Who Will Stand Up for the Least Among Us?

By Art Cullen

We were grateful recently for the opportunity to speak at some length with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the leader of the liberal wing of the Senate Democrats, about the attempted dismantling of the progressive framework built over the last century.

Teddy Kennedy and Paul Wellstone are dead and buried.

Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is probably lecturing at some college, now that he has lost his Senate seat.

Bernie Sanders of Vermont is an Independent. When Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin aren’t carrying water for Wall Street they seem to have a case of the weak knees.

They were rolled on health care reform. They were rolled on the debt ceiling debate. They have handed over their authority to a group of 12 members of Congress to slash and burn, and the rest of Congress can do nothing about it.

There is a full-scale frontal assault being played out against Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, clean air and water, soil conservation, anti-poverty programs and education.

Without a clear offensive strategy, they are left to defend the great Progressive construction by cowering in the Senate subway while complaining about the minority Republicans who seem to outdo them at every turn.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to have more power than Majority Leader Reid does.

Who will defend the framework set up to shelter the poor, the young, the elderly and the infirm from the brutality of an economy that knows no mercy?

If not Harkin, then who?

So we asked him: What is your strategy, as the heir to Kennedy, to beat back and drown out these right-wing politicians beholden to corporate malefactors?

Harkin said that he is “hopeful” that the coming campaigns are strategy enough. That pointing out that we need good government to help create jobs and alleviate suffering will lead to some sort of great American epiphany. Harkin ran through a history of the Progressive movement dating back to Teddy Roosevelt. He said there are “waves” of reactionary politics that abate after awhile. He believes that this, too, shall pass.

We admire Harkin’s faith in wisdom and patience. But while we are waiting out this wave, a group of 12 members of Congress not voted for by a single Iowan is making decisions that will surely eat away at the foundation of decency, fairness and care in government.

Harkin hoped, before the President’s address, that Obama would do something “big and bold” to capture the imagination of Americans. It is telling to us that Harkin — the most prominent liberal in Washington — had no idea what the President would say. The White House, which is rapidly losing its base of support, did not bother to consult. (Obama surrogate Robert Gibbs on Wednesday refused to say that Obama is even a liberal.) It actually didn’t matter, because Congressional Republican leaders already declared Obama’s jobs plan dead on arrival.

Rep. Maxine Walters, D-Calif., probably the most prominent African American politician other than Obama, challenged the President to show that he cares as much about black folks suffering immense poverty as he does about swing voters in Iowa. Those swing voters, all white, in the southern tier of Iowa counties live in poverty exceeding the South Side of Chicago and rivaling Harlan County, Kentucky. The same is true of southern Illinois, southern Indiana, the Ohio River Valley and Appalachia. And the same is true of the mobile home courts right here in Storm Lake, Iowa.

People living in many of these places do not have regular access to comprehensive medical care, veteran’s services or jobs. A veteran has to drive an hour from Storm Lake, Iowa, to sign up for drug benefits. A young person in Adams County, Iowa, has little choice but to leave home for lack of a job. Rural communities in Iowa are steadily aging and dying for lack of a local economy. Harkin said there is a real disconnect between Iowa and Washington, DC.

That’s for sure.

Out here, people depend on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Out here, small businesses still struggle with double-digit percentage increases in health insurance premiums. Out here, young people are fleeing rural Iowa for lack of a future. Out here, we see the Progressive framework falling down while people wistfully stand aside. Barack Obama, Tom Harkin and Maxine Walters need to take a tour of Ringgold County, Iowa, Harlan County, Kentucky, the hills of Southern Illinois and the ghettos on the South Side.

They need to see the suffering first-hand, in case they have forgotten or never knew. They need to show the nation about real poverty and hopelessness right in their front yard.

Harkin is the only man left who can stand up to the right wing and shout them down. Reid, et al, are the experts at dithering themselves to defeat.

Yet it appears that Harkin does not have a clear strategy on how to win the fight other than to hope that the nation comes to its senses.

That is not good enough. We need someone who will stand up and fight for the victims of this terrible assault on the least among us.

If not Harkin, then who?

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times, Iowa’s progressive newspaper. The Storm?Lake Times was the first newspaper in the nation to endorse a presidential candidate in the 2008 election.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2011


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