Tonight, MSNBC will telecast a Democratic presidential forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO, with an expected audience of thousands of union members at Chicago's historic Soldier Field. Although questions will come mostly from labor folks, the forum will be moderated by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, known for his searing anti-Bush "Special Comments."
Below I propose a few questions I'd like to hear tonight. I don't submit these as a disgruntled former MSNBC employee. If disgruntlement were my motivation, I'd be urging Keith to ask the candidates what they think about a TV network like MSNBC that operates union-free, where management ordered producers in the run-up to the Iraq invasion to favor pro-invasion guests. (MSNBC was as complicit as Fox News in promoting Bush's Iraq disaster.)
Rather, I submit the following questions as a lifelong union supporter, and a former union steward. These aren't the easy questions that allow Democrats to all place themselves on one side, with Bush on the other. These are the ones that divide Democrats.
These questions focus on polices that affect the lives and livelihoods of most Americans -- in other words, the kind of questions that hold little interest for the Beltway pundit elite that prefers covering politics as a Hillary/Obama celebrity feud.
TRADE: The last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, worked ferociously alongside big business lobbyists to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over the objections of labor, environmentalists and consumer advocates, whose fears of NAFTA's negative impacts have largely materialized. During his 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton had expressed concerns about NAFTA before becoming its main booster once in the White House.
How can you -- especially those of you who supported NAFTA -- assure voters that, if elected, you will not bend to corporate pressures to pass corporate-drafted trade deals that undermine labor and environmental protections?
If elected, will you work to repeal NAFTA?
HEALTHCARE: By removing private insurance (and its waste, red tape, sales commissions, CEO salaries, profits) from health care, Congressional studies have found that streamlined, single-payer Medicare for All would save society billions of dollars. Many experts see it as the only path to quality, universal coverage. In March, the AFL-CIO Executive Council endorsed expanding Medicare to the whole country. Hundreds of labor groups -- including eight national unions, 21 state federations and 81 central labor councils -- specifically endorse John Conyers' H.R. 676, the "Enhanced Medicare for All" bill sponsored by 76 members of Congress.
Excepting Mr. Kucinich who co-sponsors H.R. 676, please explain why you oppose "Enhanced Medicare for All."
How many of you have seen Michael Moore's movie, SiCKO? If you've seen it, do you disagree with Moore's thesis that for-profit insurers deform our system and that healthcare is a right, not a commodity to be purchased? If you haven't seen it, why not?
Follow up for Mr. Obama: You've repeatedly stated that when it comes to health care policy, insurance companies should get a seat at the table, but not every seat. Should Halliburton have a seat at the table when military or foreign policy is made?
IRAQ: U.S. soldiers and reservists in Iraq are mostly working people or the children of working people -- not the children of laptop warriors from the pundit elite. With Congressional unpopularity rivaling that of President Bush as the Iraq occupation drags on, 70 members of the U.S. House recently sent an open letter to the President with a clear declaration:
We are writing to inform you that we will only support additional funds for U.S. military operations in Iraq during Fiscal Year 2008 and beyond for the protection and safe redeployment of all our troops out of Iraq before you leave office.
Will you join tonight in pledging no additional funds except for the "protection and safe redeployment of all our troops out of Iraq"? If not, why not?
IRAQ'S OIL: Democratic leaders in Congress have joined the White House in declaring passage of a proposed Iraqi oil law as a "benchmark" of progress. While the proposed law calls for oil revenues to be shared among Iraq's regions and ethnic groups, it would open Iraq's vast oil reserves to foreign oil companies, under contracts of up to 30 years. Privatization is why many Iraqis - including the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions - oppose the bill. Mr. Kucinich has urged Democrats to drop the oil law as a "benchmark," saying that privatization pressure tends to confirm that the "purpose of the war is about oil."
Do you believe that the proposed oil law giving a green light to foreign firms should be pushed on the government and people of Iraq?
** Note to activists in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond: Having worked in television, I'm not naïve about what can be accomplished in a 90-minute TV forum. If Keith and the union folks don't get to these questions tonight, feel free to use any of them in the coming weeks as candidates campaign in your communities.
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Jeff Cohen was Communications Director of Kucinich for President in 2003 and is an advisor to Progressive Democrats of America.