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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Murphy is the dreamer and policy dealer the nation needs

    In a December op-ed published in The New Republic, Senator Chris Murphy conceded, “Maybe I am hopelessly naïve.”

    U.S. Sen. Chris S. Murphy, D-Conn, speaks Feb. 23, 2021, during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murphy is now in a key position to make decisions about the U.S. Homeland Security budget at a time when the department is warning the American public of a continued threat from domestic violent extremists. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

    If by naïve the Connecticut Democrat means his efforts to find compromise on issues important to Americans, or his talk of building a better future, or about the need to address the “spiritual rot underfoot, threatening to collapse the foundation we have built over two centuries,” then I say the nation needs more of it.

    Did President Obama speak naïvely when he called on people to “choose hope over fear” and to “see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better.”

    Was President Reagan naïve when he told Americans that “each generation goes further than the generation preceding it because it stands on the shoulders of that generation. You will have opportunities beyond anything we've ever known.”

    Perhaps. But such statements also offered hope for a better tomorrow. People need that. Our politics desperately need it. The deep divisions, the depiction of the other party as destructive and an enemy, has left Americans deeply disillusioned. Much of the public, I believe, is yearning for national leaders who can inspire, who will provide reasons to vote for them, not simply against the other guy because he, or she, will be worse.

    So, when Murphy writes of the potential for the two parties “regularly working together on issues like wage growth, industrial policy, support for local economies, technology regulation, or more moral markets,” I say, dream on — and I say it in a good way.

    Gun reform

    Murphy, who should sail to re-election this year, has gained national attention as an advocate for sensible gun-control policies. He took on that role after the December 2012 massacre of first-graders and educators at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, part of the district he then represented in Congress.

    At the time of the shooting, Murphy was about to join the Senate, having only a few weeks earlier captured the seat that fellow Democrat Joe Lieberman was vacating. Yet for years, Murphy’s impassioned speeches, often after another mass shooting, failed to convince Congress to act.

    Finally, on June 24, 2022, the U.S. House joined the Senate in voting to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, legislation that Murphy played a key role in negotiating. Unfortunately, it took yet another horrific school shooting — the May 24, 2022 attack on a Uvalde, Texas school that left 19 students and two teachers dead — to get Congress to do something.

    The Safer Communities Act toughened both federal background checks and laws addressing the illicit trade of firearms across state lines. It provided financial support for state red flag laws, which give law enforcement, acting with the courts, the ability to remove guns from those whose violent actions or mental instability raise concerns. The law also increased funding for mental health services, including schools.

    For gun-control advocates it did not go far enough. They want Congress to again pass a federal ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles. So does Murphy. So do I. But it was progress.

    Border deal

    Having seen him achieve the unlikely, Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a few months ago gave Murphy a crack at attaining the near impossible. Murphy led the negotiations for the Democrats in the effort to find an agreement on improved security at the southern border. Republican congressional leaders had said they would not support continuing financial support for Ukraine — in its defense against Russian invaders — unless improved border security came with it.

    Staunch conservative Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., negotiated for his party. The third negotiator was Arizona’s independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

    To the shock of many, they reached a deal. It would have improved enforcement provisions and taken steps to expedite the glacial pace of assessing asylum claims. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board supported the legislation, stating it included “reforms (President) Trump never came close to getting.” So did the Washington Post and The Day editorial boards. It had the backing of the union that represents front-line Border Patrol agents.

    Of course, we all know how that one ended. Republicans, and their likely presidential candidate Donald Trump, did not want a solution that could improve the border situation. They wanted the border crisis to continue, giving them an issue to run on. There was not enough Republican support to get the deal out of the Senate. Abandoning a deal that would be good for the country, because Republicans saw it as bad for their election chances, is the kind of thing people hate about Washington.

    While exposing Republican hypocrisy in showing the party won’t accept yes, Murphy has also called on his fellow Democrats to do some soul searching, and consider why a party that was once largely backed by the working class has seen many blue-collar workers abandon it or simply give up hope it will do much for them.

    One problem, he sees, was the party’s embrace of neoliberalism. Beginning with the presidency of President Bill Clinton, this approach backed eliminating price controls, easing monopoly enforcement, lowering trade barriers and deregulating markets. It placed faith in corporate America to improve opportunities for workers.

    While the approach did indeed produce growth, it also concentrated wealth at the top of the economic ladder — producing a second Gilded Age — and led to millions of jobs being outsourced to other nations.

    “I was guilty of accepting this paradigm we were stuck in, and in which we assumed we had to live with this massive concentration of corporate power,” Murphy told Daily Kos. “I had no living memory of government using its power to break up monopolies.”

    In another interview, he commented, “When you outsource all morality to the market, and you deregulate every industry, you’re removing an opportunity for us to have a connected conversation about our morals, our values.”

    This challenge to corporate power, combined with Murphy’s record of being willing to try to work with his political opponents and, yes, even that measure of naïveté, could play well on a national stage as America awaits a generational change.

    Murphy is only 50. He has time. But not that much if it is indeed a matter of generational change.

    Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. He can be reached at p.choiniere@yahoo.com.

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