Hunting Republicans

It was jarring to hear that Sen. Ted Kennedy—the liberal lion of the Senate—had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Kennedy was elected in 1962 at age 30 to the Massachusetts seat his brother, John, gave up when he was elected president. The kid brother of John and Bobby grew up the Senate, during the heady days of the New Frontier and the Great Society when the government was capable of great things such as Medicare and the War on Poverty.

Kennedy grew into the role of a progressive stalwart who would cross the aisle to make bipartisan deals that helped working families. If he’s heading into the sunset, other progressives need to step up to take his place.

Progressive Democrats must reject the free-market ideology that has ruled Washington for the past generation. Republican revisionists claim that George W. Bush veered from the Reagan formula, but don’t let the Great Communicator off the hook. George Bush I rightly called the supply-side schemes Reagan espoused “voodoo economics” in 1980, before Bush signed on as Reagan’s running mate. But Democratic Congresses kept Reagan and Bush I from fulfilling much of the neocon excesses.

Bill Clinton became a neocon enabler when he pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress in 1993, against the wishes of the Democratic majority. After Hillary Clinton’s health-care reform debacle and the 1994 elections turned over Congressional power to the Republicans, it was Bill Clinton who declared in January 1996, to a Republican Congress, that “The era of big government is over.”

The stars finally aligned for the neocons after the Supreme Court put Bush Jr. in the White House in 2001 with Republican majorities in the House and Senate. (Democrats regained a one-vote Senate majority in May 2001 but Republicans manipulated national security fears to regain a majority in 2002.) GOP majorities in both chambers, with Democratic enablers, enacted much of Bush’s domestic agenda and gave him a free pass on national security and the invasion of Iraq.

Seven years later, after Bush removed Iran’s rivals from power in Iraq, we are stuck sinking hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives into refereeing a civil war in Iraq while the Taliban makes a comeback in Afghanistan and 9/11 sponsor Osama bin Laden taunts us from a secret location, likely in northwestern Pakistan.

The use of National Guards overseas hampered the ability of states to respond in natural disasters, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast, and the nation was shocked in August 2005 when the Bush administration infamously stood by and watched New Orleans fill up with floodwaters for several days before deciding that the Crescent City needed federal assistance.

After enacting an energy plan devised by Vice President Cheney and oil company executives that was designed to offer production incentives, gas prices are approaching $4, diesel prices are long past $4 and oil companies are enjoying record profits. After deregulation of the banking industry by the Republican Congress during the Clinton administration, bankers freed from government supervision stoked a housing boom with subprime mortgages that, it turned out, many homebuyers could not afford. Now the only people who can get loans are bankers, as the Federal Reserve works frantically to keep the system afloat. The national debt has ballooned during the Bush Jr. administration from $5.7 trillion to $9.4 trillion. And Republicans still want to “fix” Social Security and Medicare.

This is the background for Travis Childers’ (D) victory in a May 13 special election in what had been a solidly GOP 1st Congressional District in northeastern Mississippi. The district voted 62% for Bush in 2004 but after Rep. Roger Wicker (R) was appointed interim senator, Childers got 54% of the vote despite GOP attempts to tie him to presidential candidate Barack Obama. It was the reddest of three districts to turn blue in special elections this spring; Dems won former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s old seat in Illinois, which voted 55% for Bush, and Louisiana’s 6th District, which voted 59% for Bush before Rep. Richard Baker (R) quit to become a lobbyist.

Childers’ win in the Mississippi House race also raises hopes that Wicker is vulnerable in the special election with former Gov. Ronnie Musgrave (D). A Research 2000 poll for DailyKos.com (May 19-21) showed Wicker leading by only 45%-42%. (A Democratic poll showed an 8-point Musgrove lead.)

Entering the election season, Democrats were expected to mount strong challenges to unseat Republican incumbent senators in states like Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon, as well as open seats formerly held by Republicans in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia.

But other opportunities have opened up. In Alaska, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) is caught in a major scandal involving a federal investigation of an oil corporation accused of buying influence. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) has joined that race.

In North Carolina, a Republican polling firm found first-term Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) barely leading her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, at 45%-43%, within the margin of error. Other polling also has shown a close race.

Even in Kentucky, where John McCain leads Barack Obama by 25 points, a May 22 Rasmussen poll showed Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford with a 5-point lead over Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. Just two days after Lunsford won the nomination, he led 49%-44%, as only 67% of McCain voters said they would vote for McConnell.

In Texas, polls show Sen. John Cornyn (R) is vulnerable to a challenge from state Rep. Rick Noriega (D-Houston), a lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard, who criticized Cornyn for his vote against Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) GI Bill to increase educational benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Cornyn said the updated GI Bill would hurt re-enlistment rates because troops would be eager to take advantage of the chance for a college education. Noriega replied, “If [the post-World War II] GI Bill was good enough for the Greatest Generation, why is it not good enough for the latest generation?”

Vote Progressive

Dems currently have a 236-199 majority in the House, but it’s one thing to elect a Democratic Congress and quite another to elect a progressive majority. Too often, House Republicans can peel off 20 or more conservative “Blue Dog” Dems to join them on controversial issues, making it important to send more progressive Congress members.

The Service Employees International Union has served notice that it intends to stay active past the election to press for affordable healthcare and restoring the right of workers to join unions. The union pledged $10 million to oppose elected leaders who turn their backs on working people. “SEIU members expect that elected leaders will live up to their promises, and if they don’t, we will work to elect someone else,” said President Andy Stern.

In February, SEIU members, along with other progressive groups worked to help Donna Edwards, a progressive leader in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, beat Rep. Al Wynn (D), who had been criticized for his support of Bush initiatives. After his defeat in the Democratic primary Wynn quit to become a lobbyist, forcing a June 27 election to fill the few months remaining in his term.

In a June 3 primary, Ed Fallon, a progressive populist former state representative from Des Moines, is challenging US Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), a “Blue Dog” who has supported Bush on the Iraq war, telecom immunity and the energy bill that gives tax breaks to oil companies. Boswell has the support of SEIU and other unions as well as much of the Democratic establishment, but Fallon is a stronger progressive candidate. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2008

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