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Wexler: Election Can't Distract From Holding Cheney to Account

This work of electing a new president is important, indeed.

And it is exciting, especially as the contests for both the Democratic and Republican nominations remain unsettled.

But is vital to remember that the current president and vice president hold a lease on something akin to absolute power that does not expire for a year. And if George Bush and Dick Cheney have proven anything over the past year, it is that they do not require a great deal of time to do a great deal of damage.

So while the work of electing a new president is important, the work of restoring a system of checks and balances on the executive branch is equally important.

Florida Congressman Robert Wexler recognizes this fact, and he refuses to allow congressional Democrats to neglect their most important duty.

Wexler, who has become the House's most ardent advocate of opening impeachment hearings against Vice President Cheney reminded his colleagues this week that, "The issues at hand are too serious to ignore. Dick Cheney faces credible allegations of abuse of power that if proven may well constitute high crimes and misdemeanors"

Wexler is airing the right questions when he asks: "Did the Vice President unmask a covert CIA agent for political purposes? Did the Vice President order the illegal surveillance of Americans and the illegal use of torture? "

Wexler is reaching the right conclusions when he declares, "Evidence mounts almost daily on these charges. Just recently former White House press secretary Scott McClellan revealed that the Vice President and his staff purposefully gave him false information to report to the American people - a clear obstruction of justice. This Administration has undermined the checks and balances of our government by brazenly ignoring Congressional subpoenas, and through reckless claims of executive privilege. Impeachment hearings are the only means available to this House to force the Bush Administration to answer questions and tell the truth."

And the Florida Democrat is stating a blunt truth about the current Congress, a Congress that was elected to hold this adminstration to account: "If we fail to act history may well judge us complicit in the alleged crimes of Vice President Cheney."

The work that Wexler is doing to initiate impeachment hearings is important, just as important as the work of electing a new president.

"In fact," he told the House this week, "in the history of our nation we have never encountered a moment where the actions of a President or Vice President have more strongly demanded the use of the power of impeachment."

Wexler and those who have sided with him -- including Madison Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a fellow member of the Judiciary Committee -- are challenging their fellow members of Congress to be more than mere spectators. And they are not accepting the excuses that are made by members who appear to believe as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does, that some parts of the Constitution are "off the table." "I have heard the arguments – that it is too late – that we have run out of time -- and that we don't have the votes. While today there may not be enough votes in to impeach, it's premature to think that such support would not exist -- after hearings," says Wexler. "Let us remember that it wasn't until after hearings began that the Watergate tapes emerged. Arguing that it is too late to hold hearings sets a dangerous precedent, as it signals to future administrations that in their waning months in office they're immune from constitutional accountability."

It is an election year, a time of great political theater. But nothing that will be said in the debates among the men and women who would shape the next administration is so important as what Wexler is saying about the holding the current administration to account.

The Hidden Healthcare Crisis

Last Spring, following the death of twelve-year old Deamonte Driver of Maryland whose untreated tooth infection spread to his brain, I wrote about the national epidemic of dental disease and the lack of access to dental care faced by the poor and working class. Last month, an article in the New York Times painted a horrifying picture of the state of dental care, where bootleggers sell dentures that would otherwise be unaffordable to many people missing teeth; where low Medicaid reimbursement rates perpetuate a dearth of participating dentists; where untreated cavities are a leading cause of kids missing school, people use Krazy Glue to reattach broken teeth, or swish rubbing alcohol to treat an infection, "burning the gums and creating ulcers."

Currently, Medicaid only covers pulling teeth to treat infections – not root canals or dentures – which can certainly dim the job prospects for someone trying to earn a living in our economy.

"Try finding work when you're in your 30s or 40s and you're missing front teeth," Jane Stephenson, founder of the New Opportunity School in Berea, Kentucky told the Times.

According to Maryland Senator Ben Cardin's staff, dental decay is now the most common chronic childhood disease in the US, affecting twenty percent of children aged 2 to 4, fifty percent of those aged 6 to 8, and nearly sixty percent of fifteen year olds. It is five times more common than asthma among school age children, and nearly 40 percent of African-American children have untreated tooth decay in their adult teeth. Improper hygiene can increase a child's adult risk of having low birth-weight babies, developing heart disease, or suffering a stroke. Eighty percent of all dental problems are found in just 25 percent of children, primarily those from lower-income families.

In March, in response to Driver's death, Cardin cosponsored the Children's Dental Health Improvement Act of 2007 along with Senator Jeff Bingaman, who had pushed similar legislation for seven years. The bill called for $40 million annually for five years to help community health centers hire dentists to serve poor children. It also would have awarded $50 million in grants to help states improve dental services to children enrolled in Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). At the time, Cardin said on the Senate floor: "It is outrageous today that in America, a young boy can die because his family can't find a dentist to remove an infected tooth. It is not enough simply to mourn Deamonte's death. We must learn from this failure of our health-care system and take action to make sure it never happens again."

The dental bill was folded into the CHIP bill. The final version of CHIP – passed by Congress and vetoed by President Bush – didn't contain the grants sought by Cardin and Bingaman but it did guarantee dental coverage to kids and also established minimum standards of care. Senator Cardin explained the dilemma he and his colleagues faced: "When things get tight in state budgets, one of the first things they cut is something that's not mandated, so when we had to choose between grants to cover dental benefits or a guarantee of dental care, the latter was a greater, immediate priority. We know now that dental care is vital to a child's overall health -- experts tell us that it impacts many other aspects of their health as well. Not to mention it's an indicator of one's ability to get ahead and thrive," he said.

Cardin, Bingaman, and their allies were successful in passing $5 million in grants in the Labor Health and Human Services bill to help states reach poor kids but clearly – as indicated by the initial grant request – the need is far greater than that. Even Cardin said of the CHIP bill, "There is more work to do…. We still have to improve reimbursement for dental providers [so more dentists will participate in Medicaid], and get grants to the states to allow them to offer dental wraparound coverage for those who may have health coverage, but no dental insurance."

A Cardin spokeswoman also said that this is the best that Democrats were able to achieve at this time. "Clearly healthcare in the US needs help. We need to fix the system as a whole and Democrats in the Senate are trying to make changes that reflect those priorities."

Indeed, improving reimbursement rates and the availability of dentists is necessary in order for poor kids to avoid long waiting lists and get the timely services needed. (One dentist, for example, told the Washington Post that an abscess "is like a time bomb, ticking.") When Driver passed away nearly a year ago the state Senate initially responded with legislation to provide $2 million annually over the next three years to expand dental clinics for the poor. But it was determined at the time that the funds were not available, causing State Senator Jamie Raskin to tell me, "We always have enough money for things we don't need – like funding the war in Iraq, or boondoggle projects that will make developers a lot of money. But when it comes to things we do need – like dental care for kids – suddenly there's no money."

According to the Washington Post, less than one-third of nearly 500,000 Maryland children on Medicaid saw a dentist last year, "a statistic that is typical of the problem nationwide." But things are looking a little better in the state now. After Driver's death, Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene Secretary John M. Colmers created a Dental Action Committeeto make concrete recommendations on what could be done to increase access of dental care providers for lower-income people. One of the key recommendations was a $44 million grant to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates equal to the median charges in the Atlantic region. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's proposed budget – released yesterday – requests $16.1 million, including $14 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates ($7 million from the state, matched by the federal government); $1.4 million for two new dental clinics in regions that currently don't have them; and $700,000 for a mobile dental clinic to serve the school system. Colmers said they hope to phase-in the $44 million Medicaid allotment over 3 years.

"We're not going to solve these problems overnight," Colmers told me. "This is a substantial down-payment towards reaching our goals."

Raskin agreed. "You feel the difference between having Democrats and Republicans in state office on an issue like this. The Democrats really feel that the maldistribution of dental care is a scandal and are willing to pay to get dental care to poor kids. Budget times are tough but this is an excellent use of targeted funds," he said. "The Democrats feel very passionate about this. I talk to constituents who tell me that the quality of dental care people receives has become a very good predictor of how well they will progress in the work force and how well they will do in life. Dental care is key to individual opportunity in America."

Although there has been much talk about healthcare reform in the presidential campaign, there has been little mention of dental care. The Obama and Edwards campaigns declined to comment for this article. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor at Hillary Clinton for President, pointed to a recent speech Senator Clinton delivered in Iowa where she made her commitment to dental coverage clear – and it happened to touch on Deamonte Driver's death: "I want to cover dental care. And in the congressional plan, which I open up to everybody...there are more than 250 plan choices. Most of them cover dental care. One of the things we are finding out is all of the connections between dental problems and heart disease, between dental problems and other systemic conditions. So, if we don't cover dental care, you're going to miss a lot of the problems that will then get very expensive...I talked about the story of a young boy, 12-years old, living in Maryland… had a toothache. [His mother] couldn't find a dentist to take him because they didn't have any money for a dentist. They called every dentist they could get and some were very sympathetic, but they said, ‘Well, we already have our full compliment of charity patients. We can't take anybody else.' Turned out he had an abscess. The abscess burst, so he ends up in Johns Hopkins Hospital. They tried to save him. He dies. The hospital incurred $300,000 worth of medical care trying to save him because his mother couldn't get a $60, $70, $80…dental visit. So that's the kind of story that underscores the unfairness of the system, but also the importance of covering dental care, and I intend to do everything I can to make that happen."

It's good to see some Democrats on the Hill – and in the statehouses – working so hard to craft a sane and humane response to this epidemic. Much remains to be done, but there are good people who will keep this on the radar and continue this fight.

Clinton's Anti-Union Allies

Robert Johnson's nasty comments about Barack Obama earlier this week caused a huge stir in the media. Johnson issued a less-than-convincing clarification and then apologized to Obama on Thursday.

Yet few of the stories on Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and a top surrogate for Clinton in South Carolina, noted his controversial standing in the African-American political community. Johnson has been one of President Bush's top black allies, lobbying for the repeal of the estate tax and the privatization of Social Security, as Jonathan Chait of The New Republic reported in a 2001 profile of Johnson.

Johnson also has a history of opposing unions that makes Clinton's allies in labor quite uncomfortable. Back in 1993, workers at BET voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Writer's Guild. According to an article in the Washington Afro-American, a historically black newspaper, AFL-CIO organizer Ed Feigen alleged that "during and after the election, BET violated the workers rights by offering them raises and promising benefits if they didn't join the union in."

"Employees were also threatened with job loss if they did vote the union in. A total of 13 employees were laid off after the election, hours were cut back, and two lead organizers with the Writer's Guild were fired, according to reports issued by the AFL-CIO. Mr Feigen told the AFRO that Mr. Johnson had stated to his workers that their actions were an act of disloyalty and that BET would never have a union."

One BET employee, Kimberlyn Dickens, said management had a "plantation attitude." Another BET employee, Samone Lemieux, said Johnson "promised us increased benefits and improved working conditions if we stopped our union organizing activity. However, after the election Mr. Johnson threatened us with discharge because of our union activity. He told us he had taken a $15,000 investment and turned it into a $400 million company, and that he was not about to start giving his money away."

There's little evidence that Johnson's opinion of unions has changed since then. Keith Boykin, host of the BET show My Two Cents, writes on his blog:

 

In May 2000, BET made the AFL-CIO's list of notorious anti-union companies, and the year before, 120 comedians, including Richard Pryor, bought full-page newspaper advertisements to complain that Johnson refused to offer union wages to performers on its "Comic View" show. Three years before that, Johnson was reprimanded by the National Labor Relations Board for BET's interference with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' organizing efforts, a case that BET later appealed and won. But in February 2000, Johnson told USA Today, "We don't need a union. They're only money-making machines."

 

Johnson is not the only controversial figure within labor circles to play a high-profile role in Clinton's campaign. I reported last May that the PR firm of Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, maintains an active union-busting division.

The actions of Johnson and business of Penn tell a different story than Clinton's advocacy for labor. Clinton may not share these views, but as she courts union workers in Nevada and elsewhere, it's fair to ask why she deploys anti-labor individuals on behalf of her ostensibly pro-labor campaign.

A Must-Win State for Obama

Caucuses are indefensibly awful ways in which to select delegates to a political party's national convention, and they are an even worse way in which to sort out the field of candidates for either party's nomination.

Why?

Caucuses are time-consuming and complicated endeavors that are designed to repel rather than attract participation. Those who do so engage in a public setting that is ripe with opportunities for intimidation.

Perhaps worst of all, caucuses can be "gamed" by campaigns and powerful interest groups. For instance, the location of a caucus site can decide whether working people can participate -- as the whole fight over whether Nevada caucuses will be held in Las Vegas casinos illustrates. And the gaming creates an inherently unequal process. Casino workers have the caucus brought to them, while cab drivers must take a busy Saturday off in able to play their part.

Going into Saturday's Nevada caucuses, the balance is tipped in favor of Barack Obama. He has the backing of the biggest union in the state, the Culinary Workers, and that union has successfully defended a system that makes it easier for its members to participate in the caucuses than other Nevadans. (In fairness to the Culinary Workers, they have not done anything wrong -- in fact, they have explored a smart new route for increasing political participation by allowing voting at the workplace. And they have did so with the enthusiastic support of all the major Democratic candidates -- until the point at which they endorsed Obama and allies of Hillary Clinton began to object.)

Obama also has the endorsements of several of the state's major daily newspapers, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Reno Gazette-Journal (which bluntly declares that the Illinois senator "embodies the political and ideological perspectives that the party projects") and of key political players such as state Senator Steven Horsford.

Obama's spent an immense amount of time in Nevada, working the state as it has never been worked before. His campaign and its supporters have spent a fortune on television and radio advertising in the state, and the thrust has been far more aggressive than in previous contests. Ads attacking Clinton are all over the radio. A Spanish-language commercial, paid for by UNITE-HERE, the parent union of the Culinary Workers local in Las Vegas, translates as, "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. Hillary Clinton supporters went to court to prevent working people from voting this Saturday -- that is an embarrassment."

Put the pieces together and this points to an Obama win. No one benefits so much as Obama from the structure of the caucuses in Nevada, and he and his supporters have worked that structure from all the angles. They have, at the same time, attracted the sort of mainstream support and favorable media coverage that is traditionally afforded a front-runner.

And what if Obama loses? It'll be a serious setback after a week that, without a win, is likely to be remembered not as a time of triumph but as a moment in which he failed to capitalize on tremendous advantages -- and in which the Democratic senator praised Republican-icon Ronald Reagan for addressing "the excesses of the 60s and 70s." Of course, Obama will remain in the race, but his momentum will stall at precisely the time when he keep advancing against Clinton forcs that are ever on the watch for signs of vulnerability and weakness in their opponents.

Bottom line: While caucuses should not be definitional, this one could be. Nevada has become a must-win state for Barack Obama. He should get that win; but if he doesn't it will be a stumble for the campaign that played Vegas with the best hand.

Whither the Dream

This post was updated on January 20, and then again on January 21.

From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. His 1965 contribution was particularly resonant. This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue. Dr. King's words ominously ring as true today as the day they were written more than forty years ago.

"'Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,' said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down."

Here are some other links to articles marking the King holiday and suggesting ways we can try to live up to, and extend, his momentous legacy. (Please use the comments field below to suggest additional resources and ideas.)

Bruce Wallace talks to Taylor Branch, King's biographer about presidents, racial injustice, poverty and war.

Ashley Luthern looks at how King has inspired generations of non-violent protesting

Thanks to YouTube we can watch King's "I Have a Dream" speech given on August 28, 1963 on the national mall in Washington, DC.

On his PBS show this past Friday night, Bill Moyers included a mesmerizing seven-minute segment on the relationship of his former boss, President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King (and more broadly, the civil rights movement.) Watch it on on YouTube.

It really cuts through a lot of the recent tempest about the credit due to MLK and LBJ around civil rights legislation, honors the memory of Dr. King, puts LBJ's efforts in proper perspective, and addresses the broader theme of the importance of having both "outside agitators" and inside deal-makers to foster progressive change.

Finally, I thought this call sent to me by the great young environmental activist Billy Parrish was well-worth amplifying....

Honoring Dr. King with a Just and Sustainable Economic Stimulus

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated forty years ago in Memphis, he was there to help support the long struggle of the city's sanitation workers for decent jobs and dignity. He was also speaking out against the Vietnam War and organizing a Poor People's March on Washington and an Economic Bill of Rights, calling for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. In "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community", the last book he wrote before he was killed, he writes:

"There is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society...For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property-and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power. Let us, therefore, not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who call our beloved nation to a higher destiny."

Today the struggles for economic and racial justice must merge with the struggle to stop global warming. Its worst effects will be visited on the poor, and the great economic opportunity a clean energy future offers should be shared fairly with them. Equal protection and equal opportunity was what King demanded in the 1960s. We should be demanding the same today.

As Congress prepares a giant Economic Stimulus package -- up to $150 billion in emergency spending and George Bush suggests that it again be more tax cuts for the rich -- there is no better way to honor Dr. King's memory and continue his struggle than to demand that Congress go green and go equal in the stimulus. Click here to send a message to your member of Congress:

"In considering your economic stimulus package, please work to ensure that all proposed tax cuts and direct spending promote a clean energy economy and opportunities for poor and working class people. Through strategic investments in energy efficiency, mass transit and a Clean Energy Corps, we can not only avoid short-term recession, but also put hundreds of thousands of people to work and create a secure economic and environmental future for all Americans."

An ad hoc group of leaders - from Van Jones of Green for All to Gillian Caldwell from 1Sky to Joel Rogers from the Center for State Innovation and Jessy Tolkan from the Energy Action Coalition - have been working to develop more forward-thinking ideas for the stimulus. They could use our support.

Obama and the Reagan Wing of the Democratic Party

"The genius of American democracy has somehow done it again. George Bush is the right president at the right time."

So declared the consistently-conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper on the eve of the 2004 election.

The Review-Journal warmly endorsed Bush in 2000, as well.

If there is a Nevada newspaper that offers an unadulterated conservative line, it is the Review-Journal.

And who does this newspaper urge Nevada Democrats to support when they caucus Saturday?

Barack Obama.

In truth, the paper's editorial on the Democratic contest is more an attack on Hillary Clinton than an enthusiastic embrace of Obama. In dismissing Clinton, the paper's editors detail a bizarre list of particulars that begins with, "For starters, imagine Sen. Clinton and 'co-president' Bill Clinton invited onto a 'This is Your Life' talk show where they're joined by Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky."

It's merely predictable right-wing Hillary-hate that underpins the rejection of Clinton.

John Edwards, on the other hand, is slammed for representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

"Meanwhile," the editorial grumbles, "John Edwards' anti-capitalist populism is not in this country's long-term best interests."

Obama, on the other hand, is championed as "a good politician" who "knows how to speak to individual Americans and give them the feeling he cares about their concerns."

The old maxim that says "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" holds true here. Conservatives hate Hillary Clinton for who she is. They hate John Edwards for what he says. And they can live with Barack Obama, who could finish off the Clintons, who eschews edgy populism for "hope" and who this week said of a certain conservative: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

The soundest response to Obama's insights regarding Reagan comes from the man whose populism so unsettled the Review-Journal.

"When you think about what Ronald Reagan did to the American people, to the middle class to the working people," said John Edwards. "He was openly -- openly-- intolerant of unions and the right to organize. He openly fought against the union and the organized labor movement in this country... He openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day. The destruction of the environment, you know, eliminating regulation of companies that were polluting and doing extraordinary damage to the environment."

"I can promise you this," the former senator from North Carolina concluded, "this president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."

Clinton got trashed.

Obama got the endorsement.

But this round goes to Edwards.

Political Fact Meets Political Fiction

Politics is a serious business--and it's no secret that at The Nation, we're pretty darn serious about it. But politics is also a highly entertaining blood sport, rife with scandal and street theater, gossip, gaffes and the exquisite tension that exists between fact and fiction on the campaign trail.

This week marks the debut of something new for The Nation: Citizen Kang: Love, Death and Politics from LA to the Beltway, a serialized novella pegged to Campaign 08. Written by Los Angeles novelist Gary Phillips, who is known among mystery buffs for noir fiction with a social conscience and a sharp satirical edge, Citizen Kang is political fiction interwoven with political fact.

Taking a page from Dickens and Twain, Phillips' novella unfolds in weekly episodes in our Campaign 08 section from now until Election Day. (Bookmark this page: It's the best way to see our comprehensive coverage.) Gary's main character is Cynthia Kang, a fortysomething first-term, Asian-American Congresswoman from Los Angeles with big ambitions--and big trouble. Kang finds her re-election campaign clouded by the suspicious death of her political mentor, unruly relatives and uncomfortable public questions about her sexual preferences.

As the story line unfolds, Gary will weave in bits and pieces of political and cultural reality on the road to the White House. (Episode 1, "Wide Stance," gives a wink to Larry Craig, introduces Cynthia Kang, her campaign and her sexual issues, and invokes the ghost of James Brown.) Though he's firmly in control of the story, he invites readers to comment on a discussion board and make suggestions about what kinds of political reality to inject into the narrative. Read more about it here.

Already, Citizen Kang is making an impact in the corners of the blogosphere to which mystery buffs are drawn. Here's how Gary explained the project to The Rap Sheet last week:

It was my idea. In October of '06, I, along with several people representing a cross-section from various arenas, including the nonprofit sector, organized labor and academe, attended a meeting that Nation Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and Walter Mosley called together at The Nation's offices on the edges of [Greenwich] Village. The idea was to discuss ways to expand the pool of contributors to the magazine as well discuss ways of broadening out who reads the magazine. It ain't no surprise that The Nation's research shows it's mostly whites of a certain age, education and income bracket who subscribe to the magazine.

Post that meeting, I pitched--via a written proposal--Katrina on the idea of doing a political serial. We went back and forth, knowing that there's really no room in the pages of the magazine itself, even given [that] it's a weekly, to do this sort of thing. But she dug it enough that she discussed it with the online editor, Joan Connell, and it was agreed I'd write Citizen Kang for the magazine's Web site.

My inspiration, aside from Dickens, Dumas and Twain, who, among others, wrote serials in newspapers, was Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau's Tanner '88 (more so than [its 2004 sequel] Tanner on Tanner). That was an HBO series done in a kind of mockumentary style that followed Congressman Jack Tanner as he sought the presidential nomination. Initially, my idea was that Congresswoman Cynthia Kang would run for the presidency in '08 as an independent, as matters such as questions about her sexuality, the supposed suicide of her mentor and other such obstacles arose.

But given the craziness of all these early primaries, and the reality that to be viable you need at least $400 million to run, it seems too far-fetched to have Kang run for the presidency. But there's plenty of intrigue and demented delicacies that will unfold as Citizen Kang kicks into gear. Plus, my tongue will be planted firmly in my cheek as these episodes unfold. I mean, if we took politics too seriously, we'd cry, right?

We'll try not to cry.  And each Monday, when a new episode appears, we'll look forward to sharing a sardonic laugh--and some insights--as this talented novelist tells a noirish, knowing story of what he so rightly describes as "the sweet hustle of politics." 

Michigan's Ominous Message for Hillary Clinton

DETROIT -- The question in Tuesday's Michigan Democratic primary was not whether Hillary Clinton could beat anybody.

The question was whether Clinton could beat nobody.

As the only leading Democratic contender to keep her name on the ballot after Michigan officials moved their primary ahead of the opening date scheduled by the Democratic National Committee, Clinton was perfectly positioned. She had no serious opposition. She also had the strong support of top Michigan Democrats such as Governor Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Usually, a prominent presidential contender running a primary campaign without serious opposition and with strong in-state support from party leaders can count on winning 90 percent or more of the vote. That's how it went for George Bush when he was running without serious opposition in Republican primaries in 2004, and for Bill Clinton when he was essentially unopposed in the Democratic primaries in 1996.

But Hillary Clinton got nowhere near 90 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Michigan primary.

With most of the ballots counted, the New York senator was winning uninspiring 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

A remarkable 40 percent of Michiganders who participated in the primary voted for nobody, marking the "Uncommitted" option on their ballots. Another 4 percent backed Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who brought his anti-war, anti-corporate campaign to Michigan and made some inroads among Muslim voters in the Detroit area and liberals in Washtenaw County -- where he was taking almost 10 percent.

But "Uncommitted" was Clinton's most serious challenger in Michigan.

"Uncommitted" was actually beating Clinton in some counties and holding her below 50 percent in others, including Detroit's Wayne County.

Ominously for the Clinton camp, the former First Lady was losing the African-American vote -- in Wayne County and statewide -- to "Uncommitted." African-American leaders such as Detroit Congressman John Conyers, who backs Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, had urged an "Uncommitted" vote. And the message seemed to connect. Exits polls showed "Uncommitted" winning by a 70-26 margin among African-Americans. (Had Michigan voters been allowed to choose between all the serious contenders for the Democratic nod, CNN's exit poll found, Obama would have won the African-American vote by a 73-22 margin over Clinton.)

"Uncommitted" also beat Clinton among independent voters who participated in the Democratic primary, and among young voters.

The message from Michigan, suggests veteran Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson, is that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee she'll "have a real challenge building an electoral coalition that can win in November."

"(A) Democrat won't win without carrying a significant slice of the African-American vote or reaching out to independents," explained Henderson.

It is hard to argue with that assessment.

It is harder still to believe that Clinton will get very far claiming Michigan handed her a meaningful victory Tuesday night. When two out of every five voters choose nobody rather than a prominent candidate who is running with little or no opposition, that candidate's got no reason to celebrate.

Vulnerability is the New Inevitability

Hillary Clinton now faces long odds in Nevada and South Carolina -- and that may work to her advantage.

Clinton has a cyclical tendency to rise and fall and rise and fall, only to rise once again. While her unexpected New Hampshire comeback triggered tons of commentary about polls and tears, the results may have actually turned on her conflicted feelings about her own success. Having spent most of her life as an overachieving underdog, Clinton still does best running against the odds. And she does worst feigning the aura of inevitable incumbent, a role that was obviously uncomfortable both for her and the Democratic electorate.

2008-01-15-Picture2.png

Clinton in Salem on the eve of the New Hampshire Primary.

After a year running as an inevitable frontrunner, placing a weak third in Iowa was the toughest rebuke in Clinton's political life. Yet she looked much more comfortable afterwards. She was thoughtful in her newly interactive campaign events, and forceful when debating her rivals. She sounded more passionate appropriating the messages of change and populism than she ever was about taking credit for her husband's administration.

She spoke about her achievements as a woman leader with a newfound candor and pride – not as a contest over who has it harder, though Gloria Steinem took that tacky route – but as a relevant demonstration of her mettle. Like Barack Obama, Clinton has broken barriers in her legal and political career. That kind of experience can reveal more grit than speeches, because it demonstrates a candidate's ability to rout adversity. It was not easy serving as the only woman the board of a Fortune 50 company in 1985, nor battling the Republican attack machine while taking on the largest policy role of any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet Clinton spent most of last year pretending she had the incumbent experience of a pseudo-president, instead of the record of a fighting underdog.

Forced back into a tough spot, Clinton sounded more genuine reminding voters of her record, not her husband's. Suddenly, the power lawyer who hid a failing bar exam for decades was not claiming invincibility or incumbency. Instead, she conveyed a fighting and even frantic sense that she need more time, that she had more to say, that momentum and polls and pundits should not cut this election short. She truly needed The People to back her in a fight against all the varied forces that distort, abridge and control our elections. Bill Clinton hit this point on the night of the New Hampshire victory, telling a reporter, "they know what they're doing here. They knew that they were telling America we should continue this [race]." Maureen Dowd may be right that at bottom, Clinton essentially cried for herself, not for America. But after a year of campaign contrivances, Clinton was undeniably an underdog, wrestling with that core, unyielding fact of a healthy democracy: power comes from the people.

If the storyline sounds melodramatic, it's partly because our politics are often broadcast as a supercharged blend of sports and entertainment. Clinton seemed especially beleaguered because the media establishment rushed to end her campaign after a single state spoke. (Having led New Hampshire polls for most of 2007, she might have won there no matter what.) But the media often pumps up politicians just like celebrity entertainers, prepping to tear them down for the sake of entertainment. And when the elites come to destroy you, the people are your only hope.

--Photo Credit: Daniella Zalcman