Setting a New Agenda: Politics 2007

Editor’s Note: PA talks to Joelle Fishman, chair of the Communist Party’s Political Action Commission, about this year’s political landscape. PA: Why are there such a large number of Democratic candidates entering the race for 2008? Given our independent political orientation, what should our stance be?

JF: Bush is an unpopular, lame-duck president. But more important is the growing upsurge to change the direction of the country and defend basic democracy. We saw that in the results of the 2006 Congressional elections, but the extreme right-wing grip is still there. The difficulty of getting any peace or pro-labor legislation passed in the Senate is an indication of the continued grip by the right wing. We’re in the midst of a transition, and people are hungry and looking for who’s going to represent people’s needs, who’s going to come out strongly to end the war, on economic issues, and universal health care. In 2008 there is the possibility of a decisive defeat of the ultra-right in the White House and in expanding the majority in Congress. Clinton, Obama and Edwards are the front runners now among the Democrats in these early stages of the campaign. Richardson is ranked fifth and Kucinich is ranked ninth. The diversity among the candidates is significant. The huge turnouts to hear Obama in the South represent a challenge to the Southern strategy and to racism, and an embrace of the basic democratic traditions of our nation. The 2008 elections are intertwined with the results of the 110th Congress. The ability to win on some key issues will have a big impact. Grassroots organizing and action on issues is what’s key, moving with the labor movement and core sections of the all people’s coalition – African American, Latino, women and youth voters. Of course, peace is foremost. Candidates will be judged on the issues and on the ability to continue to expand and deepen the broad people’s coalition, which is the only way we can wrest control away from the right wing.

PA: The peace movement played an important role in the 2006 elections. How do you think this will continue to play out?

JF: It’s in the forefront, and it can’t be any other way. The whole economic program – the 100 hours campaign and the next legislative steps – that the Democrats campaigned on is going to be impossible to carry out with the huge sums of money being poured into the war in Iraq. Obviously, deep opposition to the war among the people was key in the 2006 elections. The labor movement played a key role, specifically around the campaign to stop the Bush agenda, including both the war and economic issues. I had the opportunity to be in Washington for the January peace march and lobby organized by United for Peace and Justice. It was impressive. I was also able to be a part of Lobby Day with over 1,000 people on Capitol Hill representing all but two states. The Congressional aides told us pointedly, “You have no idea of the impact that you’re making. Please keep this up.” It is important for peace forces to develop tactics based on the understanding that in order to stop this war it’s going to take coalition politics at the legislative level. There is not a large enough Democratic majority to pass legislation to end the war without some Republican support. At the same time it’s going to take a strong, organized broad voice from the grass roots. This will be the way to curb Bush, and stop his pre-emptive war agenda to go into Iran and perhaps elsewhere.

PA: Is it possible to regard this upsurge of democratic struggle as a new beginning?

JF: An important turning point is taking place. Democratic control of Congress, albeit narrowly in the Senate, creates new conditions. You can see that from the strengthened leverage of the Out of Iraq Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Caucus. We anticipated this, but it is quite something to see it playing out in life. It will take some careful thinking and analysis to develop the appropriate tactics. This brings to mind an article by Zbigniew Brzezinski, in which he comes out against the escalation of the war. Of course, he is for the occupation, but opposed to escalation. On stopping the escalation we agree. After that we diverge in worldview and general direction. Another example is the Republicans who voted for the non-binding resolution. Peace, labor and the people’s movements have to develop the tactics that take advantage of splits in the right-wing, and forward motion by some Democrats as the situation plays itself out.

PA: What does the Communist Party think are the most advanced agenda items that can be won in this Congress?

JF: Any legislative victory will need majority Democratic unity. In the case of the 100 hours agenda, it was near unanimous. In this Congress some Republican support is also needed to get the 60 votes required in the Senate. Certainly at the top of the agenda is ending the war in Iraq. The 100 hours agenda is instructive. Raise the minimum wage, cut interest rates on student loans, lower prescription drug prices, etc. The whole program went through the House in 42 hours. In the Senate, however, it’s still working its way through. But if you take the example of the minimum wage, you see the problem we confront. The Senate Republicans were able to deny the required 60 votes for passage of the so-called “clean” minimum wage bill. They only allowed an increased minimum wage to pass with a business tax credit attached. What will happen in the conference committee between the House and the Senate remains to be seen.

One of the most important bills is the Employee Free Choice Act. It would take away a lot of the barriers that workers who desperately want a union now confront. Workers want a union not only to have a structure for grievances and due process but also because union workers make substantially more in pay and benefits. It’s exciting that the EFCA has been introduced with 233 sponsors. This is an issue not just for current union members but for whole communities that will benefit, and the labor movement’s mobilization is being approached in this strong way.

The health care crisis is so huge. It’s a horrible thing. I know someone who lost her life because she didn’t have health care, and many of us experience the consequences of inadequate health care. The numbers without any coverage continue to mushroom under the Bush administration. There are a number of legislative approaches. Here in Connecticut, as in about 18 states, the big issue before the legislature is the health care crisis. The best proposal under consideration is universal single-payer health care. It has a lot of support. There are also less comprehensive solutions under consideration. At the national level, H.R. 676, introduced by Rep. John Conyers and co-authored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, for universal single-payer health care, is the strongest legislation and it is gaining more and more labor support. There are also local movements to expand specific aspects of health care that deserve support.

There are still defensive battles being fought in Congress. Privatization of Social Security is still on the table for Republicans, as are anti-immigrant measures.

Election laws and voting rights is extremely important to hopefully prevent the theft of future elections and ensure the enfranchisement of all those of voting age.

Legislation has been introduced for relief and rebuilding the Gulf Coast that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina and completely ignored by the Bush administration, even in the State of the Union address.

Not the least of the work of the 110th Congress are the scores of hearings underway to discover and hold accountable the prosecution of the war in Iraq and many other aspects of the Bush administration.

PA: What is the best means of maintaining the center-left people’s coalition that defeated the Republicans in 2006 and will be needed to win all of these battles and to win again in 2008?

JF: We talked before about contending with the continued hold on government by the right wing. There are huge pressures from Wall Street as well. It’s necessary for the broad movement to take stock and reach an assessment of the balance of forces in Congress and in the country in order to keep the unity and forge ahead. Unrealistic assessments can lead to bad tactics. For example, to end the war, the left has to reach out on issues that will bring broader support. In early February, 70 percent of the people were opposed to the escalation of the war, but only 50 percent were in favor of limiting funding for the escalation.

There were those who wanted to ignore the need to mobilize the 70 percent support for the non-binding resolution against escalation which had nearly unanimous Democratic support and some Republicans in Congress, and only support cutting funds for the war, even though the votes for that were no-where near passage. In life, the debate and passage of the non-binding resolution, historic in a time of war, increased support to pass binding resolutions.

The mobilization of close to a million phone calls, e-mails and messages to members of Congress was key to the outcome. This was accomplished by new national coalitions of unions and consumer organizations along with peace organizations. There is no contradiction between mobilizing broadly to stop the escalation of the war, while at the same time building grassroots support for more advanced legislation such as H.R. 508, introduced by Reps. Woolsey, Lee and Waters. This is the most comprehensive bill that deals with ending the occupation, diplomacy in the region instead of military action, health and well-being of troops when they return, and financial responsibility for the restoration of Iraq.

There are some people who argue that the Democratic majority in Congress should have enacted H.R. 508 immediately, making this a litmus test for every congressperson. Yet, not even the non-binding resolution could get 60 votes in the Senate, although it did get a majority. Those members of Congress who are in the forefront, and those who are moving forward should be recognized and encouraged to take the next step. Those who continue to support Bush’s war should be protested.

The challenge is to develop the tactics that will inspire much greater and broader “street heat” from labor, churches, state legislatures, cities, and neighborhoods. We’re in a new moment. Attacking the progressives in Congress, or the Democratic majority in Congress, for not being radical enough will not bring the troops home. Of course, pressure is needed, but the fire must be kept on the Bush administration and the extreme right wing. That will build the broad unity necessary to accomplish a long overdue exit strategy from Iraq, and to deliver a decisive blow to the ultra-right in 2008.

--Joelle Fishman chairs the Political Action Commission of the Communist Party USA. Send your letter to the editor to

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