A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

WHITHER AMERICAN NATALISM? (OR "DAVID BROOKS’ WHITE FERTILITY")

Kate Sheppard notes the passage of Russia’s “Day of Conception:”

Today falls exactly nine months before Russia Day, and as one of Putin’s policies to encourage more breeding in his country, he’s offered SUVs, refrigerators, and monetary rewards to anyone who gives birth on June 12. So the mayor of Ulyanovsk, a region in central Russia, has given workers there the afternoon off to make with the baby making. Everyone who gives birth is a winner in the “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia’s Independence Day” contest, but the grand prize winner — judged on qualities like “respectability” and “commendable parenting” — gets to take home a UAZ-Patriot, a Russian-made SUV.

This seems like as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get (at least until June 12, which incidentally is the anniversary of two commendable parents I know) to ask why the kinds of natalist appeals and policy justifications that are so widespread in Europe are all but non-existent in the United States. Sure, American politicians seem to be expected to have gobs of kids to demonstrate their family values. But why is it much more common for politicians in Europe to push policies explicitly designed to make people have more kids?

Discouraging though it may be, I think the best answer is race. Politicians in Sweden or in Russia or in France get further with calls for the nation to have more babies for the sake of national greatness or national survival because that nation and those babies are imagined to look more the same.

Marty Gillens caused a stir with his research suggesting that Americans have negative attitudes towards welfare and its beneficiaries because of their negative views towards the racial groups imagined to benefit (Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, Bruce Sacerdote, Simo Virtanen, and Leonie Huddy further explore this). Americans are less inclined to support government spending on social programs, these scholars argue, because they’re less likely to imagine those programs benefiting people who look like them. Conversely, Swedes are more content with a robust welfare state because their immigration restrictions keep those benefits away from people of other races.

(In 1990, the top country sending immigrants to Sweden was Norway. In 2000, it was Iraq. And the increase in Sweden’s foreign-born populations in the 90’s roughly equaled the increase from the 70’s and 80’s combined. There’s cause for concern that as immigration to Sweden increases, benefits will decrease or access for immigrants will decrease – a process Swedish conservatives already began in the 1990s.)

I don’t think you can really explain the lack of natalist rhetoric in the US without similar logic, and particularly confronting animus towards a group Americans can’t deny welfare benefits simply by cutting off immigrants: African-Americans. What Ange-Marie Hancock calls “the politics of disgust” heaps shame on imagined “welfare queens” for working too little and birthing too much. In the controversy over the ’96 welfare bill, fertility came up plenty, but the imagined problem was too many babies, not too few. Churches and others made what you might consider natalist arguments against the bill, but they didn’t get much traction – unlike the GOP Congressman who held up a “Don’t feed the alligators” sign.

So when David Brooks wrote a paean to natalism in America, he left those hated Black women out. Instead, in a column a month after the ’04 election, he cited Steve Sailer (who even John Podhoretz recognizes as a racist) celebrating that “George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates.” Brooks’ column celebrates these fertile white parents for demonstrating good red-state values:

Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling…The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.

Can you imagine a prominent right-wing pundit or politician saying such things about a low-income Black family that chose to have more kids?

Now some will say that American conservatives are less natalist than their European counterparts because they’re more anti-government. Which is a fair point, but I think it’s difficult to explain the presence of “Christian Democrat” parties in Europe without considering race. Or you could argue that the natalist push in Europe is based in part in fear of immigration. Which circles back on the same argument: racial fears and prejudices map more easily along lines of citizenship in countries that have historically had fewer non-white citizens. Just as the comparative historical ethnic diversity of the United States plays a role in explaining why our political system has held down benefits for everyone rather than only restricting them to citizens (though we’ve done that too), it seems like the strongest explanation for why we don’t hear lots of appeals for America to have more babies.

Is there a better explanation? (This is where those of you who’ve been kvetching about the paucity of posting should leave comments)

ONE SIDE OF THE DEAL

An American worker who works at the current federal minimum wage – $5.15/ hour – for forty hours a week for fifty-two weeks, without interruption, would make $10,712.

The 2006 federal poverty line for the continental United States for a two-person family is $13,200 a year.

That means a family of one child and one parent who works full-time at the federal minimum wage is living at least $2,500 below the poverty line.

The reality faced by the working poor in America is somewhat different. People struggle to find consistent full-time work. People take multiple jobs adding up to well over forty hours without receiving the benefits of full-time work from any of them. People get sick.

A decade ago, conservatives in Congress – with a good many ostensible liberals in tow – inflicted a harsh revision of the American social contract, tearing away the safety net from those who utilized its support for more than three or five years of their lives – even if they were using that time to gain the skills for a better shot at living-wage work. Under the regime of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the uncompromising message sent to every low-income woman and man in this country by our congress is that your first and immediate responsibility is to find a way into the minimum-wage workforce.

But the same leaders who have most loudly pushed that message on marginalized Americans have fought fiercely against either requiring that work pay by raising the minimum wage or facilitating workers’ freedom to demand that work pay by protecting their organizing rights.

This week, some of them floated an insulting proposal – intended to fail – which would ease the minimum wage higher for some workers while both leaving tipped workers out to dry and depleting the federal government’s resources for empowering working Americans by lavishing cash on this country’s wealthiest families.

We deserve better.

GO TO THE PRINCIPLES, OFFICE?

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias made the point that all the talk about how principled Joe Lieberman’s hawkish votes have been should make us think less of principled votes qua principled votes rather than more of Joe Lieberman. Ben Adler, echoing Matt’s point that how elected officials vote should concern us more than why they do, questioned why Matt sees people who call for censorship in order to get votes as any less blameworthy than the ones who call for censorship on principle.

The right, incidentally, deploys both the “Don’t worry, he doesn’t believe it” and “But those are his principles” arguments to great effect to shield its politicians from criticism, depending on which one fits best at the time. The best contemporary examples come to mind around gay rights. Every time a current or historical anecdote emerges about George W. Bush being personally other than hostile towards someone he knows is gay, Bush apologists seize on the story as proof that imputing intolerance to the man just because he pushes policies that make gay folks second-class citizens is the real intolerance. Meanwhile, when Republican judicial nominees are questioned about their records on protecting the rights of gay folks, conservatives pillory the questioners for trying to punish their principles – and being “anti-Catholic” to boot.

Matt responded to Ben that the politicians who hold bad positions on principle are more likely to push them forward in political discourse rather than simply voting for them. Call me cynical (and I’m younger than either of them), but while it’s probably the case all things being equal that politicians devote more energy to the positions closest to their hearts, all things tend not to be equal, and there are a fair number of examples out there of politicians taking stances that seem to have more to do with their sense of political reality than their sense of ethical imperative and then do whatever they can to highlight those issues and those positions.

But testing that hypothesis would require devoting more energy to divining the secret motivations of our elected officials, which only reinforces the narrative of political change as personal psychodrama rather than clash of collective actors. It reinforces the “Great (Elected) Man” theory of history to which too many progressives fall prey, in which progress comes from getting the right visionary leader into office and then keeping him there. Speculating about what Bill Clinton really thought of throwing moms in vocational training off of welfare or denying full faith and credit to same-sex couples makes for good copy and good conversation. But we’re both better equipped and more responsible to consider whether he was right to make those moves, and under what structural circumstances they might not have been as appealing.

Of course when elected officials do the right thing I’d rather think that they believe in it too (if a politician also, say, calls for an end to poverty in hopes of getting elected President, then that sure beats executing a mentally disabled man in order to get elected President). But I’ll choose which Senators to vote for based on how they’ll vote, how they’ll shift which issues capture political discourse and what the margins of that discourse are, and how they’ll affect the partisan breakdown of the body. That said, Lieberman’s people know what they’re doing with their appeal to “principle”: Voters tend to prefer candidates they perceive as acting from principle (Paul Waldman has a great discussion of this in his aptly titled book Being Right Is Not Enough). Hence the quarter of 2004 Bush voters in Wisconsin who also voted for Russ Feingold. Those amongst our elected officials with left opinions that dare not speak their names would do well to keep that in mind.

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM

Bush today pardoned not one, but two turkeys. They’re both going to Disneyland.

Look who’s encouraging a culture of dependency now?

Hope the Cato Institute won’t go easy on this soft on turkey/ soft bigotry of low expectations shtick.

Otherwise, more turkeys might settle for sucking on the teat of the welfare state rather than claiming their piece of the ownership society.

I keep committing to myself not to link every column Barbara Ehrenreich pens for the Times all month. But then again, I do owe her something for coming down to New Haven to get arrested with us. And maybe more links will help, in whatever small way, to shake enough sense into Bill Keller to carve her a permanent niche on the page. And ths piece is just damn good:

‘The lower-economic people,’ Cosby announced, ‘are not holding up their end in this deal.’ They let me down, too, sometimes – like that girl at Wendy’s who gave me sweet iced tea when I had clearly specified unsweetened. She looked a little tired, but, as Cos might point out: How hard can it be to hold a job, go to high school and care for younger siblings in all your spare moments while your parents are at work? But it’s just so 1985 to beat up on the black poor. During the buildup to welfare ‘reform’ in 1996, the comfortable denizens of think spas like the Heritage Foundation routinely excoriated poor black women for being lazy, promiscuous, government-dependent baby machines, not to mention overweight (that poundcake again). As for poor black youth, they were targeted in the 90’s as a generation of ‘superpredators,’ gang-bangers and thugs.

It’s time to start picking on a more up-to-date pariah group for the 21st century, and I’d like to nominate the elderly whites. Filial restraint has so far kept the would-be Social Security privatizers on the right from going after them, but the grounds for doing so are clear. For one thing, there’s a startling new wave of ‘grandpa bandits’ terrorizing rural banks. And occasionally some old duffer works himself into a frenzy listening to Cole Porter tunes and drives straight into a crowd of younger folks. The law-abiding old whites are no prize either. Overwhelmingly, they choose indolence over employment – lounging on park benches, playing canasta – when we all know there are plenty of people-greeter jobs out there. Since it’s government money that allows them to live in this degenerate state, we can expect the Heritage Foundation to reveal any day now that some seniors are cashing in their Social Security checks for vodka and Viagra. Just as welfare was said to “cause poverty,” the experts may soon announce that Medicare causes baldness and that Social Security is a risk factor for osteoporosis: the correlations are undeniable.

Is there an urgent place for social criticism of the African-American community from within? Certainly. Is that place filled by a millionaire who made his money first offering a not-too threatening image of Black America for White America and second offering a whole lot of jello blaming the victims of economic inequality for being the ones not holding up their end of the bargain? Not in the slightest.

Part of my job at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project two summers ago was tracking several Philadelphia newspapers each day for coverage of the impact of debates over the welfare reauthorization bill on the lives on thousands of Philadelphians. The short summary of that research would be: there wasn’t any. This is probably when I developed my now deeply-ingrained dislike of the Philaelphia Inquirer, and also when I started joking that were the city of Philadelphia to explode, the paper’s banner headline would read “SUBURBAN FAMILIES FACE DELAYS GETTING TO WORK.” Unfortunately, that still seems to be the case. There was one exception yesterday, however: a good piece on the dangers posed by the PA Welfare Department’s proposed cuts in assistance for transportation, rightly titled, “Paths to better lives are at risk“:

Created during welfare reform in the late 1990s, the QuickSilver is among two dozen local transit services that may dwindle or disappear through widening holes in Pennsylvania’s safety net. Facing a budget crisis, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare plans to cut 30 percent of funding for these routes under the department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 – which could mean fewer buses or none at all on some local routes serving nearly 3,000 people a day. The department threatens to ax the program by mid-2005, if the funding problems remain. Working with SEPTA, seven agencies in Southeastern Pennsylvania provide transportation for poor workers isolated from suburban jobs. Some have grown weary of unpredictable state support for transit…”These are real people that really need this service,” said Tom Klevan, coordinator for Altoona’s transit provider.

As Congress remains focused on Iraq, welfare reform languishes with Head Start and transportation funding in a long line of issues overdue for legislative reauthorization. As a result, welfare grants to states remain stuck at 1996 levels. In a sign of the times, Andrew Bush, who presides over federal welfare aid for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is on assignment in Iraq, advising its new government how to build a welfare system.

More like this, please.

Among the papers I wrote before finishing sophomore year a couple weeks ago was one tracing the development and dominance of culturalist views of poverty in American discourse and policy on poverty, bringing together quotes from Republican and Democratic think tanks popularizing the ideas, from Presidents Clinton and Bush endorsing them, and from welfare recipients attesting to the devastating impact of the policies they wrought. I talked about the intuitive appeal of a culturalist perspective – of the idea that the poor are suffering from a culture of poverty and not from material deprivation and economic displacement – as an alternative for the middle- and upper-classes to recognition of responsibility for the conditions of the poor and the potential for themselves to become poor in the future, not through moral failing but through economic crisis. No quote in that paper, however, could sum up the seductive appeal and utter dishonesty of the culturalist view as well as this one delivered yesterday by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson:

Being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.

Perhaps I can be among the first to call for Secretary Jackson’s resignation.

Some thoughts on yesterday’s march:

It was gigantic. I’m not great at estimating crowds, but I’m confident saying there were significantly more folks there than the last rally I attended in DC, the anti-war one in January which drew several hundred thousand people. The organizers reported distributing over a million of the “count me in” stickers given to marchers when we signed forms identifying ourselves, which is a number I’m inclined to trust and a method which, based on personal experience, is much more likely to under-count than to over-count people. That, and just look at those photos. A truly enormous crowd (were I to use an even less scientific measure, the number of people I know whom I unexpectedly ran into at the march, I would reach a similar conclusion).

What impressed me most about this march, as I alluded to earlier, was the self-conscious manner in which it broke out of the mold of white, upper/middle-class feminist/ pro-choice activism which has too often marked the movement. The choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term was contextualized in terms of the various and urgent structures which regulate women’s fertility and impact their lives and those of their born children. Speakers and placards unapologetically tied the right to choose with the rights to a progressive welfare system, progressive immigration reform, and global sexual education. Too often, as some have observed, it’s left to the anti-choice movement to discuss the realities of urban poverty. Yesterday, the right to choose was proudly claimed as part of a comprehensive struggle for the liberation of women. Women of color, poor women, and disabled women were not only present but central on the podium and in the crowds. Cheri Hankala, of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, spoke right after Hillary Clinton.

About the big-name Democrats: There were a lot of them. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Poxer, Terry McAuliffe, Carol Mosely-Braun and Howard Dean all marched or spoke. It was somewhat heartening to see them there, insofar as it makes it more difficult for the party, or its candidate (several of whose relatives apparently were there) to Sister-Souljah the Pro-Choice movement over the next several months or once in office. And it demonstrates, God willing, a recognition that this is a constituency which will be vital to rebuilding the Democratic party.

There was, of course, a good deal of dissonance at times between the speakers, and between the narrowness of some of the more famous speakers’ messages and the agenda of the march. Hillary Clinton, proud booster as First Lady and now as Senator of a welfare reform which punishes women for having children, deteriorates their access to healthcare and childcare, and make it that much more difficult to find education and living wage work, appeared all too happy to divorce freedom of choice from liberation from poverty. Yesterday, not for the first time, Clinton seemed to get a free pass from much of the left on account of the venom directed at her from the right. I would have liked to see someone like Cheri Hankela call Clinton on the impact of her policies on women’s freedom to direct their lives. But, much like John Lewis’ planned critique of John Kennedy at the March on Washington, it didn’t happen.

There were lots of families there. There were large delegations from very “red” cities and states which in the conventional wisdom would have sent no one to a pro-choice march. I spoke to women on their first march and to others who had been to the capitol for the same cause a dozen years before. There were Doctors and medical students, some in appropriate dress, declaring their preparation to perform an operation for which others have been murdered. We Jews were very, very well-represented, particularly the Reform movement, which endorsed the March.

What most surprised me about the counter-protesters was their scarcity. They stood in a designated space along the sidewalk, maybe one every several feet, for a few blocks. Mostly they held signs holding pictures of aborted fetuses and comparing abortion to slavery and/or the Holocaust. I observed no physical confrontations between us and them.

I came away from yesterday’s march with something that many of us worked for but never saw completely coalesce in the same way within the anti-war movement (whose circumstances, of course, made such much more difficult) last year: a sense of hope and alternative positive vision. The March’s organizers, speakers, and participants effectively conveyed not only the tremendous threat posed by the Bush administration but also an incipient sense of the process of forging progressive alternatives. It was a small piece of a conversation about what it would mean to build a society which fully respected and fostered the autonomy of women and children and men over their bodies and their lives, and in so doing made possible the full flourishing of the human spirit.

I agree with most of what Alyssa has to say here:

There is simply no precedent for the outpacing of C.E.O. compensation and other corporate profits in comparison to what the people who actually make companies run earn as it happens in America today. It’s telling that in the wake of major corporate scandals, rather than condemn Tyco executives, for example, for their terrible, destructive greed, jurors in their corruption trials dismiss accounts of profit gone mad as a waste of time. Our views on fair compensation, respect for employees, and the value of organized labor are vastly off-kilter.

…Unions will always have limited power if their strength is confined to the workplace, where they can fight employers, but lack the ability to define some of the structural constraints, like the minimum wage, that affect their members. It is vital that unions be organized well enough so they can make their members’ voices heard in both the workplace and the voting booth, and make sure that they are united behind strong, progressive policies.

I do have a couple points of disagreement or, at least, of divergent emphasis. First, I think Alyssa inadvertently minimizes the significance of the two moments she highlights which we agree offer new hope for American labor, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and the HERE – UNITE merger:

The former represents a willingness to be flexible in the face of party re-alignment and a recognition of the progress of globalization. The second represents a committment to getting leaner and meaner, and an understanding that you need both money and killer organizing to beat a strong resurgence of anti-union sentiment.

While there’s certainly a good deal of truth in the argument that the merger represented a union with members but no money and a union with money but no members joining forces, I think there’s a much broader point here, one that I’ve mentioned on this site before: Labor has to be as well organized and as unified as management, and as labor organizes across boundaries between nations, we must organize across boundaries between unions, something most folks who were watching and have the freedom to say so agree didn’t take place effectively in California. Nathan Newman has argued recently that union competition marked labor’s most effective period by providing a spur to all sides to organize; unfortunately, union competition also marked one of labor’s most tragic moments, its divided and self-destructive response to the growing Red Scare, in which all too often those very union competitions eased the process of conservative unions siding with Uncle Sam against their more radical counterparts. Among the biggest losers there, not surprisingly, were the workers of color whom only the left-wing unions of the CIO were effectively organizing. Of course there are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to be composed of different unions divided in some cases by job type, in others by region, in others by organizing strategy – but too often those barriers are arbitrary and costly. As has played out on Andy Stern’s blog and in its comments, finding innovative ways to foster broader strategic alliances while maintaining and building industrial democracy and democratic leadership on the local level is key (David Moberg explores this further in this week’s The Nation in an article which isn’t yet on-line). So the UNITE HERE merger, bringing together one union which launders the second union’s uniforms and a second union which serves the first union food at lunch hour, bringing together two unions with a proven commitment to progressive organizing, is an urgent model – although it may not have been carried out in a way consonant with the best values of these unions.

Speaking of progressive organizing, I think that to articulate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides as a response to a shifting national and international landscape both understates their significance and lets labor off to easily for a historically (up to the mid-90’s) anti-immigrant stance that at no time was in the big picture interests of union members. Daivided labor markets – be the axis of divison race, religion, gender, or immigration status – have always been lucrative for employers, who’ve proven all to eager to exploit a vulnerable group’s marginal position in society (and too often in the labor movement as well) to drive down their wages and benefits, and to use the threat of that group’s therefore cheaper labor costs to drive down everyone else wages and benefits and pit natural allies against each other in an ugly race to the bottom. Historical examples of course abound; here in Philadelphia, a union movement which had succesfully organized and won the ten-hour day screeched to a halt as first-generation Catholic immigrants and second-generation Protestants in different trades started killing each other in the Kensington riots. Organizing the unorganized workers, rather than engaging in a futile campaign to stop them from working is the only morally defensible and genuinely pragmatic approach. God bless John Wilhelm, Maria Elena Durazo, and the unrecognized others who brought the AFL-CIO around.

The other area where my perspective may differ from Alyssa’s somewhat is on the role of unions in politics. I’m a major proponent of the New Unity Partnership, which would enshrine organizing in the workplace and political organizing as unions’ major functions and major expenditures. But while Alyssa urges unions

picking politically viable candidates and proving that they can turn out large numbers of supporters for them…severe layoffs, a slowdown in organizing, and bad choices of candidates have made unions look less credible politically than they did in 2000…

let’s not forget what the Democratic party, after the Clinton years, which on the one hand brought the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increased minimum wage, and on the other wrought NAFTA and Welfare Reform, has to prove to American workers and American labor. Labor has been most effective in this country not by letting its support be taken for granted by Democrats but by organizing so powerfully that the Democrats (read: FDR) feared that if they didn’t find enough to offer labor it would sink them. I’m glad Kerry wants a Labor Secretary from the “House of Labor.” I’d like to hear more about this legislation on the campaign trail though.

That said, I’m stoked for SEIU to make history by devoting its resources this election not into soft-money TV ads but by getting thousands of its members leaves of absence to organize their neighbors to vote Bush out of office, and to hold our national leadership accountable through November and beyond. The party machines could learn a lot from them; today’s New York Times suggests they’ve begun to already.

David Corn offers a solid defense of Kerry’s progressive credentials – his investigations of Iran-Contra, BCCI, and Vietnam POW/AWOL rumors, and his votes against DOMA and for Clean Elections. He sets out consciously to tell the good parts of the Kerry narrative, and he articulates them well. Corn may very well be right that

there have been times he has shown courage, devotion to justice and commitment to honesty, open government and principle-over-politics. There are few senators of whom that can be said. A full assessment of the man ought to take these portions of his public service into account.

There remain, unfortunately, other portions to be taken into account as well. Alex Cockburn, also in The Nation, a few weeks back summarized some of the major alarms Kerry should be setting off for progressives. But that said, I’m still closer to David Corn than to Cockburn or to this headline from LWB-Idol Sam Smith on this one.

Nick Confessore put together (scroll down to March 4) one of the more judicious assessments I’ve seen of Kerry’s record and various attempts to paint it:

He is pro-welfare reform, a deficit hawk, a good environmentalist, doesn’t want to privatize Social Security or Medicare, supports labor, is basically a free-trader with some occasional gestures towards less-free trade, supports civil unions but not gay marriage, and is a liberal internationalist on foreign policy. In other words, he’s your basic moderate Democrat — not too liberal, not too conservative. That was always his perverse strength. On a scale of one to ten, few Democratic interest groups would give him a ten, but most would give him a seven.

That, as they say, is the good news and the bad news.

Every time I try to really like John Kerry, he goes and does something like this:

“President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second,” he told the American Urban Radio Network.

Given that the “first Black President” rewarded Black supporters by gutting AFDC and presiding over the expansion of the drug war and the prison industrial complex, and called Sister Souljah a rabid racist and Charles Murray a thought-provoking academic, one can only imagine what the second one would come up with.