Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Seattle’s ‘Another World Is Both Possible and Necessary’ Campaign

It may come as a surprise to Ted Cruz, but Americans have a rich history of entertaining democratic-socialist responses to economic and political challenges. Tom Paine charted the rough outlines of a social-welfare state in his 1797 pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.” Fanny Wright was campaigning for the labor-linked and essentially social-democratic Workingmen’s Party in 1829. Utopian socialists were regular contributors to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the newspaper that inspired the radical political experiment that came to be known as the Republican Party.

A century ago, members of the Socialist Party served in Congress and state legislatures, they were mayors of big cities and peopled city councils and school boards across the country. The Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912, Eugene Victor Debs, won close to a million votes and polled more than 10 percent of the vote in the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington.

The latter state was a hotbed of radicalism, especially in Seattle, where in 1916 activist Anna Louise Strong was elected to the school board. A militant supporter of left-wing causes and campaigns, she aligned with labor unions during the city’s general strike and famously declared: “They say the Pharaohs built the pyramids. Do you think one Pharaoh dropped one bead of sweat? We built the pyramids for the Pharaohs and we’re building for them yet.”

As a member of the school board, Strong backed the antiwar and civil liberties crusades of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who in 1924 would seek the presidency as an independent progressive backed by the Socialist Party. La Follette came in third nationally but he finished second in Washington that year, behind Republican Calvin Coolidge but well ahead of Democrat John Davis.

Like San Francisco and Portland, Seattle remains a “Left Coast” city, with strong unions, a history of militant activism and adventurous local politics.

The latest adventure will play out November 5, when Seattle voters will decide whether to add a socialist to their city council. Kshama Sawant, a former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, is running a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that declares: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”

A veteran of Occupy protests and organizing drives, Sawant pulls no punches in her platform, which begins with a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promises to:

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

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

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

That’s a message with proven appeal in Seattle, where Sawant won 35 percent of the citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 ballot challenging sixteen-year-incumbent Richard Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin is backed by most of the Democratic leadership in the very Democratic city of Seattle; he’s also got the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates have obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant has won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.

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

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

Sawant is challenging a long-serving incumbent. She’ll be outspent. That means that by most measures her race is an uphill one—as are those of the other independent and third-party candidates running on the left and the right this fall. The outlines of our electoral politics are, for the most part, drawn to favor the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis’s unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (now in double digits in some polls) offers an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle is proving that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.

“There is nobody in the political leadership of Seattle right now who comes into work every day with a sense of urgency to really fight for people’s standard of living,” says Sawant. “That’s why voters are engaged in our campaign, because they are hearing a voice that they have been wanting to hear for years.”

Chris Christie’s No Moderate, and Barack Obama Ought to Say That

Chris Christie

President Obama will make a campaign swing into the battleground state of Virginia this weekend, on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe has been consistently ahead in the polls and his chances of winning look reasonably good—as do those of other Virginia Democrats in high-profile races. The Virginia Democrats have two advantages: Republican foes who have gone to extremes on social issues and a broad revulsion in a state with high levels of federal employment at Republican tactics during the government shutdown.

So Obama’s trip to Virginia comes with few risks.

The thing is that, at this point in his tenure, Obama could afford to take some political risks.

For instance, he could travel to the other state that is holding a gubernatorial election this fall: New Jersey.

Though New Jersey is a more reliably Democratic state than Virginia by most measures, it has a Republican governor who leads in the polls. Though Chris Christie is actually very conservative, he has done a better job than his Virginia counterparts of positioning himself as a relative moderate. And a big boost for that strategy has come from Christie’s association with President Obama, who worked with Christie closely after Superstorm Sandy hit the state last year—and who so far has steered clear of any significant role in this year’s gubernatorial contest.

It is good that Obama and Christie worked well together following a natural disaster.

But that does not make Christie a moderate.

He has fundamental differences with Obama and the Democrats, and those differences will come into stark relief if Christie is re-elected, as the Republican will immediately begin positioning as a contender for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

To elbow his way into GOP contention, however, Christie must win big in New Jersey next Tuesday. So the governor is running an expensive and aggressive re-election campaign, with plenty of help from the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

He wants a landslide win, and polls suggest he could get it. But to assure that he secures the numbers he is seeking, Christie must attract support not just from Republicans but from independents and Democrats. Much of the Christie campaign’s thrust is aimed at winning the votes of New Jerseyans who don’t often back Republicans—and who probably would not vote for Christie if he was entirely frank about his right-wing social and economic stances.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

A visit from Obama this weekend could bring some perspective to the race, perspective that Christie’s able-but-underfinanced Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, has been trying—against some pretty tough odds—to provide.

Buono’s new television ad gets to the point. Standing in front of a school-yard fence, the senator says:

I’m Barbara Buono, the only one actually running for governor. Chris Christie’s got his sights set on the Republican presidential primary. That’s why he defunded Planned Parenthood, opposes abortion rights, vetoed gay marriage and stands with the gun lobby on background checks. With 400,000 New Jerseyans out of work and our poverty rate at a 50-year high, Christie raised taxes on the working poor—but won’t ask millionaires to pay another dime. He wants to be president. I want to be your governor.

Buono’s making an important point. But she lacks the bully pulpit that Christie has. According to a Newark Star-Ledger analysis, the Republican governor has over the past six months raised $12.7 million and aired sixteen distinct television commercials on television stations that reach New Jersey voters. The Democrat has raised just $2.9 million and aired two commercials.

Christie has also benefited from a taxpayer-funded “Stronger Than the Storm” ad campaign, in which he appears. But he may benefit most from that image as the Republican governor who worked with President Obama.

Obama can acknowledge the cooperation.

But he can also acknowledge that, on policy, he disagrees with Christie on just about everything—including the current debate over implementation of the Affordable Care Act. If the president noted those differences in an appearance with Buono he would, at the very least, provide a frame of reference for New Jersey voters who might otherwise be misled by the governor’s slick-and-cynical campaign.

Chris Christie is a very conservative Republican. There’s nothing moderate about the guy. And Barack Obama ought to say that.

John Nichols demonstrates Christie's conservative agenda (again).

Instead of Paul Ryan’s ‘Robin Hood in Reverse,’ Why Not a Robin Hood Tax?

Paul Ryan

For House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and the Republican Party’s unofficial austerity caucus, the shutdown and debt-ceiling fights did not end in defeat. As part of the deal to end reopen the government and avert a “full-faith-and-credit” crisis, they got an agreement to establish a House and Senate conference committee that is charged with pulling together a bipartisan budget plan.

Ryan makes little secret of his agenda. The Wisconsin Republican is already talking about implementing the “entitlement reforms” he’s been pitching for years. So no one should rule out the prospect that the committee will entertain proposals for the roll-the-dice experiments with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid voucher schemes, hiking retirement ages, establishing means tests and reducing protections against inflation. At the same time, Ryan would reduce the corporate tax rate and eliminate the alternative minimum tax—completing the “Robin Hood-in-reverse” scenario that so appeals to austerity advocates.

But what are the prospects that the committee will discuss proposals that might attract the resources needed to avoid cuts to essential programs and steer the US economy toward job creation and growth? The Democrats make a bow in the right direction. In addition to investing in job creation, transportation infrastructure and worker training programs, Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray, D-Washington, includes proposals to close tax loopholes and eliminate tax breaks for corporations that offshore operations.

But if they are serious about countering austerity—and they should be—Democrats need to offer something more substantial. And the place to begin is with a real alternative to “Robin Hood in reverse.”

As in: a “Robin Hood Tax.”

That’s a tax on high-stakes financial transactions, as proposed in the House by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota. Ellison’s “Inclusive Prosperity Tax” would raise hundreds of billions in new revenues. “This is a small tax on Wall Street transactions to meet the needs of our nation,” says Ellison, who asks: “Didn’t America step up to the plate when Wall Street needed help?”

The congressman’s proposal would also reduce harmful market speculation. As Ellison says, “Gambling on Wall Street does not benefit our society.”

This week in Washington, National Nurses United and 160 groups associated with the Robin Hood Tax Campaign are raising the issue in Washington. A Tuesday teach-in, featuring University of Massachusetts–Amherst economist Robert Pollin, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower and labor leaders such as Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley, heard NNU co-president Jean Ross, RN, declare: “The nurses of America have a message for Wall Street: You have the money we need to heal America.” A Wednesday march, congressional briefing ( featuring economist Jeffrey Sachs and European parliamentarian Anni Podimata) and lobbying day will tell members of the US House and Senate that: “It’s not a Tax on the People. It’s a Tax for the People.”

And it’s about time.

This is a vital intervention in a debate that needs a fresh idea.

“With the latest Congressional super committee on budget deliberations about to meet in the aftermath of the brinkmanship over federal funding, a change in tone is needed in Washington,”says Karen Higgins, RN, an NNU co-president. “We are calling on Congress and the White House to refocus on a human needs budget, not just an endless cycle of more austerity and more cuts. We need the Robin Hood tax.”

Arguing for a Financial Transactions Tax does not only have the potential to shift the character of the budget conference committee deliberations. It could move the broader debate beyond the empty wrangling that pits Ryan’s austerity agenda against the austerity-lite response of too many Democrats.

The Nation is facing a crippling postal rate hike—donate by October 31 to help us foot this $120,272 bill.

“It’s far past time that we break this cycle and fund America. There is a simple solution: more revenue,” explains National People’s Action executive director George Goehl. “If the government had more money we could break the crisis fever that is killing our economic recovery and devastating most those who can afford it least.”

Goehl and NPA are making the case that a Robin Hood Tax could break the austerity cycle with “a tax of half of a percent or less on big Wall Street transactions [that] would not affect the retirement accounts for middle class and working families. The Robin Hood Tax could generate up to $350 billion each year for investments in America—health care, fighting HIV/AIDS, jobs, safety net, fighting climate change, and affordable housing.”

As NPA says: “It’s a small change for the banks, big change for us.”

That big change will be needed if the conference committee is to reach a budget agreement that rejects austerity in favor of the balance of fiscal responsibility and social responsibility that Americans have every right to demand.

Greg Kaufmann asks whether congress will maintain essential services for seniors.

Lou Reed’s Politics

Lou Reed

Lou Reed, who has died at age 71, will be rightly remembered for creating a canon that was groundbreaking in the scope of its sociological and literary achievement. There was nothing unreasonable about Reed’s 1987 suggestion to Rolling Stone that “all through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”

Yet Reed was, as well, an artist who understood and engaged in the political struggles of his times. No one who followed the remarkable career of the Velvet Underground co-founder and iconic solo artist over the better part of five decades failed to recognize his determination to speak up—and to show up.

From the beginning of his career, Reed identified himself as an artist who was determined to explore and explain the great societal taboos. He wrote songs about sex and sexuality, addiction, abuse, disease and communities that refused to conform or capitulate. His 1972 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” took AM radio and a generation of young Americans to places they had never been before. That wasn’t an explicitly political song by most measures, yet it achieved a remarkable political end: transforming how people saw one another, and themselves.

Reed kept pushing the limits in the 1970s and ’80s, relishing controversy, challenging conventions and siding with those who did the same. He outlined his political philosophy in very nearly gentle 1982 song, “The Day John Kennedy Died.”

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law, undenied
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died
 
I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done
I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone
I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

Reed finished the 1980s with the album New York, a visceral assessment of America at the close of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Topical and barbed, New York pulled no punches, especially on Reed’s masterpiece: “The Last Great American Whale.”

Reed closed that song with an indictment:

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
with human life not worth more than infected yeast
 
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
they’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
and complain if they can’t swim
 
They say things are done for the majority
don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”

Yet those who heard Reed’s edgy rendering of “The Last Great American Whale” at 1990’s Farm Aid concert recognized that his commentary was biting not because he was cynical but because he cared.

Reed did not always get it right; no one ever does. And he did not always echo the politics of his audiences. His criticisms of the Rev. Jesse Jackson on New York's "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim" rubbed plenty of people the wrong way -- even earning some boos when he performed the song on Broadway in 1989,

But Reed was always engaged, always passionate, and far more generous with his time and prominence than most.

Reed showed up for benefit concerts, for Tibet House and Tibetan Freedom, for Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. He was there to recall the Freedom Riders, and to condemn apartheid as part of Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City” project. He was there to defend human rights and to decry attacks on artistic freedom. “It’s one thing to read about things. [But it’s something else] when someone’s sitting right in front of you telling and articulating some of these gruesome, unbelievable things that happen to people who do things that we take for granted every day,” he explained in before an Amnesty International “Conspiracy of Hope” concert in the mid-1980s. “I mean, some of the records that I’ve made: I would be rotting in jail for the last ten years.”

Reed did not just take the stage.

He took to the streets. In 2011, when Occupy Wall Street activists were being hounded in New York City, Reed took their side as one of the city’s best-known and most respected artists.

The Nation is facing a crippling postal rate hike—donate by Oct. 31st to help us foot this $120,272 bill.

“I have never been more ashamed than to see the barricades tonight,” Reed told the Occupy crowd outside Lincoln Center.

“I want to occupy Wall Street,” he continued on that cold December night. “I support it in each and every way. I’m proud to be part of it.”

In that remarkable mic-check moment, the crowd responded: “I’m proud to be part of it.”

Lou Reed was smiling right then. He was where he wanted to be: very much thick of things, very much on the side of those who were upsetting the status quo.

Reed spoke up. He showed up. He was indeed proud to be part of it.

Peter Rothberg’s remembrance of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel features a video of Havel speaking with Lou Reed.

A Mass Rally Against Mass Surveillance

NSA director Keith Alexander (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

What do Congressman Justin Amash, the libertarian-leaning Republican from Michigan, and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who mounted unapologetically progressive campaigns for the Democratic presidential nod, have in common?

They both think that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution ought to be respected.

And they both know that’s not the case when personal communications are routinely monitored by the National Security Agency and when the Obama White House and the Congress fail to provide meaningful oversight of an ever-expanding surveillance state.

So Amash, who last summer worked with Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan, to organize a House fight to defund the NSA’s bulk collection of data, and Kucinich, who in 2001 was one of the handful of House members who joined Senator Russ Feingold in opposing the Patriot Act, stood together Saturday with thousands of Americans who gathered in Washington for a groundbreaking “Rally Against Mass Surveillance.”

The boisterous rally, which took place on the twelfth anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act, was backed by a remarkable left-right coalition that drew together organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Tea Party–aligned Freedom Works, from the very progressive folks associated with the Demand Progress project to the very conservative Young Americans for Liberty, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"This isn’t about right and left — it’s about right and wrong,” explained Craig Aaron, the president of the media-reform network Free Press.

Amash told the crowd in Washington: “This isn't a partisan issue. This is for Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, conservatives and liberals, everyone in between."

The organizers of the StopWatching.us coalition delivered to Congress petitions signed by 575,000 Americans who say “we won’t tolerate mass surveillance any longer.”

The coalition is “calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.”

Those who rallied Saturday, and those who will continue speaking out in the weeks and months to come, want Congress to immediately and publicly:

1. Enact reform this Congress to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;

2. Create a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying. This committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance;

3. Hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.

That’s a tall order, but a necessary one—as anyone who has followed the revelations from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden well understands. Snowden said in a statement supporting Saturday's rally:

In the last four months, we’ve learned a lot about our government.

We’ve learned that the U.S. intelligence community secretly built a system of pervasive surveillance. Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands. Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They’re wrong.

Now it’s time for the government to learn from us.

The rally outside the Capitol was important because of the size and scope of the coalition, and also because of the energy it has brought to Washington at a time when surveillance issues are in the news—but are not being adequately debated by the Obama administration or Congress.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The demand for congressional engagement extends beyond the rally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has produced “Stop Watching Us: The Video,” featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal. John Cusack, Phil Donahue, Oliver Stone and Daniel Ellsberg, among others.

In the video, Congressman Conyers, who for five decades has battled in Congress for civil rights and civil liberties, says, “A free society should not have secret laws.”

He’s right. But the secrecy won’t be addressed without a mass movement.

Saturday’s rally represented a “next step” in building that movement: “to remind our elected officials that they work for us, not the NSA.”

John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of Free Press. Their new book, Dollarocracy, details the growth of data mining as a political tool.

Greg Mitchell probes NSA claims that surveillance has thwarted terrorist attacks.

Dick Cheney’s Transcendent Cynicism

Dick Cheney. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Dick Cheney’s cynicism knows no end.

Yet, it still has the power to amaze—especially when Cheney’s political machinations go to extremes.

Consider his current embrace of the Tea Party movement.

At a point when the Republican Party’s favorability ratings have collapsed to the lowest point in the history of Gallup polling, just about everyone who has an interest in the future of the Grand Old Party is fretting about the damage done by a movement so politically tone deaf that it thought the American people would embrace a politics of government shutdown and debt-ceiling brinksmanship in order to advance the impossible dream of “defunding Obamacare.”

But here’s Dick Cheney—taking time out from pitching his new book, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey—to rally to the defense of the movement.

Hailing the Tea Party as a “positive influence” on the Grand Old Party, he announced on NBC’s Today show that “it’s an uprising, in part, and the good thing is it’s taken place within the Republican Party.”

Despite the chaos it has unleashed within and around the party for which the 72-year-old former vice president serves as a grouchy grand old man, Cheney declared: “I don’t see it as a negative. I think it’s much better to have that kind of ferment and turmoil and change in the Republican Party than it would be to have it outside.”

“These are Americans,” he says of the Tea Partisans. “They’re loyal, they’re patriotic and taxpayers, and they’re fed up with what they see happening in Washington. I think it’s a normal, healthy reaction and the fact that the party is having to adjust to it is positive.”

That’s rich coming from Cheney.

No matter what anyone thinks about the Tea Party movement in its current managed and manipulated form, many of its most sincere adherents joined what they thought was a grassroots challenge to the Republican establishment.

And no one says establishment like Dick Cheney: a permanent fixture in and around Republican administrations since Richard Nixon turned the key at the White House. No one has fought harder than this guy has to maintain the crony capitalist project that has made the modern GOP a lobbying agency for Wall Street speculators, bailout-seeking bankers and defense contractors like his own Halliburton.

Cheney’s everything Tea Party activists say they are fighting against.

So what’s the former vice president up to?

The same self-serving gaming of the process in which the man who arranged his own nomination as George W. Bush’s running mate has always engaged.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Asked about Ted Cruz, Cheney declined to criticize the Texas senator who steered the party off the charts when it comes to disapproval among the great mass of voters.

That’s because Cheney doesn’t at this point have any interest in the great mass of American voters. He’s interested in the handful of Wyoming Republican primary voters who will decide the fate of daughter Liz Cheney’s challenge to Republican Senator Mike Enzi.

Enzi is a steady conservative whose only “sin” was to get in the way of Cheney-family ambition. But he is in the way, so Dick Cheney is quite willing to remake himself as the Tea Party’s ardent defender in order to aid Liz Cheney’s campaign.

Indeed, instead of ripping Cruz—as he would have done in his former days as a White House chief of staff, GOP congressional leader, secretary of defense and vice president—Cheney now compares Cruz with daughter Liz.

“I think [Cruz] represents the thinking of an awful lot of people obviously in Texas,” says Dick Cheney. “But my own daughter is running for U.S. Senate in Wyoming partly motivated by the concern that Washington is not working, the system is breaking down and it’s time for new leadership.”

Shameless? Well, yes.

But that’s how Dick Cheney rolls.

The Republican Party is just a vehicle.

The state of Wyoming is just a political playground.

What matters to Cheney is the Cheney brand. And if he has to attach a Tea Party label in order to advance it, why Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney is more than willing to oblige.

John Nichols is the author of Dick: The Man Who Is President and The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney (The New Press).

Tom Tomorrow deconstructs Tea Party logic.

Beware of Paul Ryan’s Lose-a-Battle, Win-a-War Strategy


Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans got nothing—except some historic disapproval numbers and a lot of internal backbiting—from the whole shutdown showdown.

But there are different Republicans, with different intentions, and not all of them were frowning as the week of their party’s public shame came to a conclusion.

It is certainly true that Texas Senator Ted Cruz has become a political punch line—the Canadian-born Republican whom Democrats would most like to see the Grand Old Party nominate for president. House Speaker John Boehner’s name is likely to enter the lexicon as an antonym for “leadership.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is going to be spending an inordinate amount of time discussing the term “Kentucky kickback.” And it may even be dawning on the Tea Partisans that the whole “defund Obamacare” gambit was a charade.

The real point of the exercise in chaos that the country was just dragged through was the chaos itself.

And the beneficiary of it all is the Republican who has suddenly stepped back into the limelight after laying low through most of the shutdown: House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

Fully aware that the American people have no taste for a “grand bargain” that might see the implementation of at least some of his Ayn Rand–inspired “survival-of-the-fittest” proposals for means-testing earned-benefit programs, for taking the first steps toward privatization of Social Security, for turning Medicare and Medicaid into voucher programs, Ryan has for years been looking for an opening that makes his proposals seem “necessary.”

The 2012 election, when he was his party’s “big ideas” guy, and its nominee for vice president, confirmed that there was no electoral route to advance his agenda. Americans rejected Ryan, overwhelmingly. He could not even carry his home state for the Romney-Ryan ticket, which was defeated by a 5 million popular-vote margin and a 332-206 Electoral College blowout. Ryan knew that it would take more to get his opening. And the crisis of the past several weeks in Washington provided it.

Some analysts were surprised when Ryan voted against the deal to temporarily end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. They shouldn’t have been. While it’s true that Ryan—an enthusiastic backer of the 2008 bank bailout—is a reliable vote for the agenda of the Wall Street speculators who fund his campaigns, he wasn’t going against his political patrons when he joined 143 other House Republicans in voting “no.” Rather, the Budget Committee chairman—who just reported raising more than $1 million in fresh campaign funds in the third quarter of 2013—was voting to strengthen his own hand as he steps into the ring for the next stage of an inside-the-Beltway fight that is far from finished.

The deal that ended the shutdown set up a high-stakes conference committee on budget issues. If there is to be a “grand bargain,” this is where it will be generated. And Ryan—the most prominent of the fourteen Democrats, fourteen Republicans and two independents on the committee—is in the thick of it.

The Budget Committee chairman says it would be “premature to get into exactly how we’re going to” sort out budget issues.

But no one should have any doubts about the hard bargain he will drive for. In the midst of the shutdown, Ryan jumped the gun by penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed that proposed: “Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code…”

“Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started,” Ryan wrote. “We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and cut costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.”

Translation: Get ready for the radical reshaping of Medicare so that it is no longer a universal program. Make way for more price-gouging by the private companies that sell supplemental insurance. Launch a new assault on public employees who have already been hit with wage freezes and furloughs.

And Ryan will not stop there.

He never does.

That’s why the Democrats on the conference committee—led by Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington—must be exceptionally wary.

“Chairman Ryan knows I’m not going to vote for his budget, and I know he’s not going to vote for mine,” says Murray. “We’re going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on and that’s our goal.”

The thing to remember that Ryan is working to get cuts to earned-benefit programs onto that common ground.

Ryan cast his “no” vote on the deal that set up the conference committee in order to begin organizing his troops for a fight that will set up the next shutdown and debt-ceiling struggles. The committee has a deadline of December 13. That makes its report—or the lack of one—the first deadline on a schedule that proceeds toward new continuing resolution and debt-ceiling votes in January and February. That creates tremendous pressure for a deal, and Ryan’s at the ready.

That answer to his supplications must be a firm “No.”

That’s what Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is proposing. Sanders, one of a member of the conference committee says: “it is imperative that this new budget helps us create the millions of jobs we desperately need and does not balance the budget on the backs of working people, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor…”

Sanders’ office notes: “The Senate budget protects Medicare while the House version would end Medicare as we know it by providing coupons for private health insurance. Unlike the House budget, the Senate resolution does not repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would prevent more than 20 million Americans from getting health insurance. The House version would eliminate grants for up to 1 million college students while the Senate plan protects Pell grants. The House version would kick up to 24 million Americans off of Medicaid while the Senate budget would protect their benefits. The Senate budget calls for new revenue while the House version would provide trillions of dollars in tax breaks mainly for the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations offset by increased taxes on the middle class.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Ryan would be more than happy to settle for a “common ground” agreement that opens the way for a little bit of privatization, a little bit of movement toward vouchers, a little bit of means testing, a little bit of an increase in the retirement age. But if he gets that, the big “blink” that everyone was talking about during the shutdown fight will have happened.

If that is where this thing ends, it might not be the Democrats who get the last laugh.

It might yet be a Republican named Paul Ryan.

Chris Christie Gets What He Wanted: Very Little Democracy


(Licensed through Wikimedia Creative Commons. Photo Courtesy of Bob Jagendorf.)

Chris Christie is no friend of democracy.

The scheme that the New Jersey governor implemented with regard to Wednesday’s New Jersey special election to fill the US Senate seat that went vacant with the death of veteran US Senator Frank Lautenberg was designed to achieve the a very low level of voter turnout.

And to provide Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, with a very high level of political cover.

It worked for Christie.

But it certainly did not work for New Jersey, or for the premise that broad voter participation ought to underpin representative government.

Here is how Christie gamed the political process:

1. He scheduled the Senate election for October 16, twenty days before New Jersey’s regularly scheduled statewide and local elections. That cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in additional expenses and created unnecessary confusion. Why? Christie did not want to have a high-profile Senate contest on the ballot the same day that he would be seeking re-election. He feared that parallel scheduling would have brought more Democrats to the polls—to vote for the expected Democratic Senate nominee, Newark Mayor Cory Booker—and that those Democrats might have then voted for his challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono.

2. He scheduled the election for a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday. It’s bad enough that the United States holds elections on work days, rather than weekends. But it is even worse when elections are scheduled on different work days than is normally the case.

3. When New Jersey legislators sought to address the confusion, with a plan to schedule parallel elections, Christie refused to work with them, vetoed their plan and accused good-government advocates of trying to create “unnecessary voter confusion.”

That was an absurd claim.

Christie created the confusion. Indeed, he created so much confusion that the Republican National Committee—Christie’s own party machine—distributed an election-week message urging voters to go to the polls on the wrong day: Tuesday, October 15, rather than Wednesday, October 16.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

When the votes were counted Wednesday night, Booker won the seat with relative ease; his margin was a comfortable 55-45 over Republican Steve Lonegan.

Lonegan was a Tea Party favorite and, at a moment of intense division in New Jersey and nationally, he took stances in stark contrast to those of Booker.

The choice was clear.

Yet, as Politico noted, “turnout was low: About 1.2 million votes had been cast by 10:30 p.m., in a state of almost 5.5 million registered voters.”

That means that Booker will go to the US Senate with the voting-booth endorsement of only a small fraction of the New Jersey electorate.

Booker would, undoubtedly, have won in a higher-turnout election—presumably by an even wider margin.

What Christie’s manipulation of the process guaranteed was that Booker would go to the Senate with the slimmest possible mandate. And the governor engaged in that manipulation with the self-serving purpose of assuring that Booker voters would not threaten Christie’s November re-election run.

That’s an atrocious abuse of the political process.

No one should forget what Chris Christie did to empower himself and to disempower everyone else.

New Jersey voters should remember in November—it won’t be hard, the general election is less than three weeks off.

And voters beyond New Jersey, who might encounter Christie as a 2016 presidential candidate, should also remember. A politician who is so willing to disregard democracy in order to advance his own ambition deserves to be greeted with skepticism by Republicans and Democrats.

John Nichols discusses Christie's stance on marriage equality.

Judge Who Framed Voter ID Laws As Constitutional Says He Got It Wrong


(Reuters)

When the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago issued a critical 2007 ruling defending the constitutionality of voter ID laws, Judge Richard Posner authored the decision.

The arguments Judge Posner made for upholding Indiana’s voter ID law framed some of the essential underpinnings for the 2008 determination of the US Supreme Court—in the case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board—that has since served as a justification for the enactment of ever harsher laws in states across the country.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “a total of 34 states have passed voter ID laws of some kind.” Not all of those laws have been implemented, with a number of them facing court challenges.

With the status of voting issues protections complicated by the Supreme Court’s June 2013, decision to invalidate key sections of the Voting Rights Act, the wrangling over voter ID laws in states such as North Carolina and Texas has only become more legally complex and confusing.

So it should count for something that Judge Posner now says that he was mistaken in his 2007 decision.

Indeed, the judge’s rethink ought to inspire a national rethink—about not just voter ID laws but the broader issue of voter rights.

In his new book, Reflections on Judging, Judge Posner writes, “I plead guilty to having written the majority opinion (affirmed by the Supreme Court) upholding Indiana’s requirement that prospective voters prove their identity with a photo ID—a law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than fraud prevention.”

Judge Posner, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, is not stopping there.

In an interview with HuffPost Live, Mike Sacks asked: “Do you think that the court got this one wrong?”

“Yes,” replied Judge Posner. “Absolutely. And the problem is that there hadn’t been that much activity with voter identification…. [The Seventh Circuit judges] weren’t really given strong indications that requiring additional voter identification would actually disfranchise people [who are] entitled to vote.”

Posner continued:

“There was a dissenting judge, Judge [Terence] Evans, since deceased, and I think he [was] right. But at the time I thought what we were doing was right. It is interesting that the majority opinion [from the Supreme Court] was written by Justice [John Paul] Stevens, who is very liberal, more liberal than I was or am…. But I think we did not have enough information. And of course it illustrates the basic problem that I emphasize in book. We judges and lawyers, we don’t know enough about the subject matters that we regulate, right? And that if the lawyers had provided us with a lot of information about the abuse of voter identification laws, this case would have been decided differently.”

Judge Posner should have paid closer attention to the detailed amicus brief filed in 2006 by the Brennan Center for Justice, which explained how the Indiana law threatened to “exclude many eligible voters from participating in our democratic process.”

But the jurist, one of the most prominent on the federal bench, has now come around.

Judge Posner is making a bigger point about the challenges judges face in making determinations about complex and controversial concerns.

That broader point is certainly worthy of discussion.

But the specific point Judge Posner is making about voter ID laws ought not be lost on Americans as state legislatures and courts continue to wrestle with voting rights issues.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Because voter ID requirements have been widely criticized as weighing more heavily of specific classes of voters—people of color, students, low-income voters, the elderly—legitimate concerns have been raised about equal protection and a host of other constitutional concerns.

The Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling has been used to defend voter ID laws as constitutionally credible.

Now, the judge whose decision helped to shape that decision says he was wrong.

The case against voter ID laws has always been compelling. voter ID laws respresent “solutions” in search of a “problem” that the Brennan Center describes as a “myth.” They are unduly burdensome and threatening to democratic participation by substantial portions of the nations voting-age population; the American Civil Liberties Union explains that “more than 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo identification; a disproportionate number of these Americans are low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, and elderly.” And where voter ID requirements involve costs for those seeking, Attorney General Eric Holder has said: “We call those poll taxes.”

But as solid as the case against voter ID laws has always been, Judge Posner’s admission of error should—at least for honest observers—make that case a good deal stronger.

Ari Berman discusses “separate and unequal” voting conditions in Arizona and Kansas.

Shutdown Politics: Support for Democratic Takeover of House Spikes


John Boehner (AP Photo)

The numbers that matter in Washington are not the ones tossed around in discussions of debt ceilings or continuing resolutions.

The numbers that matter are found in the polls of public reaction to the ongoing government shutdown, and to the prospect that a bad circumstance could grow dramatically worse with the undermining of the “full faith and credit” of the federal government.

Those poll numbers explain why there has been at least some movement on the part of House Republicans—who engineered the shutdown as part of a scheme to derail implementation of the Affordable Care Act—to back down from their most hardline positions.

The latest data from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal is devastating for the GOP.

Fifty-three percent of Americans surveyed blame the GOP for the shutdown, while just 31 percent blame President Obama. Overall, approval ratings for the president are far better than those for the Republicans, and approval of the Affordable Care Act has spiked since the standoff began.

To the extent that this is a blame game, the Republicans are shouldering the burden. Indeed, their circumstance is far worse than in the shutdown of the mid-1990s. Then, only 44 percent of Americans blamed the Gingrich-led Republicans, while 33 percent blamed then-President Bill Clinton.

But this isn’t merely a blame game.

This is politics. And politics is a competition for power.

So the numbers that really matter are those that suggest there might have been some truth in the July 2013, observation by Congressman Tom Cole, the savvy senior Republican from Oklahoma, that “the only way Republicans will lose the House is to shut down the government or default on the debt.”

To wit:

Forty-seven percent of Americans surveyed for NBC now say they would like to see Democrats take charge of the US House of Representatives.

A mere 39 percent want the Republicans to retain control.

Some recent surveys suggest an even greater swing, with a Quinnipiac University National Poll putting Democrats up nine points.

In the fresh NBC poll, the lean toward the Democrats has increased five points over the past month, as the shutdown fight has evolved. In other words, as this fight has progressed, the Democratic position has improved at a rate of better than one percentage point per week. In politics, that’s a dramatic shift.

Make no mistake, Democrats need just such a shift to even begin talking about taking back control of the US House that they lost in 2010.

To achieve a majority in 2014, Democrats do not just need to win, they need to win big.

The political dynamic in the current House is defined by a combination of gerrymandering, a skewed first-past-the-post election system and big money influence. That dynamic favors the Republicans. Indeed, in 2012, Democrats won 1.7 million more votes than Republicans in House races across the country, yet the Republicans finished the election with a reasonably comfortable 234-201 majority. (With current vacancies, the split is now 232 Republican to 200 Democrats.)

To take the House in 2014—an off-year election where Republicans (as the opposition party to a president who is in his second term) begin not just with structural advantage but with what is traditionally seen as the political upper hand—Democrats would need a substantial shift.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The Democrats had a 48.3 to 46.9 advantage in 2012. But because most districts are skewed to favor the Republicans, the Democrats moved from 193 seats after the 2010 election to 201 seats after the 2012 election.

Since the district lines will remain essentially the same in 2014 as they were in 2012, Democrats must win not just the handful of districts that favored President Obama while sending a Republican to the House. They need to be competitive in districts that leaned Republican in 2012. That’s unlikely if they merely maintain the 1.4-percent advantage the party gained in 2012. But it could happen if the Democratic advantage moves dramatically upward.

There is a long time between now and the 2014 election. A lot can change. But if the Democrats could reap just half the advantage they now have in the NBC polling—for a 3.5 percent margin over the Republicans in next year’s House races—that would begin to put the most marginal Republican House races in play. And that, despite the extreme impact of gerrymandering, increases the sense of vulnerability among Republicans in more competitive districts.

Those Republicans are starting to feel the heat.

And if the numbers keep moving in the Democratic direction, those Republicans will begin—despite all the pressures from the Tea Party and its wealthy benefactors, despite the very real threat of primary challenges—to start angling for negotiations and compromise. They won’t make a “do-the-right-thing” argument. They will make a necessity argument based on a prospect that did not exist a few weeks ago, that a majority carefully constructed through meticulous gerrymandering might not hold in the face of broad revulsion at obstruction and extremism.

John Nichols calls the Ryan plan to end the budget showdown a “Shock Doctrine” fix.

Syndicate content