Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s handling of the Michael Brown shooting case has inspired a storm of controversy.
After a grand jury refused to bring charges against Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the August 9 shooting death of the African-American teenager, an attorney for the Brown family told the Associated Press, “We said from the very beginning that the decision of this grand jury was going to be the direct reflection of the presentation of the evidence by the prosecutor’s office.”
Long criticized for failing to adequately investigate complaints about the police, and for failing to demand accountability in cases of officer-involved shootings, McCulloch’s approach to the grand jury inquiry was the subject of concern from the start. And the prosecutor sparked anger at the finish by delaying the announcement of the grand jury’s decision deep into Monday evening. The prosecutor seized his prime-time platform to delivera rambling and frequently defensive forty-five-minute speech. He went on and on about aspects of the case. Yet he failed to mention that Brown was unarmed when he was killed.
“Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way,” argued a New York Times editorial, which concluded:
Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.
If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.
This is strong criticism.
Now let’s add some political context.
What has not been much discussed is the fact that McCulloch is a Democrat—a member of the same party as President Obama, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Congressional Black Caucus chair Marcia Fudge, the Ohioan who on Monday evening referred to the failure to bring charges against Wilson as “a slap in the face to Americans nationwide who continue to hope and believe that justice will prevail.”
Across America, counties elect top law-enforcement officials as state’s attorneys, district attorneys and prosecuting attorneys. Hundreds of them are Democrats. Some, like Kings County (Brooklyn) District Attorney Ken Thompson and Bronx County District Attorney Robert T. Johnson, have impressed progressives by taking bold stands and developing innovative policies on everything from the drug war to the death penalty to gun violence and domestic abuse. Former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a “wild Irish rogue” who was arrested sixteen times as a civil rights campaigner before his election to the DA post, often clashed with the police on accountability issues during his tenure.
But there are plenty of Democratic prosecutors who are indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts. Placing a “D” next to the name of a prosecutor does not make that prosecutor a progressive, or even a moderate. Some of the most controversial prosecutors in the country are Democrats. For instance, Brooklyn’s Thompson won his post in 2013 by beating incumbent DA Charles Hynes in a Democratic primary campaign, during which The New York Times noted that Thompson accused Hynes “of remaining passive on issues important to minority communities, like stop-and-frisk policing.”
As the elected prosecutor in suburban St. Louis County since 1991, McCulloch is a powerful player in Missouri Democratic politics. He has delivered sought-after endorsements to prominent figures such as Claire McCaskill, who had the prosecutor’s support when she challenged a sitting Democratic governor in 2004 and who is now Missouri’s senior senator. In August of this year, McCulloch helped a white challenger mount a successful Democratic primary challenge to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, the first African-American to hold the position. On the same day, McCulloch, who is white, easily saw off a Democratic primary challenge from Leslie Broadnax, an African-American attorney and municipal judge.
The primary came just before the killing of Michael Brown. As protests filled the streets of Ferguson, community leaders argued that McCulloch—because of his long history of maintaining close ties to the police in suburban St. Louis County—should hand off the case. “Many community members don’t believe he can be fair and impartial,” explained state Senator Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who led a drive that collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
McCulloch balked at that request, as did Democratic Governor Nixon. There was no real chance to defeat McCulloch at the polls in the fall, as he ran without Republican opposition. Yet, thousands of St. Louis County voters refused to vote for the incumbent. In Ferguson, for instance, 10,645 voters went to the polls on November 4. Almost all of them cast ballots in races for county executive and county assessor. But rather than vote for the unopposed McCulloch, Ferguson voters cast more than 1,000 write-in ballots and another 3,000 voters simply skipped the race.
In the contest for county executive, a number of leading African-American political figures rejected the Democratic nominee backed by McCulloch and endorsed the Republican, who attracted substantial African-American support and lost by just 1 percent of the vote. The Republican, veteran state legislator Rick Stream, was no liberal. But he reached out to the African-American community in suburban St. Louis, listened and made commitments. In return, he was backed by a number of African-American Democrats, led by State Senator Maria Chapelle-Nadal, St. Louis County Council Chair Hazel Erby and the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition.
In announcing the endorsement, Erby specifically criticized Democrat Steve Stenger’s “unbreakable alignment with Bob McCulloch.”
For his part, Republican Stream declared, “Mr. McCulloch had a chance to step aside and frankly it would have removed all doubt about having a fair and independent investigation.” The Republican went further, endorsing a proposal to name special prosecutors to handle all cases of officer-involved shootings. He also campaigned in the African-American community and promised to promote diversity in his appointments.
That wasn’t enough to reverse voting patterns altogether. But it shook the process up; notably, the Democratic vote for county executive in Ferguson dropped twenty points, from 2010 to 2014. “There was a significant falling off of Democratic performance at the top of the ticket,” said Mike Jones, an ally of the coalition effort. “And you have to argue that didn’t happen by accident.”
Elections for local positions should not happen by accident. And that goes double for key law-enforcement posts.
The case for the election of prosecutors is a strong one. Prosecutors have immense authority over the lives of citizens, and citizens should be able to hold those with authority over their lives to account. But for this political process to work, it is important to move beyond simplistic assumptions about Democrats and Republicans, and to seriously assess the records and the promises of candidates from both parties.
It is vital to take primary elections seriously. And it is important to recognize the value of independent and third-party challenges to the two-party status quo.
There is a good argument to be made for electing prosecutors on a nonpartisan basis. But there is an even better argument to be made that elections for prosecutor positions— be they partisan or nonpartisan, be their primaries or general elections—must be recognized as some of the most vital contests on our ballots.
Media and political elites tend to focus on top-of-the-ballot races for president and governor and senator. But, if the experience of Ferguson and St. Louis County teach us anything, it is that at the bottom of the ballot, in races for local law-enforcement posts, the most fundamental choices are made.
Read Next: In Ferguson, a militarized police isn’t necessary for suppression.
Rand Paul may not fully recognize it, but he has outlined an important challenge to the selective outrage of his fellow Republicans when it comes to executive actions by American presidents.
In moving to force Congress to formally decide whether to declare war on the Islamic State militants that the United States is already fighting, the senator from Kentucky is highlighting the failure of Republican congressional leaders (or, for the most part, their Democratic counterparts) to take seriously what should always be the most concerning example of executive overreach. This is the executive action that troubled the founders above all others: warmaking by presidents in the absence of a declaration of war by the Congress.
“Conservatives are mad at (Obama) about immigration. And they’re mad about him using executive authority on Obamacare,” says Paul. “But this is another example where he doesn’t have much respect for Congress, and some conservatives don’t quite get that.”
Paul should acknowledge that warmaking without the authorization of Congress is not “another example” of executive authority being extended into troubling territory. It is, by far, the most significant example.
Paul should also acknowledge that the disrespect shown by presidents for Congress with regard to declarations of war did not begin with Obama. It extends back decades and has been evidenced by Republican and Democratic presidents.
Paul’s proposal to have Congress declare that “a state of war exists between the organization identifying itself as the Islamic State and the government and the people of the United States” is flawed on many levels. For instance, despite the senator’s protestations to the contrary, it opens too much space for the assignment of ground troops to a fight in a region where most Americans are exceptionally disinclined to engage in another full-scale war.
Yet what Paul is doing is important, in that he is challenging the “parlor game” wherein leaders of Congress “consult” with presidents and then allow them to wage war with anything akin to the congressional oversight required by the Constitution.
This “parlor game” has been going on for a long time. The United States has not formally declared war since World War II. And many of the same Republicans who are now screaming about the president issuing an executive order with regard to immigration—as Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush did before him—have engaged in the war-and-peace parlor game quite willingly. Indeed, interventionist Republicans such as Arizona Senator John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are frequently heard urging presidents to be more aggressive and unilaterally inclined in their executive warmaking.
The war hawks have been aided and abetted by Republican congressional leaders—along with Democrats—who have declined to take even the most minimal steps to check and balance presidential warmaking since the days when George W. Bush began overreaching.
When President Obama began ramping up the current fight with Islamic State militants in September, a CNN poll found that, while Americans were “alarmed” and “concerned” about reports of conflict in Iraq and Syria, they were also skeptical about getting too deeply engaged in that conflict. Specifically the poll found that:
1. Americans want limits placed on the US military response to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to the broader political challenges that have developed in those countries. For instance, a majority of Americans, 61 percent of Americans oppose placing US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
2. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that President Obama should seek congressional authorization for military strikes against ISIL.
Amid all the examples of “alarm” and “concern,” the American people remain wary about any rush to war. They believe that Congress—not just the president—should have a say with regard to expansion of military action. And, make no mistake, what President Obama has embarked upon involves a dramatic expansion of US military involvement and action in Iraq and Syria.
As Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, said in a statement in September, “The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect US personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force.”
The US troop presence in the region has risen steadily since September. Yet even now, House Speaker John Boehner, who so noisily objects to executive initiatives on the domestic front, remains cautious about challenging executive warmaking.
As such Obama simply says, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Translation: While the president is happy to accept endorsements of his actions—and may, in fact, get from this Congress or the next—he is in no rush to seek the congressional advice and consent on matters of war and peace that is imagined and intended by the Constitution.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, has described the president’s “I welcome congressional support” line as “really kind of condescending.”
Yet, Congress has been absurdly slow in asserting its clear authority as a co-equal branch of government to debate and vote on plans for war and, through the power of the purse, to define the scope and character of warmaking.
While Republican and Democratic leaders have been derelict in their duty, there are members of the House and Senate who continue to voice concerns about the lack of clear congressional authorization for military action in Iraq and Syria.
Congresswoman Lee has long championed the view that “the Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force. This is not about this President. This is about any President and any Congress. We must re-establish the checks and balances laid out by the Constitution.”
She’s right. And she has allies.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have joined Lee in asking for immediate and genuine debate. “The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force,” they have said. “Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves for the upcoming district work period.”
House Armed Services Committee member John Garamendi, D-California, has for months been specific in arguing that “the U.S. Constitution and War Powers Resolution are clear: Congress is obligated to weigh in on extended U.S. military actions. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how just the engagement, Congress’ voice and vote are required within a 60-90 day window.”
The sixty-to-ninety-day window that Garamendi spoke of in that September statement has passed. For months, Speaker Boehner and other congressional leaders have ignored what the California congressman correctly describes as “our Constitutionally-required duty.”
Now, it appears that Congress may finally send a signal regarding its sentiments. But, as The New York Times notes:
Some (Republican) conservatives may balk at setting up a narrow set of parameters for the president. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has introduced a resolution that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to defend the country against the Islamic State but would require him to report back to Congress on the effort every 90 days.
The debate will probably continue into the next Congress. Republicans will then control both chambers, which is likely to make it more difficult to pass a resolution that sets major limits.
Congress has ceded to successive presidents immense authority to act on domestic and foreign-policy concerns. This has created a confusing circumstance that favors the executive. The White House has broad authority to act when emergencies arise, and when crises go unaddressed by obstructionist or dysfunctional congresses.
In many areas of domestic policy, the courts and Congress have helped to define for presidents a good deal of flexibility. Yet when it comes to matters of war and peace, there has been little in the war of responsible defintion. Instead, the power of presidents has expanded to a point where Congress now tends to be a spectator—rather than separate-but-equal branch of government.
This is an imbalance that the founders feared, as it opens up the prospect of perpetual war, which James Madison well and wisely recognized. “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other,” Madison, the essential author of the US Constitution, warned more than two centuries ago. “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Only 36 percent of Americans participated in the November 4 elections that determined the political makeup of the legislative branch of the federal government. That’s a dismal measure of political engagement in the United States, a nation where voter turnout rates have in recent years fallen far below the levels seen in Germany and other European countries.
The Economist’s 2012 “Democracy Index” dropped the US ranking on the list of the most democratic countries to number twenty-one—with particularly low marks for popular participation in the political process.
How has the American circumstance so decayed in a nation that once so well understood the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s observation that “democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men’s [and women’s] enlightened will”?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. But let’s start with broadcast media that are so indefensibly irresponsible that television networks cannot take time away from their relentless profiteering to present a short address by the president of the United States—an address announcing an executive order on an issue that is universally recognized as consequential and controversial.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—four major broadcast networks—all declined to interrupt prime-time programming to air President Obama’s Thursday evening address on immigration policy. Though cable news channels, public television stations and Spanish-language stations cleared time for the president’s speech, the big broadcast networks stuck with fare such as The Biggest Loser.
The absurdity of the choice made by the networks was only heightened by the fact that the network-aligned local television stations that were set to broadcast entertainment programs rather than the president’s address just pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars for airing the slurry of negative campaign commercials that have become the crude lingua franca of our politics. A good many of those commercials focused on the issue of immigration. And the stations that aired those ads would gladly accept more cash from groups seeking to attack or embrace the president’s position.
The result is a democratically dysfunctional imbalance where viewers of the major broadcast networks and of local television stations that carry their programming can get more information from paid political advertisements about a policy than from the policymaker himself. And forget about honest debate, even in the constrained form of a presidential address followed by a response from the leader of the opposition.
This is not how a great democracy is supposed to work. And the refusal of major media outlets to take seriously their role in the democratic discourse is one important part of why this great democracy is not working as well as it could—or should. When a major presidential address is not taken seriously by the networks, Americans get another signal that the political process is something separate and distant from their lives.
Former Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps has repeatedly warned in recent years of the threat posed to democracy by the “diminished and too often dumbed-down civic dialogue” that emerges when those who broadcast on the people’s airwaves fail to serve the people’s interest.
Copps explains, “Our country confronts challenges to its viability in some ways reminiscent of the 1930s, making it a national imperative that every American be empowered with the news and information essential for knowledgeable decision-making. Without that, the challenges go misunderstood, untended, unresolved. When our media, our press and our journalism catch cold, democracy catches pneumonia.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sees the network neglect of a particular presidential address as just one measure of a broader crisis for democracy that results when media are no longer “educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues.”
That broader crisis is evident all around us. Journalism is declining rapidly (in print and broadcast formats), creating an information void that has not been filled for the great mass of Americans by emerging cable and digital media. Increasingly, the void is filled by paid political commercials and siloed spin. This denies the vast majority of eligible voters the information they need to engage with the political process, to form their own opinions and to act effectively as their own governors.
Too frequently, pundits blame citizens for not sifting and winnowing the information that is available to them. But isn’t the point of a free press—as it was understood by the founders, and as it should be understood today—to provide direct access to that information, especially when presidents are launching major new initiatives? Shouldn’t broadcast networks and stations be expected to pause their entertainment programming long enough for a president to explain what he is doing in his own words—and for an opposition leader to challenge that explanation?
The first televised address by an American president was a 1947 request by Harry Truman that Americans consume one less slice of bread each day in order to free up grain for post-war Europe. Since then, presidents have used primetime access to explain nuclear policy, announce invasions, advance civil rights, promote energy conservation, ponder the ramifications of stem cell research and warn about the threat posed by the military-industrial complex. Not every address has been dramatic, and some have been self-serving. Most would have benefited from a response by an opposition leader. But all were aired by the broadcast networks as part of the duty to the American people that goes with surfing the public airwaves.
So, too, was a 2006 address by then-President George W. Bush on immigration policy.
“In 2006, Bush gave a 17 minute speech that was televised by all three networks that was about deploying 6,000 national guard troops to the border,” a senior Obama administration aide griped to Politico. “Obama is making a 10 minute speech that will have a vastly greater impact on the issue. And none of the networks are doing it.”
The counter from the networks was reportedly that Obama’s 2014 speech is more “overtly political” than Bush’s 2006 speech.
That’s debatable, as the Bush speech drew criticism from a number of corners. But, whether they are political or not, the executive actions that Obama is taking are real—they will have consequences for millions of people, they will face political and legal challenges, and they could lead to more policy shifts. Americans ought to hear their president’s explanation for why he is acting as he is at this time. And they ought to hear what the leader of the congressional opposition, House Speaker John Boehner, says he is going to do in response.
This very open, very public, prime-time give and take is vital. It invites Americans into the debate as informed citizens—not the targets of negative ads and spin. And there is every good reason to believe that genuine engagement with policy, as opposed to the politics of personalities, has the potential to maintain and enhance voter turnout over the long term.
Former FCC Commissioner Copps is exactly right. If we do not “ensure that each and every citizen of this nation has available the news and information they need in order to be contributing participants in the affairs of the nation,” then, “It means a crippled and stunted small ‘d’ democratic dialogue.”
John Nichols is the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books).
Editor’s note: Though the national networks declined to run the address, many local affiliate stations did air it.
Read Next: John Nichols on the rise of the ”dollarocracy”
The vital cause of NSA reform—which seemed to be gaining strength as not just citizens but their elected representatives came to recognize the consequences of the issues raised by Edward Snowden’s leaks—has hit a rough spot in recent weeks. Allies of the cause are being defeated or abandoning their principles and major initiatives are failing.
The first bad news came November 4, when Colorado Senator Mark Udall lost his campaign for a second term. In his first term, the Democrat had emerged as one of the steadiest, and frequently most aggressive, critics of National Security Agency abuses. Arguing that there was “a groundswell of public support for reform,” and that such reform had to “reject half-measures that could still allow the government to collect millions of Americans’ records without any individual suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing,” Udall worked with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul to get Congress to crack down on the NSA.
Udall is still in the Senate until January, and he moved in the immediate aftermath of his defeat to gain Senate support for at least a small measure of NSA reform. But even that initiative fell short Tuesday night, as Udall and his allies could muster only fifty-eight of the sixty needed votes to prohibit the NSA from holding the phone records of Americans and to establish better procedures for challenging the claims and initiatives of government agencies that overreach.
Though the measure fell far short of what was needed, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the so-called “USA Freedom Act,” which was introduced by outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, “is our chance to turn the tide on suspicionless mass surveillance, restoring some of the crucial privacy protections lost with passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.”
The ACLU advocated aggressively for the measure on the grounds that it send the right signal with regard to legislative oversight and that it would begin to establish better frameworks for protecting liberties by
*Ending nationwide bulk surveillance and limiting the government’s ability to engage in broad surveillance that inappropriately sweeps up the communications of thousands of people under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, national security letters, and pen register authorities.
*Increasing transparency by requiring declassification of relevant intelligence court decisions or the release of summaries containing critical information about these decisions.
*Creating a public advocate that can be appointed to participate in significant intelligence court proceedings to represent our privacy interests.
*Providing judicial review of gag orders that accompany national security information requests.
*Permitting companies to disclose more information about how often the government asks them to hand over data and requiring the government to disclose more information about its surveillance activities.
Udall, Leahy and every other Senate Democrat—with the exception of Florida’s Bill Nelson—voted to bring the measure up for debate. They were joined by independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, as well as four Republicans: Ted Cruz of Texas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Dean Heller of Nevada and Mike Lee of Utah.
That got the potential reform caucus to 58, and suggested that, were the measure to have come up for a vote, it would have passed. But that was two votes short of the number needed to gain consideration. When forty-one Republicans voted no—many of them making absurd doomsday claims about the danger of protecting privacy rights—that consideration was blocked.
Strikingly, one of the Republican “no” votes came from Rand Paul, who claimed he voted “no” because the measure did not go far enough—while at the same time admitting that reformers “probably needed my vote.”
The problem with Paul’s position is that the next Senate, led by his partisan allies, is far less likely to support reform than the current one.
That’s the frustrating part about what played out Tuesday. As Leahy, who will surrender his Judiciary Committee chairmanship when Mitch McConnell’s Republicans take charge in January, said Tuesday night, “Senate Republicans have failed to answer the call of the American people who elected them, and all of us, to stand up and to work across the aisle. Once again, they reverted to scare tactics rather than to working productively to protect Americans’ basic privacy rights and our national security.” (Emphasis in original)
Udall mustered a measure of optimism.
“While our effort to rein in overbroad government surveillance did not move forward today, this is not the end of the fight to protect Americans’ privacy rights,” the senator said. “Our constitutional liberties are simply too important to be cast aside, and I won’t stop working to make sure we keep faith with our founding values.”
Udall has indicated that, though his remaining time in the Senate is short, he wants to continue to keep the faith. How far he will go remains in question. But the Coloradoan has been urged by civil libertarians and transparency advocates to take advantage of his privilege as a senator—under the Constitution’s “Speech and Debate Clause”—to read into the record details from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence review of the use of so-called “harsh interrogation” techniques and allegations of torture by CIA operatives.
That could shake up the whole debate about how US intelligence agencies operate—and about the secrecy surrounding those operations.
Udall was asked by The Denver Post about the issue and replied, “Transparency and disclosure are critical to the work of the Senate intelligence committee and our democracy, so I’m going to keep all options on the table to ensure the truth comes out.”
Asked specifically about taking advantage of the “Speech and Debate Clause” —as former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel did during the Pentagon Papers fight of the early 1970s—Udall said, “I mean, I’m going to keep all options on the table.”
At a frustrating moment for those who believe that the American people need to know what is done in their name but without their informed consent, it may be that Mark Udall—even in defeat—retains the ability to open up the debate that the Senate on Tuesday was unwilling to entertain.
John Nichols is the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, just out in paperback from Nation Books.
Read Next: Edward Snowden: A Nation interview
If you meet three Americans who are of voting age and are eligible under the laws of the state in which they reside to cast ballots, two of them did not do so in the 2014 election.
In most states it is likely that the two nonvoters will be younger and poorer than the one voter—meaning that a small, older and relatively elite minority is defining not just the results of elections but the direction of the United States.
As concerns regarding the state of the nation go, this is a big one. And it ought to inspire not just complaints—as have been aired since the election—but calls to action.
According to United States Elections Project estimates, just 36.3 percent of eligible voters bothered to participate in elections where members of the US House and Senate, most governors and most state legislators and thousands of local officials were chosen. The nation’s most populous states, all of which had full federal and state ballots, saw dismal turnout: 28.5 percent in Texas, 28.8 percent in New York, 31.8 percent in California.
Only seven states (Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota and Iowa) saw turnout in excess of 50 percent. In contrast, elections in Germany regularly see turnout in excess of 70 percent, in Scandinavia above 80 percent, in Belgium above 90 percent. “The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the United States 120th in the world for average turnout,” noted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Political systems differ from country to country, and so comparisons are tricky. But some patterns are clear. Unlike countries with high turnout rates, for instance, elections in the United States are more dramatically expensive, just as campaigns in the United States run dramatically longer. Because of the declining circumstance of commercial media (especially newspapers) and the chronic underfunding of public and community broadcasting outlets, US voters have less access to consistent and high-quality coverage of campaigns.
Additionally, many US states have seen the enactment of laws that make it harder to vote, and the Supreme Court only made matters worse with its 2014 decision to undermine the Voting Rights Act. “The reason politicians ignore so many of the working poor is that they don’t vote,” argues The Root’s Danielle C. Belton. “And the reason so many of the working poor don’t vote is that certain politicians have made sure it’s as inconvenient as possible for them.”
It is not particularly difficult to identify factors that depress turnout. Nor is it difficult to recognize that that the crisis is worsening. States and communities across the country reported record low turnout in 2014 primaries and the general election. Overall, US turnout was the worst since 1942, when World War II presented unique challenges.
What is necessary now is a recognition that the crisis will continue to worsen if we do not take appropriate actions to assure that elections are reflective of the will of the whole people.
Some of the reforms that are needed involve significant transformations of our rules and structures for funding campaigns—including a constitutional amendment to restore the authority of citizens and the elected representatives to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars. Changes must be made in order to fill the journalistic void by sustaining and expanding independent media. There are also arguments to be made for major structural shifts. For instance, the group FairVote proposes a number “systemic electoral reforms that reverse the contextual reasons for low turnout. “
*Fair Representation Voting for legislative elections would allow for outcomes that better represent the diverse beliefs of the electorate, and could therefore combat the low voter turnout that we see in many winner-take-all plurality districts, where choices are limited.
*A National Popular Vote (NPV) for president, which would make every vote in every state equally valuable in every election, would expand presidential campaigns from just ten states to all 50. As voter turnout is markedly lower in states that receive no presidential campaign attention, the reallocation of campaign resources to include non-battleground states would likely increase turnout in those states.
*Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for other single seat offices like mayor and governor would better represent the views of third party and independent voters, as more candidates would be inclined to run. Therefore, voters who might not feel that their views are represented in a two-party race would turn out to the polls to support their preferred candidate.
*Universal Voter Registration would modernize voter registration in the United States, making government responsible for maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls, shifting our system from its current opt-in structure to an opt-out structure.
These are all sound proposals, and some of them have been implemented with considerable success in communities across the country. Taking them national involves organizing and hard work.
But is there something more we can do right now—something that should be easy and without significant controversy?
How about making Election Day a holiday? That’s hardly a radical idea. Countries around the world schedule elections on weekends or recognize weekdays when elections are held as a holiday. Louisiana usually votes on Saturdays. And roughly a dozen states and jurisdictions give some recognition to Election Day as a holiday. So why not take the idea national?
That’s what Senator Sanders is proposing. Even before November 4, the independent from Vermont argued that, as part of a broader effort to generate the largest possible turnout, “Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the opportunity to vote.”
After the turnout crisis became evident—even in his own traditionally high-turnout state of Vermont, where voter participation fell to 43.7 percent, the worst rate on record—Sanders acted. He proposed the “Democracy Day Act of 2014”—a simple piece of legislation that would designate each and every federal Election Day as a public holiday.
“We should not be satisfied with a ‘democracy’ in which more than 60 percent of our people don’t vote and some 80 percent of young people and low-income Americans fail to vote,” says Sanders. “We can and must do better than that. While we must also focus on campaign finance reform and public funding of elections, establishing an Election Day holiday would be an important step forward.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the 2014 mandate to remove big money from politics
We are stuck in the political equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day. In the absence of constitutional reform that renews the authority of citizens and their elected leaders to enact meaningful campaign finance laws, America is destined to repeat from election cycle to election cycle the sordid process by which our politics and our governance are bartered off to the highest bidders in ever-more expensive auctions for the souls of elected leaders and both major parties.
The final spending totals for 2014 will not be known for months, and in this era of increasingly dark, dark-money campaigning, some of the details will never be adequately revealed or understood. But even the bare minimum figure established just prior to the election by the Center for Responsive Politics is acknowledged as a record. “Every election since 1998 has been more expensive than the one before it, and predictably the 2014 election will follow that path, CRP has projected—though the total projected cost of $3.67 billion is only a slight uptick over the price tag of the 2010 midterm,” the center noted. “Counting all forms of spending—by candidates, parties and outside groups—Team Red is projected to have spent $1.75 billion, while Team Blue’s spending is projected to ring in at $1.64 billion.”
The final figures will be much higher for several reasons. First, many types of spending are not revealed until weeks, sometimes months, after elections. Second, formal filings and investigative reports will over time reveal more details of supposedly “independent” and dark-money spending. Finally, and most significantly, details of spending on state and local contests will boost that $3.67 billion figure dramatically. The able researchers at CRP focus on federal races for the US Senate and the US House. Yet, some of the biggest spending of 2014 took place in competitve state races for governor, for attorney general and for control of key legislative chambers. Additionally, spending skyrocketed in state and local judicial races in 2014. And spending on initiatives and referendums was in the hundreds of millions.
Add all this additional largesse in and the 2014 spending figure will be well in excess of $5 billion.
This spending does not buy higher turnouts—2014 saw the lowest level of voter participation since 1942, when World War II created some complications.
The spending does not produce better debates on a wider range of issues—the 2014 campaign was broadly derided as “the election about nothing.”
And it does not result in better or more responsive governance—on the eve of the 2014 election, the approval rate for Congress fell to 8 percent.
That final factor is the most consequential. While much is made of the impact that election spending has on particular contests and on the broader struggle for control of the Congress, there is far too little consideration given to the reality stated by Congressman John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who says, “A lot of the moneyed impact. and in some ways, the most sinister is on the governing that happens after.”
Americans recognize this. An April 2014, national Reason-Rupe poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe all politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists. Other surveys, asking the question in other ways, have found even higher levels of cynicism about arrangements between economic and political elites.
The American people also know that without the restoration of basic American ideals and standards with regard to elections—rooted in the premise that corporations are not people, money is not speech and votes must matter more than dollars—each new election cycle will be more expensive and more negative and much less likely to produce high turnouts and results that reflect the will of the great mass of citizens.
There is a sense of urgency, well expressed by US Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, when he said just after the 2014 election: “If we don’t move quickly and forcefully to get big money out of our elections, it will give the wealthy a vice grip on our government. It will drown out the voices of regular folks. And it will embolden those with the deepest pockets to take further action to keep shaping the electorate how they see fit. We need action, and we need it now.”
Most importantly, Americans are acting on that knowledge. The hidden story of the 2014 election cycle was that, amidst all the shameless fundraising and spending, a popular revolt was brewing at the polls.
This was not about Democrats or Republicans.
This was not about liberals or conservatives.
This was about democracy.
In states across the country, voters signaled that they are ready to take the steps that are necessary to constrain the “money power” of billionaire campaign donors and corporate lobbies in order to restore honest debates, honest elections and honest governance.
Counties, cities, villages and towns in Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin took up the question of whether the US Constitution should be amended to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down century-old limits on corporate spending to buy elections.
The demand was clear and unequivocal. While the questions on ballots across the country varied modestly, they all paralleled the message of the ballot question that earned 70 percent support in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: “Shall the United States Constitution be amended to establish the following? 1. Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and 2. Money is not speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”
Across Wisconsin, a dozen communities took up the question, and a dozen endorsed it with support running as high as 82 percent. Notably, in a number of communities that voted to elect Republicans (including free-spending Governor Scott Walker), support for an amendment was overwhelming.
The same was true in other states. In red regions, in blue regions, in urban cities and rural towns, Americans backed the calls for an amendment. There were almost three dozen votes November 4, in jurisdictions that are home to the better part of 2 million Americans, and the message was overwhelming. “Nearly all Americans share the sentiment that corporations should not have the same rights as people, and big money in politics should be removed,” declared Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, the national director of Move to Amend. “It is time for Congress to pass the We the People Amendment and send it to the states for ratification. The leadership of both parties need to realize that their voters are clamoring for this amendment, and we are only going to get louder.”
The number of commuities that have made the call for an amendment now exceeds 600.
The number of states is at sixteen, and it will rise.
The crisis is real, and so is the movement to address it.
Just ask Katie Schierl. She helped organize the petition drives to put the issue in the cities of Neenah and Menasha, Wisconsin. In a region where Republicans won with relative ease, Neenah voted 79 percent for an amendment, while Menasha gave it 80 percent.
“We need the power of the people to change this situation,” said Katie Schierl, a leader of the petition drive in Neenah and Menasha. “That’s the only way it’s going to happen. This movement is growing all across America—it’s going viral.”
Read Next: This is what dollarocracy looks like
Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2008 as an outspoken supporter of a free and open Internet. “I am a strong supporter of net neutrality,” announced candidate Obama, who showed that he knew what he was talking about by adding that any move that “gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different websites…destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
Unfortunately, Obama’s appointees to chair the Federal Communications Commission have bumbled the job. Miserably. The current chair has for the better part of the past year been peddling various proposals public-interest groups warn could lead to the development of a two-tier Internet with “fast lanes” for paying content from corporate and political elites while stranding non-commercial and grassroots communications—and citizens—in the slow lane.
That is the opposite of what the president has said he wants since he began addressing the issue in 2007. And on Monday he made his sentiments crystal clear, declaring that:
An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.
Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation—but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.
That’s not what FCC chair Tom Wheeler has been proposing over the past several months. In recent weeks, it has been reported that Wheeler is interested in developing an exceptionally complex “hybrid” plan that public-interest groups explain “would split the Internet in two, creating divisions in Internet access and enshrining the notion that people or companies sending information have protections against discrimination, while users have none against their own ISP (Internet service provider).” Such a move would, a proposal that would, according to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, “leave the door open for all kinds of discriminatory practices.”
Obama is recommending that the FCC avert that danger by reclassifying Internet services under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, a move that would treating broadband providers the same way as other telecommunication companies and allow for regulation in the public interest. This won’t be popular with the telecommunications conglomerates that would like to be monopolies. And it will be attacked by Republicans (and perhaps even some Democrats) in Congress who do the bidding of some of the country’s most powerful corporations.
But as the president notes, the point of regulation should be to protect the public interest in free and open communications, as opposed to the monopolist interest in profiteering.
“For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business,” the president’s statement argues. “That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”
Public-interest groups hailed the president’s intervention, recognizing it as an critical development—though not the final one—in the long struggle to preserve a free and open Internet. “This is an important moment in the fight for the open Internet. President Obama has chosen to stand with the us: the users, the innovators, the creators who depend on an open internet,” explained the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Corynne McSherry.
But Craig Aaron, the president of the media reform network Free Press, warned, “The struggle for real Net Neutrality isn’t over.” While the president’s action is “a major step in the right direction,” citizens must recognize that “to protect the open Internet that Americans demand, the FCC now must act and reclassify ISPs under Title II.”
To that end, the president has made a specific argument to the FCC and to the American people—using his bully pulpit to advocate for a tech-savvy approach that uses reclassification is smart, effective way. His proposal recognizes that rules established by the commission “have to reflect the way people use the Internet today, which increasingly means on a mobile device” and argues that “the FCC should make these rules fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.”
With this in mind, the president outlines absolute standards—what he calls “bright-line rules”—that can and should be upheld:
No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player—not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP—gets a fair shot at your business.
No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others—through a process often called “throttling”—based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs—the so-called “last mile”—is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
This is the approach that has been championed by civil rights, open society and media reform groups for years, an approach that more than 4 million Americans have told the FCC to embrace. They have gotten pushback from telecommunications giants and from the defenders of special interests in Congress. And that pushback will continue.
But the president is right to say that “the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone—not just one or two companies.”
Read Next: John Nichols on why Scott Walker will never be president
The 2014 election campaign was an exercise in dollarocracy, not democracy.
In a democracy, citizens are in charge, votes matter and the governments that take shape after elections reflect the will of the people.
In a dollarocracy, money is considered “speech,” corporations are considered “people” and elected officials take their cues from the billionaires and corporate interests that write the biggest checks. Campaigns cost exponentially more from cycle to cycle (the 2014 price tag will exceed $4 billion for federal races and billions more for state, local, judicial and initiative and referendum contests), and government becomes reflective of the demands of donors.
But that is just the most obvious evidence of the crisis.
Dollarocracy is about a lot more than the money raised and spent in campaigns. It is about the collapse of meaningful journalism, resulting from the downsizing and closure of newspapers, the replacement of local news and talk radio programming with syndicated “content” from afar, the reduction in political coverage by local television news outlets, and the horse-race coverage and spin that tend to characterize national news programs on broadcast and cable television.
When Americans look to television for news, what they get instead is a slurry of spin that tends, all too frequently, to reinforce a broken status quo. Nowhere is this more true that in debates about economics, which tend toward a narrow centrism rather than broad and realistic discussions of income inequality, failed trade policies, and the crisis that is created when crony capitalism replaces sound strategies for maintaining manufacturing and putting new technologies to practical use.
When the economic debate is vapid, when it does not go deep and explore the real questions that vex working Americans, the political process loses meaning. Many Americans simply opt out, which drops election participation rates to shamefully low levels—New York, with a full slate of statewide contests, had the lowest actual turnout since the state Board of Elections began tracking totals in the 1970s; turnout in California and Vermont, both of which had full slates of statewide contests, hit historic lows; in New Jersey, with a Senate contest and several tight House races, turnout was only 31 percent, “possibly the lowest the state has ever seen.”
Those who do get to the polls arrive after having slogged through deliberately confusing fall campaign seasons defined not by reasoned discourse but by the absurdly negative and frequently dishonest ads that are purchased with all those billions of campaign dollars. As such, they vote on the same ballot for state minimum-wage hikes and for Republican senate candidates who oppose federal minimum-wage hikes, as happened Tuesday in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
This is not what democracy looks like.
Democracy requires real campaigns between candidates and parties advancing distinct positions. It doesn’t work when the process is manipulated by big money, when candidates and parties try to tailor their messages to deceive rather than inspire voters. Nor does it work when journalism is so weak, so dysfunctional, so deferent to the money power that it facilitates a narrow and unsatisfying debate.
This is the unsettling reality of our times.
Unfortunately, few political figures are willing to discuss that reality—let alone to speak the truth to power that might change it.
This is why the most important political discussion of the 2014 campaign season was not a candidate debate. And it certainly was not found in the fearsome ad wars that were paid for with all those billions of dollars in campaign donations.
Of course, Sanders explained, “big money (can) put an unbelievable amount of TV and radio ads out there to deflect attention from the real issues facing the American people.”
The notion of deflecting attention caught the ear of Bill Moyers, who has been on both sides of the equation as a White House press secretary in the administration of Lyndon Johnson, as a newspaper publisher and as a highly regarded broadcast journalist.
“Well, that’s interesting,” said Moyers. “Because, you know, I’ve seen you quite recently on television. It’s always the same questions and always the same five headlines. What’s the story that the corporate press is not letting you tell?”
“Oh, my God. You see, this is the issue,” responded Sanders. “I mean, I’ve been on a million of these shows. They say, ’Here’s the story of the day. What do you think about the Secret Service? What do you think about this? What do you think about Ebola?’ All of those issues are important. But the issues that impact ordinary people—they’re asking why, despite all of the productivity, people are working longer hours for lower wages. Have we had that discussion, Bill? Have you ever heard anybody talking about it?”
The nation’s longest-serving independent member of Congress was just getting started.
“And this issue of income and wealth inequality, wow: One percent owning 37 percent of the wealth in America. Bottom 60 percent owning 1.7 percent. One family, the Walton family of Walmart, owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent,” he said. “Do you think we should be talking about that issue? You can’t get the discussion going on TV.”
Then came the vital exchange.
“Why?” asked Moyers.
“Because it’s not in the interest of the corporations who own the networks to actually be educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues. It’s much better to deflect attention away from those issues and get into the story of the day,” explained Sanders.
Moyers understands the problem. So he pressed Sanders with regard to solutions to what he referred to as “this fundamental question facing Bernie Sanders: How do you get your message directly to those who need it most?”
“I wish I had the magic answer,” replied Sanders. “You’re asking exactly the right question…. The idea that you have these working-class people who are voting for candidates who refuse to raise the minimum wage, who refuse to provide healthcare for their kids, who want to send their jobs to China, who want to give tax breaks to corporations, it blows my mind. And that is the issue that we have to figure out.”
For Sanders, one prospect is a presidential campaign—not an ordinary campaign but one that seeks to spark what he refers to as a “political revolution” in America. He is not naive. He knows how hard it would be to take on the economic and political and media elites. But he also knows that something revolutionary will be required to renew democracy in America.
John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), for which Senator Sanders wrote an introduction. The book is just out in paperback.
It was predicted before the 2014 election that if Scott Walker were re-elected by a single vote, the governor of Wisconsin would claim a mandate to run for president in 2016.
So it will not come as a surprise to anyone that—after winning his third statewide run by roughly 135,000 votes out of almost 2.5 million cast—Walker is claiming much more than a new term. His Reaganesque victory speech may have been cheered by his Wisconsin supporters Tuesday night, but it was written for national consumption and delivered with an eye toward jump-starting a bid to be his party’s next nominee.
Walker, who has already written the obligatory presidential campaign book, appeared in Iowa and New Hampshire, bid for the favor of billionaire Sheldon Adelson and built a national fundraising network, was not exactly subtle in his victory speech. Pre-election references to Wisconsin were suddenly replaced with post-election references to America.
But Republicans would be wise to consider the numbers before they presume that this rigidly conservative governor steps onto the national stage with a mandate from Wisconsinites to bid for the presidency. Polling shows that the vast majority of Wisconsinites—87 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 39 percent of Republicans—do not want Walker to seek national office in 2016.
If he does make the run, Walker will have to explain why he has not been able to expand his appeal in Wisconsin.
Usually when a governor seeks the presidency, that governor makes the case that he or she has a winning approach to governing—with a style and policies that can turn doubters into supporters. That’s what George W. Bush did when he sought the presidency in 2000, noting that he won his first term as governor of Texas with 53 percent of the vote and his second with 68 percent.
But Walker cannot claim that his is an expansive appeal.
In fact, the governor won a lower percentage of the vote this year than he received in the 2012 recall election, and he did no better in 2014 than in his 2010 run. This is not to deny Walker’s victory but rather to note that, after four years as governor and somewhere in the range of $100 million in spending by the governor’s campaign and its “independent” supporters and enthusiasts, he does not appear to have convinced anyone who wasn’t with him in the first place.
Compare that with the previous Republican governor of Wisconsin. In 1986, Tommy Thompson was elected with 52 percent of the vote. In his second gubernatorial run, Thompson won 58 percent. In his third campaign, Thompson hit 67 percent.
For Walker, the record is 52 percent, 53 percent, 52 percent.
Walker’s “divide-and-conquer” ethic—which he famously described in a taped conversation with one of his biggest donors—does not require an expansion of his base in Wisconsin. The rigidly conservative, anti-labor and pro-austerity governor is satisfied to win at any cost and by whatever margin he attains.
But for Republicans beyond Wisconsin, who are interested in growing their base in 2016, “divide and conquer” might not sound like a winning strategy. And a party that has won a majority of the national vote in only one of the past six presidential elections has to think about these things.
So, as Walker pivots toward presidential politics, watch for a rapid rewrite of the Wisconsin story—and the Wisconsin numbers.
There is little reason to doubt that Walker will soon enter the formal hinting stage, go through the “exploratory” stage and start bidding for the Republican presidential nomination. Throughout the process, he will make grand pronouncements about his appeal in a supposedly “blue” state—glossing over the fact that Wisconsin is actually a classic swing state that sends a conservative Republican to the Senate along with a progressive Democrat, that backs Democrats for president but that often elects Republican governors and that polls suggest is more bitterly divided than any in the nation.
What Walker won’t note is that, despite all of his campaigning, despite all of his spending, his appeal has not grown. Nor will he mention that he has never been tested when a high-turnout presidential race has been on the ballot.
Republicans who actually look at the numbers will ask themselves why they should get excited by Scott’s Walker’s ability to win 52 percent of vote in a swing state during the same “Republican wave” election when another prospective candidate from a swing state, Ohio’s John Kasich, who won in 2010 with 49 percent of the vote, was just re-elected with 64 percent.
Indeed, while it is unlikely that Scott Walker will actually be the Republican nominee for president, his selection by the GOP would in all likelihood produce another progressive moment in Wisconsin. Just as Paul Ryan’s addition to the 2012 Republican ticket failed to carry Wisconsin for the GOP, so polls have regularly suggested that a Scott Walker-led ticket would very probably fail to carry the state in the higher turnout presidential election of 2016.
Perhaps Republicans are starting to recognize this. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has Walker in last place among Republicans, a wee bit behind Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal.
The Republicans have claimed the US Senate, extended their majority in the US House and secured more than their share of victories in state and local races. Now every effort will be made by the many critics of Barack Obama to employ the results of the 2014 midterm elections in the work of writing the president off as a lame duck.
But sixth-year setbacks are common for presidents. And Obama need not let this one define him. Indeed, he has a duty to defend the mandates he received in 2008 and 2012.
This is the point of beginning for the final stage of Obama’s presidency. He can shape the narrative. But if he fails to do so, others will. And in so doing they will diminish not just the president but the will of the people who elected him twice.
This will have less to do with policy—since a gridlocked Washington is likely to remain gridlocked on many issues—than with personalities and palace intrigues that so appeal to political and media elites. Yet, the defining process is significant, as it can influence decisions about whether to negotiate or veto, to hold firm for principles or to search for “grand bargains,” to rally the base or bend to the opposition.
Even before the results started coming in on Tuesday night, much of the pre-election prognostication had Obama headed for full lame-duck status. Never mind that the Republicans had most of the advantages going into the 2014 election cycle: fewer Senate seats to defend, a pattern of Democratic retirements in Republican-leaning states such as Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia; plenty of billionaire friends and corporate allies; and a second-term president with reduced approval ratings. There was never any doubt that a shift in control of the chamber was going to herald a full flurry of “definitive” statements and how Obama has been checked and balanced for the final quarter of his eight years in office.
But does a poor election result necessarily mark the end of a president’s relevance? Should a president whose party fails to perform be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Is this what history proposes?
Consider Ronald Reagan. His Republican allies lost control of the Senate in the midterm election of 1986, the sixth year of his presidency. They went into that year’s contest with fifty-three seats and came out with forty-five. The House was already run by the Democrats, and the eight-seat shift in the Senate was dramatic. Yet most Republicans would tell you that Reagan remained a significant figure in American politics; and, it should be noted, in 1989 he handed the presidency off to another Republican president.
Consider Dwight Eisenhower. Going into the midterm elections of 1958, the sixth year of his presidency, the Senate was almost evenly divided (forty-nine Democrats versus forty-seven Republicans in a chamber where a number of Southern Democrats frequently aligned with the Republicans). In that election, Democrats picked up a remarkable fifteen seats. Many of the new senators were swept in on a wave of frustration with Eisenhower’s farm policies, as were many of the new members of the House—where a solid Democratic majority of 234-201 was transformed by the 1958 election into an overwhelming 283-153 advantage. Yet, Eisenhower, whose approval rating had dropped into the forties in 1958, rebounded to finish his presidency with influence on Capitol Hill and approval ratings that frequently topped 60 percent. In the fall of late 1958, he secured confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice (Potter Stewart); in 1959 he formally welcomed two new states into the union (Alaska and Hawaii); in 1961, he delivered a mighty fine speech about the military-industrial complex, opening a debate that continues to this day.
Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the midterm elections of 1938, the sixth year of his presidency, FDR’s Democrats suffered setbacks nationwide. Republicans gained seven US Senate seats, eighty-one US House seats and a dozen governorships in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Roosevelt’s Progressive and Farmer-Labor allies lost governorships and congressional seats in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “The New Deal has been halted,” declared veteran New York Times columnist Arthur Krock. Two years later, however, Roosevelt became the only president ever to re-elected to a third term—winning 55 percent of the popular vote and a 449-82 advantage in the Electoral College.
Of course, the political dynamics of today are different from those of 1986 or 1958 or 1938. The political process is always evolving. But the thing to remember is that presidents can and do play a role in that evolution. They are far better positioned than other political figures to shape it. This is the lesson of history. It is also the prospect that remains on the table now that the 2014 midterm elections have—with due respect to the Louisiana Senate runoff and a few potential recounts—produced a result.
That result is important. But it need not be definitional.
Reagan, Eisenhower and Roosevelt were all written off, decried and dismissed by their critics. Yet they decided that they—not their foes—would write the last chapters of their presidencies.
Presidents have lost the Senate. Presidents have lost the Congress as a whole. And yet, they have governed—sometimes by going to the people and rallying the great mass of Americans to their side, sometimes by outmaneuvering the opposition of Capitol Hill, sometimes by bargaining and bending and compromising.
Obama has plenty of openings to define the last two years of his tenure. The Republicans have not won veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate; the president can still say “no” to them. And on a lot of major issues, that will be the right move. Indeed, for Americans who fret about the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress, the best response will be to push and prod the president to stand strong against the economic and social compromises that might be demanded conservative Republicans and by corporate Democrats—and that will surely be cheered on by the newspaper editorial pages that seem to think any deal is better than the dreaded gridlock.
The president should refuse to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He should use his executive authority to suspend deportations, and to force a real discussion about comprehensive immigration reform, He should reject, absolutely, every proposal to undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
If the president’s resolve begins to weaken on any of these issues, activists should not hesitate to demand that he recognize what is at stake—not just politically but practically for the great mass of Americans who do not have the resources to buy elections or pay for lobbyists. These are the people who elected Barack Obama president in 2008 and 2012. They gave him a mandate and he has a responsibility, to his supporters and to himself, to defend it with his veto pen, his executive orders and his bully pulpit.
None of this bars the prospect of reasonable compromise and cooperation. But Obama and his allies should be determined to assure that it is the president, not his opposition, that defines the terms.
Things have changed in Washington as a result of the 2014 election, and they will change a good deal more in the weeks and months to come. That is certain. But how things change, for Obama and the Democrats, for Mitch McConnell and the Republicans, remains up for grabs. That may be unsettling, even disappointing, for those who believe that every election is the most important in history. But history tells us that presidents can and do survive midterm setbacks. Indeed, it is the ability to survive and even to thrive in the aftermath of a midterm setback, that has characterized this country’s most remembered and frequently revered presidents.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on why Obama should double down.