John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.
Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.
Nichols is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He was featured in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “Outfoxed,” and in the documentaries Joan Sekler’s “Unprecedented,” Matt Kohn’s “Call It Democracy” and Robert Pappas’s “Orwell Rolls in his Grave.” The keynote speaker at the 2004 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists in Athens, Nichols has been a featured presenter at conventions, conferences and public forums on media issues sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Consumers International, the Future of Music Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Newspaper Guild [CWA] and dozens of other organizations.
Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment (The New Press); a critically acclaimed analysis of the Florida recount fight of 2000, Jews for Buchanan (The New Press); and a best-selling biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President (The New Press), which has recently been published in French and Arabic. He edited Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), of which historian Howard Zinn said: “At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems, and songs from throughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.”
With Robert W. McChesney, Nichols has co-authored the books It’s the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press), The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and, most recently, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation’s media-reform network, which organized the 2003 and 2005 National Conferences on Media Reform.
Of Nichols, author Gore Vidal says: “Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’s sword is the sharpest.” (Photo by Robin Holland / Bill Moyers Journal)
With little public notice and no serious debate inside the party, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and his allies have hatched a plan to radically alter the schedule and character of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominating process. If the changes McAuliffe proposes are implemented--as is expected at a January 17-19 meeting of the full DNC--the role of grassroots Democrats in the nomination of their party's challenger to George W. Bush will be dramatically reduced, as will the likelihood that the Democratic nominee will run the sort of populist, people-power campaign that might actually pose a threat to Bush's re-election.
The change, for which McAuliffe gained approval in November from the DNC rules subcommittee, would create a Democratic primary and caucus calendar that permits all states to begin selecting delegates on February 3, 2004. That new start-up date would come two weeks after the Iowa caucuses and just one week after the traditional "first in the nation" New Hampshire primary. Thus, the window between New Hampshire and the next primary--five weeks in 2000--would be closed. Already, says McAuliffe, South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona Democrats have indicated they will grab early February dates, and there is talk that California--the big enchilada in Democratic delegate selection--will move its primary forward to take advantage of the opening. McAuliffe's changes will collapse the nominating process into a fast-and-furious frenzy of television advertising, tarmac-tapping photo ops and power-broker positioning that will leave little room for the on-the-ground organizing and campaigning that might allow dark horse candidates or dissenting ideas to gain any kind of traction--let alone a real role at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
"What McAuliffe is doing represents a continuation of the shift of influence inside the Democratic Party from volunteer-driven, precinct-based grassroots politics to a cadre of consultants, hacks and Washington insiders," says Mike Dolan, the veteran organizer who ran voter-registration campaigns for the California Democratic Party before serving as national field director for MTV's "Rock the Vote" initiative. "This whole process of reshaping the party to exclude people at home from the equation has been going on for years, but this really is the most serious change we've seen. And it's an incredibly disturbing shift. It will increase the power of the consultants and the fundraisers. But it will also make it a lot harder to build the enthusiasm and volunteer base a candidate needs to win in November."
McAuliffe, who is riding high after playing an important role in securing Democratic wins in November 2001 races for the Virginia and New Jersey governorships, says reforms are needed to avoid long, intraparty struggles and allow a clear focus on the task of challenging Bush. With a wide field of Democratic senators, governors, representatives and a former Vice President positioning to run in 2004, he says, "We can't be going through the spring with our guys killing each other."
McAuliffe makes no secret of his desire to have Democrats mirror the Republicans' compressed nominating schedule-- which helped front-runner Bush dispatch the more appealing John McCain in 2000. He wants his party's 2004 nominee identified by early March. Then, the nominee-in-waiting can get down to the business of fundraising and organizing a fall campaign without having to march in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade, visit Wisconsin's dairy farms or jostle for a position on the stage of Ohio's union halls.
One problem with McAuliffe's theory is that history suggests that Democrats who beat sitting Republican Presidents usually do so following extended nomination fights. In 1976, for instance, almost three months passed between the Iowa caucus and the point at which a majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention had been selected. That convention nominated Jimmy Carter, who went on to beat President Gerald Ford. The next Democrat to beat a Republican President, Bill Clinton, won his party's 1992 nod after a bruising primary season that saw him fighting Jerry Brown for New York votes two months after the delegate-selection process began.
A serious state-by-state fight for the party nod can force the eventual nominee to build grassroots networks in key states that withstand the media assaults of the fall; just think how things would have gone if Al Gore had developed better on-the-ground operations in states with solid labor bases, like Missouri, West Virginia and Ohio--any one of which could have provided the Electoral College votes needed to render Florida's recount inconsequential. Instead of recognizing the advantage Democrats gain when they tend the grassroots, however, former candidate Brown says McAuliffe appears to be steering the party toward a model that mirrors Republican approaches. "The process is evolving and it's changing so that it will be even harder to tell Democrats from Republicans," Brown says. "This means the Democrats will be defined more than ever by money and the centralized, Washington-based establishment that trades in money. The trajectory the party is on is not toward greater democracy, not toward more involvement at the grassroots. Rather, the trajectory will make it harder for the local to influence the national. A historic democratic influence on the process is being wiped out, and with it will go a lot of energy Democratic nominees have been able to rely on in the past."
Brown touches on another problem with McAuliffe's approach. In a party already badly warped by the influence of special-interest money and fundraising demands, the new schedule will greatly expand the influence of big money--and of Washington insiders like veteran fundraiser McAuliffe, who can move that money into accounts of "acceptable," if not particularly progressive, candidates. "Everyone agrees the financial demands on candidates will be even higher than in the past, given the breakneck pace at which the contests will unfold," explains Washington Post columnist David Broder.
That bodes well for the best-known candidates with the strongest fundraising networks, like former Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, and also for well-heeled senators like Massachusetts' John Kerry and North Carolina's John Edwards. But low-budget, issue-driven campaigns, like those imagined by Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio or outgoing Vermont Governor Howard Dean, will be even more difficult to mount. That, says former Democratic National Committee chairman Fred Harris, is bad news for the party and for progressive politics in America. "If you tighten up all the primaries at the start, it will limit the serious choices for Democrats to those candidates who are well-known or well-financed, or both. That takes away the range of choices, it makes the process less exciting and, ultimately, less connected to the grassroots," says Harris, a former senator and 1976 candidate for the presidency. "This really is a move in the wrong direction. The Democratic Party, to win, needs to be more democratic--not less."
MUNICIPAL UPHEAVALS The highest-profile fight nationally has to be the race to succeed New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with labor-backed Democrat Mark Green and Republican Michael Bloomberg clashing over who will rebuild the city. Criticized for appealing to white fear to secure the Democratic nod, Green is struggling to shore up black and Latino support. Runoff foe Fernando Ferrer backs him, but Green is still mending fences with hospital union chief Dennis Rivera, a Ferrer backer whose street muscle could offset Bloomberg's bankroll.
In addition to New York, hundreds of cities from Atlanta to Seattle will elect mayors this fall. Many of them are turning to new faces. Veteran black mayors are stepping down in Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta, inspiring spirited "next generation" contests. And Texas is witnessing a push by Latino candidates to win the mayoralties of Houston and other major cities, following the election this past spring in San Antonio of 32-year-old Democrat Ed Garza. In Cincinnati, where riots erupted in April following the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed African-American youth, former television news anchor Courtis Fuller, who is African-American, faces moderate Democratic Mayor Charlie Luken, who is white. Luken outspent Fuller by 11 to 1 in the nonpartisan primary. But Fuller's promise to make improved race relations a priority, along with a seven-point "covenant with voters"--which includes pledges to give the city's Citizens' Review Panel subpoena power to investigate police misconduct, to seek repeal of a 1993 charter amendment that prohibits specific legal protection for gays and lesbians, and to redirect the city's focus to better serve blighted neighborhoods--inspired a surge in African-American turnout. Fuller beat Luken by sixteen points in the primary that set up the November 6 runoff between the pair.
Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, who managed that city's response to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, lost his job in a September primary. Schell was bested by City Attorney Mark Sidran and King County Council member Greg Nickels. In a liberal city that is still reeling in the aftermath of the WTO protests, an earthquake, various riots, the dot-com collapse and Boeing's exit, Sidran is running a law-and-order campaign that says the answer to a lot of what ails the city can be found in "civility laws" aimed at clearing the streets of panhandlers and the homeless. Nickels, siding with civil libertarians and antipoverty advocates, is betting that the historically liberal city will agree with his view that "we have a responsibility to do more than tell our homeless, 'You can't sit on the street or urinate on the sidewalk.'"
REJECTING ROBERTSON? Pat Robertson's favorite candidate this year is Virginia Republican gubernatorial contender Mark Earley, a fellow fundamentalist whose political rise has been shepherded by the Christian Coalition chief. Robertson has contributed $35,000 to Earley's campaign. Since September 11, however, Earley has been scrambling to explain his ties to Robertson, who concurred with fellow Virginian Jerry Falwell's view that the terrorists "give us probably what we deserve" because the country harbors abortion-rights supporters, gays and lesbians, civil libertarians and feminists. Earley has yet to part company with Robertson. Instead, he is relying on Republican National Committee money--more than $2 million so far--and a campaign that claims Democrat Mark Warner and his statewide running mates are the most extreme left-wing ticket in history. Warner, a high-tech millionaire and former US Senate candidate, doesn't live up to the billing. Though he is backed by labor and environmental groups, and supports abortion rights and protections for gays and lesbians, he also backs the death penalty, opposes new taxes and has made overtures to the National Rifle Association. Polls show Warner's well-financed campaign to be leading. If he prevails, Virginia will join one of the least-noticed trends in American politics: the return of Democratic control of governorships in the states of the Old Confederacy. A Warner win would add Virginia to a list that includes Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
LAY OFF LABOR Republicans have for years attacked Democrats for getting too close to organized labor, and that was precisely the tactic opted for by New Jersey Republican gubernatorial nominee Bret Schundler, whose privatization schemes as mayor of Jersey City earned cheers from the Wall Street Journal editorial page. In their first major debate after September 11, Schundler attacked Democratic foe Jim McGreevey as a slave of labor "special interests." Running in a state that adjoins New York City, and where many former World Trade Center workers reside, McGreevey said he was rather proud of his endorsement from the state's fire and police unions. In a response that could serve as a model for Democrats in 2002, McGreevey continued, "Mr. Schundler calls police and firefighters special interests. I call them special heroes. They are the guys who ran into the building. They've endorsed me. And they are not supporting Mr. Schundler." McGreevey, who almost beat former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman in 1997, has had the lead from the start. Though he is hardly a progressive, McGreevey is pro-choice and pro-public education as well as pro-labor, in stark contrast to conservative poster-boy Schundler.
INITIATING CHANGE In a state where initiative referendums have frequently been used to slash taxes and public services, Washington labor, church and community groups are seeking to reclaim direct democracy on November 6. The Homecare Quality Initiative, backed by Service Employees International Union locals as well as elderly, disability rights and AIDS care groups, would create a nine-member authority to set standards for publicly funded in-home care services for elderly and disabled adults. Initiative 773, supported by Healthcare for Washington's Working Families, would raise taxes on cigarettes and wholesale tobacco products, with the money earmarked for healthcare for low-income families. Framing the vote as a choice between initiative backers such as the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association of Washington, the Washington Academy of Family Physicians and leading foes Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, campaign spokesman Eric Jaffe says, "We know Washington voters trust the major organizations supporting I-773 when it comes to matters concerning health and kids, not Big Tobacco."
Battling the war profiteers of World War I, Robert La Follette reminded America that "wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism." The progressive senator from Wisconsin was complaining about arms merchants reaping excessive profits from the sale of weaponry in 1917. But La Follette's words echo with particular clarity in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because of the rise of another form of war profiteering. In an attempt to gain the upper hand in a fight they had been losing, Bush Administration and Congressional supporters of fast track--or, as supporters have renamed it, "Trade Promotion Authority"--were telling Congress Daily within hours of the September 11 attacks that terrorist threats increased the need to grant Bush authority to negotiate a NAFTA-style free-trade area from Tierra del Fuego to the Tundra.
With each passing day, these policy profiteers have pumped up the volume. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, announced, "Passing trade promotion authority for the President would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is ready, willing and able to lead." The Wall Street Journal editorial page chirped about how "not everything has changed for the worse since September 11. One garden at the skunk party has been the emergence of new bipartisan momentum to expand free trade, specifically something called 'Trade Promotion Authority.'" US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick was everywhere preaching his "Countering Terror With Trade" mantra, a campaign so aggressive it left even Republicans scratching their heads. "I am not sure a trade bill has anything to do with terrorism," said Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney.
But Zoellick wasn't listening to Republicans who warned that an aggressive push for fast track could be the straw that breaks the back of the post-September 11 bipartisanship. Less than two weeks after the attacks, Zoellick delivered a speech at the Institute for International Economics that seemed to question the patriotism of fast-track foes. Members of Congress "who know trade is the right thing to do are refusing to act for rather narrow-interest reasons," the Bush aide declared, adding, "Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle."
That was too much for New York Congressman Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel issued a scathing rebuke to Zoellick's policy profiteering. "As a combat war veteran and as a person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating losses as a result, I am offended by the strategy of the current United States Trade Representative to use the tragedy in New York and at the Pentagon to fuel political momentum behind a partisan fast-track proposal," Rangel said, adding, "To have the USTR attack the patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten, undisclosed bill demands a public apology."
When Zoellick's point man in the House, Bill Thomas, the California Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, claimed he had consulted key Democrats about a move to push a bipartisan fast-track compromise through the House, Rangel shot back that the Democrats in question "have expressed to me in no uncertain terms that they do not subscribe to this attempt to wrap the flag around any fast-track bill in the wake of the September 11 attacks." Undaunted, Thomas said he'd try to bring a bill to a floor vote by the second week of October.
Long before September 11, the debate over fast track was destined to be intense. Bush, aided by major corporations, had promised to pull out all the stops. But labor, environment and human rights groups thwarted them by reminding Congress that since the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, more than 355,000 US jobs (even by the government's conservative estimate) have been lost. Small farms have failed at a significantly increased rate, and environmental and worker safety protections have been undermined at home and abroad. "If the Administration had the votes for fast track, before September 11 or after, we would have had a vote. They still don't have the votes, but they're trying everything to come up with them," says Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Zoellick and Thomas are hardly the only policy profiteers. The threat of war and recession has inspired plenty of moves to wrap unappealing agendas in the bunting of patriotism. School-prayer and flag-protection amendments are being elbowed onto the antiterrorist agenda, while Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed hard to win approval of dusted-off proposals to curtail immigrants' rights, expand electronic surveillance and allow use of intelligence gathered by foreign governments in US courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "All in the Name of Security," page 20]. Playing the patriotism card in support of Ashcroft, GOP Senate leader Trent Lott warned the Democrats that in the event of another attack, "people are going to wonder where have you been in giving the additional tools that are needed to, you know, find these terrorists and avoid plots that may be in place."
Bush aides have proposed cutting corporate income taxes, while House Republicans are flying the capital-gains tax-cut flag. Although the attacks proved that there are far more pressing security needs than developing a National Missile Defense system, Star Wars backers are still attempting to get funding for their boondoggle. And backers of the Administration's energy proposal now want an "expedited energy bill" designed to clear the way for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
If Washington is witnessing shameless policy profiteering, state legislatures have seen surreal grabs for political advantage. A Republican state representative in Wisconsin announced that after so many deaths, it was time to renew America's commitment to life--by passing his antiabortion bill. In states that bar capital punishment, proposals were made to allow executions as antiterrorist measures--failing to recognize the absurdity of threatening suicide attackers with death.
Every war has its profiteers. But it looks like this one is going to require an army of La Follettes to prevent this war's policy profiteers from warping the discourse--not to mention plundering the Treasury--in the name of a "patriotism" defined solely by self-interest.