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Don’t Vent, Organize — And “Primary” a Democrat Near You

1:31 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Progressives often wonder why so many Republican lawmakers stick to their avowed principles while so many Democratic lawmakers abandon theirs. We can grasp some answers by assessing the current nationwide drive called “Primary My Congressman” — a case study of how right-wing forces gain ground in electoral terrain where progressives fear to tread.

A Democrat Donkey

Time for some fresh blood?

Sponsored by Club for Growth Action, the “Primary My Congressman” effort aims to replace “moderate Republicans” with “economic conservatives” — in other words, GOP hardliners even more devoted to boosting corporate power and dismantling the public sector. “In districts that are heavily Republican,” the group says, “there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress — not more ‘moderates’ who will compromise with Democrats. . .”

Such threats of serious primary challenges often cause the targeted incumbents to quickly veer rightward, or they may never get through the next Republican primary.

Progressive activists and organizations could launch similar primary challenges, but — to the delight of the Democratic Party establishment — they rarely do. Why not?

Here are some key reasons:

* Undue deference to elected Democrats.

Members of Congress and other elected officials deserve only the respect they earn. All too often, for example, plenty of Congressional Progressive Caucus members represent the interests of the establishment to progressives rather than the other way around.

* Treating election campaigns more like impulse items than work that requires long-term planning and grassroots follow-through.

The same progressives who’ve spent years planning, launching and sustaining a wide range of community projects are apt to jump into election campaigns with scant lead time. Progressives need to build electoral capacity for the long haul, implementing well-planned strategic campaigns with candidates who come out of social movements and have a plausible chance to win on behalf of those movements.

* Assuming that millions of dollars are necessary to win.

Yes, successful campaigns require effective fundraising — but money is often a less significant obstacle than a shortage of commitment and willingness to do painstaking grassroots organizing.

* Self-marginalization by ignoring elections.

Some on the left prefer to stay out of electoral contests while focusing on the next protest demonstration — thus leaving the electoral field to battles between corporate Democrats and Republicans. One sure result: a progressive won’t win.

* Self-marginalization with third-party efforts in partisan races.

In congressional races, Green Party and other progressive third-party candidates have a zero record of success in our lifetimes. In other races with party affiliations also on the ballot (such as governor and state legislature), victories have been almost nonexistent. In such races, the corporate-military complex is not in the slightest threatened by third-party candidates, who rarely get higher than a low single-digit percentage of the vote. In nonpartisan races, by contrast, there are examples of successful and uplifting campaigns by third-party candidates, as with Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, California.

By changing just a few words in the Club for Growth’s “Primary My Congressman” manifesto, progressives have a road map for electoral progress: In districts that are heavily Democratic, there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real progressives to Congress — not more of those who go along with the Obama White House as it keeps compromising with Republicans.

Anyone serious about getting genuine progressives elected to Congress next year should be engaged in developing campaigns now. To avoid the impulse-item syndrome, that means identifying key races where progressives have a real chance to win, while remaining mindful that election campaigns should be subsets of social movements and not the other way around.

If there’s a defining issue that now separates the Obama party leadership from social decency, it is the president’s push to cut Social Security benefits. Less ballyhooed but also crucial is his push to cut Medicare benefits and the ever-present danger of cuts to already woefully-underfunded Medicaid. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are unwilling to seriously cut the enormous military budget.

Any incumbent Democrat who is not serving progressive interests should be weighed as a possible primary target. And the most fruitful primary challenges are beckoning in heavily Democratic districts where there are many progressive voters and incumbents aren’t measuring up.

By that standard, the Congress members who may be vulnerable to a primary challenge include the 44 who tout their membership in the Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the letter (initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano) promising not to vote to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

A good starting point to consider launching a primary challenge in your area would be to look at those 44 members of Congress who continue to refuse to make such a promise, leaving themselves wiggle room to vote for cuts in three crucial programs of the social compact. To see the list of those self-described “progressives,” click here. (Meanwhile, wherever you live, you can let your Congress member and senators know what you think of proposals for such cuts by clicking here.)

It’s fair to say those 44 members of Congress are among the many Democratic incumbents showing themselves to be more afraid of the Obama White House and the Democratic Party hierarchy than they are of voters in their own districts. Progressives in and around those districts need to do less venting and more organizing.

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Time to Bell the Obama Cat

12:15 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

The story goes that some mice became very upset about the cat in the house and convened an emergency meeting. They finally came up with the idea of tying a bell around the cat’s neck, so the dangerous feline could no longer catch victims unawares. The plan gained a lot of enthusiastic praise, until one mouse piped up with a question that preceded a long silence: “Who’s going to bell the cat?

In recent days, the big cat in the White House has provoked denunciations from groups that have rarely crossed him. They’re upset about his decision to push for cuts in Social Security benefits. “Progressive outrage has reached a boiling point,” the online juggernaut MoveOn declared a few days ago.

Obama’s move to cut Social Security is certainly outrageous, and it’s encouraging that a wide range of progressive groups are steamed at Obama as never before. But this kind of outrage should have reached a “boiling point” a long time ago. The administration’s undermining of civil liberties, scant action on climate change, huge escalation of war in Afghanistan, expansion of drone warfare, austerity policies serving Wall Street and shafting Main Street, vast deference to corporate power. . . The list is long and chilling.

For progressives, there’s not a lot to be gained by venting against Obama without working to implement a plausible strategy for ousting corporate war Democrats from state power.

So is the evasive record of many groups that are now denouncing Obama’s plan to cut Social Security. Mostly, their leaders griped in private and made nice with the Obama White House in public.

Yet imagine if those groups had polarized with President Obama in 2009 on even a couple of key issues. Such progressive independence would have shown the public that there is indeed a left in this country — that the left has principles and stands up for them — and that Obama, far from being on the left, is in the center. Such principled clarity would have undermined the right-wing attacks on Obama as a radical, socialist, etc. — and from the beginning could have gotten some victories out of Obama, instead of waiting more than four years to take him on.

Whether or not Obama’s vicious assault on Social Security is successful, it has already jolted an unprecedented number of longtime supporters. It should be the last straw, suffused with illumination.

That past is prologue. We need to ask: Do such groups now have it in them to stop pretending that each of the Obama administration’s various awful policies is some kind of anomaly?

From this spring onward, a wide range of progressive groups should be prepared to work together to effectively renounce Obama’s leadership.

We need to invigorate political options other than accepting the likes of President Obama — or embracing self-marginalization.

For progressives, there’s not a lot to be gained by venting against Obama without working to implement a plausible strategy for ousting corporate war Democrats from state power. Nor is there a useful path for third parties like the Green Party in races for Congress and other partisan contests; those campaigns rarely end up with more than a tiny percentage of the vote, and the impacts are very small.

This spring, there’s a lot of work beckoning for progressives who mean business about gaining electoral power for social movements; who have no intention of eliding the grim realities of the Obama presidency; who are more than fed up with false pretenses that Obama is some kind of ally of progressives; who recognize that Obama has served his last major useful purpose for progressives by blocking a Romney-Ryan regime from entering the White House; who are willing to be here now, in this historical moment, to organize against and polarize with the Obama administration in basic terms; and who, looking ahead, grasp the tragic folly of leaving the electoral field to battles between right-wing Republicans and Democrats willing to go along with the kind of destructive mess that President Obama has been serving up.

A vital next step is staring us in the face: get to work now to develop and launch grassroots progressive campaigns for next year’s primaries that can defeat members of Congress who talk the talk but fail to walk the walk of challenging Obama’s austerity agenda.

Who are those congressional incumbents who call themselves “progressive” but refuse to take a clear stand against slashing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits? I have a little list. Well, actually it’s not so little.

As of today, after many weeks of progressive lobbying and pleading and petitioning nationwide, 47 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have refused to sign the letter, initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano, pledging to “vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

After all this time, refusal to sign the Grayson-Takano letter is a big tipoff that those 47 House members are keeping their options open. (To see that list of 47, click here.) They want wiggle room for budget votes on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Most of them represent a left-leaning district, and some could be toppled by grassroots progressive campaigns.

By itself, lobbying accomplishes little. Right now, it’s time to threaten members of Congress with defeat unless they vote against all efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Click here if you want to send that message directly to your representative and senators.

The best way to sway members of Congress is to endanger their seats if they aren’t willing to do the right thing. In the real world, politics isn’t about playing cat and mouse. It’s about power.

Illustration by Richard Heighway

Which Members of Congress Are Standing Up for Economic Decency – And Which “Progressives” Aren’t

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Jared_Huffman

Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA)

Now we know.

Every member of Congress has chosen whether to sign a letter making a crucial commitment: “We will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.

The Democratic Party hierarchy doesn’t like the letter. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said that cutting Social Security would “strengthen” it, and President Obama’s spokespeople keep emphasizing his eagerness to cut Social Security’s cost of living adjustments. The fact that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit is beside the austerity point.

Since mid-February, across the country, many thousands of people have sent personal notes, submitted petitions and made phone calls imploring members of Congress to sign the letter, initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano.

Twenty-eight members of the House of Representatives have signed the letter.

Here are their names: Brown, Cartwright, Castor, Clay, Conyers, D. Davis, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Honda, Kaptur, Lee, Lynch, C. Maloney, Markey, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your Congress member on that list, you live in a House district without a representative standing up for economic decency.

Especially noteworthy are 49 members of the House who belong to the Congressional Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the Grayson-Takano letter. In most cases, they represent districts with a largely progressive electorate. In effect, their message is: We like to call ourselves “progressive” but we refuse to clearly stand up to an Obama White House that’s pushing to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits. To see the names of those 49 members of Congress, click here.

A case in point: As a freshman Congressman, Jared Huffman represents California’s North Coast district, stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. On the 2012 campaign trail, I often heard Huffman assuring voters that he opposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. (As a candidate, I finished second to him among Democrats in the primary election last June.) When he got to Washington, Huffman joined the Progressive Caucus.

Now, refusing to sign the Grayson-Takano letter, Congressman Huffman publicly touts his disdain for “outside groups.” Days ago, deriding the pressure from organizations urging him to sign the letter, Huffman boasted on his public Facebook page: “I won’t be bullied from the left or the right into signing Norquistian vote pledges to outside groups.”

The pejorative word “Norquistian” is proving to be very handy for some Democratic politicians — eager to equate progressive pledges not to cut vital social programs with right-wing pledges not to increase any taxes — as if standing up for economically vulnerable people is somehow comparable to the ideological rigidity of Grover Norquist. This amounts to old-wine corporate centrism poured into a new rhetorical bottle. Subtext: basic progressive principles aren’t important enough to warrant a wiggle-proof promise.

As battles over key issues of economic fairness intensify on Capitol Hill, we’re very likely to see a lot of Democrats — led by President Obama — preening themselves as virtuously non-dogmatic while they rebuff the minimal humanistic demands of progressive constituencies. The Grayson-Takano letter, for example, has been endorsed by dozens of progressive groups such as National Nurses United, Credo Action, MoveOn.org Civic Action, Bold Progressives, Democracy for America, RootsAction.org, Social Security Works, Progressive Democrats of America, the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, Rebuild the Dream, Progressives United, Color of Change, Campaign for America’s Future, Center for Community Change, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

In the real politics of the emerging struggle over Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, there’s a very big difference between expressing opposition to benefit cuts and promising not to vote for them. It’s only when members of Congress make a firm public commitment that Obama White House strategists may feel a need to recalibrate their deal-making calculus with Republicans.

Even firm commitments have eroded all too often on Capitol Hill, but at least the Grayson-Takano letter is a solid starting point. And as we look to the next election season, we should be searching for alternatives to the members of Congress who call themselves “progressive” but refuse to risk the wrath of an austerity-crazed Obama White House.

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Three-Quarters of Progressive Caucus Taking a Dive on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

12:19 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)

For the social compact of the United States, most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has gone missing.

While still on the caucus roster, three-quarters of the 70-member caucus seem lost in political smog. Those 54 members of the Progressive Caucus haven’t signed the current letter that makes a vital commitment: “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

More than 10 days ago, Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano initiated the forthright letter, circulating it among House colleagues. Addressed to President Obama, the letter has enabled members of Congress to take a historic stand: joining together in a public pledge not to vote for any cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

The Grayson-Takano letter is a breath of fresh progressive air, blowing away the customary fog that hangs over such matters on Capitol Hill.

The Progressive Caucus co-chairs, Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, signed the letter. So did Barbara Lee, the caucus whip. But no signer can be found among the five vice chairs of the Progressive Caucus: Judy Chu, David Cicilline, Michael Honda, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Jan Schakowsky. The letter’s current list of signers includes just 16 members of the Progressive Caucus (along with five other House signers who aren’t part of the caucus).

What about the other 54 members of the Progressive Caucus? Their absence from the letter is a clear message to the Obama White House, which has repeatedly declared its desire to cut the Social Security cost of living adjustment as well as Medicare. In effect, those 54 non-signers are signaling: Mr. President, we call ourselves “progressive” but we are unwilling to stick our necks out by challenging you in defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; we want some wiggle room that you can exploit.

In contrast, the House members on the short list of the letter’s signers deserve our praise for taking a clear stand: Brown, Cartwright, Conyers, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Kaptur, Lee, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your representative in the above paragraph, you might want to have a few words. (For a list of the 54 Progressive Caucus members who haven’t signed the letter, click here.)

It’s one thing — a fairly easy thing — to tell someone else what you hope they’ll do, as 107 House Democrats did recently in a different letter to President Obama: “We write to affirm our vigorous opposition to cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits. . . . We urge you to reject any proposals to cut benefits.”

It’s much more difficult — and far more crucial — for members of Congress to publicly commit themselves not to vote for any cuts in those programs, which are matters of life and death for vast numbers of Americans.

Even a signed pledge to do or not do something, in terms of a floor vote, is no guarantee that a member of Congress will actually follow through. But in a situation like this, the pledge is significant — and even more significant is a refusal to make such a pledge.

As of now, 54 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have taken a historic dive. We should take note — and not forget who they are.

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