There was actually a bit of bipartisan agreement during Monday’s debate between Eighth District Democratic Congressman Rick Nolan and his Republican challenger Stewart Mills. Both men agreed that the economy isn’t working like it should for average Americans.
“The middle class is getting crushed,” Nolan said. “That’s really what this election is all about.” Mills didn’t disagree, and both men are right about that.
But agreeing on the problem is just the first step. Perhaps the more important question facing voters of the Eighth District this fall is which candidate has the right ideas to actually fix the situation.
And on that question, the two candidates’ track records could not be more different. Without a doubt, Rick Nolan has been tireless in his efforts to keep iron mining jobs on the Iron Range, having pushed aggressively in Congress, at the International Trade Commission, and at the Obama White House to ensure that American jobs were protected from unfair dumping of foreign steel. As a result of his efforts, many mine workers on the Iron Range are back on the job, even though the international price of steel products has barely recovered. It is the tariffs put in place against illegal foreign imports that have turned the tide here in the U.S. That is, no doubt, one of the big reasons that he has the strong backing of the United Steelworkers.
While Nolan has come out strongly against the latest bad trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, Mills has waffled, stating that he would vote against it today, but is keeping his options open. Sounds like a typical politician.
While Nolan backs a higher federal minimum wage, Mills said he doesn’t favor a federal minimum at all. Instead, Mills offers the same, tired GOP economic policies, premised on lower taxes for the wealthy. If that were all it took to put America back to work, we’d have more jobs than we could possibly fill, since the wealthy have enjoyed historic tax windfalls in the U.S. since the 1980s. All we’ve seen as a result is worsening income and wealth inequality, a disappearing middle class, and a political system quickly headed towards oligarchy. Former Reagan budget director David Stockman put it best when he likened GOP tax cut plans to a “Trojan Horse,” designed to sell tax giveaways to the rich as job-creating, middle class tax relief.
It remains to be seen how the current presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will affect the Eighth District race. In a normal year, a high turnout in the Democratic-leaning district would ensure a Nolan victory. But this year is anything but normal. While Bernie Sanders was extremely popular in much of the region during the primaries, Clinton is far less so, and that could depress Democratic turnout, particularly on the Iron Range where support for Clinton is lackluster. Turnout, of course, will determine the winners, both in the Eighth, and nationally.
It’s worth noting that Nolan was one of only a handful of members of Congress to endorse Sanders during the primary season. Nolan clearly shares Sanders’ concerns about the overwhelming flood of money into political campaigns and the erosion in public confidence it has engendered and he’s introduced legislation to overturn the effect of the controversial Citizens United decision.
“It’s who are you for?” said Nolan during Monday’s debate. “Do you want to change the political system that allowed the rich and powerful to fix our politics and our economy at the expense of the middle class?” he asked, sounding very much like Sanders. Certainly, for those who like Sanders, Nolan is an obvious choice. Mills, on the other hand, is the virtual polar opposite of the popular Vermont senator.
While both Nolan and Mills agree that the working class is in trouble, the two men offer very different prescriptions for treating the problem. Voters should take the time to undertand those differences.