As Bush begins his second term today, progressives must fight hard in DC against the dismantling and rollback of the twentieth century's hard-earned rights and liberties. But with legislative--and this week, literal--gridlock in our capitol city, it's time to recognize that the road to renewal may well run through the states.
As Justice Louis Brandeis argued in the 1930s, "It is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments."
A savvy progressive state-based strategy (and some of the smartest minds in politics today are at work crafting this ) would seize on this "happy accident," and turn to the states to develop and promote the reforms and ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda. Here's a quick guide to ten initiatives (in both red and blue states) that are already winning beyond the Beltway.
1) Raising the Minimum Wage: George W. won't even consider raising the federal minimum wage, but in November 2004, a whopping 71 percent of Florida's voters approved a referendum that raised the minimum wage above the miserly federal figure of $5.15 an hour. Nevada voters did the same. In New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Vermont, the state legislatures have followed suit; fourteen states now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government's.
2) Promoting Tax Fairness: In the November election, California voters approved by a three to one margin tax increases on those making more than $1 million a year--and earmarked the proceeds for mental health programs. In recent years, several states "both red and blue"--Nebraska and North Carolina among them--have adopted legislation "decoupling" state law from Bush's 2001 revisions to the tax code which ultimately "would prevent the total elimination of estate taxes in 2010," says the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Thirty states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March 2002. Last year, the Virginia state legislature voted to raise taxes by $1.6 billion to provide more resources for education and other state programs, and in November Maine voters rejected a cap on property taxes.
3) Promoting Clean Elections: The Maine state legislature approved the Clean Election Act, which provides public financing to those candidates who refuse to use private donations or their own money to finance their campaigns. Well over 50 percent of Maine's legislators have run "clean money" campaigns. Voters in Arizona and Vermont have recently approved "clean money" ballot initiatives, and Arizona became the first state to elect a governor under the clean money system.
4) Protecting the Environment: In 2002, California enacted the nation's toughest law to limit car and truck emissions--thus reducing greenhouse gases, antagonizing the automobile industry and dealing a blow to SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles. In the past two years, six other states including Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey have adopted California's tough new emissions standards--spearheading the fight for clean air and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Other victories: In this past election, Colorado voted to promote renewable energy, and Washington State voted to ban nuclear waste dumping.
5) Promoting Stem Cell Research: More good news from the Golden State! In November, California voters rejected Bush's cynical policy on stem cell research when they approved, 59 to 41, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The law will raise $350 million to support stem cell research in the hopes of ultimately finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases. One San Diego scientist predicted that the law would establish in California a "mini-NIH" that will give a much-needed shot in the arm to stem cell research.
6) Reinstating Overtime Pay: In August, the Bush Administration prevented millions of Americans from collecting overtime pay when it approved regulations narrowing the list of those eligible. Illinois rejected this anti-worker policy, however, passing a law reinstating overtime pay for workers in the state. Twenty states have created overtime rules that are more expansive than the ones that the Bush Administration has adopted.
7) Providing Access to Emergency Contraception Pills: In 2003, two FDA committees advised the FDA to make emergency contraception pills available to women over the counter. The pills were declared safe and they were declared efficacious. But the FDA rejected its committees' recommendations, so Maine, California and Hawaii, among others, have passed rules making this option available to women who go to their neighborhood pharmacy. And New York and New Mexico require that rape victims in emergency rooms must be offered emergency contraception.
8) Outlawing Racial Profiling: Montana, New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois and other states have banned racial profiling, fighting off John Ashcroft's efforts to target and detain Muslims simply, in many instances, because of who they are.
9) Financing Public Education:This past election, Nevada voted to require its legislators to fund K-12 education before anything else. Oklahoma created a lottery system to raise money for public education, and North Carolina chose to put money collected from fines into its public school system, as well as to require more equitable distribution of state money among the rich and poor school districts.
10) Protecting the Rights of Death Row Inmates: Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and four other states have reformed their death penalty laws, giving those on death row the right to DNA testing. Illinois undertook a comprehensive re-examination of its death row system; after the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment found widespread flaws and abuses, the Illinois state legislature adopted many of the eighty-five reforms that the Commission had recommended. In Wyoming and South Dakota, juvenile executions have been banned.
So, let's not hang our heads this Black Thursday but instead recognize that these are victories to build on in the next years. As Joel Rogers--director of The Center on Wisconsin Strategy, one of the savviest and most effective state policy groups around--wrote last year in these pages, progressives urgently need to develop and implement a more comprehensive and ambitious state strategy, building on the policy victories and organizing already underway.
Faced with four more years of Bush and DC gridlock,that's what I call a smart and winning agenda for a second term.
The First Lady has always merited her designation as "the brighter Bush." But, clearly, she needs to study up on American history.
With concern mounting about the wisdom of the Bush team's plans for four days of lavish inaugural festivities, Laura Bush was dispatched to make the case for the $40 million blowout that was organized to erase any doubt about who is in charge. Like her husband and his aides, the First Lady announced her approval of the ridiculous extravagance that will accompany what that is starting to look more and more like a royal coronation. The excess is necessary, she explained, because big parties at the opening of a presidential term are "an important part of our history."
"They're a ceremony of our history; they're a ritual of our government," she said of free-spending inaugural celebrations, after being asked whether it was appropriate to spend tens of millions of dollars on ten different parties at a time when the nation is at war and much of the world is still recovering from the tsunami disaster.
It was a measure of the concern of the Bush Administration's political overseers that the First Lady, whose popularity is greater and surely more deserved than that of the President, was sent out to fight for the Administration's right to party.
Unfortunately, she added nothing to the debate over inaugural bloat when she grounded her argument in historical precedent.
The fact is that America has a mixed history with regards to inaugural style. Yes, there have been opulent ceremonies and celebrations in the past, organized by Democrats as well as Republicans. But there have also been restrained recognitions of the transfer of power, particularly in times of war and international turbulence--most notably Franklin Delano Roosevelt's subdued fourth inaugural during the last days of World War II.
In truth, however, only one President has marked his inauguration in the true spirit of the American experiment.
That President understood the experiment better than most because he, Thomas Jefferson, had had such a central hand in launching it.
Elected after a bitter campaign that culminated in the first defeat of a sitting President--the often regal John Adams--Jefferson could have been excused for putting on a great celebration to mark the peaceful transition of power.
But he chose to do the opposite.
On the morning of March 4, 1801, the President-elect awoke in his small room in Conrad's Boarding House on Capitol Hill--where he had lived during the past four years when he served as a dissident Vice President. After dressing in simple clothes, he went to the breakfast room and took his usual seat at the table, declining the offer of a place at the head of the table that had been made in deference to the fact that on this day he would be sworn in as the nation's third President.
Just before noon, Jefferson left Conrad's and walked through the muddy streets of Washington to the Capitol, where he was sworn in without pomp or circumstance. He quietly delivered an inaugural address in which he affirmed his faith in "Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people..."
Jefferson then walked back to his rooming house, where at dinner time he again refused a place of honor at the table--displaying not merely in words, but in deeds, his belief that the President was a servant of the people, not their better and certainly not their ruler.
The symbolism of Jefferson's approach to his inauguration was intentional.
The new President wanted Americans to put behind them the trappings of their colonial past.
He believed that the age of kings and queens was ending, while the age of the democracy was beginning.
It should come as no surprise that George Bush, with his regal instincts and inflated sense of self-importance, would want a big party. But Laura Bush, who has never seemed quite so royally inclined as her husband, should know better than to suggest that there is anything inherently American about such festivities.
They are, in fact, an ugly and wholly indefensible abandonment of the template that Jefferson sought to imprint upon a nation founded in revolt against royalty.
Social Security is in danger. We must take preventive action: Baathist dead-enders have targeted the Social Security lockbox with Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Our only hope is to adopt private accounts so the trust fund can be spread to multiple locations, before the smoking gun turns out to be a mushroom cloud.
Sound silly? No sillier than the Administration's full-court press to scare the retirement checks out of seniors' hands. A propaganda push so vile, it's a wonder Armstrong Williams isn't part of it. (But Dick Cheney is.)
Americans need to take a deep breath and repeat: There is no crisis in Social Security. There is no crisis in Social Security. Feel better? If absolutely no reforms are made, Social Security will not start running out of money until 2042! That's four decades away, and that is the pessimistic scenario. According to the optimistic projections, the danger of doing nothing is...nothing.
We've been down this road before, and we all know the result. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Now that the Bush administration has finally stopped wasting millions of tax dollars each month on the futile search for the weapons of mass destruction it promised would be found in Iraq, it is time for an accounting.
First off, let's be clear about the fact that there was never any credible evidence to suggest that Iraq had a serious WMD program -- let alone the "stockpiles" of already-produced weaponry that the president and his aides suggested. Twenty-three members of the Senate and 133 members of the House rejected the intensive lobbying by the administration and the pliable press for the use-of-force resolution that Bush would use as his authorization to launch a preemptive war. Among those who voted "no" were the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and key members of the Senate and House committees responsible for intelligence, armed services and foreign relations -- all of whom had followed the issue for years and saw no evidence of a threat sufficient to justify an invasion of Iraq. Former President Jimmy Carter and others with long-term knowledge of the issues involved were critical of the rush to war, as were dozens of prominent players in the nation's political, foreign service, intelligence and military elites.
So the suggestion that there was broad acceptance of the premise that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, or was deep into the process of developing them, is absurd. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had access to the same information as those who recognized that there was not a sufficient threat to merit military action by the United States. They chose to dismiss that information, and instead to peddle as genuine a fabricated threat.
When we look at what they said, however, it is clear that some pushed the lies more aggressively than others.
To be sure, Bush said outrageous things. For instance, in February 2002, he told the admittedly gullible folks at the American Enterprise Institute, "In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world -- and we will not allow it."
Unless he was referring to someone other than Saddam Hussein, Bush was wrong. Dramatically wrong. But not, arguably, as wrong as Vice President Dick Cheney when he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 26, 2002, that, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."
Ouch, that's really wrong. Why, that's almost as wrong as when Cheney told an Air National Guard event in Denver on December 1, 2002, that, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide biological or chemical weapons to a terrorist group or a terrorist individual." Or when Cheney appeared on NBC-TV's Meet the Press on March 16, 2003, to say of Saddam Hussein: "we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
Long after it had become clear that the invading forces of the United States were not going to turn up any of the promised weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Cheney continued to promote the lie. Even after the arms inspector David Kay's report raised damning doubts about Iraq's ability to produce WMDs, Cheney told a crowd in Denver on November 7, 2003, that Saddam Hussein had "cultivated weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them."
Cheney's refusal to back off the WMD claim actually became an embarrassment to the Bush reelection campaign when the president was forced to say publicly in 2004 that he could not confirm the statements his own vice president was making.
So if even Bush backed away from Cheney, where was the vice president getting these crazy ideas?
Gee, could have been the national security advisor? Condoleezza Rice, the Dr. Strangelove of the Bush administration, spent much of 2002 promoting the fantasy that Iraq posed a nuclear threat. Famously, she declared on CNN on September 8, 2002, that, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Don't expect Bush or Cheney appear before a Congressional committee to explain themselves anytime soon. But, conveniently, Rice will have to do so this week, as part of the process of reviewing her nomination to serve as Secretary of State. It seems as if this might be an appropriate point for Congress to begin holding the administration accountable.
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.
In February 1917, bread riots took place in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and spread quickly to working-class quarters where the violence increased. Women, many of them elderly, led the protests that led to the collapse of the czarist regime and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution.
In January 2005, few anticipate genuine revolution--or even a change in government. But, in one of the most interesting developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railway tracks in protest of unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country--protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. (Unlike 1998, however, what makes these protests potentially more powerful is that every family in Russia has a pensioner--often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren.)
The source of the pensioners' anger is a law that came into force on January 1, replacing longstanding social benefits--free public transportation, and subsidies for medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services--with inadequate, monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable in Russia--the country's 34 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities. (They make up just over one quarter of the population.)
The spreading protests, which are the largest, angriest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000, began quietly on January 9 and now stretch from Russia's Far East to Moscow itself. Most important, at times they've brought vital transport arteries to a halt.
Last Monday, a crowd of elderly pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow's city center to one of its main international airports. The newspaper Russki Kurier reported, "The angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces." This past weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets in Putin's hometown of St Petersburg. In a sign of the radicalization of these pensioneer-protesters, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored. Thousands in St. Petersburg shouted, "Putin--resign!" they also called for the regional governor's resignation. Pensioners have also staged protests in Khimki, outside Moscow, and in towns such as Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Tula, Penza, Kursk, Barnaul and Podolsk. In the main square of Almetyevsk last week, 5,000 people massed with placards, shouting slogans, "Down With Putin."
In Khimki, World War II veterans may face trial as a result of skirmishes during the protests.(In a sign of the government's hypocrisy, Putin used his televised New Year's greeting to the nation to mark the sixtieth anniversary of World War II this May, and honor its veterans--the very ones his "reforms" will now impoverish. As a 78-year old veteran told the New York Times, " The fascists took away my youth. And now these people are taking away my old age." )
There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. According to Channel 3, dozens of trolley conductors across the country were assaulted last week. And the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported that, on January 11, a car trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during a demonstration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
Perhaps because large-scale protests in Moscow's center are difficult to hide, the usually tightly controlled Russian television has broadcast striking images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen.
The conventional view is that these spontaneous and somewhat chaotic protests will not pose a serious challenge to the stability of Putin's regime--unless, through strategic leadership and ties to opposition parties, pensioners are able to mobilize and organize a nation-wide general strike.Yet, that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as a month ago, a respected Russian analyst argued that "the Russian masses, even the most destitute, have not sent any signal of their determination to confront the regime."
On the other hand, for months leading opposition commentators and politicians have talked about "the despair syndrome," suggesting that the situation in Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, rabid nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as "pre-revolutionary." Writing in Zavtra ("Tomorrow") , the newspaper he has edited for the last decade, Prokhanov declared that Putin's head will be "cut off," and asserted that everyone is against Putin in Russia, including "the humiliated governors, the oligarchs, his liberal intelligentsia, the nationalists, the West and the Russian people as a whole."
While Russia's newspapers are now filled with debates about the meaning of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" for Russia, few believe that country will see a change in government. What is clear, however, is that the current political and economic crisis threatens Putin's personal standing. In a poll taken at the end of last week, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. And a poll released Saturday shows that trust in Putin's leadership has plummeted. The wildfire demonstrations have also contributed to a decline in the public's mood about the country's direction.
The central question today is, Will pensioners be joined by younger protesters--students, unpaid school teachers, miners, doctors? Will there be a pensioners' general strike? Will demands escalate--as they already seem to be--and include widespread calls for the resignation of key ministers, the Parliament and Putin? If so, what will be the Kremlin's reaction? It's already clear that the regime--from the parliament to the ministries--is in a panic.
For now, however, the government is not backing down. Last week, the Putin -controlled parliament refused to approve a motion by the Communist and the Motherland parties to review and amend the benefits legislation.Instead, the Kremlin is blaming the regional authorities for poor implementation of the changes.
Several leading political opposition leaders are calling on the regime to use its budget surplus--or what is called the "stabilization fund"--of some $25 billion (largely a result of soaring oil prices) to increase pensions, restore benefits and subsidies and, more generally, develop a comprehensive economic development program. (Sergei Glaziev, a leading parliamentary deputy who challenged Putin in last year's presidential election, has also argued that these billions shouldn't be parked in Western banks, where the money does nothing for Russia's economy.)
What will the next days bring? A leading parliamentary deputy told a Moscow radio station last weekend, "The demonstrations will reach their peak in February when people will have to pay their utility bills for the very first time."
Babushkas of Russia--Unite!
The anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. falls just five days before the second inauguration of a president who has broken faith with most of the civil rights leader's legacy -- at home and abroad.
But, while today's leaders are out of touch with King's legacy, Americans who still hold out hope that their country might truly embrace a higher and better morality than that of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice must keep in touch.
Amid our celebrations of King's monumental contribution to the struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States, we must also celebrate his commitment to peace – and to the humane foreign policies that ultimately provide the best defense against threats and violence.
Thus it will be appropriate over these next few days, as we honor King's memory, that we recall what the slain civil rights champion had to say about a subject that is much in the news these days: moral values.
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: ‘This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just," King explained in his April 4, 1967, address at Manhattan's Riverside Church.
King explained that robbing the nation's treasury to fund military misadventures abroad did not fit into any definition he knew of "moral values." Indeed, he suggested, morality called Americans to oppose presidents who embarked upon careers of empire -- for the sake not just of victimized nations on the other side of the planet, but for the sake of America.
"A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
We honor King best by following his teachings. And, while he taught us much about how to live with one another, he taught us even more about how to live in peace with the rest of the world. It is that lesson that we must carry into what the Bush administration and the pliant press will portray as a festive week of celebration.
For those who are not celebrating with the Bushes and Cheneys, however, it is important to remember that King would not have settled for the excuse of "necessity" that the president will peddle. America, King told the crowd at Riverside Church on that April evening, could change.
"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values," the Nobel Peace Prize winner explained. "There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood."
While death benefits for troops in Iraq remain at $12,000, George W. Bush is throwing himself a $40 million party to celebrate the first time in his life he out-achieved his father. But the dynastic dysfunction continues into the next generation.
The Bush twins wanted to book Kid Rock to headline the inauguration youth concert they are hosting. But the White House was forced to disinvite him after family values groups complained about his vulgar, sex-soaked lyrics, including these lines from "Pimp of the Nation":
Pimp of the Nation, I could be it
As a matter of a fact, I foresee it
But only pimpin' hoes with the big tush
While you be left pimpin' Barbara Bush
This leaves the Bush daughters with a problem: What star from the thin ranks of white male rappers can replace Kid Rock? It seems unlikely to be fellow Detroit native Eminem, who sang in his explosive pre-election release "Mosh":
Let the president answer our high anarchy
Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way
As for the Beastie Boys, they rapped in "It Takes Time to Build":
Maybe it's time that we impeach Tex
And the military muscle that he wants to flex
By the time Bush is done, what will be left
Selling votes like E-pills at the discotheque
Environmental destruction and the national debt
But plenty of dollars left in the fat war chest
Of course, they can't invite any of the musicians from the pro-Kerry, Vote for Change concerts: Bruce Springsteen; Pearl Jam; R.E.M.; Jackson Brown; Bonnie Raitt; Ben Harper; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; Sheryl Crow; Dave Matthews; the Dixie Chicks; Foo Fighters; Tracy Chapman; or Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds.
Is anyone left?
There are always the Republican stalwarts Ted Nugent and Brooks & Dunn. But here's to hoping the Bush twins invite the Olsen Twins. It would be one wild and crazy after-party: "Double, double the trouble, double, double the fun."
When White House spokesman Scott McClellan opened up his daily press briefing yesterday, he said, "This will be the only question of the briefing." He was joking. But it turned out that the first question--a response to the news the Iraq Survey Group had ended its hunt for weapons of mass destruction after finding absolutely nothing--was practically the only question of the day. Here's that first query:
The fact that the Iraq Survey Group has now folded up its field operations, can you explain to us if there is any sense of embarrassment or lack of comfort about the fact that after two years of looking, these people found nothing that the President and others assured us they would find?
McClellan did the usual. He did not answer the query.
McClellan: I think the President already talked about this last October in response to the comprehensive report that was released by Charles Duelfer [the Iraq Survey Group chief] at that point. Charles Duelfer came to the White House in December; the President took that opportunity to thank him for all the work that he had done. The two discussed how Saddam Hussein's regime retained the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, and they also discussed how he was systematically gaming the system to undermine the sanctions that were in place, so that once those sanctions were eliminated -- which was something he was trying to do through the U.N. oil-for-food program -- then he could begin his weapons programs once again. And I think the President talked about the other issues back in October. Nothing has changed from that time period.
And nothing has changed in terms of the White House's response to the absence of WMDs. Bush refuses to address the consequences of having misled the nation and the world. Before the war, he stated that there was "no doubt" that Iraq was loaded to the gills with WMDs. It was Saddam Hussein's possession of these deadly weapons, Bush argued, that rendered him a "direct" threat that had to be neutralized immediately. Bush and his aides repeatedly asserted there was no if about Iraq's WMDs. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported it had found no evidence of a revived nuclear weapons program in Iraq, yet Bush and Dick Cheney insisted Hussein had reconstituted such a program. The UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said he was concerned about the possibility that Iraq might have kept WMDs hidden from inspectors, but he also stated that discrepancies in Iraq's accounting of its previous WMD material did not mean that Iraq actually possessed such dangerous goods.
But the Bush gang said it knew better. Secretary of State Colin Powell made that now-infamous presentation to the UN; everything he declared as a fact turned out to be wrong. Bush left himself no wiggle room on the subject of Iraq and WMDs. He declared, "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more, and according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated, "There's no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons....We all know that. A trained ape knows that." (Paging that trained ape.) White House mouthpiece Ari Fleischer said, "The president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it."
Really? Well, it was not true. And how does the White House respond? When asked if Bush owes the public an explanation, McClellan only pointed to the commission Bush appointed to study intelligence related to WMDs. "What is important," he said, "is that we need to go back and look at what was wrong with much of the intelligence that we accumulated over a 12-year period and...and correct any flaws." But there is no indication that the commission, which is conducting its work largely in secret, is probing the Iraq case in detail. In any event, if the issue is intelligence flaws, why did Bush award a Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, who headed the CIA for much of this time?
Reporters would not let go of this issue. One asked, "what is the president's assessment of the damage to American credibility that might have been done by his very forceful case that there were weapons and his launching of a war on that basis?" McClellan replied, "Well, nothing has changed in terms of the president's view." Of course not. And then McClellan doled out the usual 9/11 boilerplate: "Remember, September 11th changed the equation about how we confront the threats that we face, and the president recognizes what his most important responsibility is, and that is to do everything in his power to protect the American people. And nothing has changed in terms of his views when it comes to Iraq, what he has previously stated and what you have previously heard. The president knows that by advancing freedom in a dangerous region, we are making the world a safer place."
But if Hussein had no WMDs, how much of a threat was he? Bush and McClellan--for obvious reasons--refuse to concede Bush hyped the threat to win popular support for the war. If Bush had argued before the war only that the United States needed to invade and occupy Iraq in order to promote freedom in the region because that would protect Americans at home, wouldn't the prewar debate have taken on a much different tone? And the war would have been a much tougher sell for Bush and his crew.
In the briefing, McClellan didn't budge. That's what he's paid to do--not yield an inch. A reporter asked,
When it comes to Iraq, North Korea, and the president--this president stands up and says, they've got weapons programs, they've got weapons of mass destruction, isn't it the case that there will be many people in the world who will say, how can we believe him? And how does he deal with that?
McClellan replied, "He's going to continue working with the international community to confront the threats that we face."
That didn't satisfy the White House reporters. The follow-up question:
Scott, this is an important political question that you're not really addressing squarely, which is, can this president or a future President go to a Tony Blair or a leader of Spain and say, we believe something is happening and you need to join us in a preemptive show of force? Has this experience not totally wiped out that possibility for political action in the future?
McClellan stuck to his non-responsive talking points: "We're working together in a number of areas to confront threats that the international community faces." And he added, "It's important that we act together to confront the threats that we face. And it's important that when we say something, that we follow through on what we say. That's why the President is also--."A reporter interrupted: "Even if the information is wrong?" McClellan ignored that and once again insisted that Hussein was "a very unique threat."
When you're done reading this article, visit David Corn's WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on inconvenient and embarrassing questions for Newt Gingrich (who might be considering a presidential bid), on the Pentagon's "Salvador option" in Iraq, and on how Armstrong Williams conducts job interviews.
McClellan refused to blink. And the questions kept coming.
Secretary Rumsfeld said you go--infamously, he said, "You go to war with the Army that you have." Well, this administration went to war, when it went to war, based on information that proved to be incorrect. Does the president now regret the timing of this? Does he feel that the war effort and its aftermath and the post-immediate war conflict phase was undermined by that timetable and intelligence that was wrong?
McClellan answered, "Based on what we know today, the president would have taken the same action, because this is about protecting the American people.... We took action to confront a threat posed by Saddam Hussein." If Bush knew that Iraq had no WMDs whatsoever and had no WMD production capability at all--which is what we know today--he still would have launched an invasion of Iraq before sufficient levels of body armor and armored vehicles were available? Before a larger and more effective coalition was formed? This is--to use a technical term--nuts. If Iraq had no WMDs, there was no immediate threat to protect the American people from. If the aim was to bring freedom to the people of Iraq--who had been suffering for decades--there still was no reason to launch a war before the military was fully ready and before a larger coalition (perhaps with an Arab state or two) was established and before drawing up plans for handling the social, economic, political and security challenges of a post-invasion period. As the chief Army historian in charge of the invasion has noted, no such plans were drafted.
McClellan kept batting away questions related to the nonexistent WMDs, declining--on behalf of a president who often talks about responsibility--to take responsibility for having made false statements to grease the way to war.
Q. So if the information is wrong, is there no consequence?
McClellan: I'm sorry?
Q. If the information about WMDs is wrong, as we all agree now, is there no consequence?
The president's "focus," McClellan replied, "is on helping to support those in the region who want to move forward." In other words, yes, there are no consequences. After all, the Duelfer report came out before the election, it proved that Bush had misled the American people before the war, and Bush still won.
The lesson indeed is, it doesn't matter if Bush distorts the public discourse by making dramatically untrue proclamations. That is, it doesn't matter to the White House and its supporters. Even when Bush is caught, he and his team have a ready response: deny and ignore. Two days ago, Bush told the Washington Times that come 2040, Social Security "goes broke, flat bust." That is not an accurate statement. Come 2052, the system, according to conservative estimates, will be able to pay about three-quarters of the scheduled benefits. That's hardly "flat bust." And even though Bush is routinely corrected on this point by stories in the mainstream media, he continues to peddle this blatant disinformation.
No WMDs. No Social Security crisis. Reality does not reign in Bush's world. It's wrong that conservative columnist Armstrong Williams was paid by the administration to push pro-Bush propaganda. But what's far worse--and more dangerous--is that McClellan receives taxpayer dollars to promote and defend Bush's facts-free fantasies.
IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."
For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there
On January 20, hundreds of Republicans will descend on Washington, DC, wearing furs, boots and Stetsons, and partying like the Hollywood stars (they love to loathe) at festivities that will cost some $40 million to host--or $25 million more than the first pledge of US assistance to victims of the tsunami. These high-end Bush donors will be paying to play in our nation's capital.
Their high-flying parties come after a holiday season of little sacrifice for those in the top one percent. At a time when growing numbers of Americans cannot afford essentials like rent, health care and retirement security, the Bentley car dealership in Bethesda, Maryland, registered a 700 percent increase in sales last year. (One popular seller this season is the new Continental GT, which goes for $165K.)
A few days before the release of a report showing that New Yorkers needed to make $18.18 an hour (three times more than the federal minimum wage) to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment, the media titan Rupert Murdoch agreed to pay $44 million for a Manhattan penthouse on Fifth Avenue. (That's $29 million more than the first pledge the Bush Administration offered to tsunami victims.)
While Murdoch lives high, the working poor in the same city can't make ends meet. Playing by the rules hasn't done them much good. Thanks to a series of recent reports that I'd call required reading for journalists, policymakers and concerned citiizens, we now have more than enough evidence (even for the faith-based members of this Administration) showing that the working poor cannot afford basics for survival including, in some cases, food.
In late December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition concluded in a landmark report that full-time workers making the federal minimum wage (an appalling $5.15 an hour) can't pay rent or utilities on the vast majority of one-bedroom apartments.
Last November, the Community Service Society and United Way of New York City reported that about one in three low-wage, full-time workers in New York City used a food bank, or couldn't afford their utilities, or their rent, or to fill a prescription. A different report completed by the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement reinforced the grim picture for families citywide: Almost half of the city's households can't pay the cost of food, housing, child care or other necessities.
Last October, the Economic Policy Institute issued a briefing paper driving home what US policymakers know is another new reality: Health care is increasingly unaffordable and out of reach for middle-income families. Between 2000 and 2003, married couples with children saw health care spending outpace income by a factor of three, EPI reported. About one-fifth of the full-time workforce now lacks health insurance and almost 50 percent of lower-income New Yorkers don't have health insurance.
Job security is also becoming a thing of the past. Those who lose their jobs in this economy, reports the Washington Post, need "some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted [or they] will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits." Anthony Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, warned that unless a comprehensive industrial policy is adopted soon, "we could have a permanent working poor. They don't live in America; they kind of live under it," he told the Post.
What's the Republican response? Give more tax breaks to corporate America and give billions to Wall Street by privatizing Social Security. Talk about distorted priorities.
Now is the time to enact a new industrial policy--and raising the minimum wage is an essential first step.
Progressives have already achieved living wage victories in Florida and New York (Floridians, for example, voted on November 2 to raise the minimum wage to $1 above the federal level, although the mainstream media has ignored the living wage momentum that's occurring in at least fourteen states and 123 cities and counties nationwide). Moreover, until we get to a universal health care system so desperately needed, policymakers should pass laws that will control rising health care costs and expand our employer-based health insurance system. The government should invest in worker retraining so people who get outsourced or downsized can find high paying jobs elsewhere.
Economist Jamie Galbraith, in his smart book Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, argues that by encouraging full employment and taking other steps, the US can close the wage gap that threatens to undermine our social fabric. Another vital step is correcting the tax imbalance by raising corporate taxes, closing tax loopholes for corporations relocating overseas and increasing funding for low-income housing because the funding "hasn't kept up with demand," says the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Finally, progressive religious activists believe this is a moment to push poverty and economic justice into the "moral values" debate. As Kim Bobo, director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a Chicago-based advocacy group, and other religious leaders say, "Shame on us--those of us who work with the religious community have not adequately made the connection between economic disparity and moral values."
These religious activists hope to move beyond issues of sexual morality and bring attention to the Administration's new efforts to increase inequality by privatizing Social Security and overhauling the tax code. Or, as Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said in a recent open letter, "Allowing 45 million Americans to go without health insurance, permitting 35 million Americans to live with incomes below the official poverty line and standing by while millions of children attend decrepit schools violates our faith, assaults our sense of justice and condemns us all to generations of poverty, violence and injustice."
With the Republicans in control of all three federal branches, building a new consensus for sane economic policies that give more opportunity to more Americans will take time, organizing and savvy political and policy skills. But, it's an urgent project, and it's never too late to begin setting out the alternatives. Americans should not be required to work eighty-hour weeks just to pay the rent, eat, and live in a decent neighborhood.
Honest economists will tell you that the financial solvency of Social Security can be guaranteed well into the next century. So why does the President insist on adding private retirement accounts into the reform mix? Because their purpose is not to save Social Security but, like a Trojan horse, to destroy it. Personal accounts are part and parcel of Bush's domestic policy agenda: an assault on the very concept of The Public--its goods, services and trust.
Social Security, which provides a public good: the minimum financial security of retirees, is only the latest example. Faith-based initiatives were the privatization of government social welfare programs to religious institutions. Vouchers were the privatization of public education to religious schools. Drilling in the Artic National Preserve is the privatization of public lands for corporate profit. Even national security, the ultimate public good, has been partially privatized: "Security contractors" (mercenaries in the old parlance) were interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, before the scandal broke.
Privatization shouldn't be confused with free enterprise. It is not capitalism; it is crony capitalism--the diversion of tax-dollars from the government to private individuals and institutions. Faith-based initiatives divert tax revenues to private religious institutions. Personal retirement accounts will divert a significant portion of payroll taxes to Wall Street in the form of management fees.
It should be no surprise that Bush and Cheney are proponents of privatization, because they--just like the oligarchs of Russia--have been its beneficiaries. Cheney's fortune was made at Halliburton, which profits handsomely from the outsourcing of Defense Department functions. Bush's fortune was made from the sale of the Texas Rangers, whose value was significantly enhanced by Arlington city taxpayers.
In this light, the Armstrong Williams scandal is not an aberration: It represents the partial privatization of White House public relations. The victim in this case is the public's trust in the independence of the press. But the public shouldn't expect an apology from the Bush Administration. Hate means never having to say you're sorry.