent line or in a Democratic primary dominated by a Clinton juggernaut—but do not seriously compete for power.

If Sanders were to run—and that remains a very big “if”—he says he would do so with a strategy for winning.

That strategy, whether the senator were to mount a presidential bid as an independent or as a Democrat, would not be built around insider ties or connections; Clinton already has much of the party establishment locked down. And it certainly would not rely on raising the most money, explains the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics.

When we spoke recently about the challenges facing progressive candidates, Sanders said what most politicians will not:

“This small handful of multi-billionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we’re going to BE paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we’re going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United, these very same people are now investing in politics. That’s what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country—certainly including the media—and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.”

Sanders actually likes the prospects of taking on the oligarchs, saying: “And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don’t want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next president of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think it’s a great opportunity.”

So any presidential run by Sanders would rely on small contributions and grassroots support. But the core of the strategy would be that challenge to oligarchy, with its focus on values and ideas that have been too long dismissed by prominent presidential contenders and the media that covers them.

In effect, say Sanders, he would run only if he thought that he could fill the great void in the American political discourse, and in so doing inspire voters to reject old orthodoxies in favor of a new populist politics that would have as its core theme economic justice.

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When we spoke about what is missing from American politics, Sanders told me that the president America needs would begin the discussion, as Franklin Roosevelt did, by calling out the plutocrats and their political and media minions.

Imagine, explains Sanders, if Americans had a president who said to them: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they’re going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together, we can defeat them.”

The senator explained the concept that would, necessarily, underpin a presidential bid:

“If you had a President who said: ‘Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said: ‘You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact we’re going to improve the Social Security program,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a president who said, ‘Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time, I’m going to create millions jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don’t like it. I know the coal companies don’t like it. But that is what this planet needs: we’re going to lead the world in that direction. We’re going to transform the energy system across this planet—and create millions of jobs while we do that.’ If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?”

Whether Sanders runs or not, the prospect of such a speak-truth-to-power presidency is an appealing one. And the senator from Vermont is right: Americans do not just deserve such an option. In these times, they need a serious progressive alternative the ugly politics of austerity -- and the empty politics of compromise.

John Nichols discusses another candidate of progressives’ dreams: Elizabeth Warren.

As He Runs for President, Scott Walker Runs From His Record

Scott Walker

Sorry, US Senator Marco Rubio and US Senator Rand Paul and US Senator Ted Cruz.

Sorry, US Representative Paul Ryan, the former favorite son of Wisconsin Republicans.

But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says the next Republican nominee for president “should either be a former or current governor.” After all that shutdown trouble, the party’s candidate is going to have to be “somebody who’s viewed as being exceptionally remote from Washington.”

And sorry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Scott Walker may have a kind word for you, but he says the GOP’s 2016 candidate must be someone who has “taken on big reforms.”

Indeed, sorry, any Republican who is not named “Scott Walker,” but Scott Walker thinks the Republicans are going to need to turn to someone like, um, Scott Walker.

That was the takeaway from Walker’s interviews as he launched the book that is supposed to launch his presidential run, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.

Walker did not actually announce his candidacy on Sunday’s edition of ABC’s This Week. But as ABC’s Jonathan Karl explained: “When Walker talks about the kind of candidate Republicans should nominate in 2016, it sounds more than a little like he is talking about himself.”

The Wisconsin governor did nothing to stifle speculation.

Despite repeated prompting from ABC’s Karl, Walker refused to commit to serve out the second gubernatorial term that he is expected to seek in 2014—presumably on the bold assumption that said term could interfere with a move to the White House in 2017.

Even as he stumbled around inevitable questions, Walker was sounding like a presidential prospect.

Unfortunately for the most ambitious Republican in a very ambitious Republican field, Walker’s book does not exactly make him sound presidential.

It is not merely that the book—like the ABC interview—is absurdly self-promotional. After all, books issued by potential bidders for the presidency are campaign documents.

It is not that the book’s recounting of events in Wisconsin has been called into question by the people who were there. Or that the chronicling of discrepancies in the book has provided Wisconsin journalists with steady work.

What most undermines Unintimidated—and, with it, Walker’s presidential bid—is the governor’s failure to bring a seriousness to the task of addressing his most troubling, and potentially damaging, missteps. He admits to making mistakes. However, instead of dealing forthrightly with unsettling aspects of his record, Walker tries to write around them—often in the clumsiest of ways.

Take, for instance, the governor’s recollection on the February 2011 telephone conversation in which he was recorded casually discussing the idea of using agents provocateurs to stir up trouble at peaceful mass demonstrations to protest his assault on labor rights for public employees.

By most measures, it was a embarrassing episode.

But the governor makes the episode all the more embarrassing by writing in 2013 that he never considered what in 2011 he certainly seemed to say that he had considered.

In the book he hopes will make him a competitor for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Walker claims that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.”

That is what Walker must write if he wants to make a play on the national political stage. It is difficult to imagine that someone who toyed with the ideas employing deliberate provocations as a political tool— in order to create a false impression of citizens who are exercising First Amendment rights to assembly and petition for the redress of grievances— would be taken seriously as a potential commander in chief.

The problem, of course, is that what Walker is now saying conflicts with what he was saying in private and public two and a half years ago.

The issue first arose in February of 2011, several days after mass demonstrations began at the state Capitol. The demonstrations were nonviolent and well organized. Top law enforcement officers for the region—Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray—praised the protesters for keeping things civil, despite the intensity of the issues that had been raised by Walker’s proposal to eliminate essential workplace protections and collective-bargaining rights for public employees and public school teachers.

The Madison Police Department even went so far as to issue a formal statement that concluded: “Crowd behavior has been exemplary, and thousands of Wisconsin citizens are to be commended for the peaceful ways in which they have expressed First Amendment rights.”

Yet, when Walker thought he was talking to billionaire conservative campaign donor David Koch, the caller (actually blogger Ian Murphy) said: “What we were thinking about the crowds was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.”

Walker replied: “We thought about that.”

The trouble with the strategy, the governor explained, was that it might not play well politically. “My only fear would be is if there was a ruckus caused is that that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has gotta settle to avoid all these problems,” he explained during the course of the call.

Former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager was aghast.

“I think there’s a serious issue there,” she said back in 2011. “That’s a public safety issue. And I think that is really troublesome: a governor with an obligation to maintain public safety says he’s going to plant people to make trouble. That screams out to me. For a governor even to consider a strategy that could unnecessarily threaten the safety of peaceful demonstrators—which the governor acknowledged he did—is something that simply amazes me.”

Walker repeatedly acknowledged after the “Koch call” was made public that he considered employing agents provocateurs to stir up trouble and discredit the demonstrators. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper that backed Walker for governor in 2010 and refused to support his recall in 2012, pointed out after reviewing the book that “in a news conference held the day the prank call was released, Walker said the idea had been debated, adding, ‘We dismissed that and said that wasn’t a good idea.’”

The Journal Sentinel noted with regard to the governor’s current claim: “His book does not explain why he spoke about it that way with reporters if such a plan had never been entertained.”

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As it happens, the governor was even more explicit in discussing his political calculations when he went on Fox News on February 23, 2011, to discuss the prank call.

When Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren pressed Walker on the question of whether he and his aides had considered employing agent provocateurs to play “dirty tricks in the crowd,” he openly discussed the matter— going so far as to explain: “I even had lawmakers and others suggesting riling things up.”

The governor said that, ultimately, he rejected the idea. But instead of expressing moral outrage at the prospect that “riling things up” might create a dangerous circumstance for crowds that included children, elderly folks and people with disabilities, the governor again appeared to make a political calculation. Stirring up trouble, Walker told the Fox host, “adds no value.”

As some point, someone must have explained to Walker that his acknowledgment of the discussions about employing troublemakers, and of his political calculations regarding the strategy, would not play well nationally.

So now he’s claiming that he “never—never—considered” what in 2011 he said he and his aides “thought about.”

The governor’s apologists will surely continue to cut him slack on this one. But if and when Walker mounts his presidential run, this is an issue he will eventually find himself revisiting.

It is not just the matter of the conflicting claims and statements. There is also the question of what the governor really thinks about using agents provocateurs to “rile things up” at otherwise peaceful protests.

After the transcript of the prank call was made public in 2011, then Madison Police Chief Wray said: “I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his Cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers.”

Scott Walker may think he is the ideal candidate for president.

But ideal candidates don’t talk about “planting some troublemakers” to try and besmirch peaceful protests against their policies.

Ideal candidates simply say it is wrong to speak of such things—even when prodded to do so by someone they think is a billionaire campaign donor.

John Nichols makes the case for an Elizabeth Warren 2016 presidential run.

Could a Socialist Actually Win Seattle’s City Council Race? Yes

Kshama Sawant, socialist Seattle city council candidate

Kshama Sawant, a Seattle socialist who campaigned on a promise to lead the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, is poised to join the city council of one of the nation's largest municipalities.

The sixteen-year incumbent Democrat who Sawant challenged in the nonpartisan citywide race, Richard Conlin, conceded Friday evening. The former Seattle city council president acknowledged that Sawant had defeated him after the challenger took a 1,640 vote lead in an ongoing count on ballots from the city's November 5 election.

Sawant, whose campaign energized young people, communities of color and neighborhood activists to provide its come-from-behind energy, describes her electoral seccess as "historic."

"Our campaign us not an isolated event, it's a bellwether for what's going to happen in the future," declares Sawant.

It also renews an urban radical tradition that has deep roots.

America has a rich history of radical politics at the municipal level. Over the past century has seen “sewer socialists” manage the affairs of major cities such as Milwaukee and join city councils, schools boards and county commissions from New York City to Butte, Montana.

The last big-city Socialist Party mayor was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who finished his final term in 1960. More recently, Bernie Sanders served as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s; while Benjamin Nichols, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, served as mayor of Ithaca, New York, in the 1990s. And just last year, 19-year-old Socialist Party member Pat Noble was elected to the regional board of education in Red Bank, New Jersey.

But Seattle is a major urban center, with what many local analysts have portrayed as an entreched politics. So Sawant’s progress has been seen locally as big news. The Seattle Times headlined its Wednesday edition “Socialist Sawant Now Leads Seattle Council Race.”

“I think we have shown the strongest skeptics that the Socialist label is not a bad one for a grassroots campaign to succeed,” Sawant declared as the count turned her way.

A former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant ran a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that argued: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”

Sawant pulled no punches in her platform, which began with her signature proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promised to:

* Seek “A Millionaire’s Tax to fund mass transit, education, and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services.” She proposes to: “End corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners & workers.”

* Support efforts to “Unionize Amazon, Starbucks & low-paid service workers.”

* Commit to “No layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”

Sawant won 35 percent of the August citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 citywide ballot along with Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin had the backing of most of the Democratic leadership in a city where Democrats tend to win most elections; he also had the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.

“An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction,” argued The Stranger in an editorial that celebrated Sawant’s run. “She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on non-economic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.”

In August, The Seattle Weekly wrote: “We like her because she’s an honest-to-god socialist who’s willing to throw a few Molotov cocktails into the cloistered hatch-pits of our terribly staid civic ‘debates.’ ”

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Sawant took on not just a veteran incumbent but a political process that, for the most part, favors candidates of the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis's unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (where he finished with almost 7 percent of the vote) offered an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle offers evidence that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.

“Seattle has become a really unaffordable city and overall, not just in Seattle but everywhere in the country, people are fed up, angry and frustrated with the political system,” Sawant said, explaining her strong finish. “They’re fed up with the political dysfunction and they’re hungry for change.”

John Nichols explains the growing populist appeal of politicians like Elizabeth Warren.

Candidate or Not, Elizabeth Warren Has the Right 2016 Message

Senator Elizabeth Warren

It is no secret that, should Hillary Clinton decide to mount a White House bid in 2016, she is well positioned to become the first woman president of the United States. It is hard to find a pollster who does not share the view of veteran Democratic analyst Doug Schoen: “Clinton not only leads the Democratic field in polls but also leads potential Republican challengers.”

To be specific, according to the latest NBC News poll, Clinton is the favored candidate of 66 percent of prospective 2016 Democratic primary voters. Her appeal cuts across demographic lines, taking in those who view her candidacy as “historic,” those who share her views and those who simply see her as a winner. Just 14 percent opt for an alternative at this point. (In a Public Policy Polling survey from earlier this month, Clinton’s at 67 percent among Democrats) In NBC’s hypothetical November 2016 pairing, Clinton beats the “hot” Republican prospect of the moment, Chris Christie, by a 10 point margin nationally. “Clinton [is] benefiting from the same demographic trends that helped propel President Barack Obama to win the election in 2008 and re-election in 2012,” argues a poll analysis, which also suggests that “other prominent Democrats would likely avoid the race if Clinton decides to throw her hat into the ring.”

But if Hillary Clinton does not run, or if she runs poorly, does that mean that there will be no woman bidding for the presidency?

No.

In addition to the men whose names get tossed around—Vice President Joe Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and some have even suggested Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (though he proudly sits as an independent) —there are a number of prominent Democratic women whose names have surfaced as potential contenders: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and, above all, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

There’s been a flurry of speculation this week—in a New Republic piece, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and in Capital Hill journals such as The Hill and Politico—about the prospect that Warren might challenge the Clinton from the left for the Democratic nod. Warren does not appear to be stoking the speculation. She joined all sixteen Democratic woman in the Senate to sign a “secret” letter, circulated earlier this year by California Senator Barbara Boxer urging Clinton to run. That fits with Warren’s public pronouncements; asked in May by The Boston Globe if she might seek the nomination, Warren responed: “No, no, no, no.”

Pressed on whether that was a “definite no,” Warren replied: “No, no, no, no, no”—adding another “no” for emphasis.

But Warren would not be the first presidential “no” who became a “yes.”

Circumstances change over the long arc of America’s endless campaigns. Frontrunners decide not to make races, or stumble along the course of the campaign. There are a fair number of progressives who would love to see Warren take on Clinton. There are even more who want her at the ready should Clinton drop back or fail to gain traction.

But Warren is not just a fall-back contender—or even a progressive alternative to the centrist Clinton. She is more than just a prospective candidate. She is a purveyor of ideas, whether advanced on the campaign trail or in the Senate, that really do make her what Politico suggests: “Wall Street’s Nightmare.”

What is appealing about the prospect of a Warren bid—against Clinton or in a race without Clinton—is the determination of the Massachusetts senator to reach far beyond the traditional space filled by centrist and even liberal Democrats. She goes to where Bill de Blasio went in a progressive populist bid that swept him into New York’s mayoralty with an almost fifty-point margin of victory.

Warren’s message, in the Senate and beyond, is that Democrats can and should have an economic agenda that speaks to the great mass of Americans.

And when she delivers it, as she did at last summer’s AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, she can and does sound like a very appealing presidential prospect.

Warren, the country’s best-known advocate for regulation of Wall Street and the big banks who conceived and organized the establishment of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her election in 2012 to the US Senate, kicked off the labor convention an address that was equal parts William Jennings Bryan, Mother Jones and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Our agenda is America’s agenda,” she declared toi thunderous cheers from the assembled delegates. “The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field. That’s our mandate. That’s what we’re here to do.”

“However tough the challenge, however steep our climb, I am proud to stand with you, to march with you, and to fight side-by-side with you,” Warren continued, as delegates began rising to their feet and joining her in shouting: “Our agenda is America’s agenda and if we fight for it, we win.”

It was a rare political moment, one that had AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka musing aloud: “if we could only clone her.”

It wasn’t just the energy of Warren’s speech, not just the unapologetic stance and the clenched fist in the air.

It was the content.

While too many Democrats come across as mere spectators to the great political and economic battles of what Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would make an age of austerity, Warren chose the opening night of the labor federation’s convention that she is prepared not just to fight but to lead.

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She did so not from a place of caution, or compromise, but from a place populist determination. She decried “a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business.” She ripped Republican governors, objecting to the fact that “in Wisconsin Scott Walker and the legislature he controls have declared war on working families by ripping the guts out of collective bargaining agreements.“

But the real muscle of Warren’s speech, the element that had The Washington Post saying it “reinforced the potential Warren has for higher office,” was a refusal to bend to the lie of austerity and the conventional wisdom that says there is no alternative to cuts and compromises with the corporate agenda.

“On almost every issue of economic concern, our values are America’s values, and our agenda is America’s agenda,” Warren told the crowd, reminding convention delegates that the cause of economic justice is not a minority mission:

§ “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement—and you know what? So do more than 80 percent of people. Wall Street will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe in raising the minimum wage—and so do 71 percent of people. The Republicans will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe in preventing cuts to Social Security benefits—and so do 87 percent of Americans. The Washington insiders will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe in rebuilding our infrastructure and in passing legislation to create jobs—and so do 75 percent of Americans. The Tea Party will fight us, but the American people are on our side.”

§ “We believe that the sequester is stupid. And, you know what? A majority of Americans-including a majority of Republicans agree with us too.”

Warren recognizes something that too many prominent Democrats—not just in the Clinton camp but across the leadership ranks of the party—have a hard time fathoming. The problem is not that Democratic party is too populist. The problem is that the party is too cautious when populism is called for.

Too many Democratic leaders have been too slow to declare, as Warren did in Los Angeles, “We have a mandate—a mandate to build a fair tax code, one that isn’t rigged to give breaks to big oil and billionaires while it crushes working families. We have a mandate to invest in the future—in infrastructure, in research and innovation, and in education. And we have a mandate to create jobs—jobs right here in America, jobs for hard working people!”

That’s the language that gets economic justice advocates—who have fought long enough in the trenches to know what is needed—excited. Massachusetts Nurses Association president Donna Kelly-Williams was not alone around the time of the AFL-CIO convention when she said of Warren, “I would love to see her run in 2016.”

The battlelines for 2016 have yet to be drawn. The race is not over; in many senses it is not even begun. And the voice of Elizabeth Warren, as a presidential candidate, as a prospective presidential candidate, as a vice-presidential prospect, as a non-candidate seeking to influence the direction of her party and the greater campaign, is a vital one. Indeed, she is providing the language that populists, progressives and, hopefully, Democrats will employ—no matter who is running in 2016—to take on and finally defeat the false premise of austerity.

John Nichols shows how the “Scott Walker effect” reveals political trends in 2013.

A Doctor With a Cure: ‘Medicare for All’

Gene Farley and I shared a deep affection for Tommy Douglas, the Baptist preacher-turned-statesman who as the leader of Saskatchewan’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation established the framework for what would become Canada’s single-payer national healthcare system.

Douglas, who is often recalled as “the Greatest Canadian,” had a congenial style that belied his determination to address social and economic injustices he knew to be immoral. “The inescapable fact,” he argued, “is that when we build a society based on greed, selfishness, and ruthless competition, the fruits we can expect to reap are economic insecurity at home and international discord abroad.”

Paraphrasing Tennyson, Douglas roused Canadians with a promise: “Courage, my friends; ‘tis not too late to build a better world.” That line always came to mind when I was with Gene, who died Friday at 86.

Gene was an internationally renowned physician, an originator of family practice residency programs and innovative public-health initiatives who finished a distinguished academic career as chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin.

Yet, his great passion was as a “build a better world” campaigner. The man who proudly recalled joining the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 was still marching for those same causes in 2013.

With his beloved wife, Dr. Linda Farley, Gene devoted two decades of “retirement” to advancing a broad justice vision that— after Linda’s death in 2009— could be seen in the remarkable ecological, agricultural and community-building work of the Linda & Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability.

Because of their professional backgrounds, Gene and Linda focused particularly on advancing the cause of universal healthcare. With their longtime friend Dr. Quentin Young, they were early and enthusiastic leaders of the “Physicians for a National Health Program” movement, which for decades has encouraged US leaders to develop “an expanded and improved version of Medicare [to] cover every American for all necessary medical care.”

The man who refused offers of prestigious international positions because he felt a duty to carry on the battle to reform the US healthcare system understood the challenge of seeking that reform at a time “when society is going toward selfish extremes…when [governments] pay anything to build up the military but don’t want to give to the social good.” Still, he remained “fantastically optimistic.” And that optimism was often rewarded—especially with the 2012 election of his friend and ally Tammy Baldwin as the junior senator from Wisconsin.

Though Farley warned that the Affordable Care Act, with its deference to insurance companies, was more complicated and costly than need be, he hoped that the passage of the act would serve as an important step on the road to a creating a single-payer system in the United States. As we traveled in eastern Canada together last month— on a Nation cruise where Gene delighted in comparing notes with his dear friends Dr. Michael Klein and Bonnie Sherr Klein— we spoke a good deal about the difficulty of implementing what has come to be known as “Obamacare.”

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Yet, Gene, “fantastically optimistic” as ever, recalled that Canada went through decades of bitter wrangling before finally establishing a universal healthcare system that delivers longer life expectancy more efficiently and at a lower cost than the American system. “We have to be patient, but we have to be determined,” he said, explaining that the establishment of the principle of “healthcare as a right” is not just a medical mission, not even an economic or social responsibility.

It is, Gene said, “about morality.”

Canada came to recognize that morality, embracing the vision of Tommy Douglas.

And it is right and necessary to expect that America will come to recognize that morality, embracing the vision of Gene Farley.

The Scott Walker Effect: Helping Democrats Win and Republicans Lose

Scott Walker

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli counted on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to provide the conservative candidate with some of the “star power” he needed to get him elected November 5.

It didn’t work.

The Cuccinelli campaign scheduled a high-profile rally in Spotsylvania on the Saturday before the election—hoping for a rip-roaring event that would put a picture of the candidate, his surrogate and a huge crowd on the front pages of Virginia’s Sunday morning papers.

The campaign used social media and phone calls to invite backers to come greet the anti-union firebrand from Wisconsin. They produced a poster featuring pictures of the Virginian and the Wisconsinite and the message: “Join Ken Cuccinelli for an Exciting Rally with Scott Walker!” Pat Mullins, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party declared, “Scott is the type of governor that Ken will be here in Virginia, someone that’s not afraid to stand up to Big Labor.”

On Saturday, when the candidate and his star surrogate showed up for the rally they were greeted not by thousands of supporters but by… ”about 150 people.”

It was not quite what the Cuccinelli campaign had hoped for. Nor was an event later in the day with the governor of Wisconsin that drew barely 100 Republican stalwarts. Nor was it a great day for Walker, who imagines himself as a 2016 presidential prospect.

That Walker is running for president is clear. He will issue a campaign biography later this month—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—later this month. But he did not have the kind of off-year Election Day that make’s a candidate look like the next leader of the Grand Old Party.

On the day Walker arrived in Virginia, an Emerson College poll had Cuccinelli within two points of union-backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But Walker didn’t close the gap. His campaigning for Cuccinelli fell short, as did the Virginia contender—who lost his race by more than 55,000 votes.

In the race where a Republican won, Walker was notably absent.

Though he was on the East Coast, Walker was not invited for a final weekend surrogate swing in New Jersey to campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie. Though he campaigned for Walker in 2010 and 2012, Christie did not appear to be seeking to associate himself with the Wisconsinite as Christie was organizing a reelection run that was managed with an eye toward jumpstarting the New Jersey governor’s own Republican presidential bid.

However, Walker was a factor in other races. For instance, in Boston, critics of mayoral candidate Martin Walsh produced a video showing the veteran Boston Building Trades labor leader and legislator leading chants of “Union! Union! Union!” at a rally organized in solidarity with Wisconsin workers who were protesting Walker’s anti-labor agenda. “What happened in Wisconsin better not happen here!” Walsh shouted in the video before adding: “Our grandparents, our great grandparents fought the fight for us, to have the wages we have. Not just here in Boston, but in Wisconsin.”

That was supposed to hurt Walsh, who was portrayed by some media outlets as too sympathetic toward working people and their unions. But Walsh did not back down or back away from his union ties. “I am a son of labor,” he said. “I will wear my record of fighting for working people as a badge of honor.”

As Walsh’s labor ties were emphasized, his poll numbers started to rise. The campaign closed with Walsh being celebrated in a TV ad that featured the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston band famous for championing the cause of workers (and for opposing Republicans who attacked unions in Wisconsin), reworking their popular song “Shipping Up to Boston” with new lyrics: “Marty Walsh for Boston! Marty Walsh!”

On Tuesday, Walsh scored what many saw as a come-from-behind win, grabbing the mayoralty with a 52-48 margin.

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In New York, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio explicitly distanced himself from anti-labor Republican officials—like Walker—who have attacked public-sector unions. “I will start by actually liking the people who do the work,” the candidate told a rally of union backers several days before the election. “The reason we have become a middle-class nation is because of the labor movement,” added de Blasio. “The best thing we can do for the people of New York City, the best public policy, is more people in unions so the city is strong and their neighborhoods are stronger.”

That rejection of Walker-style governing helped de Blasio win 73 percent of the vote on a night when Cincinnati voters rejected attempts to undermine pension protections for public employees, when SeaTac, Washington, voters embraced a $15-an-hour living wage, when New Jersey voters raised the minimum wage in that state and linked future increases to hikes in the cost of living.

Make no mistake, Scott Walker is still running for president; he’s off to New York November 18 to wine and dine with big donors.

But he is running from a weaker position—within his own Republican Party and nationally—as the electoral shine comes off the anti-worker, anti-union agenda.

John Nichols exposes Chris Christie’s brand of style-over-substance politics.

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