Which Democratic Party?
November 2006 Issue
Sherrod Brown, the progressive Democrat running against incumbent Republican Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, has become a lightning rod in the contentious 2006 midterm elections. Brown’s outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, his votes against the free trade agreements NAFTA and CAFTA, and his critique of corporations’ corrupting influence on government have made him a hero to a base that wants to see a more robust Democratic opposition to the Bush Administration—and an object of derision for Washington poohbahs. David Broder recently wrote a column warning of a battle between sensible centrists and “vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left” and their heroes—Ned Lamont in Connecticut and Brown. Broder failed to note that leftwing bloggers vehemently opposed Brown in the primary against their favorite candidate, Iraq veteran Paul Hackett. Unrestrained, Broder called Brown “a loud advocate of protectionist policies that offer a false hope of solving our trade and job problems.” He praised DeWine, along with Joe Lieberman, as an “an ally . . . in forming a center for the Senate.” Never mind that DeWine’s brand of “centrism” is hard to separate from Bush Administration policy. He has consistently supported the White House on everything from its Iraq War policy (which Broder decries) to tax cuts to his refusal to sign on to a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report outlining the Administration’s intelligence failures.
Broder’s ire, according to leftwing blogger and political activist David Sirota, shows how media establishment types and defenders of the status quo are “freaking out” because a majority of Americans are not forming their opinions according to the opinion-makers’ predictions. Change is in the air, and the people who have been holding on to power in Washington are worried.
Ohio may be make-or-break in this increasingly tight election year. Many national themes resonate here: political corruption and influence peddling, economic decline, election fraud, and voter dissatisfaction with the Republican-controlled government.
As Brown arrived to give a speech at the University of Akron on September 22, the day after Broder’s column came out, it was a pivotal moment in the campaign. Polls were shifting. The National Journal had just moved Brown up in its candidate rankings. “Is John Edwards the Democratic nominee or is Sherrod Brown?” the magazine wrote, saying he’d turned his “liberal” record into a poll-topping “populist” campaign. But Brown’s economic message—raising the minimum wage, promoting fair trade, and rebuilding the middle class—is unchanged since he went into Congress.
At this working class campus, he was on familiar ground. He entered the room without fanfare, circulating to shake hands and greet students, teachers, and campaign volunteers by name. He’s been to campus every semester during his fourteen years as a U.S. Representative to talk with students in Political Science Professor David Cohen’s government class. And it was here that he first announced his campaign for the Senate.
“He’s been really, really loyal to our group,” said Alex Barkley, president of the College Democrats, who introduced Brown. “He has come to talk to us a lot, and he identifies with young people. He’s stood up to the Bush Administration on issues like college tuition.”
“We all know what has happened to working families and their ability to send their sons and daughters to college,” Brown told the group. “My wife [Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer] was a student when financial aid was about 70 percent grants and 30 percent loans. Today it’s almost the exact opposite.”
Brown pointed out that college tuition has more than doubled in Ohio since 2000. The state has one of the highest exodus rates of college grads in the nation. “People my age are worried about whether their kids will have the opportunity to stay and raise their grandchildren here,” Brown said. He has called for a $3,000-a-year tuition tax credit, and he co-sponsored legislation to increase the maximum Pell Grant to $7,000 and to cut student loan interest rates in half. His opponent, he said, has voted for Bush’s cuts in funding for higher education, and against increasing student loans and college assistance programs.
“We need to again look at college education as an opportunity for everyone. That means poor kids, middle class kids,” he said.
In the Rust Belt, Brown’s message on economics plays particularly well. Ohio lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs after NAFTA. Brown wrote a book on the issue entitled Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed. And he led the opposition to CAFTA, which ultimately passed by only one vote. During the campaign, he’s been alternating his time between campus and workplace visits, such as a recent tour of a tire plant that just laid off fifty workers. His kitchen table critique of economic policy links manufacturing and trade to alternative energy and job creation—creating a “new Silicon Valley of alternative energy” in Ohio.
It is the Republicans’ betrayal of middle class voters that got them into the hot water they’re in this year, Brown says. “The Republican leaders in the state see government as a piggy bank,” he says. “DeWine and that crowd are giving away tax breaks to drug companies and the oil industry. People reject that. Call it economic populism, call it fairness, call it whatever you want.”
As for Broder’s critique, Brown shrugs it off. “Reporters and editors in Washington have always hated my position on trade,” he says. “Out here, they don’t feel that way.”
Professor Cohen agrees. “It’s easy for David Broder, sitting behind his large desk typing this out to say it’s not a winning message. But a lot of people in Ohio beg to differ,” he says. “Just a few days ago, Ford announced more plant closings—those are good jobs people use to send their kids to college.”
Or, as Sirota put it in his furious blog following Broder’s column, the ragged people who work at manufacturing jobs aren’t the people Washington insiders care about.
The students in the room at Akron were right with Brown as he linked their struggles with college debt to job loss in the state.
“I like Sherrod’s views on free trade,” says sophomore Dan McKay, whose dad is a construction manager and whose mom stays at home with his two younger siblings. “We need to slow the exporting of jobs. It has really hurt people in my family who lost jobs working for Ford.” McKay is studying political science in between shifts from 8:00 a.m. to noon at a campus pizza concession, and 8:00 p.m. to midnight at the Bank of America, where he works as a telemarketer. He is trying to cover the $6,000 a year he pays in tuition on top of a $2,000 loan.
Then there are his regular living expenses. “I’m seriously on my own—I don’t live at home,” he says. He describes his routine as “tiring and distracting from what I should be focusing on, which is my studies.”
Economic decline isn’t the only issue with particular resonance in Ohio. So is corruption. Congressman Bob Ney just pled guilty in connection with the Abramoff scandal, leaving his historically Republican seat in Congress suddenly vulnerable in November.
“In a normal year, that seat would not be in play,” says Cohen. “But this is not a normal year.”
And then there’s Iraq.
“It’s clear that there’s been no accountability,” says Brown. “Mike DeWine pretty much slept through the prewar intelligence briefings. They’ve failed the nation and failed our soldiers that way.”
Brown is unequivocal on the war, which he opposed from the beginning. “We need to set a withdrawal date, and an exit strategy in one-to-one-and-a-half years.”
Sirota calls the coming election a “tidal wave” heading for Washington’s “hall of mirrors.” It’s a gratifying image conjuring up a massive populist uprising. But the candidates don’t necessarily sustain it.
Across the country, the Democrats are all over the map on Iraq and other fundamental issues.
“I understand there’s not going to be a national Democratic policy on Iraq,” Brown says, “Everybody runs their own race the way they run it—that’s endemic in the party and maybe in politics.”
But, says veteran Democratic campaign strategist Steve Cobble, “The main reason the Republicans are in trouble is because they lied about a war which has turned out to be a disaster. That fundamental fact should not be forgotten, even when individual Democrats shy away from running against the war.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, who controls the party’s purse strings in the House, hopes to capitalize on voter disgust with the war. But he doesn’t want to let the party be characterized as pro cut-and-run. The answer he lays out in his book, The Plan, is “more troops.” Worse, he buys into the Bush Administration’s lumping together of Iraq and the war on terror.
Newsweek recently ran a fawning profile of Rahm and his brother, Ari, a hotshot Hollywood agent, under the headline “The Democratic Entourage,” celebrating the two men’s roles as gatekeepers of power and money in their intersecting worlds of entertainment and politics. One question in this year’s election is whether the elite “in crowd” in Washington led by people like Emanuel and Broder will continue to shape the party, or will it be the less glamorous kitchen table folks, whom Brown represents in Ohio.
If there is going to be a tidal wave in November, it will have to be pushed along by voters who are far more assertive than most of the candidates.
The best they can hope for in the House or Senate is a slim majority. That, plus their internal disagreements about how to govern, doesn’t bode well for massive legislative change. Even so, a political upheaval in November could reverberate through Washington.
“It’s not just the number of seats the Democrats win,” says Brown. “It’s the message voters send that they are unhappy with Bush.” He points to the increasing willingness of Republicans to defect from the White House on a variety of issues.
“Their arrogance has led us astray almost every day of this Administration,” Brown adds. “That will be tempered more than a little bit. If they see the kind of rejection of Bush and Bush’s policy in November, he’s going to have trouble rallying his own people.”
Races to Watch
Here is a quick roundup of some races to watch in the House and Senate come November:
The Senate, where the Democrats would need to pick up six seats to win a majority, is less of a long shot than ever, thanks in large part to Senator George “Macaca” Allen of Virginia. After seesawing between declaring that his recently revealed Jewish heritage makes him sensitive to racial slights and rushing to reassure voters that he’s still scarfing down pork chops and ham sandwiches (he’s not that Jewish!), Allen was blindsided by former classmates who went public with stories about his racist antics in college. Democrat James Webb has a decent chance, if only because Virginians want Allen out of the spotlight.
Democrats will have to struggle to hold on to New Jersey, where Senator Robert Menendez, appointed in 2006, is in trouble as Republican State Senator Tom Kean moves up in the polls. If the Dems lose New Jersey, they’ll actually need to win seven Senate seats.
According to the National Journal rankings at the end of September, the most vulnerable seats are:
Pennsylvania, where Senator Rick Santorum is in bad shape as pro-life Democrat Bob Casey moves ahead.
Montana, where progressive Democrat Jon Tester has relentlessly hit Republican Conrad Burns for his connection to Jack Abramoff.
Ohio, with Brown ahead of DeWine.
Rhode Island, where moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee is neck-and-neck with his Democratic challenger, Sheldon Whitehouse.
Missouri, where rightwing Republican Jim Talent is having trouble holding on against Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill.
Tennessee, where Democratic Congressman Harold Ford is squaring off against former mayor of Chattanooga Bob Corker.
Maryland, where there is a tight race between Democratic Representative Ben Cardin and Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele.
Washington, where Maria Cantwell seems to be holding on to her Democratic seat.
Arizona, where Jim Pederson is getting very close to two-term Republican incumbent Jon Kyl, much to the Republicans’ dismay.
And then there’s Virginia, where Allen continues to fumble.
In the House, there are about forty races in play, about half of which are too close to rank. The Republicans’ colossal blunder—suppressing news of disgraced Florida Congressman Mark Foley’s addiction to young, male pages until he was forced to resign a month before the election—will likely push his seat into the Democratic column, and maybe others.
Among the most interesting races:
In Connecticut, Diane Farrell is running against Republican incumbent Chris Shays. The Iraq War is a major issue, as is Shays’s support for the President on wiretapping and other issues in an increasingly anti-Bush environment.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat Lois Murphy stands a good chance of unseating Republican Representative Jim Gerlach, who is heavily funded by the oil and pharmaceutical industries. Murphy, who lost narrowly to Gerlach in 2004, is the former head of Pennsylvania NARAL.
In Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District, National Journal’s number-one ranked House race pits Democratic businesswoman Gabrielle Giffords against former professional golfer Randy Graf, the Republican nominee to replace retiring Representative Jim Kolbe. It says something that a recent banner news item on Giffords’s website was the intelligence report stating that the U.S. presence in Iraq is making America less safe.
In central Ohio, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy is giving Republican incumbent Deborah Pryce a run for her money in the traditionally Republican Fifteenth District. “This in uncharted territory for Pryce,” the Associated Press notes. Pryce’s opponent in 2004 couldn’t even raise the $5,000 to get on the radar screen.
In Kentucky’s Third Congressional District, Republican incumbent Anne Northup faces anti-war Democrat John Yarmuth, who has called for beginning to withdraw troops immediately. He has also challenged Northup’s moderate image, criticizing the Republicans’ Medicare prescription drug plan as a “boondoggle” for the pharmaceutical industry.
In Iowa, anti-war Democrat Bruce Braley, a trial lawyer, is running for the seat left open by eight-term Republican Jim Nussle, and stands a good chance at beating Republican Mike Whalen.
In California’s Eleventh Congressional, Democrat Jerry McNerney is trying to unseat Republican Richard Pombo, with environmental issues playing a part in this race.
In New Jersey’s Seventh, Democrat Linda Stender, an anti-war candidate, is trying to unseat Republican Mike Ferguson.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.