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.