Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.
Earlier this month, The Nation partnered with Know Your IX, a national survivor-run campaign to fight campus sexual violence. Together we called on Congress to give the Department of Education the tools to hold colleges accountable for their treatment of sexual assault. This morning, a group of senators introduced a bill that would do just that.
Title IX is famous for its impact on women’s sports, but the law also requires schools to protect students from gender-based violence. Our campaign asked Congress to give the DOE the authority to impose fines on schools that violate students’ Title IX rights by not protecting them from sexual violence. The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights has never once sanctioned a school for sexual assault-related violations. Part of the reason is that the current option at their disposal, the full removal of federal funds, is too onerous. Senator McCaskill called it an “idle threat” that is “like having no penalty.”
Between the petition hosted at The Nation and another at Change.org, we collected over 11,000 names in favor of the change. Along with lending their support to the campaign, many shared their stories with us, and the reasons they were demanding reform. A number of supporters said they lacked faith in institutions’ treatment of victims; one woman wrote, “My daughter was raped going down to the ladies room at night while studying in the campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She never even told me until years later. She thought no one would do anything about it.” Another commented, “I graduated college in 1983. This was an issue then. Why has nothing been done in thirty-one years?”
Called the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, the bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators that included Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill and Republicans Marco Rubio and Dean Heller. Wagatwe Wanjuki, a member of Know Your IX, spoke at the press conference, as did other survivors and advocates. In addition to fines, the bill would require schools to make public the results of annual anonymous surveys on sexual assault on their campuses, ensure minimum training standards for staff handling sexual assault complaints and require colleges to implement uniform procedures for handling complaints, forbidding them from allowing subgroups, such as athletic departments, to handle accusations for their group alone.
Members of Know Your IX see the legislation as an important step forward in holding colleges accountable for their treatment of sexual assault. “We’re glad to see this bipartisan effort, rooted in students’ experiences on the ground and their recommendations, moving forward,” they said. “It’s a promising step toward building campuses that are safe for students of all genders.”
In his interview with Ian Masters, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen discusses the dangerous tensions between Washington and Moscow. Unlike other regional conflicts, Cohen states that the violence in Ukraine “is global…and the destiny of our children and grandchildren is playing out.” Cohen also critiques the Obama administrations lack of statesmanship and diplomacy: “This is [Obama’s] defining moment. This is what Roosevelt called his rendezvous with destiny and [Obama] seems to flee [his] destiny.” As the Washington hawks continue to take incremental action, Cohen asserts that we’re in the “worst American-Russian crisis since the Cuban missile confrontation.”
I’m in the hospital as I write this, getting ready to be cut open for some kind of intestinal surgery. I feel stressed, a little scared, yet given the news in the world, oddly grateful. I’m grateful that this clean facility, and its overworked but exceptionally kind staff, is not in the process of being bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
It is a sick sign of our times that human beings throughout the world cannot take for granted the concept that your hospital will not have a bullseye on its roof, but this is exactly where President Benjamin Netanyahu has dragged us. He is not the first, and he will not be the last, to take this tactic as a legitimate means of war. But defending these actions by saying, “George W. Bush has done it!” or “Assad does it, too!” is only an argument the morally bankrupt could possibly make.
No part of Israel’s war on Gaza—or any war—is more unconscionable than the targeting of hospitals. The shelling of institutions where people go to heal not only adds to the spiraling body count, it also creates mortality figures that will never ever be uttered by Wolf Blitzer, as the sick, the dying and the pregnant find themselves imperiled by Netanyahu’s slaughter. The reports from the UN about the effects in Gaza on pregnant women makes one wonder when fetuses became enemy combatants—their mothers, human shields.
Then there is Al-Wafa hospital, the only facility equipped to handle brain and spinal injuries in Gaza, which is now a “smoldering ruin.” According to Jonathan Miller of NBC News, in a devastating report, patients had to be evacuated from the hospital and carried to the center of Gaza City in blankets.
As of this writing, Al Shifa hospital, the most well-equipped in Gaza, has been under bombardment. Israel is arguing that Hamas has bombed their own hospital. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC News, who witnessed the shelling, reported otherwise, although the story from NBC has changed repeatedly without explanation.
This is yet another example of Netanyahu’s—as he speaks of his war on Gaza being one of “civilization vs. barbarism”—violating Geneva protocols.
As Allison Deger summed up in her searing report on Al-Wafa hospital,
According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) hospitals are protected sites. Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also states: ‘The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit…acts harmful to the enemy.’ The Geneva Convention also requires ‘a reasonable time limit,” for allowing an evacuation. If a hospital is used to launch weapons, under IHL it can only be targeted when there is an imminent strike originating from the location. Even storing caches of weapons do not meet international law’s stringent threshold for firing on humanitarian sites.
As for Al-Wafa, there were no weapons, no rockets. Just doctors, nurses and patients. Just teenagers, like Aya, paralyzed with a tumor on her spine, being transported with makeshift gurneys into an open space. Just bodies. Just civilians increasingly seen as legitimate targets by the IDF.
One final point. I write this from a hospital bed in the middle of the night, with help from a bedside lamp and extension cord attached to my computer. In other words, I have electricity.
The main power plant of Gaza has been bombed, plunging the city into darkness. CNN reported that this was either an accident of the IDF or Hamas took out their own power. (If Wolf Blitzer said Hamas was killing Israeli unicorns with the key to eternal life at this point, no one in Atlanta would blink.) Fox News was more blunt, saying that Israel was “striking at symbols of Hamas’s power.” How the media spin this is irrelevant to the pressing fact that it has imperiled every health facility for a place with a population three times the size of Washington, DC. I have a lot of worries right now, but the absence of electricity is not one of them. Nothing exposes the lies underpinning Netanyahu’s battle for “civilization” quite like this kind of savagery. Nothing feels more illustrative of the horrors Israel has unleashed quite like feeling privileged that my hospital isn’t under lethal attack from the skies.
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The person who served you lunch today may be going hungry. Surveys of restaurant workers in the Bay Area and New York City show that after spending long days sating the appetites of customers, they return home to empty pantries and struggle to pay for groceries. Nearly one in three restaurant workers suffers from “food insecurity”—meaning they regularly have trouble obtaining adequate nourishment, usually because they can’t afford it.
The study, published by Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) (in collaboration with Food Chain Workers Alliance and Food First), shows that while the prevalence of food insecurity in the food-service workforce is paradoxical, it is built into the capitalist food chain.
Among the surveyed workers—representing a cross-section of cooks, servers, bussers and other low-wage workers in two cities with thriving dining scenes—workers of color were more likely to be food insecure than their white counterparts. Two in three undocumented workers experienced food insecurity. The problem is especially widespread among tipped workers, like servers. Those jobs are mostly done by women, many of them single mothers raising kids in poverty.
Even restaurants that touted their green credentials—marketing themselves as organic or sustainable—did not seem to pay enough to sustain the basic needs of their workers: “Bay Area restaurant workers who served organic or sustainable ingredients were 22 percent more likely to be food insecure, compared to other Bay Area restaurant workers after controlling for demographic characteristics.”
One server surveyed, ROC-NY member Carolina Portillo, described the class dynamics of an industry built on the extremes of indulgence and deprivation: “It’s sad that when you work in a restaurant, most of the servers are starving.”
Even when they’re not actually starving, food-insecure workers struggle for sustenance. One in five of those surveyed relied on government food assistance. About the same percentage depended on restaurant food, typically because they did not have the time or money to eat homemade meals. What looks like a perk smacks of desperation. In New York, about half of those surveyed said the group meal provided by the restaurant was not nutritious. Most of them also said they “wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables than they presently did.” In other words, their jobs kept them from having the food choices that their patrons freely enjoy on the menu.
Martin Sanchez, a New York City busser and ROC-NY member, explained for the study why he ate on the job: “Even though I work in a restaurant and handle food for a living, it’s a struggle to feed myself and provide for my wife and five children…. at the last place I worked, they would serve us junk: cheap, fried food and sometimes expired food. They never let us eat the kind of food that’s popular with our customers like salmon or quinoa salads.”
Though gourmet bistros illustrate the most striking inequities, material deprivation runs through the metabolism of the entire food system. Across all food labor sectors, including farming, processing, and service, those who work with food have trouble feeding themselves; they experience twice the rate of “very low to marginal” food security, 30 percent, of the overall US workforce.
Food labor has been deeply exploited since the days of chattel slavery, and it became industrialized at the turn of the century with the squalid drudgery of urban slaughterhouses. So today’s line cooks and waitresses face brutal conditions, and they in turn make up a big chunk of the working poor who are priced out of eating well.
ROC-NY’s study points to how working conditions are linked to risk of food insecurity. Only about 2 percent of restaurant workers are unionized, and employers regularly short workers on overtime pay and discriminate against women and workers of color in their hiring and promotion decisions. Workers are regularly denied the healthcare benefits and safety protections that are essential not only to their dignity but to public health in the restaurant industry. The federal “subminimum” wage for tipped workers has remained stagnant for two decades, at $2.13 an hour—a regulatory quirk that leaves many workers essentially living on tips.
Workers often struggle with food insecurity when forced to work erratic shifts or a nonstandard schedule. The volatility in their earnings from week to week can place a healthy family lifestyle out of reach. When she works a double shift waiting tables, a single mom will find it near impossible to even see her children, much less go shopping for and cook a nutritious family meal at home.
Conversely, the survey reveals that workers are less likely to suffer from food insecurity if they have stable jobs and paid leave benefits, access to job training for career advancement and access to union representation.
By organizing workers at higher-end restaurants serving affluent clientele, ROC has run effective and media-genic workplace-justice campaigns. The group uses a blend of direct-action tactics, public outreach to educate consumers about the workforce, litigation and negotiation to win better wages and working conditions.
ROC-NY also runs a “High Road” restaurateur program, in which employers voluntarily sign onto a code of ethics promising a certain level of wages, benefits and the ability to organize.
For those employers who don’t voluntarily treat workers decently, ROC-NY and other economic justice organizations are pushing for federal legislation to provide for family and medical leave insurance for all workers, as well as raising the minimum wage for both standard wage workers and tipped workers. Some state and local lawmakers have moved ahead with paid sick days legislation; San Diego, California, and Eugene, Oregon, have recently joined seven other cities (Portland, New York City, Newark and Jersey City, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC) and Connecticut in establishing paid sick days policies. Efforts are underway to pass and federal-state level family-leave insurance , which allows for longer leave times from work financed through an insurance fund.
ROC-NY also calls on policymakers to strengthen enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws and wage and hour regulations that are already on the books, and to protect workers’ universal right to organize without fear of retaliation from their bosses.
The restaurant industry lobby is one of the most powerful in the country, and it has campaigned fiercely to block federal and local minimum wage legislation, claiming that broadening labor protections for cooks and servers would harm small businesses.
But for the one in three restaurant workers who don’t earn enough to put food on the table, who go to bed hungry so their kids can eat—they’re part of the dining experience as well. When restaurant customers indulge their appetites by starving workers and their families of basic dignity, the industry is cannibalizing its own moral fiber.
Over a decade has passed since the United States began its "Global War on Terror," a campaign of dragnet surveillance, mass incarceration, drone attacks on individuals overseas and numerous other actions, many illegal according to domestic and international law. These policies are all deemed necessary, of course, for the sake of national security.
The United States has always been known as a “nation of immigrants,” a destination for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses to pursue the so-called American dream. But it has been repeatedly consumed by fear of the other. From the Native Americans to late nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants to the Central Americans crossing the Southern border today, there has been a longstanding aversion to and even hatred of ethnic and racial minorities.
It was precisely this fear that led to the relocation of 112,000 Japanese living on the West Coast—at least 70,000 of which were American citizens—to military detention centers during the Second World War. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated that thousands of people be rounded up, solely because of their race.
In the June 6, 1942, issue of The Nation, Charles Iglehart—a former missionary in Japan—wrote about his visit to one of the camps:
Iglehart focused specifically on the government’s failure, in the evacuation orders, to distinguish between first-generation Japanese immigrants and their American-born children. This raises important questions about who can claim “Americanness” in a time of mass hysteria.
Ultimately, Iglehart concluded that, moral questions to one side, “even as a war measure evacuation was unnecessary.”
While disapproving, Iglehart’s piece—like much of The Nation’s coverage of internment at the time—was not nearly as critical of Roosevelt’s order as it could have been.
After taking a look at some of the reporting of the time, I wonder whether the country has learned from past mistakes—or has the romanticization of American history allowed the resurgence of discriminatory practices in more recent episodes of crisis? Not fifty years after the disaster that was Japanese internment, another minority group became the target of mass surveillance during the first Gulf War.
In the February 4, 1991, issue of The Nation, longtime contributor (and Maryland State Senator) Jamin B. Raskin wrote: “I wish the F.B.I agents placing phone calls to Arab-Americans would stroll over to the National Museum of American History in Washington and visit the exhibit on the Japanese internment.” He considered the historical parallels:
Unfortunately, “deference to the military’s power” all too well explains why in 2014 it is no longer hard to determine whether the Supreme Court would recognize such a policy as unconstitutional. There are still 149 “high-profile” individuals detained in the extrajudicial prison at Guantánamo Bay.
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At 12:30 pm today, a few dozen people laid down in the street at the intersection of 43rd Street and Second Avenue, stopping traffic from reaching the 42nd Street block housing the Israeli Consulate. Around them, a hundred or so people chanted from the sidewalks for the end of the occupation and the slaughter in Gaza. The writer Norman Finkelstein, a fierce critic of both Israel and of the BDS movement, had called the protest the day before. “A lot of people feel that going to a demonstration every three days doesn’t rise to the occasion, the immensity of the horror,” he told me. He noted that the Israeli bombing of Gaza is now in its twenty-first day, “which means it’s one day short of Cast Lead,” the assault on Gaza that began at the end of 2008. And there is no sign that this war is going to stop anytime soon.
The action didn’t last long. After issuing a few warnings for the demonstrators to move, the police swooped in, handcuffing people and carrying those who let their bodies go limp. Traffic was stopped for, at most, twenty minutes. Still, it didn’t seem like a futile effort, because this is a moment when it’s particularly important to break through the illusion, which pervades our politics, that American support for Israel and its war in Gaza is unshakable.
Already, there are anecdotal signs that conventional New York opinion, which tends to be liberal on everything except Palestine, is starting to shift. “If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them,” wrote Benjamin Wallace-Wells in a piece on New York magazine’s website last week, a sentiment that would have been hard to imagine coming from that publication a few years ago. Today, the magazine’s DC columnist Jonathan Chait, an occasionally hawkish veteran of The New Republic, has a post titled, “Why I Have Become Less Pro-Israel.” According to a recent CNN poll, while a majority of Americans continue to support Israel, 38 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the country, up fourteen points since February.
I don’t want to overstate this—after all, 10,000 people showed up at a pro-Israel rally in front of the United Nations yesterday. Even there, however, there were a couple of people with signs, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, mourning the dead in Gaza. “To the older woman who kept following me with her own ‘Stand with Israel’ sign to block my own sign and yelling out loud—look at the traitor—he’s a mamzer—a bastard—I turned and said, calmly—my father is a Holocaust Survivor, please respect him if not me,” wrote the rabbinical student Amichai Lau-Lavie. “To which she replied—he should have died there. There were other obscene and racist statements that I won’t describe.” People like this woman, obviously, are not reachable. But others might be. What’s happening is simply so brutal and inexcusable that it makes the rote rationalizations of Israel’s apologists sound ever more risible.
So it’s important for people who feel, intuitively, that there is something deeply wrong happening in Gaza to see others fighting for that conviction. Among those who were taken into custody today was Corey Robin, a Jewish professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Robin is a longtime critic of Israel, but he’d never before been arrested over it. “I finally felt like I had to do something,” he said a few moments before lying down in the street. “This is my first time doing this for Palestine. If it’s my first time, it’s going to be somebody else’s first time, if not now, then another time.
Over the past two weeks, on the heels of an announced extension to nuclear talks with Iran, Republicans in the Senate introduced two measures that could erect obstacles in reaching and implementing a final agreement with the Islamic Republic. One of the efforts, led by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, would mandate congressional approval before a nuclear deal could be struck. Another, spearheaded by the Senate’s most ferocious Iran hawk, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, would strip President Barack Obama of his ability to waive Iran sanctions—something the president might need to do in order to hold up the American end of the bargain and give Iran relief.
What’s most notable about these efforts, however, is their distinctly Republican nature. Both are co-sponsored by a bevy of GOP hawks, with no Democrats having yet signed on. (As of press time, the Corker bill has nine Republican co-sponsors and the Kirk bill has eight.)
This portends a further shift along the lines of what Eli Clifton and I discussed in our recent Nation feature on how hawkish groups influence the Hill: with diplomacy advancing as far as it has under Obama, the stakes were suddenly raised and Democrats became skittish about being seen as in opposition to one of their own president’s biggest foreign policy initiatives. As we wrote, some sixteen Democrats signed onto a sanctions measure introduced this winter—S. 1881, co-sponsored by Senators Kirk, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—but failed to generate more Democratic support after its initial introduction (whereas a number of additional Republicans signed on). In the end, many of the Democrats jumped ship when the party’s leadership, the White House and constituents pressured them.
From the perspective of opponents of diplomacy—and make no mistake that these new bills are sponsored by opponents of diplomacy—this is bad news. And they know it: when the Democrats, including Menendez, an original co-sponsor, backed off on holding an immediate vote on S. 1881, the influential pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tapped the brakes, too. “[S]topping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and there should not be a vote at this time on the measure,” the group said in a statement.
Whatever Democrats AIPAC is able to wrangle to support measures like Kirk’s and Corker’s will simply act as fig leafs for what is in fact an increasingly partisan fight over Iran policy. To understand this dynamic, one needs only look at the anti-diplomacy lobby Eli and I outlined in our piece and the funders highlighted in a sidebar: the three billionaires against diplomacy—Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus and Sheldon Adelson—are all heavyweight Republican donors. (Adelson, for one, has said that the United States should use a nuclear weapon against Iran instead of negotiating with it.)
It’s not a coincidence that those three are also, according to the most recent comprehensive numbers, the three top donors to the Foundation of Defense Democracies (FDD), an influential and hawkish Iran-focused think-tank that Eli and I discussed at length in our report. Though FDD works with some of the most hawkish Democrats on the Hill, GOP connections abound: its president, Cliff May, was a communications director with the Republican National Committee and edited the party’s official magazine before launching FDD. The GOP bent became clear in 2008, when an FDD offshoot, the now defunct defenseofdemocracies.org, launched political attack ads against fifteen Democrats, precipitating the resignations of major Democrats on the group’s board.
With the Democratic leadership aligning in favor of diplomacy, hawkish members of the partly like Menendez are likely to only become more isolated and, should they persist, could end up working on overwhelming Republican initiatives. That could help insulate the Obama administration from criticisms over negotiating with Iran and legislative efforts that have potential to block a deal. It wouldn’t be surprising, in other words, to learn that the White House was secretly supportive of Republicans—and Republicans alone—taking up efforts to kill diplomacy.
Election seasons are supposed to provide an opportunity for sitting officials to explain their records, and for challengers to question them. And when a top official is facing intense scrutiny based on recent revelations—as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is in the aftermath of reports regarding his administration’s handling of a corruption inquiry—the need for election season accountability is that much greater.
So it only makes sense that Cuomo should accept the debate challenge posed by his Democratic primary foe, Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.
Cuomo took a hard hit when The New York Times reported on July 23 that a high-powered commission he established to root out corruption “was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.” That followed an earlier report in the New York Daily News that “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission killed a subpoena to the state Democratic Party that he controls.”
Cuomo says it is “false” to suggest that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption had its independence “trumped” by his aides. But the Daily News says, “Cuomo insisted Monday that the commission operated independently—a rather stunning statement, given his past gyrations.” And the Times says, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran for office four years ago promising first and foremost to clean up Albany. Not only has he not done that, but now he is looking as bad as the forces he likes to attack.”
No matter how hard Cuomo and his allies may try to defuse the issue, it’s going to stick with him through this election year. And the governor will only make things worse for himself if he is seen as avoiding public forums for addressing the issues that have arisen.
That’s one of the reasons Cuomo should accept Teachout’s proposal for at least three debates before the September 9 Democratic primary.
Teachout lacks Cuomo’s name identification and campaign treasury. But she is a uniquely credible challenger in this race, and for this debate. As the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, which has been in the forefront of advocacy for increased transparency and accountability government and politics, she’s an actual expert on corruption issues—and on how to address them. She has written widely on, spoken about and debated issues of money in politics at the local, state and national levels for years. And she has earned national acclaim as a lawyer, an academic and an author on numerous books, including the upcoming Corruption in America, which will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.
And Teachout has made a uniquely credible case for why debates are needed.
“The Cuomo administration’s handling of the Moreland Commission distills what plagues our democracy: a special class of insiders in Albany, connected through financial and political clout, have immunized themselves from the law,” she says. “Governor Cuomo has taken this corruption and elevated it to new levels.”
The governor would, undoubtedly, disagree with that assessment, as he would with Teachout’s argument that “[t]he corruption in our Government is threatening the very basis of our democracy. Albany is working for big money, instead of the people of the state.”
But when a credible challenger, with background and expertise on a central issue, makes such a charge, that is precisely the point at which an incumbent officeholder should be expected to respond.
What makes Teachout’s invitation even more worthy of a response is the fact that she makes it not as a partisan who has always been at odds with Cuomo but as someone who once backed the governor. “I supported Andrew Cuomo in 2010 because I believed he would follow through on his promises to clean up Albany. In his campaign booklet of 2010, Andrew Cuomo said that State government was plagued by scandal,” says Teachout. “I believed him when he said, ‘In many cases the dysfunction has metastasized into corruption that would make Boss Tweed blush.’ I believed him when he said we must restore honor and integrity to Government.”
Now, argues the challenger, Cuomo has become an example of what he said he would address. “Shutting down your own anti-corruption commission when it gets too close to power,” explains Teachout, “ is something that would make Boss Tweed blush.”
Incumbents and front-runners don’t like to debate primary challengers.
But primary debates have a great history in New York Democratic politics. When Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch were running against each other for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, they debated close to a dozen times—taking their sometimes intense discourse to every corner of the state. Mario Cuomo won the primary and the governorship.
Twenty years later, when Andrew Cuomo first bid for New York’s governorship in 2002, he participated in a series of debates with his Democratic primary foe, State Comptroller Carl McCall. Cuomo lost that year, but he came back eight years later. In 2010, he secured the Democratic nod without a serious fight, but Cuomo willingly participated in a wild fall debate that included not just Republican nominee Carl Paladino but five candidates representing smaller parties. (Primary and general election debates should include all the candidates who have qualified for the ballot.) Stressing his determination to root out fraud, abuse and corruption, Cuomo was generally seen as having won the debate—as he did the ensuing election.
Debates are good for democracy. But they are not merely exercises in civil duty. Debates allow for the airing of complex issues of personal and political integrity that can never be adequately addressed in thirty-second attack ads on television.
A debate -- preferably, multiple debates -- before the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New York would allow capable candidates an opportunity to wrestle not just with questions about the Moreland Commission and money in politics but with a range of pressing issues.
Teachout wants debates on education, immigration and hydrofracking.
“But,” she adds, well aware of the turn New York’s 2014 campaign has taken, “all three would end up in a debate about corruption.”
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You never know what might happen when a bunch of Republican governors get together to discuss policy and politics. Well, actually you do kinda know: that they’ll make asses out of themselves, and at great length. So it was with some trepidation and some glee that your faithful Christie Watchers took a look at the discussion at the Aspen Institute bringing together five GOP governors: Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Scott of Florida, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Two of them, Christie and Walker, are potential GOP candidates in 2016, and Haley might be positioning herself as a vice presidential candidate.
What’s interesting about the discussion is that not a single one of the five panelists tried to pick up on anything that has emerged so far from the hubbub over “reform conservatism” (see Part I, Part II and Part III of Christie Watch’s recent examination of the reformicons) and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s recent, errant foray into poverty and “opportunity,” even though the moderator asked the panel specifically about Ryan’s proposal. Maybe it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but it sure looks like the Republican party hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s supposed to be “kinder and gentler” (as George H.W. Bush might say) or more “compassionately conservative” (as George W. Bush might say). It’s still your grandfather’s GOP.
Brownback went first, asked about Ryan’s ideas, and he launched into a long defense of his own program in Kansas, which centered on austerity, tax cuts and other GOP touchstones. Brownback, running for re-election, and about to get a visit from Christie, put into place a wide range of cuts after the GOP solidified its majority in Kansas, but oops!—as Rick Perry might say—it all backfired, causing huge economic problems in the Sunflower State and leading more than a hundred Republican moderates to endorse Brownback’s Democratic opponent. But none of that stopped the ultra-right Brownback from claiming that Ryan is trying to lead the “pro-growth wing of the party”—“you’ve got to cut taxes in a way that creates growth”—raising his hand and saying with a goofy grin, “I’m in that wing of the party!” No, governor, you’re not. You’re in the wing of the party that even your fellow Kansas Republicans say wrecked your state. When the panel’s moderator noted that Brownback’s policy had led to a $300 million shortfall, Brownback’s response was: “We cut taxes in order to put that money back into private business.” For good measure, Brownback attacked the “vast-left wing conspiracy” for its criticism of his efforts to dismantle Kansas’ entire public sector. But the moderator persisted, saying that Kansas’ employment is lagging behind its neighbors, and that growth is slow, asking Brownback if he planned any adjustments. “I don’t see it,” said Brownback.
Walker went next. He is, of course, the governor who provoked a statewide revolt, mass demonstrations by union members and others, and an impeachment-style recall election over his brutal assault on state workers. Walker, too, like Paul Ryan’s plan. “We’re ahead of the curve,” he bragged. Well, yes, if the curve involves triggering statewide protests unprecedented in recent American history. And Walker essentially argued that he’s making Wisconsin job-friendly, and investment-friendly, by driving down wages. Which, of course, makes Wisconsin the would-be “China” of American states.
Next came Rick Scott, the much-reviled governor of Florida who used to run a gigantic, nationwide hospital system, then called Columbia/HCA, which paid $1.7 billion in what was then the biggest fine in US history for bilking Medicare out of billions of dollars. Scott, too, bragged about vast tax cuts. “We’ve cut taxes every year,” said Scott. “It actually works really well.” And if you’re in the 1 percent, it does. Higher taxes, Scott said, drive people to leave the state—the bogus argument made against New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio over his proposed tax hikes on the rich. He was followed by Haley, who slammed “both Republicans and Democrats” in Congress for the gridlock in Washington—except for Paul Ryan, of course. She described South Carolina’s recent efforts to undermine the state’s welfare program.
Then came Christie. “First off, I agree with everything that’s been said by my four colleagues,” he said. Now, the problem that Christie has is that the can’t tout New Jersey’s economic progress, because there is none—and that’s a terrible selling point for a presidential candidate. Things are a mess in New Jersey, and thanks to Christie its public pension system is spiraling downwards once again, caused by his proposed cuts on pension spending, even as the state’s bond ratings have been continually downgraded by bond agencies. Thus, as The Wall Street Journal’s Heather Haddon reports, in a piece entitled “New Jersey’s Weak Economy Opens Christie Up to Political Attacks on the Road,” Christie is under fire across the country even from Republicans over New Jersey’s poor economic performance. Reports the Journal:
The state’s bond rating is among the worst in the nation. More than 8% of the state’s home loans are in foreclosure, according to a May report by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Job growth has lagged behind neighboring states, even as Mr. Christie has pushed aggressive tax and business incentives. And after catapulting to national renown in 2011 by promising to fix his state’s pension system, the governor said earlier this spring he would forgo about $2.4 billion in promised payments over two years, citing a weak economy. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the state’s debt twice, rating it as the country’s second lowest, after Illinois’s. More downgrades could be on the horizon, said Baye Larsen, the firm’s lead New Jersey analyst, citing the state’s weighty pension obligations and slower growth.
The discussion veered off into education policy—and Christie Watch will report more extensively on Christie’s education policy, including attacks on teachers and support for Wall Street–backed charter schools later this week—the panel moved on to healthcare. The moderator, to his credit, noted that in all five states represented by the panelists there were no state-run health insurance exchanges, under the terms of the hated Affordable Care Act, which in turn might jeopardize Medicaid in those states. Scott noted proudly that he “built a large hospital company” (that would be the crooked one that paid that $1.7 billion fine for wrongdoing), adding, “Obamacare is a disaster”—and then actually had the nerve to say that “Medicare Advantage is being raided,” which is ironic, at least, coming from someone who’s own firm gleefully “raided” Medicare to the tune of billions of dollars in overbilling.
No, thank you, said Scott, Florida won’t be setting up any insurance exchanges. Added Walker, “We’ve gotta repeal it.”
Near the end of the session, in response to a Republican questioner who said he was tired of Republicans being too extreme on social issues, Christie—who began by saying that he’s “pro-life”—delivered a long riff on how the GOP ought not to change any of its positions on social issues but can win simply by presenting its views differently and pretending to be “listening” to people who disagree: “I don’t think we’re being pounded because of the social issues. We’re getting pounded because of the way we present ourselves. People want folks who are authentic and who believe what they say is true, but also are willing to be tolerant and listen to others’ points of view. You’ll get some folks who’ll say that if you’re willing to listen that somehow you’re weak on your own principles. That’s absolutely garbage. I have plenty of people in my state who vote for me who have significantly different opinions than mine on some of these issues.… The reason is that they think I’m listening to them.… We’ve lost for a whole bunch of reasons over the last two cycles, and I think that the social issues is an absolutely minor one. Some folks will say that we lose the women’s vote because of that. Well I got 56 percent of the women’s vote and I didn’t change my positions one iota. Did they forget? No. They made a holistic evaluation.”
When it comes to moments in history, 1973 was not exactly a banner year for the Republican Party. The Senate Watergate Committee began its televised hearings in May. Spiro Agnew resigned in October. And President Nixon used a pre-Thanksgiving news conference at Disney World to unconvincingly assure the country that he was not, in fact, a crook. A tough year, indeed, for the grand old party.
But if you were a corporate conglomerate who dreamed of lower taxes and lax regulations and lesser rights for workers, 1973 was, ironically enough, a well-spring of new opportunity. That’s when a group of conservative activists joined together to engineer a different kind of burglary—one that involved forcibly entering cities and states with the intent to loot their working and middle classes.
The mechanism? A new organization dubbed the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The idea? Don’t just lobby state and city governments; write the actual laws you want them to pass and then hand it out as model legislation. In the decades since its inception, ALEC has dismantled environmental regulations, pushed for school vouchers, compromised public safety by backing “stand your ground” laws and crippled unions with right-to-work legislation.
ALEC remains the ubiquitous conservative puppet-master; its fingerprints and that of its most well-known supporters (the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, AT&T, etc.) can be found all over right-wing legislation that has made its way through the state and local legislative process. To understand the magnitude of its influence, consider that of the more than 100 bills introduced between 2011 and 2013 to repeal or weaken minimum wage laws, sixty-seven of them related back to ALEC. And in 2009, 115 of ALEC’s 826 model bills were enacted into law.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
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