An Outsider on the Inside

Though battling terminal illness, Tim Carpenter is still busy moving Congress left.

Cole Stangler

Tim Carpenter works to give progressives a voice on Capitol Hill. (Photo courtesy of Tim Carpenter)

Tim Carpenter is the national director of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). Founded in 2004 in the aftermath of Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) presidential run, the group works what it calls an inside-outside” strategy — aimed at translating the activism of outside social movements into progressive legislation in Congress. PDA works closely with progressive advocacy groups and about a dozen activist members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, aiming to push the 72-member voting block to take more aggressive stances on issues as diverse as the welfare state, healthcare, trade and foreign policy. This year, PDA has lobbied Congress and helped organize rallies against reductions in Social Security and pushed for a so-called Robin Hood tax on financial transactions.

The Democratic Party, at its roots, is a progressive party. So my hope is that we would have a candidate who will be the standard-bearer for the progressive Democrats. I see the tide turning. It’s imperative that the progressive movement run a strong, articulate progressive candidate and campaign in 2016.

A native of Southern California, Carpenter is a longtime activist with history in the grassroots campaigns against anti-nuclear power, the Catholic Worker movement and Democratic Socialists of America. When he is not on the road organizing, he lives with his family in western Massachusetts.

Do progressives in Congress have anything to learn from the Tea Party?

Progressives can learn a lot from the Tea Party in regards to the inside-outside strategy of holding elected officials accountable. The Congressional Progressive Caucus took a number of missteps and miscues leading up to the Affordable Care Act. We should never have abandoned the fight on single payer. We should have never opted for a public option. We divided our forces much too early. What we can learn from the Tea Baggers is to hold elected officials accountable and not give up — certainly not before we’re deep into a fight.

You have been working with the Progressive Caucus since the founding of PDA in 2004. How effective is the caucus?

The Progressive Caucus has been a landing point for progressive activists who are working inside the Democratic Party. If you’re working an inside-outside strategy, you have to have a base to come home to, and the Progressive Caucus has offered us that. In reality, of those 72 members, only about 10 are what we would call leaders within the Progressive Caucus. Our work as Progressive Democrats of America is to strengthen those who are leading. To have a place where we as progressives can come together and work is important. Over the course of the last year or two under the leadership of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), we’ve seen the more progressive wing of the caucus hold the line, particularly in regard to making sure that no missiles were tossed into Damascus.

Some critics of the Progressive Caucus suggest that it would be more effective to have a smaller, more aggressive caucus. What do you think?

I agree. I would rather be in a meeting with 10 people who want to make a difference, get out and lead than be in a room with 60 people who call themselves progressives. I would rather surround myself with those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and go out and risk defeat. An aggressive, focused, principled caucus that held the line on single payer would have served our movement much better through this fight over the Affordable Care Act.

Steve Cobble, a co-founder of PDA, makes this analogy of the horseshoe, saying there are issues in Congress where you can link the left of the Progressive Caucus with some Tea Party, libertarian-minded Republicans. Is that an effective strategy?

We have political opportunities in this Congress, whether it’s the horseshoe analogy or in bed with strange bedfellows — whatever you want to term it. There are libertarians and Tea Baggers out there who agree with us that it’s unconscionable to spend the resources we do on the military budget. And we find agreement on not going into Syria. So if you can find the votes and if you can put together a majority to prevent our president from taking us into an unnecessary, illegal war, you’re going to take those votes wherever you can get them.

What kind of small victories are achievable in this political landscape?

I’m a glass-half-full person, so it’s not that difficult for me to find those little victories, beginning with the food stamp program. We began that fight when the Democratic Party leadership was absolutely silent. We had a phone call with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) when PDA activists were delivering letters every month to their members of Congress in defense of food stamps. McGovern told us the Democratic Party leadership was silent on this question and that it was important that we simply have a vote of conscience to save the food stamp program. By the time it went on to the floor, we thought we had 133 votes but ended up with 188 votes [out of a possible 218 needed to win]. That was a victory. A vote of conscience in which 188 folks stood up to save food stamps. At the same time as we were garnering those votes, we were doing street actions in front of the offices of the Democratic leadership, Chief Deputy Minority Whip Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Minority Whip Rep. Ste- ny Hoyer (Md.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). By the time the Farm Bill came back around again then for a vote, all of those members in the leadership were on the floor voting to kill that bill.

An example of a major victory would be Syria. Again, our Democratic leadership was silent. Our president was willing to risk another war. And again activists around the country, led by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), pushed Congress not to use military force but to begin a course of diplomacy.

What do you say to the critics on the Left who would claim that the PDA mission is ultimately hopeless, that the Democratic Party is not going to be reformed, and that if you really want to build progressive political power, it necessarily has to take place outside of that framework?

We live in a two-party system. Until we change the political realities of our two-party system, whether it be until we can get real public financing or until we can get real proportional representation, the playing field will be skewed. Before we have a third party, we need a strong second party. We’re the insurgency inside the Democratic Party fighting to return it to its progressive roots. We are hopeful that, through the work we do, we can begin to engage on the inside with those who are now on the outside and encourage them to do what they can to level the playing field.

A lot of PDA folks were part of Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 campaign for president. How important do you think it is in 2016 to have a progressive presidential candidate?

That’s a big debate. We need to be realistic. We are not going to elect a progressive president in 2016, just as we weren’t going to elect a progressive president in 2004, though Kucinich certainly didn’t want to hear it at the time. But if we’re going to transform the Democratic Party it’s important that we put in place a vision of what the Democratic Party can look like under a progressive presidency. So for that reason alone we need to have a horse in the race in 2016 who will challenge Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee. We need to re- mind folks that Hillary was wrong on the war in Iraq and she was wrong on trade. There are a lot of issues that as progressive Democrats we would want to challenge her on.

The Democratic Party, at its roots, is a progressive party. So my hope is that we would have a candidate who will be the standard-bearer for the progressive Democrats. I see the tide turning. It’s imperative that the progressive movement run a strong, articulate progressive candidate and campaign in 2016.

Given that you are waging an uphill battle against cancer, have you been preparing for what’s going to happen with PDA?

You’re definitely putting the elephant in the room in talking about the fact that I’ve got a terminal illness. It’s a question we’re wrestling with. The short answer is we honestly don’t know. We’re not a card-carrying organization; we’re a community of people. We’re going to meet in February as a community and we’ll talk about it. The work’s going to continue and I hope to be as productive, or even more productive, as we move on to the 2014 election season.

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Follow him @colestangler.
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