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Most Valuable Progressives of 2006 | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Most Valuable Progressives of 2006

Any year that begins with Bill Frist and Tom DeLay running the Capitol and ends with Frist out of politics and DeLay headed for trial gets high marks from this quarter. Throw in the polls that show the American people are now firmly in the anti-war camp, the fact that even Republicans are starting to suggest that the best word to describe the president's policies may be "criminal, the prospect that those policies will soon be under the scrutiny of House and Senate committee chairs who have actually familiarized themselves with the term "checks and balances" and 2006 ends on the best note of any year since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney launched their co-presidency.

The voters deserve a lot of credit for the taming of the shrews. But elections do not occur in vacuums. Good election results do not come about by luck or chance. They follow upon bold gestures and smart strategies by elected officials who choose to lead rather than follow, organizations that take chances and individual citizens who understand why Jefferson said that all power should rest with the people.

Here are this one columnist's picks for the Most Valuable Progressives of 2006:

* MVP – U.S. SENATE

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold cinched the title in March when he proposed that Senate censure President Bush for repeatedly authorizing domestic wiretaps on American citizens without first obtaining a legally required court order. "This conduct is right in the strike zone of the concept of high crimes and misdemeanors," explained Feingold on ABC-TV's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Republicans cried foul. Democrats ran for cover – with the commendable exceptions of Iowa's Tom Harkin and California's Barbara Boxer. But Feingold was right, as he was right when he called for setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, built a bipartisan coalition to block renewal of the worst sections of the Patriot Act, traveled to Africa to focus attention on the need to address poverty and disease as part of a broader strategy to combat the appeal of Islamic fundamentalists, sponsored legislation urging state and local governments to establish a system to assure that every eligible voter who wants to vote is able to cast a ballot, and when he came out unapologetically for gay marriage. He was even right when he decided that, rather than mount an uphill bid for the 20087 Democratic presidential nod against better-known and better-financed contenders, he would instead focus on turning the key Foreign Relations and Judiciary subcommittees he will chair on the immediate task of challenging the Bush-Cheney administration's policies.

It is a measure of how far Feingold stands ahead of the rest of his own party that some of his stiffest competition for the MVP title came from Republicans: in particular, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who bluntly compared the Iraq imbroglio to the Vietnam War in which he served and who recognized long before the Iraq Study Group completed its report that talks with Syria and Iran and a renewed focus on resolving disputes between Israel and Palestine were essential steps on the path to peace in the Middle East. Credit, as well, is due Oregon's Gordon Smith for describing the president's Iraq policies as "deeply immoral" and potentially "criminal," and to outgoing Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee for finishing his Senate tenure by blocking efforts to make permanent the president's recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

* MVP – U.S. HOUSE

Barbara Lee and her co-chair and fellow California Democrat, Lynn Woolsey, renewed the Congressional Progressive Caucus by hiring an able full-time staffer, staking out a clear set of stances that defined the left wing of the possible, holding forums and hearings on the Iraq War and developing strategies for aiding progressive contenders in House races around the country. The approach paid off. The Progressive Caucus will be the largest ideological grouping in the new Democratic House, and it has the ear – if not always the full agreement – of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Progressive Caucus members – such as John Conyers, Charlie Rangel, George Miller and Henry Waxman -- and their allies are moving into key committee chairmanships. (Bet on Waxman, who will guide the House Government Reform Committee's investigations of Bush to be a contender for MVP next year.) Lee gets especially high marks for her dogged insistence that Congress go on record in opposition to permanent bases in Iraq – she actually got the Republican House to approve her amendments to prohibit their development. And Lee, who has made the fight against HIV/AIDS a prime focus of her congressional service capped the year off by leading a high-profile move by leaders of the African-American, Latino and Asian-American communities to get tested for the virus on World AIDS Day in order to emphasize the importance of regular testing to fight the spread of the disease.

Tips of the hat, as well, to New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey for repeatedly challenging Dick Cheney to come clean about his role in exposing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame – as part of an effort by Cheney's office to punish Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, for exposing the administration's misuse of intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – and to another New York Democrat, Jerry Nadler, for his absolute commitment to the Constitution. Nadler, the senior Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, has been uncompromising and unrelenting in his calls for hearings on warrantless wiretapping, illegal detentions and a host of other Bush administration assaults on civil liberties. Now, he will be able to chair those hearings.

* MVP – EXECUTIVE BRANCH

David Kuo joined the Bush administration as an actual compassionate conservative, serving in the White House for two-and-a-half years as a Special Assistant to the president and then as Deputy Director of the Bush's Faith-Based Initiative. Horrified by the cynicism of the administration, and the barely-cloaked disdain of key players in the White House for the president's religious base, Kuo came clean. He condemned the administration for failing to deliver on its promises to the poor, noting that when issues related to the supposed compassionate-conservative agenda of the president arose: "The White House legislative affairs office rolled their eyes while others on senior staff yawned." In the end, Kuo explained, "From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the ‘poor people stuff.'"

* MVP – STRATEGIC VISION BRANCH

The Democrats actually made more progress on the state level than the federal level in 2006, winning a majority of governorships and an overwhelming majority of state legislative seats. A lot of the credit for those victories, which are essential to the long-term progress of the party, goes to Progressive Majority, the five-year-old multi-issue political action committee (PAC) that was established to enhance the political effectiveness of the progressive movement. Working on local and state-legislative races, Progressive Majority has recruited, trained and steered resources to dozens of candidates – with a special focus on women and people of color – who form the "farm team" for future statewide and congressional campaigns. The dramatic Democratic advances in Colorado – where the party took full control of state government for the first time since John Kennedy was president – Wisconsin, Washington, Ohio and Pennsylvania were a byproduct of Progressive Majority's smart and effective grassroots approach. Indeed, Progressive Majority has been so successful in the seven states where it has operated that party leaders and activists in other parts of the country are clamoring for the group to come into their states.

* MVP – ACCOUNTABILITY BRANCH

When Russ Feingold moved to censure Bush, the activists of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition – who had been pushing for the better part of a year for a congressional inquiry into the administration's warping of intelligence to fit its Iraq War goals – adjusted their focus to promote an even broader and more aggressive critique of the Bush presidency. Nancy Pelosi may have tried to take impeachment off the table, but the AfterDowningStreet.org crew, led by the indomitable David Swanson, kept forcing it back on. Their coalition's website remains the "go-to" place for the latest on investigations, inquiries, subpoenas, legal actions and every other move to hold this president and vice president to account. And their passion for empowering citizens to promote "impeachment from below" and other accountability initiatives has forged a loose-knit but very real national movement. Watch for this movement to get a lot more attention in March, when a drive organized by Newfane, Vermont, town selectman and impeachment impresario Dan DeWalt and others will see dozens of town meetings endorse articles of impeachment.

* MVP – CITIZEN BRANCH

Thomas Jefferson said when left the presidency that he was retiring to a higher position: that of citizen. And it is as a citizen that another former president, Jimmy Carter, continues to make profound contributions to the nation. Increasingly frustrated by the failure of both the Bush administration and Democrats in Congress to take seriously the duty of U.S. officials to operate as honest brokers in the festering dispute between Israel and Palestine, Carter penned the most important book ever written by an ex-president: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster). Carter's frank assessment of the history and current character of the Middle East peace process has earned him vilification from those who would maintain an untenable status quo. Old friends and allies have abandoned him because of his willingness to echo the sentiments of Israeli peace activists by declaring that: "Palestinians must live in peace and dignity, and permanent Israeli settlements on their land are a major obstacle to this goal." Carter has been let down by a U.S. media that is supposed to encourage open debate and discourse. And, yet, he has persevered in explaining to true friends of Israel and Palestine the need to recognize that a lasting peace, while possible, will not be achieved until the United States and other powerful nations get serious about promoting sincere negotiations. "An overwhelming majority of citizens of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine want peace, with justice for all who live in the Holy Land," argues Carter. "It will be a shame if the world community fails to help them reach this goal." As a citizen who happens to have a Nobel Prize for Peace on his mantle, Carter is doing his part to avert that shame.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

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