Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
“We will not accept cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,” declared US Senator Bernie Sanders Monday night, at The Nation Institute dinner where the independent senator from Vermont was cheered for his absolute defense of programs that he argues must not be sacrificed to the austerity demands of those who would toss working American off the “fiscal cliff.”
That Sanders is a hero to progressives, like those who gathered Monday night in New York for the annual event, is no secret.
But what is the Sanders secret?
How does an independent senator, who refuses to accept the false constructs of the Republican right and its media echo chamber, who calls out compromising Democrats, and who rejects the centrist fantasies of so many pundits, keep winning elections by overwhelming margins? And what can progressives learn from his political success—and aggressive progressivism—as they engage in the fiscal-cliff fight, prepare for the coming Congress and set the stage for the elections of 2014 and 2016?
To begin with, Sanders does not accept conventional wisdom, and he does not play by conventional political rules.
The narratives spun by political and media elites throughout the 2012 election campaign were all about money and television buys, polls and personalities. Both major parties focused on a narrow set of issues, and an even narrower set of appeals directed to a conventional wisdom that imagined Americans wanted only drab variations on the moderate themes sounded by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their last debate. But in Vermont, the most refreshingly unconventional politician in America was coasting toward re-election with a campaign that broke all the rules.
Sanders ran no attack ads. In fact, he ran no TV commercials. He finished the campaign still speaking in full sentences, not soundbites; still inviting voters to ask complicated questions on controversial issues—and still answering with big, bold proposals to address climate change, really reform healthcare with a single-payer “Medicare for All” program, steer money away from the Pentagon and toward domestic jobs initiatives, and counter the threat of plutocracy posed by Citizens United by amending the Constitution. Rejecting the empty partisanship of the pre-election frenzy, Sanders was ripping the austerity agenda of Romney and Paul Ryan, while warning that Obama and too many Democrats were inclining toward an austerity-lite “grand bargain” that would make debt reduction a greater priority than saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Despite breaking all “the rules, Sanders, who was honored Monday night by The Nation Institute, won—big. The senator took 71 percent of the vote versus just 25 percent for his closest rival, Republican John MacGovern, a businessman and four-term Massachusetts state legislator who promised to replace “the only admitted socialist in the US Senate.” Sanders won among women and men, across income and education categories, and in every region—even carrying the corners of the state that backed Romney. “I go crazy with all these Democrats saying you have to go conservative to win, you have to go cautious to win. These damned consultants come in and say, ‘This is how you have to run,’ and it’s always the same: raise money, spend it on television, don’t say anything that will offend anyone. And the Democrats do it and then they end up in tight races, worried about whether they’ll make it,” says Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats but rarely takes advice from anyone in Washington. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why progressives listen to consultants. Building movements, making progress on progressive issues— you have to talk to people, educate people, organize people.”
So Sanders took the money he raised for his re-election campaign and put it into an energetic door-knocking project that began long before other candidates were running TV ads. The point wasn’t to build name recognition; through forty years of losing and then winning elections, Sanders has been to virtually every town in the state. At the roughly 20,000 doors knocked on by the legions of Sanders volunteers during this campaign, the “ask” was for a lot more than votes. Vermonters were urged to come out and spend a few hours—yes, a few hours—with Sanders at their town halls. “We’ve organized meetings in towns of 300, and more than 100 people show up. They stay into the evening, talking about saving post offices and getting people dental care and bringing troops home from Afghanistan.”
Sanders bristles when pundits who don’t know Vermont dismiss his approach to campaigning as a regional deviation that might work in what is often portrayed as a quirky liberal state that couldn’t possibly have relevance for the rest of the country. “It wasn’t that long ago that Vermont was one of the most Republican states in the country. Until two years ago, the governor was a Republican; the lieutenant governor is a Republican. This is a significantly rural state. This is a state with some very conservative regions.” Yet, Sanders won by wide margins even in areas where Democrats run poorly. Why? Because the senator does not waste money on TV commercials designed to scare or fool voters into backing him. Rather, he goes where voters live. Personal Democracy Media co-founder and editorial director Micah Sifry, who has followed Sanders and Vermont politics for years, recalls: “Visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters] was one of the ways that Sanders managed to earn the trust of the predominantly conservative and working-class Northeast Kingdom section of Vermont, which regularly gives Sanders, a self-declared socialist, its hearty support.”
If national Democrats did the same, Sanders suggests, there could be many more progressive Democrats representing rural states. He gets furious at the “swing-state strategies” that target a few competitive states and districts while neglecting the long-term work of building support in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” areas.
As the 2012 race took shape, there was plenty of discussion about the prospect that the Vermonter would become a target of Karl Rove and the right-wing money machine. After all, says the senator, “There’s nobody Wall Street likes less.” Former Republican Governor Jim Douglas weighed the race seriously before deciding not to run. “ Why didn’t they think they could come in and shout ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ and take me out?” asks Sanders. “I think they realized they can’t roll over someone who has built real connections with people, not with thirty-second ads but by holding town meetings, by using newsletters to talk about economic issues, by taking their side when the big fights come.”
That last piece of the equation is what worries Sanders most. He thought Obama and the Democrats ran far too cautious a campaign this fall. “Why, in God’s name, in a tight race, did Barack Obama have a hard time saying six words: ‘I will never cut Social Security’? Why won’t these Democrats say: ‘We will never cut Social Security’?” wonders Sanders. “If they can’t say that, how are they ever going to go after Wall Street?” The American people have answers to those questions, he says: “They think it has a lot to do with where campaign money comes from.” Since the election, Sanders has been cheered by the fact that Obama and the Democrats have been firm in their defenses of Social Security during the initial “fiscal cliff” negotiations. But he still worries that the bargaining could threaten Medicare and Medicare. If Democrats compromise, Sanders says, a lot of voters will believe they were unduly influenced by the money power. In the Citizens United era, the senator thinks Democrats, even (perhaps especially) progressive Democrats, need to get better at winning elections without relying on big money and the cookie-cutter strategies of campaign consultants. It’s a lesson they could learn from Bernie Sanders.
This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the November 19, 2012 edition of The Nation.
Outside Congress, citizens are protesting the same cuts being pushed by austerity hawks. Check out Allison Kilkenny’s coverage here.
Frank Zeidler would be delighted.
The last Socialist Party leader of a major American city, Zeider died in 2006 at the age of 93. But, to the end, the man who served three terms as the “red mayor” of Milwaukee always believed that it was only a matter of time before America began to renew its interest in socialism.
It seems that Zeidler was right.
A new Gallup Poll finds that socialism is now viewed positively by 39 percent of Americans, up from 36 percent in 2010. Among self-described liberals, socialism enjoyed a 62 percent positive rating, while 53 percent of Democrats and independent voters who lean Democratic gave socialism a thumb’s up.
Needless to say, this provoked the predictable fine whine of right-wing media. The conservative Washington Times newspaper declared: “Yes, Democrats, liberals favor socialism.” The Business Insider website announced: “Everything Republicans Fear About Democrats Is True.” William F. Buckley’s old magazine, National Review, allowed as how there is “much that is peculiar, and much that is worrying” about the new polling data.
That reactionary Republicans get a little hysterical at the mention of the word “socialism” is not news. But the reaction to their reaction is. No two groups of Americans talk so much about socialism in so many public settings these days as Republican candidates and conservative commentators. And this appears to be influencing the discourse.
Indeed, it is fair to say that nothing has done more to promote the cause of socialism than the ranting and raving of Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It’s not just that the right has spread the word about socialism, raising the ideology’s profile to levels rarely experienced in recent decades—if ever—and associating the ideology with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, President Obama and a lot of other programs and people that Americans actually like. The fact that so many agitated, angry and—at least in some cases—politically toxic characters go apoplectic at the mere mention of the ideology has undoubtedly caused millions of Americans who don’t know much about socialism to say to themselves, “Anything that Paul Ryan does not like must have some merit.”
But I have to agree with the National Review assessment that the Gallup survey information “is worrying”—at least for conservatives. The most significant increases in sympathy for socialism over the past two years—since the last time Gallup polled on economic and ideological terms such as “socialism” and “capitalism”—have been among self-identified “conservatives” and “Republicans.”
In 2010, only 20 percent of conservatives viewed socialism favorably. Today, the number is 25 percent. That’s right: one-quarter of American conservatives view socialism favorably.
Among Republicans, the increase has been slightly more notable. In 2010, only 17 percent of self-identified Republicans had a positive view of socialism. Now, that number had increased to 23 percent. So if you meet four Republicans, one of them is harboring socialist sentiments.
Socialism has deep America roots—going back to when Tom Paine used his final pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, to outline a social-democratic model for establishing a just and equitable society. Socialist communes and political movements flourished in the United States during the first decades of the republic’s history, and the advocates for those movements found a home in the radical experiment that came to be known as the “Republican” Party.
Founded at Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854 by utopian socialists and militant abolitionists, the early Republican Party included many German-American immigrants who arrived in the United States after the European revolutions that stirred in 1848 were repressed. The man who issued the call for that meeting in Ripon, and who is to this day frequently identified as a founding figure for the Republican Party, was Alvan Earle Bovay, a veteran radical who had led militant movements for land reform that urged the poor to organize politically and “Vote Yourself a Farm.”
Among the first Republicans were many allies and associates of socialist causes, and even of Karl Marx. Among their number was Joseph Weydemeyer, a former Prussian Army officer who would continue to correspond with Marx as he rose through the ranks as a military officer during the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln, like most of the leading Republicans of his day had read Marx and Engels in the pages of the Horace Greeley’s New York Herald Tribune (for which the two men wrote for many years as European correspondents). The sixteenth president spoke often about the superiority of labor to capital and was highly critical of concentrated wealth. Toward the end of the Civil War, the White House accepted the congratulations of Marx and his fellow London Communists after Lincoln’s 1864 re-election.
Lincoln was no Marxist. But, like a good many of the initial leaders of the Republican Party, he had been exposed to the ideas of Marx and Engels in the Tribune. In fact, Lincoln chose as one of his closest White House aides (and eventually as his assistant secretary of war) Charles Dana, Marx’s long-time editor. Famously, Dana once declared, “Everyone now is more or less a Socialist.”
In fairness, that’s not the case today.
There are still substantial numbers of Americans who do not view socialism positively, just as there are substantial numbers who do not view capitalism positively. But Americans are less inclined to be troubled by mentions of socialism, or by socialist and social democratic ideas today than in the past—just as Americans are less inclined (according to a recent CNN poll) to be unsettled by the mention of libertarianism, or by libertarian and libertarian-lite ideas. This is healthy. A republic is best served by differing ideas and ideals with regard to economic and social arrangements.
There will always be reactionaries like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan who try to make ideas scary. But when one in four Republicans have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” it is pretty clear that the reactionaries are not doing any better in framing the economic and intellectual debate than they did on Election Day.
And, yes, that would have made Frank Zeidler, who was at once a great believer in socialism and a believer in the American experiment, a very happy man.
John Nichols is the author of The “S” Word:A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism (Verso).
What would a new American economy look like? Find out here.
This is the right place for Bowles, who has long maintained a mutual-admiration society with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. The former Clinton White House chief of staff has always been in the corporate conservative camp when it comes to debates about preserving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
It’s good that he and Boehner have found one another. Let the Republicans advocate for the cuts proposed by Bowles and his former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, his Republican co-conductor on the train wreck that produced the so-called “Simpson-Bowles” deficit reduction plan.
After all, despite the media hype, Simposon-Bowles has always been a non-starter with the American people.
Last summer, at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, so many nice things were said about the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that had been chaired by former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, a Republican, and Bowles that it was hard to understand why they were implemented. Paul Ryan went so far as to condemn President Obama for “doing nothing” to implement the Simpson-Bowles plan—only to have it noted that Ryan rejected the recommendations of the commission.
But, while a lot of politicians in both parties say a lot of nice things about the austerity program proposed by Simpson-Bowles, there is a reason why there was no rush before the election to embrace the blueprint for cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid while imposing substantial new tax burdens on the middle class.
It’s a loser.
Before the November 6 election, Simpson and Bowles went out of their way to highlight the candidacies of politicians who supported their approach—New Hampshire Republican Congressman Charlie Bass, Rhode Island Republican US House candidate Brendan Doherty, Nebraska Democratic US Senate candidate Bob Kerrey. Bipartisan endorsements were made, statements were issued, headlines were grabbed and…
The Simpson-Bowles candidates all lost.
Americans are smart enough to recognize that Simpson-Bowles would stall growth. And they share the entirely rational view of economists like Paul Krugman.
“Simpson-Bowles is terrible,” argues Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner for his economic scholarship. “It mucks around with taxes, but is obsessed with lowering marginal rates despite a complete absence of evidence that this is important. It offers nothing on Medicare that isn’t already in the Affordable Care Act. And it raises the Social Security retirement age because life expectancy has risen—completely ignoring the fact that life expectancy has only gone up for the well-off and well-educated, while stagnating or even declining among the people who need the program most.”
On election night, Peter D. Hart Research Associates surveyed Americans with regard to key proposals from the commission. The reaction was uniformly negative.
By a 73-18 margin, those polled said that protecting Medicare and Social Security from benefit cuts is more important than bringing down the deficit.
By a 62-33 margin, the voters who were surveyed said that making the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes is more important than reducing tax rates across the board (62 percent to 33 percent).
But that’s just the beginning of an outline of opposition to the Simpson-Bowles approach.
* 84 percent of those surveyed oppose reducing Social Security benefits;
* 68 percent oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age;
* 69 percent oppose reductions in Medicaid benefits;
* 64 percent support addressing the deficit by increasing taxes on the rich—with more than half of those surveyed favoring the end of the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,000.
Americans want a strong government that responds to human needs:
* 88 percent support allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies to lower costs;
• 70 percent favor continuing extended federal unemployment insurance;
• 64 percent support providing federal government funding to local governments;
•72 percent say that corporations and wealthy individuals have too much influence on the political system.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka is right. On November 6, “The American people sent a clear message.”
With their votes, with their responses to exit polls, with every signal they could send, the voters refused to buy the “fix” that Erskine Bowles is selling.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
"If you haven't got men who have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose..."
—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939
The filibuster should not be eliminated.
It should be restored.
This is the great takeaway from the muddled debate over how to restore a measure of functionality to the US Senate.
For the past four years the Senate has made a mockery of the concept of majority rule. Though Democrats have held a clear majority in the chamber, they have been blocked at almost every turn by Republicans who have used what is referred to as the "filibuster" to prevent consideration of legislation, nominations and just about everything else the President Obama and the Democrats dare to propose.
But the Republicans have not used the filibuster as Americans recognize it.
Rather they have used a filibuster fantasy to impose the will of the minority on the majority.
The filibuster has no constitutional or statutory grounding. It is established and defined by Senate rules.
Historically, the filibuster existed as a protection against the silencing of the minority. Under the rules of the Senate, a member or group of members who did not have the votes to prevent approval of a piece of legislation could demand to be heard in opposition. Ideally, the traditional theory went, this avenue of dissent could prevent a rush to judgment.
But, in recent years, the filibuster has not been used to raise voices of dissent. Instead, it has been used to block votes on critical pieces of legislation, to make it harder for the president to advance even the most popular proposals and to undermine the basic premises of the principle of advice and consent.
What to do? Bring back the filibuster as it has historically been understood.
This appears to be what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is preparing to propose. Noting that there have been 386 Republican-led filibusters during his almost six years as majority leader, Reid said Monday: “We can’t continue like this.”
Speaking of the Republicans, the Democratic leader says, “They have made it an almost impossible task to get things done."
Reid, whose incoming caucus is larger and more supportive of filibuster reform than the one he led in the last Senate, has the option of asking senators to set new rules at the opening of the coming session. And indications are that he is preparing to do just that, seeking an end to the secretive and unaccountable abuses of the filibuster on motions to proceed. This would allow the Senate to take up legislation or nominations. At the same time, Reid is said to be seriously considering a requirement that senators appear on the floor of the Senate and argue their positions—as senators used to do, and as Americans saw Jimmy Stewart do in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What Reid is considering is not an attack on the filibuster. It is a renewal of the filibuster as it was portrayed in the classic 1939 film. Senators would still be free to go to the floor to keep debates about major bills and nominations open. They could launch filibusters to prevent the end of debate on a matter of consequence. They could use filibusters to block a final vote on a piece of legislation.
That’s the way to understand filibuster reform.
No one is seriously discussing doing away with filibusters.
The talk is of making them real.
Senator Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who has long championed reform of the Senate's abusive and abused rules, speaks highly of filibusters. He just wants to make them real. “The public believes that filibustering senators have to hold the floor. Indeed, the public perceives the filibuster as an act of principled public courage and sacrifice. Let's make it so,” says Merkley, who proposes to “require a specific number of Senators—I suggest five for the first 24 hours, 10 for the second 24 hours, and 20 thereafter—to be on the floor to sustain the filibuster. This would be required even during quorum calls. At any point, a member could call for a count of the senators on the floor who stand in opposition to the regular order, and if the count falls below the required level, the regular order prevails and a majority vote is held.”
Reid has expressed sympathy for Merkley’s modest proposal, and it is drawing support from many current and incoming senators, including Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren. In addition to Merkley and Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who in 2010 conducted the closest thing the Senate has seen in recent years to an actual filibuster, has been an increasingly vocal advocate for making charnges that would restore real debate to the chamber.
Of course, Republicans are screaming, as their ability to effectively define the direction of the Senate, despite their minority standing, is threatened. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is decrying even the most minor reform as a “naked power grab” that would “poison” relations in a Senate where relations are not exactly good.
McConnell and his allies are even threatening to derail “fiscal cliff” negotiations if any move is made to renew the filibuster as it was historically employed.
But the frustration among members of the Democratic majority is such that some action now seems not just necessary but likely.
“We cannot allow the Senate to be dysfunctional by the use of filibusters,” says Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who has emerged as a leading proponent of filibuster reform. “We’ve had over 300 filibusters in the last six years — it’s unprecedented. What we’re talking about is very basic — you want to start a filibuster, you want to stop the business of the Senate, by goodness’ sake, park your fanny on the floor of the Senate and speak. If you want to go to dinner and go home over the weekend, be prepared, the Senate is moving forward.”
Forward, yes. But, also, backward—to the days when senators who wanted to filibuster had every right to do so in public. But no right to block action with behind-the-scenes maneuvers and rank obstructionism.
For more Beltway battles, check out George Zornick's coverage of the fight for a stronger Securities and Exchange Commission.
Joe Scarborough asks in his latest comment on the politics of the fiscal cliff: “Mandate? What mandate?”
The former Republican congressman turned able MSNBC host poses the question in order to examine whether rational Republicans might feel “bound by the same mandate Barack Obama presumes he owns” on tax issues.
Did Barack Obama win the minimal mandate that would be required to raise marginal tax rates on the very rich to 39.6 percent? That’s a minor initiative, as the 39.6 percent rate would simply return the United States to the level ofd taxation for the wealthy that was in place when the economy was a good deal more vibrant than it has been since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney made the political—not economic—decision to slash the rate.
The answer to the question is clear if we put the 2012 results into any sort of perspective.
As the November 6 election approached, there was a general sense that the race was very close, and that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney could win. Even as the results came in, there was a tendency on the part of commentators to suggest that the numbers showed, in the words of former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, “pretty close to a tie.” Even a week after the voting was done, the failed Republican nominee for vice president was claiming that the finish was “very close.”
But it was not close.
America counts ballots slowly. Our inefficient electoral systems—starved of resources, deliberately disorganized and little noted once a winner is declared based on exit polls and early returns—keep plodding along through November. Millions of ballots have been counted since Karl Rove was melting down on Fox’s election evening fiasco.
Those votes have expanded Obama’s total, and his margin over Romney is now dramatically broader than it was on election night or the following morning—when most of the “analysis” of Obama’s win was done.
Today, with many ballots still to be counted, Obama popular-vote total has risen to 65,061,993, and his total continues to grow. He has already received more votes than were ever cast for an incumbent president seeking re-election and the second-highest total ever cast for a presidential candidate (behind only his 2008 total).
That means that Obama leads Romney by more than 4.5 million votes nationally, for a 50.90 percent to 47.37 percent margin. The margin is likely to grow over the next several weeks. But, already, Romney had fallen below the 47.5 level, meaning that his finish is now rounded to 47 percent.
Yes, Mitt Romney, the candidate of the 47 percent.
But that could change. Before the count is finished, he could fall below 47 percent.
Obama’s popular vote margin is dramatically larger than John Kennedy’s in 1960, Richard Nixon’s in 1968, Jimmy Carter’s in 1976 or George W. Bush’s in 2000 (when he actually lost the popular vote) and 2004 (when he claimed a mandate).
Obama has won the 2012 election with a higher percentage of the vote than twenty-two presidents secured in their elections or re-elections.
Using figures from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, Obama’s percentage of the popular vote is higher than that accorded George W. Bush in either of his elections, higher than Bill Clinton’s in 1992 or 1996 and higher than Ronald Reagan’s in 1980.
Yes, let’s repeat that last fact: Barack Obama did not just receive a higher raw vote total than Reagan—as is to be expected with an expanding electorate. Barack Obama has earned a higher percentage of the vote than Reagan—50.90 for Obama this year to 50.75 for Reagan in 1980.
Add on the fact that Obama will win the Electoral College by 332-206, an overwhelming margin, and that he carried all but one of the swing states identified by both parties, and that his party picked up two seats in the Senate and that it continues to displace Tea Party Republicans (such as Florida’s Allen West) in the House, and the question of whether Obama won the minimal mandate to tinker with tax rates for the very wealthy should be settled.
Yes, if George Bush had any kind of mandate in 2004, if Bill Clinton had any kind of mandate in 1996, if Ronald Reagan had any kind of mandate in 1980, then Barack Obama has some kind of mandate in 2012. And anyone who paid attention to the messages of the 2012 campaign—from Obama’s explicit declarations that he would ask the rich to “pay a little bit more” to Romney and Ryan’s “makers versus takers” meme—knows that a referendum was held on whether to hike taxes for millionaires and billionaires. And a lot more voters said “yes” than said “no.”
The final popular vote numbers are just now coming in, thanks to states like Arizona that took over two weeks to count ballots. Find out why, here.
Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned from Congress with a poignant note of acceptance after a personal journey that took a heartbreaking turn.
“For seventeen years I have given 100 percent of my time, energy, and life to public service,” Jackson wrote in a letter delivered on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday. “However, over the past several months, as my health has deteriorated, my ability to serve the constituents of my district has continued to diminish. Against the recommendations of my doctors, I had hoped and tried to return to Washington and continue working on the issues that matter most of the people of the Second District. I know now that will not be possible.”
Jackson pulled few punches. The congressman, who has been receiving inpatient treatment for bipolar disorder, acknowledged not just the health challenges he has faced but a deeply embarrassing federal investigation into the misdirection of campaign funds. “I am aware of the ongoing federal investigation into my activities and I am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes,” he wrote, “for they are my mistakes and mine alone.”
In an era when so many political figures refuse to take any responsibility for their actions, it is notable that Jackson chose to exit with an acknowledgement of his own fallibility.
Yes, mistakes were made and there is no point in trying to diminish them. It is appropriate to recognize that Jackson’s reputation has been tarnished, and that he faces a long struggle to resolve the personal and legal troubles that have derailed his congressional career. But as someone who covered Jackson throughout his seventeen years in the House, I also recognize that focusing merely on the missteps that have ended his career obscures the full story of this man and his service.
Through the vast majority of his time in Washington, Jesse Jackson Jr. was an accomplished and valuable member of the House—a progressive representative, yes, but more than that. He was an all-too-rare congressional champion who went beyond the call of duty in struggles for peace and economic and social justice.
From the moment the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson was elected to the House in a 1995 special election, he began compiling one of the most independent and reform-oriented records in the chamber. Jackson clashed not just with the economic royalists on the right but with Democrats who chose to compromise with the forces of reaction, militarism and austerity. This consistency cost him politically; it was tougher for him to raise money and to attain the powerful positions that are apportioned to those who compromise with the unconscionable.
Jackson voted against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq. But he did more than that. He signed on for the lawsuit, filed by constitutional lawyer John Bonifaz, which argued that Bush could not take the country to war without a full declaration from Congress. As the full extent of the wrongdoing that led the United States into that unjustified war was revealed, Jackson demanded accountability for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. “Our democratic system is grounded in the principle of checks and balances,” he said.“ When the Executive Branch disregards the will of the people, our lawmakers must not be silent.”
Jackson voted against the Patriot Act. But he did more than that. He joined then-Congressman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, to promote legislation to exempt libraries and bookstores from having to comply with unwarranted federal demands for the reading lists of citizens.
Jackson condemned the US Supreme Court intervention in the case of Bush v. Gore, which shut down the Florida recount and handed the presidency to George Bush. But he did more than that. One year after the 2000 election, when most Democrats were frightened to say anything negative about Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Jackson stood in front of the Supreme Court to challenge the legitimacy of the decision that made Bush president and to say, “The disputes in Florida and other states showed us that we need one national standard for voting and one national standard for counting votes. But they also reminded us that there are more basic reforms that are needed.… Even though the right to vote is the supreme right in a democracy, the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore told Americans there is no explicit fundamental right to suffrage in the Constitution.” And he proposed to amend the Constitution to establish that right, along with a right to have every vote counted in a verifiable manner.
Jackson condemned George W. Bush's free-trade agenda. But he did more than that. He opposed free-trade deals promoted by former President Clinton and by President Obama. He even broke with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1998 to oppose the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed “NAFTA for Africa” by the business press. Jackson refused to accept the spin from Wall Street and its political echo chamber. He took the counsel of South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unionists who decried the act as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent's workers and resources. Jackson decried the proposal as the “Africa Re-colonization Act,” and argued during the House debate on the issue that, “The AGOA extends short-lived trade 'benefits' for the nations of sub-Sahara Africa. In exchange for these crumbs from globalization's table, the African nations must pay a huge price: adherence to economic policies that serve the interests of foreign creditors, multinational corporations and financial speculators at the expense of the majority of Africans.”
The congressman asked, “Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it—a corporate who's who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights.”
Even as he wrestled with the ailments that would end his House career, Jackson remained the bold and visionary champion he had always been on essential economic issues. While most other Democrats were practicing election-year caution last spring, he was pushing the debate in the direction it needed to head.
Dubbed the “Catching Up To 1968 Act of 2012,” Jackson’s last major initiative was a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. “That may sound like a hefty wage increase, but it doesn't fully equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968—which today would be closer to $11 per hour,” the congressman explained when he introduce the measure in June. “This bill is really only allowing American workers a degree of ‘catch-up.’ Thus the name and theme around the bill: ‘Catching Up To 1968.’”
Jesse Jackson Jr. served his constituents and his conscience through seventeen of the most demanding years in the history of the US House of Representatives. He cast more courageous votes and stood on principle more consistently than the vast majority of his colleagues. His career has ended on a sad note for Jackson, and for those who respected him. But it would be sadder still if we were to neglect the long arc of his service to the republic, a service that bent toward economic and social justice.
To his credit, Barack Obama puts a modestly enlightened spin on his Thanksgiving proclamations. This year’s proclamation recalls that “the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony…enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe—a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before” and notes “the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country.” He even celebrates community organizers, whose “actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.”
For this, the newly re-elected president is dinged by conservative commentators who fret that Obama’s proclamations have not been sufficiently religious in tone. “God is lucky to get a mention or two,” gripes National Review editor Rich Lowry. “What God has lost in prominence in Obama’s statements has been gained by the American Indians, in a bow to multicultural pieties.” Oh those First Americans, always elbowing their way into our history!
Perhaps our conservative friends are worried that Obama’s modest “multicultural pieties” serve as a holiday manifestation of the demographic turning that handed the president an unexpectedly broad mandate on November 6. They needn’t worry. Obama is safely within the bounds of Thanksgiving promulgation. It has been the better part of seventy years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt finished one of his many Thanksgiving proclamations with a thoroughly multicultural call to “let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.”
FDR’s Thanksgiving proclamations were bold and politically adventurous statements. He constantly flavored his proclamations with calls to action and challenges to the economic and political elites with which the nation was wrestling during the Great Depression. “May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors,” read Roosevelt’s first proclamation in 1933. A year later, he declared:
Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality.
More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, “What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.”
By 1935, as Roosevelt’s New Deal was fully engaging, he wrote: “We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself.”
After his landslide re-election in 1936, FDR would encourage Americans “to fulfill our obligation to use our national heritage by common effort for the common good.” He found cause for thanksgiving in the fact of laws and labor organizing that guaranteed “the toiler in shop and mill receives a more just return for his labor.”
To a far greater extent than the presidents who succeeded him, including Obama, Roosevelt used his Thanksgiving proclamations to speak, in moral and spiritual terms, about the ills afflicting the republic—and about the radical remedies he had initiated in response to them.
“Our Nation has gone steadily forward in the application of democratic processes to economic and social problems,” wrote Roosevelt in 1939. “We have faced the specters of business depression, of unemployment, and of widespread agricultural distress, and our positive efforts to alleviate these conditions have met with heartening results. We have also been permitted to see the fruition of measures which we have undertaken in the realms of health, social welfare, and the conservation of resources.”
For Roosevelt, every opportunity to speak of a New Deal was taken. Every teachable moment was utilized. Thanksgiving proclamations were not merely pious repetitions of past histories. They were statements of principle, and celebrations of that deepening sense of social justice.
Obama’s critics are inclined, always, to find something unsettling in his official words and deeds. But by comparison with Roosevelt, the current president’s Thanksgiving proclamations are strikingly measured, in their moral messaging and their “multicultural pieties.”
It is no secret that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would like very much to have his name added to the long shortlist of 2016 Republican presidential contenders. But the nation’s most militant anti-labor politician has suddenly been thrust into the center of a scandal that is likely to dim his national prospects, and that could yet cost him his state post.
Even after major setbacks for Walker’s Republicans in Wisconsin—where Barack Obama easily beat Mitt Romney and progressive Democrat secured the state’s open US Senate seat—the governor was jetting off to California last week to make high-profile appearances at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. And Walker—who came to national prominence in Febreuary 2011 after turning conservative talking pointrs into an anti-labor agenda so militant that it sparked mass protests and a recall campaign—was again performing conservative due diligence last week: refusing to develop a state-run health insurance exchange as part of an ongoing protest against the Affordable Care Act.
But while Walker was piling up presidential points for 2016, a scandal that has plagued him since his election to the governorship in 2010 was taking a dramatic and destructive turn.
At the sentencing hearing for a top Walker aide convicted of felony misconduct in office, the chief prosecutor revealed that when Walker was seeking the governorship in 2010 he was part of an ongoing scheme to use county employees and resources to aid his campaign.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf used the sentencing hearing to detail how Walker and his county and campaign aides “routinely commingled political and official county business”—as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described the way in which “campaign, county work intertwined under Walker.”
Wisconsin media exploded late Monday with reports from inside the courtroom, where Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch was sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation. The sentence did not come as a surprise after a long John Doe inquiry that has seen numerous Walker aides and associates charged with felonies and misdemeanors. But the direct linking of Walker to potentially illegal activities in the county executive office was news.
According to one report:
Prosecutors today said Scott Walker had regular meetings with his Milwaukee County staffers and his 2010 guv campaign to ensure there was “good coordination” between the two.
Milwaukee County prosecutors made the disclosure during the sentencing of Kelly Rindfleisch, a former Walker county aide who reached a plea deal to settle charges against her stemming from the long-running John Doe probe.
Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf said the group that met regularly included people from Walker’s campaign such as campaign manager Keith Gilkes and spokeswoman Jill Bader along with county employees such as chief of staff Tom Nardelli, spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin, administration director Cindy Archer and Rindfleisch, according to email correspondence obtained by investigators.
The revelations caused consternation in the courtroom, Rindfleisch’s lawyer, Frank Gimbel, was nonplussed. After Landgraf’s sixty-five-minute detailing of wrongdoing by Walker and his aides, Gimbel objected that his client was “the only one of those mentioned in the power point who’s facing jail time.”
Described as “raising both hands in exasperation,” Gimbel reportedly grumbled about the irony that “Scott Walker has not been accused of any wrongdoing.”
Landgraf did not say during his powerpoint presentation in the courtroom whether Walker or others would be charged as part of the exteneded John Doe inquiry into official and political corruption. After the sentencing, he refused to answer questions—maintaining the rigid professionalism of that has characterized the John Doe inquiry over the past two years.
But Monday’s presentation, the first to explicitly link Walker to courthouse wrongdoing, shook the state, where Walker survived a recall election only after repeatedly declaring that he was not a target of the John Doe investigation.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Graeme Zielinski says: “It’s clear now that he presided over a criminal culture where county government in Milwaukee became an adjunct of his campaign. The citizens of Wisconsin should be afraid that this criminal culture has been imported to Madison.”
As Walker tries to gin up a presidential campaign, those questions will extend beyond Wisconsin.
That’s not good news for Scott Walker. But it should put a spring in the step of every other Republican who is thinking of running for president.
If Walker’s out of the picture, is it time for Palin 2016? Check out Ben Adler on the conservative pundits pushing for Mama Grizzly’s presidential bid.
Courtesy: Kylie Hennagin/KOMU
What happens when vulture capitalism ruins a great American company?
The vultures blame the workers.
The vultures blame the union.
And vapid media outlets report the lie as “news.”
That’s what’s happening with the meltdown of Hostess Brands Inc.
Americans are being told that they won’t get their Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Hos because the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union ran the company into the ground.
But the union and the 5,600 Hostess workers represented by the union did not create the crisis that led the company’s incompetent managers to announce plans to shutter it.
The BCTGM workers did not ask for more pay.
The BCTGM workers did not ask for more benefits.
The BCTGM workers did not ask for better pensions.
The union and its members had a long history of working with the company to try to keep it viable. They had made wage and benefit concessions to keep the company viable. They adjusted to new technologies, new demands.
They took deep layoffs—20 percent of the workforce—and kept showing up for work even as plants were closed.
They kept working even as the company stopped making payment to their pension fund more than a year ago.
The workers did not squeeze the filling out of Hostess.
Hostess was smashed by vulture capitalists—“a management team that,” in the words of economist Dean Baker, “shows little competence and is rapidly stuffing its pockets at the company’s expense.”
Even as the company struggled, the ten top Hostes executives pocketed increasingly lavish compensation packages. The Hostess CEO who demanded some of the deepest cuts from workers engineered a 300 percent increase in his compensation package.
“Wall Street investors first came onto the scene with Hostess about a decade ago, purchasing the company and then loading it with debt. All the while, its executives talked of investments in new equipment, new research and new delivery trucks, but those improvements never materialized,” explains AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
“Instead, the executives planned to give themselves bonuses and demanded pay cuts and benefit cuts from the workers, who haven’t had a raise in eight years,” said the AFL-CIO head. “In 2011, Hostess earned profits of more than $2.5 billion but ended the year with a loss of $341 million as it struggled to pay the interest on $1 billion in debt. This year, the company sought bankruptcy protection, the second time in eight years. Still, the CEO who brought on the latest bankruptcy got a raise while Hostess demanded that its workers accept a 30 percent pay and benefits cut.”
When BCTGM workers struck Hostess, they did not do so casually.
They were challenging Bain-style abuses by a private-equity group—Ripplewood Holdings—that had proven its incompetence and yet continued to demand more money from the workers.
“When a highly respected financial consultant, hired by Hostess, determined earlier this year that the company’s business plan to exit bankruptcy was guaranteed to fail because it left the company with unsustainable debt levels, our members knew that the massive wage and benefit concessions the company was demanding would go straight to Wall Street investors and not back into the company,” recalled BCTGM president Frank Hunt, who described why the union struck Hostess rather than accept a demand from management for more pay and benefit cuts.
“Our members decided they were not going to take any more abuse from a company they have given so much to for so many years,” Hunt explained. “They decided that they were not going to agree to another round of outrageous wage and benefit cuts and give up their pension only to see yet another management team fail and Wall Street vulture capitalists and ‘restructuring specialists’ walk away with untold millions of dollars.”
On November 6, American voters rejected Mitt Romney and Bain Capitalism.
But that didn’t end the abusive business practices that made Romney rich. They’re still wrecking American companies, like Hostess.
Instead of blaming workers, we should be holding the incompetent managers to account and cheering on any and every effort to rescue Hostess from the clutches of the vulture capitalists.
Hostess isn't the only company squeezing American workers. Check out Josh Eidelson's coverage of the Walmart workers' nationwide strike.
The US Postal Service is in the midst of a manufactured crisis. It is supposedly broke and headed toward a sort of fiscal cliff of its own. If it goes over, the likely result is privatization of its profitable enterprises and elimination of the commitment to universal service that has been the service's promise since the founding of the republic.
But that does not have to happen.
Congress undermined the financial stability of the postal service during a lame-duck session six years ago.
It can repair the damage done during this session.
The task is not difficult.
The lift is not heavy.
It is merely a matter of will.
Friday’s New York Times noted that “the Postal Service on Thursday reported a record $15.9 billion net loss for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, bringing the financially troubled agency another step closer to insolvency.”
That’s the CliffsNotes version of the story. And if people read no further, they’ll think that the USPS is a mess. But it’s not. It’s merely in a financial mess created by Congress.
Two-thirds of the $15.9 billion “loss” involved what the Times referred to as “accounting expenses of $11.1 billion related to two payments that the agency was supposed to make into its future retiree health benefits fund.”
Those accounting expenses were imposed not by necessity but by Congress. And the imposition can be lifted, along with restrictions on the ability of the service to compete.
In 2006, a Republican Congress—acting at the behest of the Bush-Cheney administration—enacted a law that required the postal service to “pre-fund” retiree health benefits seventy-five years into the future. No major private-sector corporation or public-sector agency could do that. It’s an untenable demand.
“[The] Postal Service in the short term should be released from an onerous and unprecedented burden to pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits over a ten-year period,” says US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “With $44 billion now in the fund, the Postal Service inspector general has said that program is already stronger than any other equivalent government or private-sector fund in the country. There already is more than enough in the account to meet all obligations to retirees.”
“The Postal Service should also be allowed to recover more than $13 billion in overpayments it has made to its pension plans,” Sanders explained earlier this year, as the current “crisis” began to take shape. “With these changes alone, the Postal Service would be back in the black and posting profits.”
Sanders and other concerned legislators have gotten the Senate to take some steps toward addressing what is, in reality, a Congressional crisis—not a postal crisis. But the disengaged and dysfunctional Republican leadership in the House has failed to act in an even minimally responsible manner.
The Post Office will need to make changes. It will need to evolve as the ways in which Americans communicate change. But it can and should remain the vital source of community and connection that it has been since the nation’s founding. For that to happen, however, the USPS must be allowed by maintain staffing and infrastructure, to expand services, to operate in a fiscally responsible and fiscally sane manner—not required to default.
And now is the time to act.
The unions that represent postal workers say so.
The unions that represent postal workers say so. National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando correctly notes that, with the rejection of the austerity agenda proposed by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, “The election offers the prospect that the financial problems facing the United States Postal Service can be resolved in a fair and reasonable manner that benefits the public.”
But it’s not just unions that are looking for a postal “fix.” The businesses that rely on the postal service are demanding action. “The Postal Service is facing a fiscal cliff of its own, and any unanticipated drop in mail volumes could send the agency over the edge,” says Art Sackler, who works with the business-led Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which has urged Congress to enact comprehensive postal legislation during its lame-duck session. “If Congress fails to act, there could be postal slowdowns or shutdowns that would have catastrophic consequences for the eight million private-sector workers whose jobs depend on the mail.”
The concerns of small businesses and mailers create an space for President Obama to make a call for congressional action to renew the Postal Service.
Obama should speak up for the Postal Service now, as the lame-duck session gets started. And he and his fellow Democrats should look to build a coalition for its future with rural Republicans.
Yes, those rural Republicans are conservative on a host of issues. But a collapse of the USPS would do the most severe damage to rural regions, particularly in the West.
Is it crazy to imagine such a coalition? Actually, some Western members of Congress who have been harsh critics of the president and the Democrats on other issues are reasonably sympathetic when it comes to the future of post offices. At the second presidential debate, I spent a good deal of time talking with Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz talking about the USPS. We both knew that the issue would not come up in the narrowly constructed debate; but we also recognized that it should be on the agenda.
Chaffetz is one of Obama’s toughest critics, but as the ranking Republican ranking member on the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia, he understands at least some of the absurdity to the demands that have been placed on the postal service. And he is not alone in this regard.
Take a look at the election maps of the United States and you will see a fascinating dynamic: There are dozens of rural counties across the United States that voted for Barack Obama for president and for Republicans in US House and Senate races.
Voters still split tickets. They are not naïve. They know it is hard to get Democrats and Republicans working together these days. But they expect at least a measure of cooperation on issues that are essential to the small towns where they live: like passing a farm bill and saving a postal service.
Advocates for the postal service might even remind some of our “constitutional conservative” friends that the USPS is one of the few American institutions referenced in the founding document.
“Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 of the US Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to establish and ensure operation of the Postal Service…” notes Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. “Congress is presiding over the disestablishment of the Postal Service. Today a manufactured default created by Congressional legislation is pushing the Postal Service to the brink.”
Kucinich is right.
This postal “crisis” was manufactured by Congress.
The same Congress—perhaps with a prod from a president who has a mandate to get things done—can during this lame-duck session manufacture a socially necessary and fiscally responsible repair to the system.
The USPS is not “broke.” It was broken by Congress. And it should be fixed by Congress.
Legislators have created a debt crisis to push through an austerity agenda. Check out Robert Borosage on why “A Grand Bargain on the Fiscal Cliff Could Be a Grand Betrayal.”