Tom Geoghegan, the author whose big-ideas candidacy to fill White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago congressional seat drew broad support from writers and liberal bloggers around the country, finished Tuesday’s primary with the portion that is usually accorded contenders who enter crowded contests late in the game and with modest funding.
But while he may not have prevailed in the weighing of votes, his campaign produced proposals that ought not be counted out.
Geoghegan, a lawyer who contributes to The New York Times, The American Prospect and the Nation and who has written brilliant books on organized labor and engaged citizenship, earned plaudits from fellow writers such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Garry Wills, Naomi Wolf and The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg. But that didn’t get him out of the middle of the 14-candidate Democratic primary field.
In the first special coongressional election of the Obama era, Geoghegan finished far behind the winner, Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, a well-regarded local official who ran on his reputation as a reformer and won the endorsements of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Quigley ran as a mainstream Democrat, suggesting — as did most of the other candidates — that he would work closely with the Obama administration. And he’ll almost certainly have a chance to do so, as winning a Democratic primary in this very Democratic district is tantamount to election.
But mainstream Democratic ideas are not likely to be sufficient in the current circumstance. And if Quigley is wise, he will take at least some of Geoghegan’s big ideas to Washington.
Geoghegan was a different kind of candidate.
He did not read from a set of talking points.
He talked to voters, listened to their fears and hopes, and developed proposals that responded to them. With more time and money, he might well have clawed his way to the front of the pack. But the fact that Geoghegan was defeated as a candidate does not mean that the big bold ideas he advanced should be dismissed.
The most exciting of these ideas was a new New Deal argument that, instead of promising to “save Social Security,” Democrats should supercharge the popular program — providing recipients with a raise and creating a real national pension program.
Specifically, Geoghegan argued:
I want to expand Social Security, our public pension system, to replace, not overnight but in stages, the private pension system which has collapsed. Social Security now pays about 38 to 39 percent of your working income. In other developed countries, it averages 65 percent. That’s where our fiscal stimulus should be: a commitment to reach this goal, a public pension that ordinary working people can live on.
That is not just a smart response to an economic meltdown that has left tens of millions of Americans wondering what they will retire on.
It will, ultimately, turn out to be smart politics. Indeed, when Democrats start to get serious about the current crisis, they are going to have to come up with a plan to provide for the retirements of all those hard-working Americans who believed in the the 401(k) fantasy that was peddled by Wall Street and its media amen corner.
A few more months will probably pass before members of Congress start to admit it, but at some point it is going to be accepted that the 401(k) experiment — a mad gamble on the stock market that offered no promise of retirement security — has failed.
There is not going to be a turnaround — at least not one sweeping enough to guarantee the retirements of millions of Americans who are at or near retirement age.
There is not going to be an uptick — at least not one dramatic enough to erase the consciousness that rolling the dice of the market is neither a sound nor a humane retirement strategy.
There is going to have to be an alternative. And a real national pension plan is the best alternative idea that’s been presented so far.
Geoghegan’s late-starting, low-budget campaign may not have produced enough votes to make him a congressman.
But it produced an idea that those Democrats — and responsible Republicans — who serve in the Congress would do well to embrace.