The Nation

House Dems Near Surrender on Bush Spying

Tuesday's Washington Post reports that House Democrats are close to granting all of President Bush's demands for more domestic spying powers and telecommunications amnesty, in exchange for, well, nothing:


House and Senate Democratic leaders [say they are close to a bill giving the President] more domestic surveillance powers and grant[ing] phone companies some form of immunity for their role in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program...


Unlike the Senate leadership, senior House Democrats have been fighting Bush's demand that telecommunications companies receive blanket amnesty for warrantless surveillance. Even when Bush refused to sign an extension of the surveillance bill without amnesty, the Democrats held firm and let the measure expire, drawing attack ads and fear-mongering from the G.O.P. By surrendering now, Democrats would not only ratify the administration's assault on the rule of law. They would also be practicing a self-destructive brand of political cannibalism that thins their ranks and enervates their base. Salon's Glenn Greenwald explains it in crushing detail, which I think is worth quoting at length:


The signs are unmistakably clear that what was always inevitable -- full compliance by the House Democratic leadership with Bush's demands on warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty -- is now imminent... There's very little point anymore in writing about how the Congressional Democratic leadership is complicit in all of the worst Bush abuses, or about how craven they are. All of that is far too documented....But what is somewhat baffling in all of this is just how politically stupid and self-destructive their behavior is. If the plan all along was to give Bush everything he wanted, as it obviously was, why not just do it at the beginning? Instead, they picked a very dramatic fight that received substantial media attention. They exposed their freshmen and other swing-district members to attack ads. They caused their base and their allies to spend substantial energy and resources defending them from these attacks.


And now, after picking this fight and letting it rage for weeks, they are going to do what they always do -- just meekly give in to the President, yet again generating a tidal wave of headlines trumpeting how they bowed, surrendered, caved in, and lost to the President. They're going to cast the appearance that they engaged this battle and once again got crushed, that they ran away in fear because of the fear-mongering ads that were run and the attacks from the President. They further demoralize their own base and increase the contempt in which their base justifiably holds them (if that's possible). It's almost as though they purposely picked the path that imposed on themselves all of the political costs with no benefits.


The Post even floats one Democratic ploy to hide the ball: a "procedural move would allow many Democrats to vote against immunity but still make its approval all but certain." I don't think Democratic voters will be fooled by that "move." Even if you don't follow the floor rules closely -- and Speaker Pelosi can prevent most of Bush's demands from coming to a vote at all -- it's obvious when the Democratic Congress caves. It's especially striking on issues like Constitutional rights and Iraq, where Democrats cave after loudly declaring their commitment to fight. Back in October, I wrote about this tendency to "Rage and Cave":


If you believe the papers, Congressional Democrats have spent the better part of the past seven years vacillating between shock and outrage. They are thunderstruck by every White House scandal, stunned to discover another lie from the Bush Administration and positively livid each time they realize Bush is negotiating in bad faith. That is, of course, until they cave again. The Democrats' current rush to pass the President's intelligence bill repeats this sorry pattern.After roughly three years of outrage over illegal domestic spying--complete with [Sen. Pat Leahy's] roars of "Shame on us!"--Democrats are now pushing legislation to validate more warrantless surveillance of American citizens.


It's only gotten worse since October. Just this week, Bush's attorney general flatly refused to enforce contempt citations issued by Congress to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by White House officials. House Democrats say they are outraged and they will fight the attorney general. But the spying bill grants the attorney general new powers to prevent courts from reviewing the administration's conduct.

In the end, the Democrats have not offered a coherent explanation for this policy or their political surrender. After following this issue closely, I can't explain it either. As Greenwald writes, even on the most cynical terms, this was the worst possible route. And on principle, of course, there is no defense for retoractive amnesty, which stymies court oversight and undermines the rule of law.

March 4, 1933

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inaugural as President.

On a cold day at the tail of winter, Roosevelt looked out over a nation gripped by Depression, incapacitated by fear, and confronted by threats as grave as any we face today. He spoke, reassuringly, of how we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The New Deal policies he launched transformed nearly every aspect of American political, economic and cultural life. As important, they restored hope, work and a measure of dignity to millions.

It is that spirit of grounded realism and determined idealism that we need to reclaim today. It is that spirit which offers an antidote to those who rule as if they have nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.

As we wait for the results from today's primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont, it's worth asking if the party of Roosevelt can recapture the imagination and nerve to offer solutions on a scale equal to the problems we face?

Tonight, after the voting booths and caucus halls close, we will hear many words. Some will soar and seek to sound themes reminiscent of a time when our social contract was rewoven.

Here are a few words, from that first Inaugural Address, I'd like to hear 2008 variations on this evening: "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths, The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit....This Nation asks for action, and action now...Our greatest primary task is to put people to work..." (To read the entire text of Roosevelt's first Inaugural Address. click here.)

In the time "it took FDR to deliver those words on a bleak and unpromising day in Washington," writes Richard Parker in our "New New Deal" issue out later this month, "[Roosevelt] described a politics, an economics, and a morality at once--and thereby told Americans how they could and should make change, that he would lead them in doing so, and who would oppose them."

Five Rules for Writing About Women

Courtesy of the inimitable Dahlia Lithwick

FISA Cave In

I can hardly muster the energy to express adequate frustration over the House Democrats willingness to cave-in to the absurd and odious position that telecomm companies should receive blanket, retroactive immunity for the thousands of instances of non-warranted wiretaps they engaged in after (and maybe before!) 9/11. I'll outsource, instead, to Glenn Greenwald, who makes this, quite accurate, point:

And now, after picking this fight and letting it rage for weeks, they are going to do what they always do -- just meekly give in to the President, yet again generating a tidal wave of headlines trumpeting how they bowed, surrendered, caved in, and lost to the President. They're going to cast the appearance that they engaged this battle and once again got crushed, that they ran away in fear because of the fear-mongering ads that were run and the attacks from the President. They further demoralize their own base and increase the contempt in which their base justifiably holds them (if that's possible). It's almost as though they purposely picked the path that imposed on themselves all of the political costs with no benefits.

Even with their ultimate, total compliance with the President's orders, they're still going to be attacked as having Made Us Less Safe -- by waiting weeks to capitulate, rather than doing so immediately, they opened up critical intelligence gaps, caused us to lose vital intelligence, made us less safe, etc. But now, they have no way to defend themselves against those accusations because, at the end of the day, they are admitting that the President was right all along, that telecom amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping are good and important things that the President should have had all along. So why didn't they just give it to him before the law expired? It was a loss for them on every level.

Pundit Accountability Project

From the press release:

The Pundit Accountability Project captures video clips of pundits' predications so they can be measured against actual outcomes. And users can track pundits by name, in an easy to use drop-down menu, which includes our first list of 23 pundits - typically the ones who have been most consistently wrong. (Howard Fineman is currently leading the pack - with predictions that Rudy was perfectly positioned for a Florida win, and that Ted Kenney would not be endorsing Obama.)

Long, long overdue.

A $736-Million Symbol of Progress

When the U.S. embassy in Iraq is built, it will be a $736-million gargantuan complex, the biggest U.S. diplomatic facility in the world. (For Sim-style renderings of the planned azure pool and adjacent gardens, see here.) But over eight months since its projected opening date, the project has sputtered under charges of slap-dash construction and multiple criminal investigations facing State Department employees.

Now, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) is losing patience with Condoleeza Rice, accusing her of withholding information from Congress about not only the US embassy's construction, but also Iraqi corruption. Last April, Prime Minister Maliki issued a secret order immunizing top Iraqi officials from any potential corruption charges (which Rice hasn't acknowledged). Last week, USAID announced plans to further minimize oversight in Iraq by reducing the number of its Baghdad-based auditors (which the State Department won't discuss).

Meanwhile as Rice continues to stonewall, the unfinished American embassy remains an ongoing symbol for the U.S. mission in Iraq. Fittingly for an administration that nearly five years ago declared "Mission Accomplished" in a war venture that continues to drag on, last December, the U.S. State Department certified the embassy as 'substantially completed'--even as it continues to lack basic infrastructure, remain uninhabitable and bleed taxpayer funds.

Dennis Kucinich's Media Fight

Ohio voters head to the polls for a primary election Tuesday, and that can mean only one thing: The Cleveland Plain Dealer is griping about Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

There is nothing new, nor anything wrong, with newspapers holding members of Congress to account.

In fact, it would be good if more did so.

But the Plain Dealer, the uber-dominant daily newspaper in the city and its suburbs since the folding a quarter century ago of the feisty Cleveland Press, is not exactly holding the congressman to account. Rather, it is looking for every opportunity to put a former mayor, with whom it has sparred for decades, in his place.

The Plain Dealer's penchant for pounding on Kucinich has little to do with the congressman's failed presidential bids or his current advocacy on behalf of changing U.S. foreign policy, restoring a measure of balance to our trade policies or impeaching members of the Bush-Cheney administration for high crimes and misdemeanors.

While there is no question that Kucinich has put himself at odds with party leaders and pundits in Washington and Ohio – some of whom disagree with him ideologically and many of whom think his Democratic presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008 gave new meaning to the word "quixotic" -- Kucinich is hardly the only Cleveland-area House member who stretches the boundaries of the political etiquette. (Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who represents a neighboring district, mounted an necessary but controversial challenge to Congressional approval of the results of the 2004 presidential election because of unresolved issues with the vote count in her state.)

Nor is the newspaper's gripe a personal one rooted in bad blood between individuals on the staff and a particularly-independent local official. While a few old timers remain from the days when Kucinich and the paper clashed on an almost daily basis, the penchant of the paper's writers to pound on Kucinich knows no generational limitation.

The Plain Dealer's distaste for Kucinich is institutional. Since the 1970s, when he was the 31-year-old "boy mayor" of Cleveland, Kucinich has rubbed the city's economic elites – for whom the Plain Dealer has often served as a friendly newspaper of record – wrong. Kucinich never behaved as the Plain Dealer's editors expected a mayor to behave. He refused to bend to the demands of the downtown bankers and the corporate CEOs who had gotten used to local officials – Democrats and Republicans – making populist noises but doing as they were told when it came time to choose between the boardrooms of the city's office towers and the ethnic neighborhoods of the city and its working-class suburbs.

Kucinich's refusal to permit the privatization of Cleveland's municipal power plant was a classic battle between a city's economic, political and media elites on one side and an almost unimaginably principled official on the other. The business community and its media mouthpieces tossed every charge they could at the mayor and most of them stuck. He was ultimately driven from office with a reputation so smeared that, when I arrived in Ohio as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, one of the first things I "learned" was that Kucinich was probably a bit unbalanced and certainly "finished forever" in politics.

Only after meeting and interviewing the former mayor did I come to the conclusion that what the Plain Dealer and many other Ohio media outlets saw as instability was a rare commodity in that state's stilted politics: a principled determination to stand against entrenched power, even at great political expense.

As a political writer and later an editor for The Toledo Blade, I became a regular reader of the Plain Dealer. I came to respect much about the newspaper, and I retain high regard for many of its writers. (Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz's latest column on the media's mistreatment of Hillary Clinton is smarter and deeper than anything else I've read on what is rapidly emerging as a serious issue in this campaign.)

But I was always struck by the energy Ohio's largest newspaper -- and other media outlets that followed its lead – always expended when it came to going after Kucinich.

To be sure, the congressman's brought scrutiny and criticism on himself; even when he's right, he can be more rigid and righteous than is politically smart. But, the thing is, Kucinich does have a tendency to be right – on the war in Iraq, on civil liberties, on trade policy, on health care reform and even the media-ownership issues that most unsettle the managers of chain newspapers.

Unfortunately, being proven right scores an Ohio politico few points from the state's major media outlets. In fact, the most consistently correct political players in the state – folks like Senator Sherrod Brown and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur – have for years taken media hits for their steady criticism of trade pacts and economic policies that have turned out to be disasters for Ohio.

Kucinich's successful battle to preserve municipal power in Cleveland may have protected working families from spikes in their utility rates. The former mayor's warnings that the bankers and the CEOs would abandon Cleveland in its hours of need may have proven to be prescient. But, still, the savaging by the Plain Dealer has continued.

Even when the voters of Cleveland and neighboring communities restored the former mayor to public life in the 1990s, first as a state senator and then as their representative to Congress – in each case, choosing him over Republican incumbents in "Reagan Democrat" swing districts – there would be no forgiveness and no forgetting by the local newspaper.

Kucinich, it is said in Cleveland, could walk on the waters of Lake Erie and still the Plain Dealer headline would read "Dennis Can't Swim." Uninspired primary challengers have still enjoyed friendly coverage – and sometimes enthusiastic endorsements -- from the Plain Dealer.

This year, as Kucinich seeks reelection in a March 4 primary where he faces a reasonably well-financed challenge from a Cleveland councilman who has made a rough peace with the local elites – as well as several less fiscally-endowed contenders -- the Plain Dealer is campaigning as hard to defeat the congressman as are his foes.

The newspaper has not merely endorsed Kucinich's most prominent opponent, a one-time fan of the congressman named Joe Cimperman, it has taken every opportunity to portray Kucinich – whose passion for all things Cleveland, from polka music to kielbasa to steel factories is legendary -- as a flaky foreigner who neither understands nor cares about the city and its suburbs. The paper spills almost as much ink recounting actor Sean Penn's support of Kucinich than it does on the Hollywood lefty's movies.

Never mind that challenger Cimperman does not live in Kucinich's 10th District – the councilman is a resident of Congresswoman Jones' neighboring district but is Constitutionally permitted to run where he chooses – Kucinich is portrayed as the interloper. "Cimperman cannot vote for himself March 4," the Plain Dealer admitted in a February 21 editorial that may go down in history as one of the more bizarre arguments ever made by a newspaper on behalf of its endorsed candidate. "But people in the 10th District who want real leadership can vote – for Joe Cimperman."

What is "real leadership" in the eyes of the editors of the Plain Dealer? In Cimperman's case, it is best defined as a willingness to work with the community's business elites. Yes, the councilman objected at first to a Wal-Mart being located in a neighborhood where it was expected to threaten locally-owned shops. But when the chain store prevailed, chirps the PD, Cimperman accepted his lemons and "made lemonade." Translation: He made peace with the developers. That, the paper says, is the measure of "a smart leader."

Kucinich, on the other hand, is condemned for standing too firmly for living-wage jobs, local shopkeepers and real health-care reform. And it's not just Kucinich who is attacked. When local labor leaders stand up for the congressman who has fought with them to block bad trade deals and protect good jobs, they are accused of giving Kucinich "too much credit" for standing up for workers.

The editorials, the columns, the news analysis articles dismissing the assertions made by labor leaders in Kucinich's television ads, the constant references to Cimperman as a "workhorse" and the congressman as a "show horse" will continue through Tuesday. Then the voters of Cleveland, Lakewood, North Olmsted, Parma and neighboring communities will have their say. If they believe the Plain Dealer, they will reject Kucinich and get themselves a congressman who is skilled in the art of compromise. On the other hand, it they listen to Harriet Applegate, the executive secretary of the Cleveland-based North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, who says that Kucinich's edgy critique of corporate power – and even of corporate media -- is what's needed in Washington.

"It doesn't help to have all 435 members of the House be compromisers and negotiators," argues Applegate. Despite the Plain Dealer's preaching, the veteran union leader says, "Dennis Kucinich has worked tirelessly for working people, and that is why labor supports him."Conversely, it is Kucinich's refusal to compromise that guarantees the Cleveland Plain Dealer will continue to criticize this congressman for so long as his name remains on the ballot.

NAFTA Debate, Round 4,489,642

On my walk into the New York office, I was thinking through a post on NAFTA, but Robert Reich's post seems like a better jumping off point:

NAFTA has become a symbol for the mounting insecurities felt by blue-collar Americans. While the overall benefits from free trade far exceed the costs, and the winners from trade (including all of us consumers who get cheaper goods and services because of it) far exceed the losers, there's a big problem: The costs fall disproportionately on the losers -- mostly blue-collar workers who get dumped because their jobs can be done more cheaply by someone abroad who'll do it for a fraction of the American wage. The losers usually get new jobs eventually but the new jobs are typically in the local service economy and they pay far less than the ones lost.

Even though the winners from free trade could theoretically compensate the losers and still come out ahead, they don't. America doesn't have a system for helping job losers find new jobs that pay about the same as the ones they've lost – regardless of whether the loss was because of trade or automation. There's no national retraining system. Unemployment insurance reaches fewer than 40 percent of people who lose their jobs – a smaller percentage than when the unemployment system was designed seventy years ago. We have no national health care system to cover job losers and their families. There's no wage insurance. Nothing. And unless or until America finds a way to help the losers, the backlash against trade is only going to grow.

I'd dissent a bit and say that it may be true that theoretically the benefits of "free trade far exceed the costs," the economists' ideal of "free trade" isn't really what we're debating. We're debating actual trade agreements that are hundreds of pages long and negotiated by a democratically elected government. If you switch in NAFTA for "free trade" in that sentence, I don't think it's true that NAFTA's benefits have "far exceeded" the costs. Similarly, Reich thinks "the Dems shouldn't be redebating NAFTA," but NAFTA is the most infamous free-trade deal of the last several decades and a kind of placeholder in the trade debate that's unavoidable.

This Week on Tap

This week to break the impasse over the Senate-passed FISA bill, House Dems may split the legislation into two titles for separate votes--one that authorizes surveillance activities, and the other granting retroactive telecom immunity. After the votes, assuming mutual passage, the two would be recombined. By offering such a compromise, House Dems believe they can placate lawmakers that oppose retroative immunity and simultaneously move ahead to renew the law. Meanwhile the GOP is backing the plan, because on the second vote, it's likely enough Democrats will defect to provide the Bush administration--that is, the telecom companies--with Congressional cover. A FISA vote is expected before representatives leave for spring break on Mar. 17. This week, the House will also take up Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI)'s mental health parity legislation (which would make it easier for mental health patients and addicts to get coverage) and the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, which would extend and reform national service laws.

On the Senate side, following the past year's slew of health and safety hazards posed by toys and other imported goods, members will take up legislation to increase the power of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Also this week, both the House and Senate will begin writing spending plans in separate committee sessions. The Senate will host hearings on disabled American veterans, mental health in the armed services, Kosovo, voter fraud and an FBI oversight hearing. The House will host a joint oversight hearing on future US commitments to Iraq, as well as hearings on CEO pay and the mortgage crisis, Cuba's future and a Department of Homeland Security oversight hearing.