How Progressives Prepare For The Economic Debates Ahead

Isaiah J. Poole

With Congress now poised to focus on a high-stakes debate on federal spending, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Cay Johnston advised a group of progressive leaders today that it’s time to take the gloves off.

“We need to stop beating around the bush about this,” he said after a private meeting of the Wednesday Group, a meeting of activists and organization leaders convened by the Campaign for America’s Future. “These are radicals. These are economically uninformed radicals. They have certainty in their minds about what they are doing, but in fact anyone who understands economics knows that the Tea Party people have no idea what they are actually talking about.”

Progressives need to take charge of the discussion by cutting to the chase of what conservative economic policy is doing, Johnston said. “What is going on here is an effort to essentially take from the many to give to the few, to reduce investment in America.”

To draw the contrast between that agenda and progressive policies that are designed to get people back to work and to rebuild the middle class, “we have to go after these people and say what you really want to do is subsidize the oligarchs who want to take from the many and give to the already rich.”

A crucial battleground, Johnston points out, is the living wage battles going on around the country, particularly those centered on low-wage jobs at Walmart. Walmart symbolizes for Johnston conservative policies that enrich the few at the expense of the many, as it uses tax subsidies to finance its stores and warehouses, and then forces workers to depend on tax-funded food, housing and health care aid because its wages are at or below the poverty level.

His answer to how progressives can fight back against Walmart? “If you shop at Walmart, stop shopping. If you can’t stop shopping at Walmart because of where you live, cut back on your shopping. … If Walmart’s sales begin to fall, Walmart will pay attention.”

Johnston added that progressives need to do a better job of raising the alarm about the number of people needing jobs, stressing that the levels of joblessness we are now experiencing is intolerable and demands our primary focus. “That’s where progressives need to take the position, and hammer it home at every opportunity, that we are about investing in America, we’re about a prosperous future; the Republicans want to mine the economy, they want to take from the many to give to the few. Make it simple, make it clear, and hit the message again and again and again,” he said.

Rep. Keith Ellison, the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also briefed members of the Wednesday Group about the upcoming fight over the budget.

Afterward, he, as does Johnston, said that it was crucial for progressives to talk bluntly about the effect of conservative positions on real people.

For example, as such right-wing groups as the Heritage Foundation encourage Tea Party members of Congress to insist on ending funding for the Affordable Care Act as a condition for allowing the government to remain open after September 30 or to pay its bills once it reaches its debt ceiling in October, more people need to talk about the masses of people who for the first time will have access to affordable health care thanks to the health care exchanges now coming online.

Ellison stressed that while in the short term there appears to be no good legislative outcomes realistically on the horizon – a plan to avert a government shutdown would likely involve a budget that retains much if not all of the damaging constraints of the sequester – progressives have to stay engaged in the long-term fight, making the case for a government that invests in jobs and is focused first on rebuilding a growing and prosperous middle class.

Ellison also said that he supported President Obama’s effort to attempt to negotiate an end to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Ellison had earlier supported a military strike against the Syrian government, out of the belief that the United States could not stand idle in the face of such a devastating attack on civilians.

His willingness to support a military intervention drew sharp rebukes from progressives. He responded to his critics by saying, “I love them,” adding, “If I’m wrong, hopefully I’m wrong with my heart in the right place.”

See his full response in this video.

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