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Thad Cochran just did Democrats a favor.
Yes, yes, of course, the veteran Republican senator’s comeback win in Tuesday’s Mississippi Republican primary runoff made it a lot less likely that the Magnolia State will join Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina on the list of Southern states where Democrats could win Senate seats this fall. And, yes, that will make it harder for Democrats to hold their majority in the chamber.
But Cochran’s win taught a pair of lessons that Democrats must learn -- not as talking points but as a core concepts -- if they hope to secure positive results in November.
Lesson One: Turnout is definitional.
Lesson Two: Turnout can be substantially increased, even in the most difficult of circumstances, with focused energy, resources and messaging.
In the initial Mississippi Republican Senate primary, Cochran’s Tea Party–backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, narrowly led the conservative—yet relatively genteel—incumbent. McDaniel fell just short of winning 50 percent, however, and under Mississippi law a runoff was required between the top two finishers.
By most measures, that should have been the end of it for Cochran.
Runoffs usually attract lower voter turnout than initial primaries, and Tea Party candidates thrive in low-turnout contests—when the most extreme voters are the most likely to show up.
Cochran was advised to give up.
The strategy worked.
Instead of declining, turnout for the runoff increased. A lot.
Much of that spike came in counties with substantial African-American populations. Mississippi’s African-American population provides much of the base vote for the Democratic Party in the state. But under Mississippi law, Democrats can “cross over” and vote in Republican primaries and runoffs—just as Republicans can, and often have, voted in Democratic primaries and runoffs.
The crossover vote appears to have helped Cochran a good deal. As veteran political scientist Larry Sabato points out, “The Mississippi counties with a black population higher than the state’s county median saw turnout increase by 27 percent over the runoff, and Cochran won these counties by about 25,000 votes. Meanwhile, the counties with a black population lower than the median had a turnout increase of 13 percent, and McDaniel won these counties by about 19,000 votes. Cochran’s overall victory margin of nearly 6,400 votes is about the difference between those two numbers.”
In the first primary, Cochran battled McDaniel for right-wing votes, emphasizing his pro-gun record and social consevatism. In the runoff, however, Cochran switched to a more mainstream message that emphasized his support for federal programs that aid Mississippi and especially for education.
The senior senator also, as The New York Times reported, “attacked Mr. McDaniel for his vows of austerity.”
“Those attacks seemed to work with voters—at least enough to spook Democrats, and even some Republicans, who are accustomed to the protection and seniority of a long line of Congress members going back almost 100 years, including Senators John C. Stennis, James Eastland and Trent Lott and Representatives Sonny Montgomery and Jamie L. Whitten,” explained the Times.
Voters like Jeanie Munn, of Hattiesburg, came to the conclusion that—whatever they might think of Cochran—they needed to get to the polls to stop McDaniel and what they saw as “a threat to the state.”
Of course, McDaniel and his “Tea Party” allies cried foul—refusing even to concede the close race. Sarah Palin objected to the turnout "shenanigans" that saved Cochran. Their griping was rooted in the fact that their faction lost a “sure thing” election because the electorate grew.
The growth in voter turnout on Tuesday helped a mainstream conservative Republican win on Tuesday. But similar growth could help Democrats win in November.
By most measures, 2014 is going to be a tough year for Democrats. They are defending a lot more competitive Senate seats than the Republicans, as this is the election when senators elected on the Barack Obama wave of 2008 are up for re-election. They also face the daunting task of trying to win House seats that were redrawn to favor GOP candidates after the “Republican wave” election of 2010.
If turnout levels remain the same in 2014 as they were in 2010—roughly 38 percent of the voting age population cast ballots that year, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University—this could be another “Republican wave” year.
No one expects that 2014 turnout will rival that of 2012.
But Thad Cochran has proven that focusing on turnout—with resources, organizing and a targeted message that highlights the threat posed by austerity-prone Republicans—can significantly increase voter participation in critical races. And that participation can change the electoral calculus.
If Democrats learn that lesson, they could rewrite the rules of the 2014 general election— just as Cochran rewrote the rules of the Mississippi runoff race.
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Scott Walker, an ardent Ronald Reagan fan from his youth, was never likely to follow Reagan’s footsteps to the White House. The Wisconsin governor lacks his hero’s way with words, skill for crossing lines of partisan and ideological division (especially within the Republican Party) and confidence on the national campaign trail.
Yet Walker has wanted to believe in the possibility so badly that he has spent the two years since his 2012 recall election win positioning himself as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He penned a campaign book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, which was so transparent in its ambitions that Glenn Beck’s The Blaze refers to it as “the prototypical book about someone running for president who doesn’t want to come out and actually say that he is running for president.” He jetted off to Las Vegas to to try and impress Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, but Adelson missed the Wisconsinite´s speech. He even persisted in making the rounds nationally after polls showed that his enthusiasm for presidential politics did not sit well with the Wisconsin voters he must face in a November re-election bid.
But with the release of documents in which Wisconsin prosecutors allege Walker helped to engineer an expansive “criminal scheme” to coordinate efforts by conservative groups to help his recall campaign—by circumventing campaign finance laws—Walker’s presidential prospects look less realistic even than those of his mentor, scandal-plagued New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The headlines in Wisconsin Thursday were damning:
“John Doe prosecutors allege Scott Walker at center of ‘criminal scheme’”
“Prosecutors accuse Walker of running ‘criminal scheme’”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for the Republican in response to efforts to recall him and state senators from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday.
Walker, his chief of staff and others were involved in the coordination effort with “a number of national groups and prominent figures,” including Karl Rove, says special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.
“[T]he evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities during the historic 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin Senate and Gubernatorial recall elections,” Schmitz wrote in a December motion, on behalf of five attorneys from some of the state’s most liberal counties, just now unsealed by an appellate court judge.
Even worse for a governor who has already had to try an explain away highly controversial emails from former aides, as well as the investigations, prosecutions and convictions of aides, appointees, allies and campaign donors, are the actual details of the documents that were ordered unsealed by Federal Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook.
“The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that (veteran Wisconsin Republican operative R.J.) Johnson would lead the coordination campaign. Johnson is also Walker’s longtime campaign strategist and the chief adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group active in the recall elections,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest paper.
The May 4, 2011, e-mail to Rove read: “Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”
Walker, who is certainly no stranger to controversy, claimed Thursday that he had been vindicated by judges who have restricted—and even attempted to shut down—the “John Doe” investigation into political wrongdoing. But other judges have sustained the inquiry.
Walker allies argue that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” organized by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and other top prosecutors, who they allege are out to silence conservatives and harm Republicans. Chisholm is a Democrat, but he is also a respected prosecutor who has gone after Democrats and worked with Republicans.
Lawyers for targets of the probe are fighting to shut it down and, in this unsettled and uncertain post–Citizens United period with regard to state and national campaign finance laws, they believe they will succeed.
Attempts to halt the probe, which have been cheered on by advocates for a no-holds-barred “big money” politics, are part of a broader strategy to gut remaining campaign-finance laws. One way to super-charge the influence of major donors and corporate interests is to undermine bans on coordination between candidates and their campaigns with “independent” groups that operate under different and more flexible rules for raising and spending money during a campaign.
“If you don’t have restrictions on coordination, then the contribution limits become meaningless,” Paul S. Ryan, the senior counsel for the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, explained. Ryan told Politico that without the restrictions, a donor “could max out under the limits [for donating to a candidate], but then you could also just say to the candidates, ‘Hey give me an ad script and we’ll walk down to the TV station and do this ad for you.’”
But even if the probe is prevented from going forward, the documents that have now been released—in combination with the February release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized from the “secret e-mail system” computers of a former Walker aide who has been convicted of political wrongdoing—paint a picture of a governor whose political style does not say “statesman.”
There is no question that Walker is a hero to some Republicans, and to some conservatives.
But Republicans and conservatives who want to win back the White House have to be realistic enough to recognize that Walker has a paper trail that is unlikely to read well on the 2016 campaign trail.
In fact, if the Wisconsin polls that have Walker tied with Democratic challenger Mary Burke are to be believed, Walker might have trouble getting past the 2014 election.
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Americans do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
Americans really do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
A fresh Public Policy Polling survey finds that 74 percent of voters oppose sending troops to the country where in 2003 former Vice President Dick Cheney claimed US troops would be “greeted as liberators”—but where in fact 4,486 Americans were killed, and where even the most cautious estimates put the Iraqi death toll (military and civilian) in the hundreds of thousands.
Americans recognize the damage that was done, as well, to their country’s international reputation, and to its sense of priorities when it came to policymaking and federal budgeting. That does not mean that they are unaware of, or unconcerned with, the degenerating circumstances in Iraq. That does not mean they have suddenly gone isolationist. That does not mean that they oppose diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives.
What it means is that they have a sense of perspective that is lacking among the neoconservative elite that is always so ready for war.
So it is that, while Cheney is busily repurposing his pro-war rhetoric of 1991 and 2003—while at the same time accusing President Obama of “betraying” US freedom, “abandoning” Iraq, being a “very very weak president” and generally failing to follow the neocon playbook—Americans are remembering what happened the last time the war hawks had their way.
In fact, if there is one thing that unites Americans, it is their skepticism about steering back into Iraq.
Eighty-two percent of Democrats oppose sending US troops to Iraq, as do 86 percent of independents. Notably, 57 percent of Republicans are also opposed.
Just 28 percent of Republicans favor the ground-troops option.
Overall, just 16 percent of Americans are inclined toward the sort of approach that might satisfy Cheney.
Given a choice between President Obama’s relatively cautious response—with its emphasis, so far at least, on regional diplomacy—and the more aggressive approach of the man Obama beat for the presidency in a 2008 campaign that offered a stark choice with regard to foreign policy, 54 percent of those surveyed favored Obama’s way of handling things. Just 28 percent were inclined toward McCain’s hawkish rhetoric.
Of course, it’s more nuanced than that. Obama has already sent a contingent of 275 troops to provide embassy security in Baghdad, and there is talk of sending Special Forces units. Additionally, the prospect of a bombing campaign to support Iraqi forces has been raised.
Even more limited strategies inspire skepticism, however.
For instance, there is not majority support for military airstrikes.
According to the survey conducted by PPP for Americans United for Change, 46 percent of likely voters say they could support airstrikes. But 32 percent oppose them, and another 22 percent say they are unsure.
Respecting that skepticism, Congressman John Garamendi, D-California, and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, on Wednesday introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would require the administration to seek the advice and consent of Congress before engaging in any sustained military action in Iraq.
“Before we ever consider sending our brave men and women in uniform back into the Iraq powder keg, we owe it to our servicemembers and to the American people to at least have a frank and public debate in the Halls of Congress,” said Garamendi, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The amendment would not block moves to increase security at the US Embassy in Baghdad. But it would limit the use of defense funds in Iraq for actions deemed to violate requirements outlined in the War Powers Resolution.
“In 2003, Congress should have resisted the rush to a war of choice with Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of my predecessors,” announced Garamendi. “I am deeply skeptical of reigniting America’s involvement in Iraq’s civil war, and if my amendment is adopted, we’ll at least ensure a serious debate on the merits of returning to Iraq.”
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Bernie Sanders does not believe that government always gets things right.
But the independent senator from Vermont does believe that where government has the capacity to act on behalf of those in need, it should do so.
In a capital where an awful lot of folks still buy into Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” calculus, Sanders knows that government can be the solution. Indeed, he recognizes that for those most neglected by an economy that almost always takes care of CEOs and celebrities but often fails clerks and construction workers, government is able to provide answers that the private sector cannot or will not produce.
“In the US Senate today, my right-wing colleagues talk a lot about “freedom” and limiting the size of government,” says Sanders. “Here’s what they really mean: They want ordinary Americans to have the freedom not to have health care in a country where 45,000 of our people who die each year because they don’t get to a doctor when they should. They want young people in our country to have the freedom not to go to college, and join the 400,000 young Americans unable to afford a higher education and the millions struggling with huge college debts. They want children and seniors in our country to have the freedom not to have enough food to eat, and join the many millions who are already hungry. And on and on it goes!”
Sanders cannot always get the Senate to consider the alternative. But as the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he has the authority and the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention not just on the neglect of military veterans—an issue that has long been his focus—but on the solutions government can provide for them.
Even before the details of how veterans are forced to endure excessively long wait times to access VA medical care were revealed, Sanders had written and advanced major legislation to address the underfunding of VA services and a host of other programs for veterans.
Then came the revelations of the extent of the dysfunction at VA hospitals—most recently in the form of a Veterans Affairs Department audit describing how more than 57,000 veterans have been forced to wait at least three months for their first appointments. And that another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past ten years never got the attention they requested—and deserved.
Sanders saw an opening to talk about what could, and should, be done. He started looking for allies. He found one in Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and Vietnam War POW.
Together, Sanders and McCain crafted a response to the crisis. Yes, there were compromises. But the outlines of what Sanders had previously proposed were very much in evidence in the proposal to spend $35 billion over three years to dramatically improve VA staffing and to provide resources for vets seeking care from doctors close to home.
Sander told the Senate, “The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned on the battlefield.”
This time, the Senate agreed.
The often bitterly divided chamber voted 93-3 in favor of the Sanders-McCain plan.
When conservative Republicans objected to the price tag, McCain told them, “Make no mistake: this is an emergency.”
The most austerity-obsessed Republicans—Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—still voted “no.”
But most of Senate Republicans, including some of the chamber’s most conservative members, voted “yes,”
In so doing, they recognized the need for an ambitious expansion of government service, and of government aid to those who are most in need.
The Sanders-crafted measure the Senate backed seeks to
* Authorize leases for twenty-six new medical facilities in seventeen states and Puerto Rico.
* Designate funds for hiring more VA doctors and nurses to provide quality care in a timely manner.
* Expand existing VA authority to refer veterans for private care. Veterans experiencing long delays at the VA could seek care instead at community health centers, Indian health centers, Department of Defense medical facilities or private doctors. The two-year program also would offer those same options to veterans who live more than forty miles from a VA hospital or clinic.
The measure also expands accountability, giving the VA the authority to remove or demote administrators who have failed to meet the needs of vets, while creating incentives for reducing wait times at VA facilities. It also recognizes that healthcare is not the only need vets have; so the measure includes language to assure that “all recently-separated veterans taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill get in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.”
And, notes Sanders’s office, “for the first time, those same education benefits would be extended to surviving spouses of veterans who died in the line of duty.”
This is a big response to a big problem.
It still faces hurdles. The austerity hawks who are so good at thinking up reasons to go to war but so bad at paying for them—and so very bad at meeting commitments to those who serve—will keep raising objections. House Republicans are making predictable demands for “offsets” equaling the cost of the VA initiative, peddling the fantasy that other programs must be cut in order to find the money to aid veterans. The Philadelphia Inquireris hails the Senate measure as “an unusually swift and welcome response” that has “broad support and the potential to alleviate some of the department’s serious shortcomings.”
The prospect that a major problem will be met with a major response is real—as is the recognition that Senator Sanders has been right all along: sometimes government has to be part of the solution.
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The DC-insider storyline about this being a great year for the Republican establishment is undergoing a rapid rewrite. For the first time since the post was formally established in 1899, a House majority leader has been defeated in a bid for renomination. And as political prognosticators, Republican stalwarts and savvy Democrats search for explanations, they are being forced to consider complexities they had not previously entertained—including the prospect of conservatives who are ready and willing to criticize big business.
Eric Cantor, the face of the GOP establishment, one of the party’s most prodigious fundraisers and the odds-on favorite to become the next speaker of the House, lost his Virginia Republican primary Tuesday to a challenger who promised, “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.”
The result shocked the not just the Republican establishment but the DC establishment. The shockwaves continued Wednesday, as Republican aides said Cantor would step down July 31 from his position as the second most powerful figure in the House—ending the congressman’s run as a Washington power player who championed the interests of Wall Street and corporate America.
That Wall Street connection was a central theme of the challenge that displaced Cantor.
Dave Brat, who defeated the number-two Republican in the House by a 56-44 margin, tore into big business almost as frequently as he did the incumbent. “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers,” declared the challenger.
Cantor dismissed Brat as a “liberal college professor.”
That was false—at least the liberal part.
Though Brat is a professor who teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, he is definitely not a liberal. He ran to the right of Cantor on the issues; he outlined the premises of his campaign in an extended interview with the conservative National Review; and he announced on his Facebook page, “It’s time we elect a conservative, not just a Republican, to represent us.”
But Brat’s low-budget campaign came with a twist. He ran as something rare in American politics—so rare that many political commentators have a hard time comprehending the calculus. On a number of issues, the challenger positioned himself as an anti-corporate conservative. Indeed, as Politico noted during the course of the campaign, “The central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business—specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.”
That does not make Brat any sort of progressive, or even a populist by most contemporary measures; nor does it make his harsh right-wing positions on a number of issues any more noble than those same positions when they are taken by Republicans who regularly pocket checks from Wall Street interests. Brat has some ties to wealthy libertarians, and he’s written about “the moral foundations in Ayn Rand”—even if he “says…he isn’t a Randian.”
Yet Brat’s anti-corporate rhetoric distinguished him from Cantor, and from most prominent Republicans—whether they identify with the Republican “establishment” or the Tea Party wing of a party that in recent years has been defined by its subservience to corporate interests.
From the start of the campaign, Brat was aggressive in his opposition to immigration reform—attacking Cantor for making tepid attempts to move the GOP toward a more moderate position on the issue. But even Brat’s crude campaigning on immigration came with an anti-corporate twist. “Eric Cantor doesn’t represent you, he represents large corporations seeking a never-ending supply of cheap foreign labor,” the challenger argued.
Because Brat highlighted immigration policy as part of the campaign that upset Cantor, it is likely that Republican leaders will move toward an even sharper stance in opposition to meaningful reform. That likelihood led Dream Act Coalition co-director Cesar Vargas to say that with Cantor’s defeat—after being attacked as “too soft on immigration”—“there is no chance of getting anything done legislatively on the subject through the summer, after which it would be difficult to get anything done with presidential speculation beginning.”
Vargas argues that instead of offering House Republicans more time to act on immigration reform, the president “should offer deportation relief, and other forms of administrative relief, now.”
That’s an insightful response to the Cantor defeat. Americans are ready for immigration reform—polls suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans support a pathway to citizenship and reject mass deportation. A new Public Policy Polling survey, conducted Tuesday night in Cantor’s district, concludes that “72 percent of voters in Cantor’s district support the bipartisan immigration reform legislation on the table in Washington right now to only 23 percent who are opposed.”
It may be that hard-core Republican primary voters, particularly in Southern states where primary turnout is usually very low, will continue to threaten GOP members of the House and Senate who display even the slightest moderation on the issue. But the PPP data suggests that wasn’t the only factor in Cantor’s defeat. Indeed, recent polling by PPP and other firms suggests that the Obama White House and congressional Democrats would be unwise to imagine that a Virginia Republican primary result argues for an abandonment of immigration reform.
Are there other insights to be taken from Brat’s defeat of Cantor?
Perhaps. And they could have implications for the broader politics of 2014 and 2016.
Brat, whose campaign raised and spent roughly $200,000 versus Cantor’s $5 million campaign, attracted grassroots Tea Party support. But the professor actually missed meetings with top national conservatives that had been organized in Washington for mid-May—with the campaign explaining that Brat had to focus on preparations for final exams.
His distance from the national conservative establishment, much of which aligns with the same business interests as the Republican establishment, was evident in Brat’s harshest criticism of Cantor.
“In my view, the greatest moral failure—which disqualifies Cantor for high public office—was his abuse of the public trust concerning the STOCK Act, a bipartisan bill that was going through after the financial crisis,” the professor wrote in a pre-election article for the opinion pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the dominant newspaper in the region. “The Stock Act,” noted Brat, “was intended to ban insider trading on congressional knowledge for congressmen and their families. CNN discovered that Cantor altered the language of the House version in order to allow family members and spouses to continue insider trading on congressional knowledge. In my view, this action was beneath the dignity of the office. Virginians deserve better and I pledge to treat everyone equally under the law.”
Brat is so little known at this point that it is hard to say where he will end up politically. He’ll face a solid Democrat in November—fellow Randolph-Macon College professor Jack Trammell—but his chances of winning the November election in an overwhelmingly Republican district are good.
If Brat does go to Congress as a conservative critic of big business, and of the GOP’s alliance with corporate interests, he could open up a lot of new debates within the party, and beyond its boundaries. On election night, he was telling Fox News, “The issue is the Republican Party has been paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough to Main Street.” He spoke of “a fissure between Main Street and Wall Street,” arguing that Republican leaders had forgotten that, “Dollars dont vote, people do.”
That language suggests Brat could align with others, such as North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., an old-right conservative, and Michigan’s Justin Amash, a younger libertarian-leaning member, who have run afoul of Republican leaders—including Cantor.
Both Jones and Amash have reached across party lines and worked with progressive Democrats on a host of issues, including efforts to restrict NSA surveillance, to block free-trade deals and even (in Jones’s case) to amend the US Constitution to get corporate cash out of politics.
After his victory, Brat told interviews, “Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of right and left.”
On at least one issue, privacy rights, Brat seems to be very much in agreement with Amash and Jones—and progressives such as Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who has worked with Amash to address NSA abuses. The Virginian’s issue primer declares, “Dave believes that the Constitution does not need to be compromised for matters of national security. He supports the end of bulk phone and email data collection by the NSA, IRS, or any other branch of government.”
In his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Nation Books), Ralph Nader argues that there are many issues on which an anti-corporate left and an anti-corporate right could achieve “convergence” in opposition to policies advanced by “corporate conservatives and corporate liberals.” Nader’s point is not to suggest that the left and the right will be in specific agreement on issues ranging from fair trade to restricting domestic surveillance to whittling down the military-industrial complex. He suggests that “they [can] come at it for different reasons, but they [can] have the same conclusion.”
That’s an intriguing notion, especially after one of the most powerful corporate Republicans in Washington just lost to a guy who decries “large corporations seeking insider deals” and “crony bailouts.”
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Former Vice President Al Gore did not exactly break new ground when he said Tuesday that Edward Snowden had “provided an important service” by revealing to the extent to which the American government spies on people in the United States and abroad.
Yes, Secretary of State John Kerry and others in the Obama administration and in Congress may casually toss around words like “traitor” when discussing the former National Security Administration contractor. But The New York Times has made the case that
[c]onsidering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service. It is time for the United States to offer Mr. Snowden a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.
Some in Congress have gone further.
Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s more of a whistle-blower than a villain.… I think the outrage people in the administration have expressed toward Edward Snowden ought to be more focused on how the NSA broke privacy laws.”
So Gore was, in many senses, simply restating a relatively mainstream view when, during a session at Tennessee’s Southland Technology + Southern Culture Conference, he was asked what PandoDaily refers to as the “Is he a traitor or a hero?” question. Gore responded:
I’m like most people, I don’t put (Snowden) in either one of those categories. But I will be candid—if you set up a spectrum, I would push it more away from the traitor side. He clearly violated the law; you can’t say OK what he did is alright. It is not.
But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the Constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed. In the course of violating important laws he also provided an important service because we did need to know how far this has gone.
But it does matter when a former vice president, who also happens to be the former presidential nominee of the party that now holds the White House, is rejecting the simple calculations of many top Democrats regarding Snowden, who has chosen to remain in Russia rather than return to the United States and face charges of espionage and theft.
And it matters even more when one of the most tech-savvy public figures in the United States says of NSA surveillance: “This is a threat to the heart of democracy.”
Indeed, what Gore has been saying about the state of US democracy in recent years has been very important—and very true. “Our democracy has been hacked in the United States,” he says. “The operating system has been taken over and it no longer serves the purposes our founders intended it serve.”
Gore’s right about that. And he is right when he says, as he did on Tuesday, that the democratic discourse its harmed—as are basic concepts of individual freedom and liberty—when citizens feel intimidated.
“Democracy is among other things a state of mind,” explained the former congressman, senator and vice president.
If any of us are put in a position where we have to self censor, and think twice about what we write in an e-mail, or what we click on for fear that somebody reading a record of this may misunderstand why we looked up some disease or something, some young people who might otherwise get help with a medical condition, might think oh my gosh if I put down a search for bipolar illness I will be stigmatized if my online file is hacked or accessed by my employer. That kills democracy.
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Shari Roll was clutching the marriage certificate. Renee Currie was clutching Shari Roll. And when their designated officiant, Mike Quieto, pronounced them married, they smiled so perfectly, so naturally, that it seemed as if this was just another wedding on the courthouse steps.
And, of course, it was.
The only distinction was that this was the first legally recognized marriage of two women in Wisconsin, the first same-sex marriage in Madison, the one of the initial celebrations of the marriage equality ruling issued by a federal judge Friday afternoon. By the end of the weekend in Madison, 137 same-sex couples had been issued marriage licenses by Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, while 146 licenses were issued by Milwaukee County Joe Czarnezki.
Together for years and very much in love, Roll and Currie could easily have driven to the neighboring state of Iowa, which has since 2009 recognized marriage equality. Thousands of Wisconsin couples, including Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and his husband, Phil Frank, married outside the state after a ban on same-sex marriages was enacted in 2006. But Roll and Currie decided to wait for a future when the state could no longer restrict the most basic rights of loving couples.
“We wanted to get married where we live,” explained Shari Roll.
I understand that. There are a great many Americans who choose to marry in the place where we live, embraced by the people we know, grounded in the values and the unique interactions of the very different communities and states that make up these United States.
My hometown of Madison’s uniqueness was evident Friday night, as dozens of couples got their licenses and married on the steps of the downtown building that serves both as the Madison City Hall and the Dane County Courthouse. Judges in robes waited on the steps, meeting couples and performing the marriages as cheers went up from the ever-expanding crowd of well-wishers. Children showed up, brimming with bouquets. I asked who the wedding flowers were for and they replied, “For everyone who is getting married today.” Then they starting handing flowers out to couples who had rushed to the courthouse without much preparation but suddenly felt very special and very loved.
Then the cops arrived with the wedding cakes. Several Madison Police officers who had been observing the festivities raced off to a nearby grocery store and bought three large cakes. Everyone was eating and cheering as the Klezmer band marched up and a fiddler played “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for a pair of women who waited thirty years to marry.
Marriage equality is not a new premise. The barriers are falling rapidly. Since the US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman, it has, in fact, become inevitable. Following on the Supreme Court ruling of last summer, the group Freedom to Marry says twenty consecutive rulings by state and federal judges have found state marriage bans unconstitutional—and more will do so.
Yet each state’s embrace of freedom and fairness matters. That was so very obvious on Friday night in Madison, a city that has for decades embraced and celebrated LGBT rights. Indeed, among the many jurists performing marriages Friday night was Dane County Judge Shelley Gaylord, who was first elected two decades ago to a municipal judgeship as an LGBT activist and lawyer.
Wisconsin should have been the first state in the nation to embrace marriage equality.
Wisconsin’s Constitution begins with a Declaration of Rights that proclaims: “All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And Wisconsinites have led the nation in opposing discrimination against people of color, against women and against LGBT people.
In 1982, Wisconsin was the first state in the United States to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, education, credit and all public accommodations. That measure passed the state legislature with support from Democrats and Republicans and it was signed by a Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who said, “It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love.”
Unfortunately, a decade ago, a new crew of far-right Republican politicians who were following a national playbook for stirring up election turnout by social conservatives succeeded in placing an anti-same sex marriage proposal on the same ballot as a constitutional amendment. The proposal was at odds with the constitution’s “Declaration of Rights.” But it passed.
Polling now shows that Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support marriage equality—a May Marquette Law School poll found 55 percent of voters favor allowing same-sex marriages, while just 37 percent are opposed. Unfortunately, Governor Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature have refused to allow the voters to revisit the issue.
So it was appropriate that a senior jurist with deep roots in Wisconsin, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb, would intervene with a determination that “quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States Constitution.” In an eighty-eight-page decision that was hailed as one of the most thorough yet produced by a federal jurist ruling on the issue, Crabb explained that states cannot trump federal guarantees of equality and equal protection with their own discriminatory amendments.
Governor Walker and Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen are still trying to block marriage equality. But they are clinging to a past that has been rejected by the courts and by the great mass of Wisconsinites.
The future is here. And this future allows people to marry the people they love in the places they love.
In their rush to get to the courthouse Friday afternoon, Shari Roll and Renee Currie forgot to bring cash for the license fee. Roll handed her credit card to friend who ran off to a nearby bank machine and returned with the cash. It was no problem. Shari and Renee were getting married where they live, and their friends and neighbors were helping out.
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The political crisis of confidence created by an activist Supreme Court’s decisions in cases such as Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FCC is beginning—finally—to garner appropriate consideration from the US Senate. That’s important. What’s even more important is that it is focused on the proper response to the crisis: amending the US Constitution in order to restore the right of citizens and their elected representatives to organize elections where the vote matters more than the dollar.
On Tuesday, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s assistant majority leader, chaired what Public Citizen identifies as “the first-ever hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need to amend the Constitution to overturn egregious US Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United and McCutcheon, which gave corporations and the ultra-wealthy the green light to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.”
Durbin was an engaged chair of the hearing by the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, having already declared, “It’s increasingly clear that the only way to really reform our system is to pass a constitutional amendment to regulate how we finance our elections.”
The senator is right. And the American people are supportive of his position; sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally asked Congress to back an amendment to clarify that, despite what the Supreme Court might imagine, corporations are not people and money is not speech. Still, the significance of this hearing, which comes as Senate Democratic leaders are talking about scheduling an amendment vote, ought not be underestimated. Nor should the fact that the number of senators supporting a constitiutional amendment is rapidly approaching a majority.
The grassroots movement for an amendment can no longer be marginalized. It has forced Senate leaders to get serious about a crisis that can no longer be neglected.
Polling shows that the clear majority of Americans believe that our elected officials do not serve the interest of the great mass of citizens who actually elect them, which ought to be the basic premise of governance in a democratic republic. Rather, by a two-to-one margin, Americans believe government officials are inclined to promote policies that favor the wealthy rather than the working poor.
Why? More than three-quarters of Americans now tell pollsters that politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists. They recognize that American University professor Jamie Raskin (who also serves as a Maryland state senator) is right when he tells the Judiciary Committee members that “within the governmental process and electoral process there are right reasons for those who hold public office to make decisions and there are wrong reasons—and a wrong reason is the money you are either going to put into your pocket or huge amounts of money that you’re going to put into your campaign.”
There is ample evidence of what happens when fundraising trumps common sense. At a time when Americans say government can and should do more to address poverty, Congress votes to cut Food Stamps for those who are hungry—claiming that programs that provide nutrition to the needy are unaffordable even as special tax breaks for the very wealthy are kept in place.
The disconnect between the popular will and public policy is so radical that it fosters cynicism and disengagement. Against the reality of big-budget campaigns that flood the airwaves with attack ads—the most effective tools for voter suppression—voters give up. Survey research tells us what we already knew from anecdotal evidence: voters are turning off to a process that does not respond to them, and that overwhelms them with commercials that tell them Democrats and Republicans, liberal and conservatives, should all be viewed negatively.
Turnout for US elections is dismal—far below that for comparable countries. National elections in Europe regularly draw turnouts that are as much as 20 percent (Germany), even 30 percent (Norway), greater than US elections. India’s recent parliamentary elections drew a turnout of over 66 percent, while this year’s congressional elections in the United States may not draw 40 percent to the polls.
It should come as no shock that the decay in democratic processes has caused a decay in enthusiasm: a May Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed were less excited about voting in this year’s mid-term elections—despite the fact that control of the US Senate is up for grabs, as are most statehouses—than in previous elections. The overall decline in enthusiasm is so dramatic that analysts have begun to predict that the 2014 election will see a record low turnout. And primary election results from states such as Illinois and Texas confirm the concern—despite the fact that those states held competitive elections for important and experienced skyrocketing campaign spending.
Far from fostering engagement and excitement, big money creates a constrained and dysfunctional politics. The national circumstance is bad, and it will get worse. That’s why citizens have been demanding dramatic change: a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s activism on behalf of a high-spending, low-turnout politics that shifts more and more power to economic and electoral elites.
What’s at stake is more important than the predictable wrangling between Republicans like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (who told the subcommittee that leveling the political playing field would create “preferential treatment,” presumably for non-billionaires) and Democrats like Senator majority leader Harry Reid (who argued that it was not the intention of the founders of the American experiment to “give corporations a vote” or to “give dollar bills a vote.”) And it is far more important than the petty posturing by those such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz—who seem to imagine that the founders wrote a free-speech protection into the Constitution in order to guarantee that the wealthy would always be able to shout down the poor.
The Republican firebrand went all in at Tuesday’s hearing, demanding to know: “When did the [Democrats] abandon the Bill of Rights?” And claiming that the amendment “would give Congress the power to ban books and muzzle movies.”
The Texas Republican’s rant inspired laughter in the hearing room, along with a mild rebuke from Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who said, “I think if Thomas Jefferson were looking down at what’s being proposed here, he would agree with it.” Schumer, historically one of his party’s most ambitious fundraisers, is now one of forty-three senators (forty-one Democrats and independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) who back a specific amendment—proposed by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall—to address the money-in-political crisis.
A even stronger rebuke has come from the American people. More than 2 million of them signed petitions that were delivered to the Senate by People for the American Way, Free Speech Is for People, Public Citizen, Common Cause, the Center for Media and Democracy and other groups that favor an amendment.
Americans recognize that the promise of American democracy is now fully threatened.
As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens told the Senate Rules Committee in late April, “Unlimited campaign expenditures impair the process of democratic self-government. They create a risk that successful candidates will pay more attention to the interests of non-voters who provided them with money than to the interests of the voters who elected them. That risk is unacceptable.”
To that end, Justice Stevens advocates for an amendment to the Constitution that simply says, “Neither the First Amendment nor any provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.”
Whether the eventual amendment adopts the language Justice Stevens has proposed, or some variation thereon, the bottom line remains the same: the Constitution must be amended in order to preserve democratic self-governance. And it is good, very good, that the Senate is beginning to recognize this reality.
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Mississippi primary voters just could not decide whether they wanted to nominate a very conservative Republican or a very conservative Republican for the US Senate.
Very nearly 50 percent of Tuesday’s primary voters favored a right-wing stalwart who opposes abortion rights and marriage equality, supports restrictive Voter ID laws, promises to oppose minimum-wage hikes, rips “Obamacare,” the IRS, the EPA and OSHA and trashes “entitlement” programs.
Very nearly 50 percent of Tuesday’s primary voters favored another right-wing stalwart, who opposes abortion rights and marriage equality, supports restrictive Voter ID laws, promises to oppose minimum-wage hikes, rips “Obamacare,” the IRS, the EPA and OSHA and trashes “entitlement” programs.
But Mississippi Republicans couldn’t quite get to a majority opinion about which conservative was conservative enough. So with virtually all the votes counted (and with a tiny percentage of the total streaming off to a little-known third candidate), the good Republicans of the Magnolia State appear to have decided to have another go at it—setting up a June 24 runoff that will require several more weeks of wrangling over what to most Americans will seem to be infinitesimal ideological “distinctions.”
That’s the thing to remember about the fabulous imagining that there is a meaningful difference between “establishment Republicans” and “Tea Party Republicans.”
Yes, there are stylistic distinctions to be noted between incumbent Senator Thad Cochran, a relatively distinguished senior senator, and state Senator Chris McDaniel, a relatively undistinguished challenger who says his campaign “had nothing to do with this sad incident” where a conservative blogger photographed the incumbent’s bedridden wife. Yes, the two Republicans now appear to be set for a high-profile runoff race that will be portrayed as a “GOP civil war” over emphasis and approach.
But that does not place them anywhere near the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
Cochran is identified as the “establishment” choice, which means he is favored by the US Chamber of Commerce and the CEOs and Wall Street financiers who support its campaign to elect a Senate that will rubber-stamp a wildly pro-corporate agenda.
McDaniel is identified as the “anti-establishment” Tea Party insurgent, which means that he is favored by the Club for Growth and the CEOs and Wall Street financiers interests who support its campaign to elect a Senate that will rubber-stamp a wildly pro-corporate agenda.
For the most part, this year’s supposedly significant Senate contests between the establishment and the “Tea Party” have explored the range of opinion from what would historically have been understood as the right wing of the Republican Party to what is now understood as the right wing of the Republican Party.
Some very wealthy people take these distinctions very seriously. They have money to burn, and they are burning it up this year on political purity tests that pit those who like their economic and social conservatism straight against those who want it with a twist of Ted Cruz.
This has already made for an expensive race in Mississippi. Roughly $8 million in outside spending has been lavished on the state’s television stations—in addition to big spending from the Club for Growth, Citizens United and the Tea Party Patriots for McDaniel and big spending from the Chamber and the National Association of Realtors for Cochran. The race has seen $1.1 million spent by “Senate Conservatives Action” for McDaniel and $1.7 million spent by the “Mississippi Conservatives” super PAC for Cochran.
Confused? Don’t be.
McDaniel is a conservative.
And so is Cochran.
Despite the theater-of-the-absurd campaign, it is even more absurd to suggest that Cochran is a liberal with a Southern accent. Mississippi is not in the habit of populating the Senate with progressives. The incumbent’s latest US Chamber of Commerce rating is 100 percent, while his National Education Association ranking is zero. Cochran’s latest ACLU rating is zero, while the American Security Council Foundation has got him at 100 percent. Cochran gets 100 percent from the National Rifle Association and he’s at zero with the American Association of University Women. His latest rating from the National Right-to-Life Committee is 100 percent, while NARAL Pro-Choice America has him at zero—as does the latest assessment from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
It is true that Cochran has, on rare occasions been a reasonable player. But those are pretty much the same rare occasions when Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, another Tea Party target this year, has chosen not to follow Cruz off whatever deep end the Texan might be approaching. Usually, what passes for reasonableness is a vote to take care of some pressing home-state business—such as, in Cochran’s case, specific support for disaster assistance after hurricanes hit the Mississippi coast and general enthusiasm for military spending that keeps Mississippians employed.
That may make Cochran insufficiently “pure” for the purists.
But it is not a distinction that the vast majority of Americans need bother with, unless, of course, they really do imagine that Thad Cochran and Mitch McConnell are liberals.
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The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for five years, even as income inequality has more and more become a pressing issue. Yet as recently as a year ago, prospects for meaningful increase in base pay for the working poor seemed remote.
Now doubling the minimum wage is on the agenda.
Actually, that prospect just moved off the agenda and into official policy in one of America’s largest cities—Seattle—where the city council will on Monday unanimously approved implementation of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The specific accomplishment in Seattle is strikingly significant; as Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant says, “We forced them to lift 100,000 low-wage workers in Seattle out of poverty—to transfer $2.5 billion to workers at the bottom of the wage scale over the next ten years.”
What is just as significant is the context in which it has come, after what Sawant correctly refers to as “decades of wealth being transferred almost entirely from the bottom up.”
American is experiencing remarkable progress at a rapid rate on a vital issue.
A little over a year ago, when President Obama proposed raising the wage to $9 an hour, Republicans said the sky would fall. Democrats were cautious, although a few of them, led by California Congressman George Miller and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, suggested upping the ante to $10.10 an hour.
But no one in a position of power was talking about doubling it.
That call was raised by the fast-food workers who joined “strikes, marches, boycotts and other mobilizations” in May of 2013. They made the audacious demand for a living wage, putting the figure at $15 an hour.
It was such a bold proposal that Republicans didn’t even bother to ridicule those who advanced it. Even some allies of the Fight for 15 movement saw the “ask” more as an talking point than an actual prospect.
But in cities such as Seattle, the idea took hold. Activists with the group Working Washington say the walkouts that began in late May of 2013 sparked “a new movement to ensure every worker can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
Key unions took the idea seriously enough to put a $15-an-hour proposal on the ballot in the Seattle suburb of Sea-Tac, the home of the region’s international airport and a lot of low-wage workers. That made the idea real, especially when a high-spending campaign ensued.
At the same time, Sawant, the Socialist Alternative challenger to an incumbent member of the Seattle City Council, made the establishment of a city-wide $15-an-hour minimum wage the central focus of her campaign.
The Sea-Tac $15-an-hour proposal won.
So did Sawant’s campaign for $15 an hour.
The combination of street heat and electoral action made $15 a viable prospect in Seattle.
So viable that the city’s new mayor and senior council members took it up, adding to the momentum that led to Monday's approval of the $15 wage initiative for the largest city in the Pacific Northwest and the fastest-growing big city in the United States.
Sawant is hailing “a historic [victory] for low-wage workers, for the labor movement and for anyone who believes as I do that no one who works should have to live in poverty.”
Seattle Councilmember Nick Licata calls the plan “a national game changer,” saying, “Seattle, and other cities, are taking direct action to close our nation’s huge income gap because the Federal and state governments have failed to do so. Seattle’s new law opens the way for many workers to earn enough to meet their basic needs. It will raise their standard of living and by putting more dollars into our economy, stimulate greater business opportunities. By significantly raising the minimum wage, Seattle’s prosperity will be shared by more people and create a sustainable model for continued growth.”
While the crowds of union members and community activists packing Council sessions on the issue have regularly erupted in cheers as it has advanced, that does not mean that everyone is satisfied.
“What do we want?” goes the activist call.
“Fifteen!” answers the crowd.
“When do we want it?” call the activists.
“Now!” the crowd responds.
“Now” is the key word.
The Seattle law, as advanced by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, was framed by a mayoral advisory committee that included labor, business and representatives of nonprofit groups, and debated at public hearings and in official meetings. It features much of what activists wanted, but now everything. For instance, the wage hikes come in steps, rather than all at once, meaning that workers at even the biggest businesses in town will have to wait at least three years to get the $15-an-hour wage.
Sawant unsuccessfully proposed amendments to speed up wage hikes for employees of the largest businesses—those with over 500 employees—and to assure that tipped workers get the full benefit of the wage hike. And she objected to a provision that allows for paying some workers below the minimum, saying, “Any kind of teenage wage or sub-minimum wage goes against the principles of workers standing together. The sub-minimum wage is demanded and liked by businesses because it allows them to bring down wages in general. It’s harmful for workers as a whole.”
Sawant and her allies are not done with the fight. They are gathering signatures for a city charter amendment that would have large businesses paying $15-an-hour starting January 1, 2015, while small business and nonprofits would have a three-year phase-in period. The charter amendment will, if it qualifies for the ballot, face significant opposition from Big Business. And there will be those who suggest that the 15 Now activists are asking for more than can be reasonably obtained.
But just a year ago, there were plenty of folks who said $9-an-hour was an unreasonable goal. Now the debate in Seattle is about how quickly to go to $15. And that debate is spreading to communities nationwide.
What’s clear is that, while Seattle is taking the lead, something big is happening nationally. What once seemed like the boldest of all proposals is rapidly moving into the mainstream, as Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities consider big boosts in wages.
The activists with Working Washington place appropriate emphasis on the timeline. “On May 30th of last year, Seattle fast food workers went on strike for $15 because they knew that raising pay was necessary—even if in those first days it might not have seemed possible we could get there. But their leadership and commitment helped spark an extraordinary grassroots workers’ movement that rapidly built support across the entire city. Less than a year later, we are on the verge of achieving a $15 minimum wage that ensures every worker in Seattle can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
The Working Washington activists says this is “an incredible accomplishment.”
They are right.
And they are also right when they say that, while Seattle will be the first city to raise the minimum wage to $15, “we won’t be the last.”
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