If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought Tom Harkin was Bernie Sanders’ surrogate speaker at Progress Iowa’s Corn Feed event on Sunday. Actually, scratch that – you might have concluded that Harkin was using his speech to push Sanders to the left. To a crowd of a couple hundred, Harkin laid out a host of impressively bold policy ideas that he stated would “provoke your thinking” on the future of the progressive movement.
The former Senator’s speech turned out to be the most fascinating of the day, and not just because he endorsed Hillary Clinton three weeks ago and yet proposed many of the ideas that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (of Ben and Jerry’s) had just minutes earlier at the podium said Sanders would champion as President. Harkin may have retired from politics, but he certainly hasn’t stopped thinking about where he’d like to see America go in the future. Now freed from the constraints of electoral politics, Harkin seems eager to call for significantly more liberal proposals than are often discussed in the Senate or on the presidential campaign trail.
“We need to take it a step further,” Harkin said of the Affordable Care Act, which he lauded for making people see healthcare as a right, not a privilege. “We need a single-payer system in the United States of America.”
He then recounted a recent trip to Cuba where he visited a number of hospitals and clinics to study their healthcare program.
“Cuba today has the lowest infant mortality rate of any nation in the western hemisphere,” Harkin said. “Lower than ours, lower than anyone else. I wanted to see why is this? It is because when a woman gets pregnant, from that day forward she has a healthcare worker who works with her, makes sure she has the right diet, gets her off of smoking, no drinking, makes sure she has healthcare from that moment to the birth of that child and beyond. Wouldn’t that be nice to have in America?”
On labor issues he argued for better collective bargaining laws, but then also questioned whether the 40-hour workweek status quo is justified.
“Why do we have a 40-hour work week?” Harkin asked, noting that was just a compromise back when labor unions fought for 30-hours in the early 1900s, down from what was 60-hour weeks. “Let’s start campaigning for a 30-hour work week in America. Listen, 40 hours is not written in stone like the Ten Commandments.”
He also suggested upending the current system of public school financing.
“Where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that elementary and secondary education is to be paid for by property taxes?” he continued, as one of the nine policy fields he spent his speech addressing. “You won’t find it anywhere, but that’s the system that came up … It’s time to start paying for elementary and secondary education through general revenues, corporate taxes, transaction taxes, wealth taxes. And while we’re at it, let’s have year-round school in America with one month off in August, nothing else.”
On immigration he declared, “Two words: no walls. What’s a wall? Wall is fear. We don’t have anything to be afraid of … You like your vegetables, you like your fruits you go and get in your store all year long? Thanks a Latino or Latina because that’s who picking your food for you.”
And on infrastructure Harkin argued, “We’re almost a third world country now in infrastructure. Every new and rebuilt road and every street in America ought to have a bike lane and a walking lane attached to it. We need to subsidize electric cars. We need to raise the gasoline and road use taxes.”
In a quick interview with press after the event, he expanded on some of his comments on education, and also suggested medical school should be completely free to attend.
“Have the government buy up all the outstanding student loans,” Harkin said on student debt. “The federal government just buy it up. A trillion dollars. I think the economic benefits over ten years would far outweigh the consequences.”
It was quite the agenda for the future of America and progressives, and one he realized was rather provocative. That was the point, he told to reporters.
“I just think as progressives, it’s not enough to just stay with old progressive [ideas], we got to start pushing the envelope out there,” Harkin said afterwards. “What’s the new America going to be like?”
Does he think the presidential candidates will jump on board? “Probably not all of them,” he admitted. “I’m pushing the envelope on this deliberately to try to get some new thinking out there …. they may not endorse it fully, they might endorse some of it. … I don’t know if they would endorse my 30-hour work week, but I feel very strongly about this. 6 hour days, 5 days a week.”
This was a speech at a Progress Iowa event, the organization whose very mission is to spread good progressive policy ideas and counteract conservative ones. And Harkin was long a liberal voice during his time in the Senate. Yet it was still very interesting to see him use his role as one of the most respected Democrats in the lead-off caucus state to pitch a number of progressive ideas far to the left of his endorsed candidate. Even if his goal on Sunday was to encourage discussion by offering intentionally thought-provoking policies, it still begs the question of the man who backed Howard Dean in 2003: if this is where Harkin’s heart is at, why the heck did he endorse Clinton over Sanders?
by Pat Rynard