When the Democratic Party was being remade in the 1980s and early 1990s as the second party of Wall Street, Howard Metzenbaum fought to defend the liberal values of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers with whom he came of age.
Opposing the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council when Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Dick Gephardt were jockeying to lead the corporate-sponsored group, opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement when Clinton and Gore were shoving it down the throat of Congress and the American people, challenging the pro-business biases of Clinton’s judicial nominees, Metzenbaum fought to keep the Democrats on the right side of the great economic and political debates of the era.
Metzenbaum, who has died at age 90, never cut the conservatives a break – be they Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush or Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
As a reporter and editor for The Toledo Blade and then for The Nation – one of his favorite publications – I interviewed Metzenbaum frequently during and after his years in the Senate. We spoke often about the roots of his political faith, which he traced to the Depression years, when he came to revere political leaders like Roosevelt and the radical labor organizers with whom he made common cause on the streets of Cleveland.
Metzenbaum got his start in politics as a Democratic legislator elected on a ticket headed by FDR, and he never abandoned the faith in the New Deal or the labor, farm and community movements with which it aligned. His friend Dick Feagler, a veteran Cleveland political writer, opined that, “He was the last of the ferocious New Deal liberals…”
Metzenbaum embraced that label and everything that went with it – especially the sense of urgency evidenced by those who sought to establish a measure of economic and social justice in the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s first term as president.
Arriving in the Senate in 1974, the man who had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and picketed with striking trade unionists in his native Ohio, remonstrated his colleagues for moving cautiously – and, to his view, far too slowly – to address the recession into which the nation had sunk.
“The people pay a terrible price,” declared Metzenbaum. “No wonder the people are angry — they have a right to be.”
Metzenbaum was serving in a Democratic Senate. But he had no qualms about condemning the leadership of the chamber.
“From his first days in the Senate, Metzenbaum gave notice that he would not be one of the club. He wasn’t trying to win any popularity contests,” explained his hometown paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Good thing. ‘Senator No’ led filibusters, put legislative holds on pet projects of other senators and disrupted business as usual.”
But it was not merely political business that Metzenbaum sought to disrupt.
He believed that senators, especially Democratic senators, had a responsibility to side with workers and consumers against corporations and their lobbyists. Metzenbaum stationed an aide on the edge of the Senate floor whenever the chamber was in session to keep an eye on the proceedings. He did not trust Democratic party whips to alert him to bad legislation – in fact, he knew that the whips were often moving the bad legislation – so Metzenbaum remained ever on the ready to rush to the floor with the amendments, quorum calls, threats of filibusters and parliamentary procedures he would use to hamstring the special interests.
:You’ve got to be prepared to be there morning, noon and night,” Metzenbaum explained back in the early 1980s, when as a member of the Democratic minority he repeatedly blocked Reagan administration initiatives. “You have to have the floor protected 100 percent of the time. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I shouldn’t have to do this.”
In fact, Metzenbaum relished legislative combat.
And he pulled no punches.
“I rise not to address myself to the merit or lack of merit of this legislation but, rather, to address myself to the fact that the matter is before the Senate at all,” he declared when preparing to block a 1982 bill that would have retroactively altered corporate liability in antitrust cases. “We don’t have time to do anything that is important, but we have plenty of time to take up every special interest bill that any highpriced lobbyist pushes before the Congress of the United States.”
That attitude — and his willingness to express it so ardently — made Metzenbaum a hero to younger progressives who saw the senior senator from Ohio as a mentor.
Paul Wellstone said it was Metzenbaum who taught him to follow his conscience as a senator – and to get used to saying “screw you!” to anyone who counseled doing otherwise.
Metzenbaum did that a lot.
When self-made millionaire returned to the Senate in 1977 with a new president named Jimmy Carter, Metzenbaum immediately picked a fight with the Democrat in the White House. The president endorsed legislation to deregulate the natural gas industry. Metzenbaum saw the proposal as a corporate giveaway and he fought it by introducing close to 500 amendments designed to derail the bill.
Metzenbaum brought the Senate to halt, creating such a crisis that Vice President Walter Mondale was finally forced to intervene.
The fight earned Metzenbaum the nickname “Senator No.”
Metzenbaum passed meaningful legislation – including the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1989 that required the comprehensive listing of nutrition facts and understandable claims about food, and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, a 1988 measure that required companies with more than 100 workers to give 60-days notice before shuttering a factory – but he was just as proud of the proposals and the appointments he blocked.
And he took special pride in saying “no” to Democratic presidents who he felt had failed to live up to the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers who briefly tipped the balance of power to favor the interests of working Americans.
Metzenbaum finished his Senate career in 1994, when a Democrat served in the White House.
But that Democrat was Bill Clinton, whose ties to the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council had always offended Metzenbaum. The Ohio Senator had questioned Clinton’s picks for the Supreme Court, suggesting their records on business issues were little better than those of Republican nominees he had opposed. He had criticized the Clintons for proposing health-care reforms that did more to bail out insurance companies than get care to the uninsured. He had lambasted the administration for failing to advance meaningful legislation to protect workers and consumers.
So it came as no surprise that Metzenbaum’s last fight was against the Clinton-promoted General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The president was wrong, the senator from Ohio said, to promote a trade agenda that was packed with “deals for big business” that were written to “shortchange American workers.”
“Don’t we have some sense of compassion, some sense of concern?” Metzenbaum asked his fellow Democrats.
Today, most Democrats – including Hillary Clinton – are critics of the free-trade agenda that Bill Clinton advanced back in the mid-1990s. But, when it mattered, Howard Metzenbaum stood, as he so often did, virtually alone for the principle that doing right by the people – and by his conscience — mattered a whole lot more than satisfying the transitory demands of party loyalty.