Come Home Dems

One of the reasons we named this publication The Progressive Populist was to restore the good name of populism after years of ill-use of the term by right-wingers.

Michael Lind’s cover story and Jim Van Der Pol’s essay on page 8 provide some background on the populist movement in the United States.

The teabagger movement, whether its members realize it or not, is largely in the service of corporate interests in its campaign against “big government” and health-care reform.

Their hero, Sarah Palin, has embraced the right-wing dogma that big government is bad and that the free market is the best judge. That is the opposite of progressive populism, which dates from the late 19th century and believes that the government should protect working people, farmers and small businesses from predatory corporations.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which regulated Wall Street, provided support for family farmers, gave workers the right to organize and provided Social Security for senior citizens, among other accomplishments, was the culmination of progressive populist power in the 1930s. Roosevelt in 1944 even proposed an economic bill of rights that included the right to a job with a living wage; freedom from unfair competition and monopolies; a home; medical care; education; and recreation. But Roosevelt died before he could pursue the economic bill of rights and ever since World War II Big Business has set about systematically to repeal the New Deal, starting with passage of the union-busting Taft Hartley Act, over Harry Truman’s veto, in 1947. The populist wing survived to promote John Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which won the enactment of civil rights and the War on Poverty in 1964 and federal aid for education as well as voting rights and Medicare in 1965 and establishment of Medicaid to cover low-income Americans in 1966.

Wall Street in 1999 finally achieved repeal of the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act, which regulated banks and investment firms. That cleared the way for the trade in exotic financial instruments such as derivatives and credit default swaps for subprime loans.

President Obama’s agenda was diverted by the need to prevent economic collapse but he alienated his populist base by following the Bush administration’s lead in bailing out Wall Street without demanding concessions from the finance industry. The bailout may have averted a worldwide financial collapse, but that’s little comfort to the 10.2% of the US workforce that are unemployed and millions more who are underemployed.

If Democrats want to maintain their majorities in Congress and keep President Obama from becoming a lame duck, they need to show that they care about working people even more than Wall Street. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February to provide a $787 billion stimulus to the economy, was a good start, but going forward Democrats need to put people back to work building or rebuilding highways, bridges, schools and other public works. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US needs to spend $2.2 trillion on infrastructure. Democrats also should promote development of high-speed railways and a clean energy industry. They should re-impose regulation on Wall Street and help small businesses gain financing from the Small Business Administration if private lenders are not up to the task.

Recovery will be expensive, and this is no time to worry about the debt we’re passing onto our children. Those kids are better off if the government ensures that their parents have a good job with a living wage, health care, an affordable home and the kids have access to quality education through college.

Democrats also need to pass a health reform bill. As we go to press the Senate still has a fair chance of passing at least four-fifths of a good health-care reform bill. Compromises raise the hackles of progressive activists. But the sad truth is that a solid majority of the Democratic caucus and the entire Republican caucus is opposed to any plan that replaces the private insurance industry with a single-payer Medicare plan.

As we have seen, the Democratic House was barely able to pass a compromise bill with a relatively weak public option to provide nominal competition with private insurance companies.

The Senate, with 58 Dems and two independents in the majority caucus, still can’t guarantee passage of a health bill with any public option as Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and at least three conservative Dems have threatened to join Republicans in their all-out effort to stop expansion of the social safety net.

Democrats need to pass a health reform bill, preferably with a public option, that makes it easier for working people to get coverage for their families. Some of our progressive friends argue that Dems should forget about passing a bill if they can’t muster the votes for a strong public option. But the chances of passing a better bill, by any realistic standard, won’t be better in 2011.

In the meantime, progressives should support a primary challenge of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), the only Democratic public option balker who is up next year. Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D), who helped round up volunteers to staff a free medical clinic in Little Rock Nov. 21, is exploring a run against Lincoln.

The prospect of a primary challenge from the left by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) has improved the Democratic loyalty of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who switched parties as the moderate GOP vote disappeared. (Lincoln is a more progressive vote than Specter, according to ProgressivePunch.org, but at least Specter is not talking about joining a GOP filibuster against health-care reform.)

Progressives should support challengers of conservative Dems in progressive states or congressional districts and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee should not get involved in protecting conservative incumbents in those primary races.

Make the War Pay Too

Obama’s escalation of troops in Afghanistan is not a surprise — during the campaign he repeatedly said he would refocus resources on Afghanistan. In his speech at West Point on Dec. 1, he said he would start sending 30,000 more American troops in January and, in effect, he’ll give Afghanistan 18 months to get its government and army in order.

We believe the main reason for sending the reinforcements to Afghanistan is to secure the border with Pakistan, as that nuclear-armed neighbor steps up its own war on the Taliban, which wants to overturn the secular Pakistani government. If US troops leave Afghanistan, the thinking goes, the Taliban can use Afghan territory as a base to carry on the fight for control of Pakistan.

But as long as troops from the US and allied nations occupy Afghanistan and send drone planes and cruise missiles to strike targets in Pakistan, our presence will justify the Taliban in the eyes of Afghan and Pakistan nationalists. Every drone that shoots up a wedding party in those frontiers will serve as a recruiting advertisement for the Taliban and/or al Qaeda. We should withdraw troops from Afghanistan and remove that provocation.

But if Congress decides to go along with the escalation in Afghanistan, it should follow House Appropriations Chairman David Obey’s recommendation that the war be paid with a “war surtax.” We already have added more than $1 trillion to the national debt with the unfunded war in Iraq, but the “surge” of 30,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan next year — at an estimated cost of $1 million annually for each soldier on the ground — will come at the cost of domestic programs that are needed to help us overcome the recession.

Obey’s “war surtax” does not appear to have much traction among so-called deficit hawks, so the $30 billion annual cost of the deployment probably will go on the national tab. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2009


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