The loudest applause during George W. Bush's first budget address to Congress--a thumping, shouting, jump-to-your-feet outpouring of enthusiasm--erupted in response to his first mention of his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. Coming at the end of a masterful but deceitful description, with more concealed trapdoors than a funhouse ride (they have the fun and we get taken for a ride), of how he could do everything from funding Social Security to paying down the debt and have money "still left over," Bush's proposal argued for returning that money "to the people who earned it in the first place."
The country is not buying. The latest Pew Research Center poll finds that only 19 percent of Americans think the current budget surplus should be used for a tax cut, and 79 percent believe the proposed Bush tax cut will most benefit the wealthy. Meanwhile, 60 percent want any surplus used for domestic programs as well as Social Security and Medicare.
Why, then, was the response to Bush's tax cut proposal so enthusiastic? Perhaps for the same reason that the words "campaign finance reform" never crossed Bush's lips, an omission Senator John McCain wryly noted in a CNN interview. The Wall Street Journal reported the morning after the speech that industry groups have formed a coalition to push the tax cuts in what one White House adviser described as "the largest PR campaign this party has ever conducted." The same adviser went on to say that the effort "will test if we can use the power of the White House and congressional control and the lobbying world to work our will."
With the cat thus out of the bag, Bush's budget should be pronounced dead on arrival. Now is the moment for the minority party to put forth a sensible alternative: No new tax breaks for the wealthy. An earlier, bigger check--either in the form of a tax credit or a "prosperity dividend"--for middle- and low-income earners, to jump-start the economy. Prescription drug coverage for seniors and affordable healthcare for all. Investment in schools and teachers' salaries. Investment to combat the growing shortage of affordable rental housing. Electoral reforms that will insure that every vote is counted.
In opposition, Democrats find it difficult to speak with one voice. A few have already thrown in their lot with Bush. Others are looking to deal. Still others seem stuck on paying down the debt as their prime concern. Thus it is vital that progressives in the party--and the increasingly vibrant base of the party that is central to its electoral hopes--speak out independently to force the debate. Here the Progressive Caucus has done well by pushing its prosperity dividend, which would give every American a $300 check in contrast to Bush's tax giveaway to the rich. Responsible Wealth has done remarkable work organizing the statement by about 120 of America's richest men and women against estate-tax repeal. The large coalition of groups convened to fight the tax cuts--under the leadership of progressive unions, civil rights groups and the public interest community--will help stiffen the backbone of faltering legislators. The Campaign for America's Future's plan for creating a progressive leadership organization will help define and broadcast the choice we face.
Bush has benefited, of course, from the continuing press focus on former President Clinton's tawdry unpardonables and his legacy of political timidity and tactical retreat. Now, progressives must force Democrats to shed that defensiveness. The country did not vote for the Bush agenda, and the vast majority will not benefit from it. Time to go on the attack. This is a fight that can be won.
New Hampshire State Senator Burt Cohen thought that putting up a plaque honoring the Abraham Lincoln Brigade would provide a history lesson about Americans who volunteered to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He did not foresee that the gesture would instruct about another kind of history--McCarthyism. When it was announced that the bronze plaque would be hung in the Statehouse at a ceremony on Lincoln's Birthday, the archreactionary Manchester Union Leader rallied Granite State granite heads. The Republican leadership in the legislature ordered the plaque removed. When Cohen, along with an ALB vet, relatives of another vet and supporters of the plaque went ahead with the dedication ceremony in the legislative office building on Lincoln's Birthday, an angrily buzzing swarm of Republican legislators descended. One addressed "Comrade Cohen"; another told a reporter, "Thank God for Franco--he saved us in Spain." When a plaque supporter stalked out saying, "McCarthyism is alive in this hall and in this state," an onlooker yelled, "Goodbye, Communist." The following week a legislative committee voted to ban the plaque from all state property, although it said another one might someday be displayed. Senator Cohen vowed to go ahead with a redesign. As for the insidious commie plaque, it now reposes in a Statehouse vault. Said Cohen (who has written for this magazine), "I thought the cold war was over."SPEAK & BE ARRESTED
C. Clark Kissinger, head of Mumia Abu-Jamal support activities at Refuse & Resist!, was sentenced to ninety days last December for violating his probation (see David Lindorff, "Mumia and Free Speech," December 18, 2000). The violation? Traveling to speak at a Mumia rally. He was scheduled for release on March 5, but supporters worry he may be in for more harassment, such as demands for names of contributors. A larger issue is the chilling message his imprisonment sent to dissidents in this country. An open letter championing Kissinger, signed by Terry Bisson, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Norman Mailer, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich and others sums up: "It is not polite, sanctioned, or permitted speech that the First Amendment is intended to protect. It is political dissent--and dissidents." For a copy of the letter and more information call (212) 571-0962; firstname.lastname@example.org.BUSHISMS OF THE WEEK
Asked after his meeting with Tony Blair what he and the British Prime Minister had in common, George W. Bush replied: "We have both got great wives. We are both dads, and proudly so. That's our most important responsibility, being loving dads." Advocating his education reform package: "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."
LIBERTÉ, EGALITÉ, FÉMINISME
"Feminism...is the most popular and most effective movement to emerge from the sixties left," writes Katha Pollitt in her introduction to Subject to Debate, the volume of her selected columns published in The Nation over the past seven years. Dismissed by the right and the left as identity politics, proclaimed "dead" by Time in 1998, eschewed--as denoted by the term "feminist"--by young women everywhere, the women's movement, Pollitt declares, "moves on."
And it's a good thing, too. Although, as Pollitt writes, "political feminism is still with us: regulations are challenged and proposed, candidates funded and campaigned for, lawsuits fought and not infrequently won"--there's much work to be done. And many of the essays included in Subject to Debate have worked, and still do, as a call to action. Writing on issues including reproductive rights, school vouchers, privacy, welfare, the culture wars, religion, the workplace, education and "family values" with wit and a perspective simultaneously personal and political, Pollitt has composed pieces that, collected in this volume, articulate a larger argument for social change. She reminds us that "feminism is not a single, independent, all-powerful force, but is connected in complicated and even contradictory ways with other historical forces--egalitarianism and individualism, hedonism and puritanism, capitalism and the critique of capitalism," and that "gender equality requires general equality."
Indeed, Pollitt notes, "rights are free; social justice costs a fortune." This has been especially evident in the welfare debate, which she plumbs often. In a signature lampoon, she writes in "Deadbeat Dads: A Modest Proposal" that "Marion Barry's views...are shared by millions: Women have babies by parthenogenesis or cloning, and then perversely demand that the government 'take care of them.'" In "Of Toes and Men," a 1996 column responding to the exposed relationship between Clinton "family values" strategist Dick Morris and Sherry Rowlands, a $200-an-hour dominatrix, Pollitt quips: "[Since] family values don't seem to generate much work.... welfare moms should take a leaf from struggling single mother Sherry Rowlands.... [and] become dominatrixes. Here is a lucrative profession with flexible hours that combine well with childrearing, which...it resembles in many ways."
On a different tack, Pollitt worries in "Opinionated Women" that women in the media are largely confined to certain issues in terms of giving their opinions: "As Saint Augustine put it, men need women only for the things they can't get from a man. For procreation (the one thing Saint A. could come up with), substitute 1,000 words on breast implants or day care, and that view still holds a lot of sway." Luckily, as Subject to Debate makes plain, Pollitt has never been so constricted.
George W. Bush's description of the US-British bombing of Iraq as a "routine mission" unwittingly summed up the mechanical nature of the US-British air operations in Iraq, which have been bombing on autopilot since 1992. These sorties continue because no one has a better idea of what US policy toward Iraq should be. The only rationales for the February 16 strike were to tell Saddam Hussein that the mindless air campaign will continue under a new administration and to reduce the possibility that Iraq's improved air defenses might shoot down a US plane on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East.
But the attack's main outcome was to remind the world of the emptiness of US policy in the area. The sanctions regime is now widely ignored; US European allies, led by the French, are furious at Washington's unilateralism (even Tony Blair's foreign minister was preparing to relax sanctions). Bush spoke of enforcing "the agreement that [Saddam Hussein] signed after Desert Storm," but the Clinton Administration helped undermine the UN inspection regime instituted after the war by making it an anti-Saddam operation. UNSCOM inspectors pulled out, never to return, just before December 16, 1998, when cruise missiles were unleashed against Baghdad in Operation Desert Fox. Washington's obdurate support of the sanctions, despite massive suffering among the Iraqi people, eroded the anti-Saddam consensus in the Arab world that developed after his invasion of Kuwait. Finally, the failure of Mideast peace talks and Ariel Sharon's victory in Israel lend credence to Saddam's claim to be the champion of the Palestinians, and it provided him with another opportunity to play to the Arab streets and mendaciously blame US-Israel conniving.
Far from strengthening Powell's mission, the bombings stirred up renewed hostility among the Arab people. The Bush team's campaign pronouncements on Iraq do not allow hope that Powell brings any new ideas to the region. Indeed, the ineluctable drift of events in the past year has left the new Administration few options. The old, cruel sanctions policy is discredited, and there is scant hope at this point that the Iraqis will agree to accept UN inspectors, who are the best check on Saddam's efforts to rebuild his war machine. As it happens, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with the Iraqi foreign minister February 26-27 to discuss reinstating them; the bombing surely hasn't helped this initiative. And there is virtually no international support for any of the Administration plans to beef up support for Iraqi opposition groups. Without the backing of a wide coalition of countries, no policy has any chance of success.
The wisest future course for the United States is to forge a more modest containment and sanctions policy that might win the support of America's partners. It should aim to put in place limited and precisely targeted sanctions designed to curtail Iraq's import of advanced military technology and to contain Saddam. That means abandoning unilateralism (something that goes against the grain of this new White House) and reaching out not only to the UN and allies in Europe and the Middle East but to regional players like Turkey and Russia.
It is ironic that Colin Powell, the architect of Desert Storm, must now deal with its long-term consequences--its failure to bring peace and stability to the region.
As George W. Bush so fuzzily put it, "The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants." Whatever that means, his main responses to California's deregulation crisis have been to tout drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and to bar federal intervention that would curb the profiteering by big generating companies.
Since a tiny percent of the nation's electricity is produced by burning oil, drilling in the refuge is irrelevant to the problem. But, of course, it's quite relevant to the big oil and gas companies' expectations of a payoff from this Administration, in which they had invested millions in campaign contributions. They're salivating for exploration on hitherto off-limits federal lands with ANWR as the opening wedge. Bush plays along by fanning fears of power crises nationwide to overcome the pro-environment sentiment among voters. (Recent polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor a ban on drilling in the wildlife refuge.)
As for withholding federal intervention, that's simply the old-time deregulation religion preached by conservative pundits who blame the failure to deregulate fully for the California crunch. Actually, California's deregulation bill was drafted by the power companies, which made hefty contributions to grease its way through the legislature. Seeking to recapture from consumers the costs of their bad investments in nuclear plants, the utilities devised the very freeze on consumer rates on which they now blame the current crisis, and which they are trying to overturn in the courts. They also agreed to divest themselves of much of their generating capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the market manipulations of independent power producers--including their own parent companies, which are reaping huge profits from this contrived crisis. Those same parent companies are using their "near bankrupt" utilities to launder more than $20 billion in the stranded-cost bailouts that prompted the crisis in the first place.
Clearly, more bailouts for utilities and unleashing Big Oil to ravage the wilds are not the solutions to California's--or the nation's--power problems, especially when there is a native California solution at hand: municipal ownership and conservation. The model is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which, after closing down its one nuclear reactor in 1989, held prices steady, invested heavily in wind and solar power and promoted energy efficiency through programs like subsidized buyouts of old, energy-guzzling home refrigerators.
Unfortunately, Governor Gray Davis and the California legislature have chosen to ignore the lesson of Sacramento and to "solve" the crisis by throwing more billions in public money at the utilities. Davis should be using public money and eminent domain to buy the assets of these rogue utilities out of bankruptcy and turn them over to direct public control. A statewide network of public-owned, democratically run municipal utilities would work just fine.
Municipal ownership like Sacramento's is now being urgently considered by San Francisco and other beleaguered California cities. Rather than catering to his energy "adviser" Ken Lay of Enron (who injected $500,000 into Bush campaign coffers, making him the largest single contributor in the last election cycle) and the rest of the oil and gas companies, Bush should recognize that the wind and sun provide more than enough "power to power the power of generating plants" and that power is rightfully owned and most efficiently operated by the public itself.
NAME THE PRESIDENT UPDATE
Our contest to pick a title for George W. Bush, the present occupant of the White House, has evidently touched a nerve. Hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails have poured in from those who can't bear to utter the words "President Bush." For the winner or winners: the glittering prize of a Bush-as-Alfred-E.-Neumann T-shirt. Judging from your letters, the contest has been therapeutic, a chance to vent the steam that's been building ever since the Supreme Court handed down the presidency. Final date for entries is February 19--Presidents' Day!
When the Washington Post (or any other big newspaper or magazine that's part of a media conglomerate) speaks on communications policy, readers should listen with skepticism. For example, in its February 12 issue, the Post weighed in on "The New Communications Boss." That would be Michael Powell, head of the FCC and also, to keep it in the family, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Post gave an approving nod to the younger Powell's remarks at a press conference outlining his views on his new responsibilities. The editors applauded what he said about instant messaging--that AOL deserves to keep its present monopoly on this technology, rather than share it with competitors. It also approved of Powell's go-slow policy on regulating interactive television, which AOL-Time Warner threatens to dominate. The Post discreetly averted its eyes to Powell's lack of diplomacy in saying that the concerns about poor people's lack of access to computers (the so-called digital divide) were misplaced--like wanting to buy everyone a Mercedes-Benz. Never once in the editorial did the Post disclose its own broadband of interests in new technologies. Its parent company owns TV stations and cable properties. It owns Kaplan Inc., an online tutoring service, which now has AOL as a partner. It also owns Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, an online information service. When it comes to media matters the Post should either disclose its interests or shut up--sorry, recuse itself.
BUSH'S TAX CUT/DEFENSE STRATEGY
George W. Bush's recent staged tour of several military bases was heralded by a pledge to shift $5.7 billion in the current defense budget to higher pay, better housing and more healthcare for the troops. Conservatives had been expecting something splashier in the way of defense spending. Instead, Bush called for a review of the overall mission of US military forces. This meshes nicely with the primacy on his agenda of his $1.6 trillion tax cut. Campaign promises about big bucks for high-tech weapons are put on hold. Peace activists, however, weren't putting the nuclear threat on hold. On February 5-6, movie stars Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas and Paul Newman led a phone blitz of the White House, part of the Back from the Brink Campaign (www.backfromthebrink.policy.net)--a nationwide call for taking US and Russian nukes off hairtrigger alert. And on Valentine's Day several Congress members joined a Washington rally protesting Star Wars outside the Ronald Reagan Building, where former TRW board member Dick Cheney held a love fest with defense contractors.
For the second year in a row, The Nation has been nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for "Outstanding Magazine Overall Coverage." Nation contributor Robert Scheer was also nominated in the "Outstanding Newspaper Columnist" slot for his writings in the Los Angeles Times.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Morgan Stanley invested more than $100,000 to hire Bill Clinton for a speech to a convention in Florida. After all, he presided over the longest stock market uptick in history, and the brokerage snagged him for his first postpresidential speech. Then came the Rich pardon, etc. Morgan Stanley was hit by complaints from its customers. Chairman Philip Purcell dispatched a sanctimonious e-mail to clients saying the invitation had "clearly been a mistake" given Clinton's "personal behavior as President."
"Of reconsiderations of Western socialism, there is no end," Norman Birnbaum writes cheekily at the opening of his new book--and immediately sets out to show us (successfully) why his is different. "The prominence of ideas on the supreme efficiency of the market, the large changes implied by the notion of globalization, are historically rather recent. They are, however, the contemporary forms of recurrent dilemmas," he declares.
With that thought in mind, Birnbaum, a Nation editorial board member and University Professor at Georgetown University Law School, spins out what is part comprehensive survey and part prescriptive meditation on the future of reformist impulses. Socialism "in all its forms was itself a religion of redemption," he observes, and yet, a paradox presents itself: that socialism "presupposed the kind of human nature it was intended to make possible." And it is the chasm between utopian hopes and reality that most interests Birnbaum. This is no apologia but a broad analysis of the history of progressive social change as it was carried out in Europe and America over the past century.
Some of the ground Birnbaum covers will be familiar--the appeal of socialism to writers from Auden to Dos Passos, Malraux to Mann, in a discussion of cultural modernism, for example, or his recounting Antonio Gramsci's efforts to invent an Italian Marxism that began with the cultural sphere in efforts to lead the political. Birnbaum moves broadly over the Russian Revolution and beyond, the 1930s and wartime in both Europe and the United States, the evolution (and devolution) of the welfare state, contending versions of socialism ("there is something distinctive about socialist movements in Catholic countries," he maintains, as they "become counterchurches, organized around militant secularism") and brings us up to the present moment--even to the effects of the Internet.
"Our societies are ready for a renewed public discussion of what economic and social rights are bound up with citizenship," Birnbaum concludes. Even anecdotally, he illustrates his point: The German constitutional court recently ruled that there was a "burden upon the government to ensure an equality of living standards," he notes, while in the United States the Senate bounced a prospective federal judge who had "argued that the government had a duty to prevent disease and starvation."