"We are moving in the direction of undermining the First Amendment," said US Representative Ron Paul, the maverick Texan who was the only Republican member of the House to oppose the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. Paul, one of the least likely defenders of shock jocks like Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, is, of course, correct. The measure, which passed the House by a vote of 391-22 last week, was written with the intent of preventing broadcast personalities from engaging in certain forms of potentially offensive speech by threatening them -- and the stations on which they appear -- with financial ruin.
Under the legislation that passed the House, the fine for an on-air personality who violates the ill-defined decency standards applied by the Federal Communications Commission would rise from $11,000 to $500,000. The fine against the owner of the station on which the violation was heard and seen would rise from $27,500 to $500,000.
Before the vote, officials of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists urged the measure's defeat, with union president John Connolly and executive director Greg Hessinger arguing in a letter to House members that, "Such legislation should be rejected on the grounds that it represents an unconstitutional threat to free speech and would have an unnecessary chilling effect on artistic freedom."
Representative Gary Ackerman, D-New York, was blunter. If implemented, the congressman said, the law would not have "a chilling effect." "It would have a freezing effect," he explained.
Marvin Johnson, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel, said "the very notion (of the legislation) runs counter to everything prescribed in the First Amendment. The vagueness of the language will lead broadcasters and individuals to stifle their remarks and remain silent rather than run the risk of facing an FCC fine. Not only will our First Amendment rights suffer, but so will the national dialogue. In the end, we are left with no clear understanding of just what is ‘indecent' and worse yet, it seems we will only find out when huge fines are levied on broadcasters or speakers."
So how did so flawed a piece of legislation win such overwhelming bipartisan support in the House? The answer has a lot to do with those flaws. Even members who knew the proposal was bad policy figured it was safe to support it because the bill's prospects in the Senate seemed slim; and because, if it ever did become law, the measure would face a certain court challenge.
The push for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which ramped up after singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl show, represents the worst sort of election-year showboating. It is directed only at over-the-air television and radio stations. No restrictions are placed on the nation's booming cable and satellite TV and satellite radio networks. And it does not begin to address one of the primary factors in the explosive growth of programming that Americans find offensive -- the concentration of control of radio stations in fewer and fewer hands after most limits on ownership were eliminated with the passage by Congress of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As corporations such as Clear Channel have bought up local radio stations, they have swept out hometown programming that tended to reflect regional differences -- or that, at the least, responded to local complaints -- and imposed programming and personalities with no connection to the community.
"The fact is, higher fines are going to do nothing," argued Representative Dave Obey, D-Wisconsin. "If you want to do something to give communities the ability to stop this nonsense, you will take away from the FCC the ability to put broadcast power in the hands of a few corporations."
Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, one of the most outspoken advocates for media reform in the Congress, explained that the House legislation dealt "only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the underlying cause" -- concentrated ownership.
Yet, when the votes were counted, even Obey and Hinchey voted for the measure. Only 22 members, including Paul and Ackerman, had the courage to actually vote "no," with most of them voicing free speech concerns. Another 20 members voted "present" or simply did not vote at all. Among those voting "no" were many of the House's most progressive members, including California Democrats Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren and Pete Stark, as well as New Yorkers Jerry Nadler and Jose Serrano. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also voted "no," as did Georgia Democrat John Lewis, the veteran civil rights activist. Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was among the members who did not vote.
While the House bill passed overwhelmingly, it still must clear some high hurdles before it become the law of the land. There appears to be less interest in the issue in the Senate than there was in the House. And, if the Senate does act, it will be on a significantly different piece of legislation. While the Senate bill would also raise fines to $500,000, it includes an amendment that addresses the media concentration concerns raised by Obey and Hinchey.
The Senate bill, if passed, would put on hold the media ownership rule changes endorsed by the FCC in a 3-2 vote last June. Under the provision, which was proposed by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, the General Accounting Office would conduct a year-long study of the relationship between media consolidation and the growth in the number of indecency complaints.
The FCC's moves to ease ownership limits would then be reassessed on the basis of the GAO study.
Because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, is under pressure from the Bush administration to preserve the ownership rule changes -- which are popular with large media companies and campaign contributors associated with them -- it is unlikely that a vote will be scheduled anytime soon on legislation that includes the Dorgan amendment. Threats to freedom of speech may not be of much more concern to the Senate than they were to House, but threats to powerful corporations and campaign contributors are another matter altogether.
(John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media [Seven Stories]. McChesney and Nichols are co-founders of Free Press, the media reform network. The Free Press website is at www.mediareform.net)
The mud is flying, as a bitter presidential campaign is under way. With eight months remaining until E-Day, commentators are already pointing to the vicious and caustic debate as yet another sign of the coarsening of America's political culture. The mainstream media hypes the charges and countercharges exchanged by the candidates without fully evaluating them and fixates on who's up and who's down (and who is screaming) rather than what's at stake. With the rise of the cable-news gabfests, there's more information but not necessarily more understanding. Despite the McCain-Feingold law, special-interest money continues to pour into electoral politics. Democrats are bending, if not breaking, the rules to keep soft-money alive. On the Hill, conservative Republicans are using mob-like tactics to control legislation. Are all the trends in the political-media world negative?
No. In recent decades, there has been one undeniable advance in the land of politics-and-the-media: C-SPAN. On March 19, the cable network that airs the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, will turn 25 years old. Anyone who gives a damn about politics, policy, and public affairs ought to wish it a happy birthday and, more importantly, say thank you. They should also pay attention to regulatory and legislative actions that could threaten C-SPAN. More on that below. First, some praise.
C-SPAN has opened up Congress and Washington, broadcasting to the citizenry the (public) workings of the House and Senate: the deliberations on the floor, committee hearings, press conferences conducted by legislators. No longer do Americans have to page through the Congressional Record to see what their representatives have said. They do not have to rely upon reporters to learn what has transpired at a hearing. They can directly witness the actions of the legislative branch--without leaving the couch. The network has covered presidential speeches and showed White House press secretaries spinning and squirming as they conduct their daily press briefings. C-SPAN has also smashed the Beltway border by airing conferences and events sponsored by the various policy and political organizations of Washington. A C-SPAN viewer can become a Washington insider by watching think-tank wonks debate budget policies, the head of the Republican Party address political strategy, and consultants discuss technical changes in campaign-finance law.
And C-SPAN has delivered more than inside-Washington policy and politics. It focuses on books and provides an essential venue for discussions of nonfiction works. ( Book TV on C-SPAN2 airs 48 hours of literary programming each weekend, including the signature show Booknotes.) C-SPAN imported to the United States question time from the British House of Commons, showing Yanks that the Brits were playing hardball long before Chris Matthews came along. And it aired campaign events--uncut and uncensored. Would-be voters who might never see a presidential or congressional candidate up close and personal have been handed front-row seats. They can watch incumbents and challengers speaking at dinners or working the crowd at state fairs. C-SPAN conveys the scripted moments--such as the entire Democratic and Republican presidential conventions--and the unscripted. I remember watching Rep. Dick Gephardt a few years ago on C-SPAN. He was shaking hands at a campaign event, trying to engage with each person he briefly encountered. Whatever anyone said Gephardt found a way to agree and to move on. One man grasped Gephardt's hand and told him it was essential to get rid of the U.S. Postal Service. Yeah, yeah, Gephardt replied, we can do that. Then he pushed on--a politician on automatic pilot, brilliantly captured by C-SPAN.
More recently, C-SPAN did a wonderful job of covering the Iowa caucuses. On caucus night, it broadcast the deliberations of a caucus at a YMCA in Dubuque. This was the most gripping reality TV I have watched in years. Whoever directed the show deserves an Emmy. Several video crews tracked the lead organizers for each of the Democratic candidates. We could see them recruiting supporters and haggling with the other campaigns--sometimes quite desperately. There was emotion; there was drama. How could a viewer not share the sadness when the most ardent Gephardt backer--a young woman who had tried mightily to persuade her neighbors to back the Missouri congressman--trudged over to join the John Edwards crowd after her man failed to reach the 15 percent threshold? This was far more gripping than watching some prescreened make-believe real person get voted off an island.
C-SPAN makes politics and policy real. It does the same with commentary. As a television pontificator--I'm a contributor to Fox News Channel--I've grown accustomed to debating world-changing matters in two-minute snippets. C-SPAN, though, affords pundits, journalists, analysts, politicians, and authors whole swaths of time--from half an hour to 60 minutes--to discuss the crucial matters of the day. With no commercial interruptions. This can lead to the sort of in-depth conversations that are nearly impossible on many cable news shows. (Then again, there was the time I appeared on C-SPAN with conservative author David Horowitz for a full hour. That was more of a food-fight than an enlightened exchange of competing views, mainly because he kept shouting and accusing me and other war-in-Iraq skeptics of trying to destroy the United States. He even decried The Nation for having used French words on a recent cover. This was not a debate; this was a therapy session for Horowitz.)
Brian Lamb, who founded C-SPAN, is a true visionary. In 1977, he first pitched the idea of a public affairs network to the cable television industry. He then persuaded the House to let television cameras into its chamber. (It took the Senate nine years to catch up.) In all this time, he has kept the programming fair and balanced. As an interviewer and moderator, Lamb has played it straight down the middle. My hunch is that he's a Main Street-kind of Republican. But who knows? First and foremost, he wants a serious discussion that serves the viewer.
Lamb has also been a public affairs missionary. Not only has he expanded the reach of C-SPAN in the media (C-SPAN radio began a few years ago); Lamb has developed an extensive educational component for C-SPAN. The C-SPAN bus brings civics and history to school kids across the nation. Months ago, I participated in a new C-SPAN project: tele-teaching. A poli-sci professor was conducting a class on how Washington works for university students in Colorado, but he was doing it from a studio in C-SPAN's Washington offices. Thanks to a two-way video flow, he could see his students, as they sat in a classroom watching him--and me--on a video screen. The session worked, and this setup enabled him to bring in a string of Washington guest lecturers for the student's benefit.
C-SPAN is perhaps the closest-to-perfect Washington (and media) institution there is. Do I say this because it has always been kind to me? (It did put me on Washington Journal to discuss my latest book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.) Not entirely. I am an unabashed fan. And as a journalist, I appreciate that C-SPAN makes life easier for those of us who cover politics, Congress, the White House, and public affairs. There are times when I cannot make it to a White House press briefing, a congressional hearing, a campaign event, or a think tank conference. Yet they appear on the little box in my office, and--presto!--I have the information or quote I need.
Twenty-five years old, C-SPAN is thriving. But it does face threats. The Federal Communications Commission has for months been putting off a decision on whether cable systems must give local broadcast stations two channels--one for an analog signal, the other for a digital signal. The point is to ease the transition from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting. Yet if the FCC does require cable operators to assign two channels to each local broadcaster, that could create pressure on cable systems to dump other cable programming. The folks at C-SPAN fear this rule would cause some maxed-out systems to eliminate C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 to make room for the broadcasters' extra channels. "We are a niche service that does not provide revenue," says Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN. "How virtuous do you expect the cable operators to be? People think we're a public utility that will always be there, but that's not true."
Cable systems are not required to carry C-SPAN. They do not offer C-SPAN as a public service. It's part of most cable menus because there are enough Americans who want to watch their government in action. Cable operators use C-SPAN as a selling point for their services, and they pay C-SPAN for this privilege. C-SPAN, unlike PBS and NPR, receives no government funding and accepts no corporate sponsorships. It relies 100 percent on the license fees paid to it by the cable guys. In fact, Lamb pioneered a business model. He developed a public-interest media organization that is unsubsidized and generates no revenues and found a home for it within the for-profit jungle of the cable television industry. But if cable systems are forced to hand out a second channel to local broadcast stations and conclude they can make more bucks without C-SPAN than with C-SPAN, local citizens could be cut off.
Another threat to C-SPAN materialized just days ago. On March 9, in a narrow vote--12 to 11--the Senate commerce committee barely beat back an effort to extend the decency standards that now apply to broadcasters to all cable programming (with the exception of premium and pay-for-view channels). How could this harm C-SPAN? After all, it's not as if it airs Howard Stern. But C-SPAN routinely shows events--campaign rallies, protests, and press conferences--where occasionally words deemed "indecent" by the FCC are uttered. That's what happens in real life. And there have been times when C-SPAN has covered a march or demonstration when a Janet Jackson-like moment has occurred. Lamb's guiding editorial philosophy has been that viewers in their living rooms should be able to see and hear exactly what they would see and hear if they were sitting in a hearing room or standing on the Washington Mall. But an indecency standard applied to C-SPAN could destroy its commitment to a showing events unedited in their entirety. "We don't want to edit and pixilate," Collins says.
Since C-SPAN has become such an essential part of the nation's political-media infrastructure, it should be able to handle the challenges it now faces. But let's hope it also continues to expand its (and our) horizons. Oral arguments at the Supreme Court ought to be carried on C-SPAN. Perhaps one day, Lamb will overcome the resistance of the robed ones. And imagine if C-SPAN could somehow facilitate the creation of question time in the U.S. House--when members of Congress could confront the president with queries.
That is raising expectations high. But Lamb and C-SPAN deserve high expectations. Who (besides Lamb) thought that C-SPAN would go so far--and enrich the national discourse so much--when it first started showing House members orating (or bloviating) in 1979? Many happy returns, C-SPAN. The Republic is better for your efforts.
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! 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." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Senator Edward Kennedy gave two magnificent speeches last week, but only one received the attention it deserved. While his blistering attack on the Bush Administration for manipulating and distorting intelligence to justify attacking Iraq was noted in the Washington Post and other papers, the Senator's fiery progressive manifesto--delivered at a New York conference called Re-Imagining the Welfare State--went virtually unreported.
In the large hall at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City on the afternoon of March 1, Kennedy came out swinging at an Administration that wants to roll back the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th century. "One by one," Kennedy boomed, "issue by issue, program by program, the Republican Right has methodically turned away from policies which brought about a century of progress for working Americans. They want to build the 21st century economy on 19th century economic values, as if the last 100 years had not occurred. For them the law of the jungle is the best economic policy for America--not equal opportunity, not fairness, not the American dream. Their ideas will inevitably result in a lesser America, and have already meant a growing gulf between rich and poor."
** "Today's Republicans are very different from those who led their party in earlier years. The Republican Party is now controlled by ideological extremists who reject any meaningful role for government in expanding economic opportunity or preventing the abuses of private economic power. Some of them even openly proclaim that their goal is to 'starve the beast'--cut taxes so low that government will not have the resources to play a meaningful role in the economy. These latter day Social Darwinians clearly believe those who assemble great concentrations of wealth should be unfettered and permitted to dominate the nation's economic life, as much as they did in the late 19th century."
** "Progressives cannot continue to play defense in the battle of ideas. The stakes are too high. Nor can we allow ourselves to be cast as mere defenders of the status quo. We must make the debate between our vision of the future versus theirs. In reality, it is the Republican Right which is wedded to the ideas of the distant past, 19th century ideas which America rejected in the early years of the last century. We should portray them for what they are, Neanderthal merchants of outmoded ideas recycled from long ago."
**"Republicans love to quote President Kennedy on cutting taxes, but as I remind them, the top tax bracket on his Inaugural Day was 91 percent."
** Kennedy also came out in support of greater and wiser use of the trillions of dollars in pension funds---a stance that progressive economists in and out of the labor movement, as well as elected officials like California Treasurer Phil Angelides have pushed. "At least a small portion of the trillions could be invested in public projects for public investment. If just five percent of the nation's pension funds were invested, at competitive rates, directly in job-creating and economy-building activities, more than $300 billion in assets could be made available, in a manner consistent with both the security and growth of the pension funds."
For more, click here and please pass the word about Kennedy's "other" speech. Also click here to read "Iraq and US Leadership" by the senior senator from Massachusetts from the March 29, 2004 issue of The Nation. You can also click here to see a schedule of the many other valuable events being staged at the CUNY Graduate Center this spring.
Bush's 9/11 campaign commercials are reckless and offensive. Depicting firefighters carrying bodies, draped in American flags, out of the World Trade Center rubble, they trivialize the rescue workers' sacrifice, exploit the victims' families and mock the enormity of the national tragedy.
The commercials' tag line, "steady leadership in times of change," recalls just how erratic Bush's leadership has, in fact, been. (A more accurate slogan would be "arrogant leadership in times of recession.") Instead of steady leadership, the "war president" fled on 9/11, retreating into a bunker somewhere in Nebraska.
Initially, the president attacked airline security legislation that ultimately put federal law enforcement officers in every airport. Bush also flip-flopped on homeland security, opposing it at first, supporting it later, and eventually demanding that worker rights in the new agency be shredded.
The reality is that Bush has transformed 9/11 into an all-purpose excuse to enact his radical rightwing agenda. The White House cited 9/11 as a reason to pass a so-called stimulus bill that included $254 million in retroactive tax rebates for Enron, just before the company collapsed. Bush scorned shared sacrifice as he championed tax cuts for the wealthiest. The erosion of civil liberties through the Patriot Act and the increasing criminalizing of dissent--two longterm rightwing goals--have also been justified in the name of 9/11. And the invasion of Iraq itself, another longtime neo-con obsession, was justified, in part with cherry-picked intelligence allegedly linking Saddam to Al-Qaeda
Moreover, by disdaining the international community, Bush's arrogant leadership virtually guaranteed that US taxpayers would foot the bill for reconstructing Iraq while US troops, for the most part, have been forced to go it alone.
Currently, Bush is stonewalling the federal commission responsible not only for investigating the 9/11 attacks but also for recommending steps to prevent future attacks. The President has had time to attend NASCAR races and a rodeo show, but he says he has only one hour to meet with two of the Commission's members. Furthermore, while Bush is spending 10.5 million dollars to air his 9/11 commercials, he is refusing to release records requested by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission's members. (Like President, like Vice President.)
So it's no surprise when one 9/11 widow calls Bush's commercials "a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people." Or when Harold Schaitberger, the President of the Firefighters Union, calls the ads "hypocrisy at its worst." Or when New York firefighters by the dozens denounce the president's use of their images in his ads.
One woman recently captured the outrage people feel when she wrote the ,Washington Post: "In the next round of ads, to show concern for Americans in the wake of that tragedy, why not throw in a few images of [Bush] cooperating with the 9/11 commission?"
And why not? Bush's 9/11 commercials, it turns out, feature paid actors as well as stock footage of volunteer firefighters. In other words, the commercials, like their tag line, are, in fact, a big fat fraud.
Most political observers expected the Bush/Cheney re-election ads to begin by branding Bush as the 9/11 candidate. The only surprise, as John Nichols points out in his latest weblog posting, is that the Bush political team would, after more than two years of preparation, perform the task so gracelessly.
The gauzy, upbeat spots, which began airing last Thursday on national cable networks and in 17 states considered electoral battlegrounds, have immediately sparked outrage. While a few voices of support for the President have been noted, the story in recent days has been the mounting criticism the ad campaign has generated, especially in the fire fighting community and among victims of 9/11.
Here are a few of the many critical comments:
Harold Schaitberger,President, International Association of Fire Fighters
"The uses of 9/11 images are hypocrisy at its worst. Since the attacks, Bush has been using images of himself putting his arm around a retired FDNY fire fighter on the pile of rubble at Ground Zero. But for two and a half years he has basically shortchanged fire fighters and the safety of our homeland. The fact is, Bush's actions have resulted in fire stations closing in communities around the country. Two-thirds of America's fire departments remain under-staffed because Bush is failing to enforce a new law that was passed with bipartisan support...to put more fire fighters in our communities."
Tommy Fee,New York City firefighter
"It's as sick as people who stole things out of the place. The image of firefighters at Ground Zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics."
Tom Ryan, New York City firefighter
"As a firefighter who spent months at Ground Zero, it's deeply offensive to see the Bush campaign use these images to capitalize on the greatest American tragedy of our time."
Monica Gabrielle, 9/11 Widow
"It's a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people," Gabrielle said of the use of images of the removal of the 9/11 dead for political purposes. "It's unconscionable."
Bob McIlvaine, 9/11 Parent
"My son was murdered on September 11th. To argue that using footage of the wreckage of the towers to further someone's political career is 'tasteful' really needs to be rejected outright, and I condemn it."
Tom Roger,9/11 Parent
"I would be less offended if he [Bush] showed a picture of himself in front of the Statue of Liberty. But to show the horror of 9/11 in the background, that's just some advertising agency's attempt to grab people by the throat."
Abe Zelmanowitz,9/11 Family member
"It's so hard for us to believe that it's not obvious to everyone that ground zero shouldn't be used as a backdrop for a political campaign. We are incensed and hurt by what he is doing."
This can't be good for Bush and to make the most of this tactical blunder, Democrats.com, an online community of progressive Democrats, has created a powerful poster, which lets the GOP know that exploiting 9/11 will only backfire. Click here to purchase one and here to sign a petition asking George Bush to turn all relevant material over to the 9/11 commission.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched American politics over the past several years that George W. Bush has begun his formal reelection campaigning by exploiting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for political advantage. This is, after all, the president whose aides schemed on the day of the attacks to use them to get Congress to grant Bush "Fast Track" authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. And it is the president whose political czar, Karl Rove, conspired with Republican Senate candidates in 2002 to employ 9/11 images as tools to attack the patriotism of Democrats, such as Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran.
Everyone expected the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign to begin its television advertising campaign by branding Bush as the 9/11 candidate.
The only surprise is that the Bush political team would, after more than two years of preparation, perform the task so gracelessly.
Was there no one in the close confines of the Bush campaign with enough awareness of the sensitivities that remain -- especially among the friends, families and colleagues of the dead -- to suggest that it might be inappropriate to produce campaign advertisements featuring images of the dead being removed from the wreckage of the World Trade Center?
By any measure, the much-heralded opening of the Bush-Cheney Version 2.0 campaign has been a disaster for the president.
The point of the sort of gauzy, flag-flapping political advertisements that the Bush campaign has begun airing was to raise the president's approval ratings after a Democratic primary season in which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his rivals landed some serious blows to Bush's reelection prospects. Bush aides had planned to use the advertisements and a busy schedule of appearances by the president and Vice President Dick Cheney to regain dominance of the media coverage of the 2004 campaign.
Instead, the "story" of the week in which Bush was supposed to be reintroducing himself to the voters focused on the anger of people like Kristen Breitweiser over the Bush ads. "After 3,000 people were murdered on his watch, it seems that that takes an awful lot of audacity," declared Breitweiser. "Honestly, it's in poor taste."
What a nightmare for the Bush campaign crew when New York City firefighter Tommy Fee was asked by a reporter about the ads and responded, "It's as sick as people who stole things out of the place. The image of firefighters at Ground Zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics." And Fee was not alone. Tom Ryan, a 20-year veteran with the city's Fire Department, reacted to the use of footage from a fireman's funeral in one of the ads bysaying, "As a firefighter who spent months at Ground Zero, it's deeply offensive to see the Bush campaign use these images to capitalize on the greatest American tragedy of our time."
Suddenly, family members, friends and colleagues of 9/11 victims were all over television, radio and the newspapers echoing the sentiments of Monica Gabrielle, whose husband died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. "It's a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people," Gabrielle said of the use of images of the removal of the 9/11 dead for political purposes. "It's unconscionable."
By Friday, just a day after the commercials began airing in battleground states, the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows group was circulating the names of a long list of family members and firefighters who were objecting to the ads.Spouses, parents and siblings of 9/11 victims were holding press conferences in New York to call for the ads to be taken down. And the critics weren't just talking about the ads; they were making very public note of the president's failure to cooperate with the 9/11 commission that is charged with investigating how and why the attacks occurred.
The Bush campaign had tested the ads with focus groups. They knew the use of the 9/11 images was risky; but they very much wanted to begin the process of branding 9/11 as a campaign issue and they thought they could easily dismiss any criticisms as partisan bickering. What the Bush camp failed to anticipate was the speed and the intensity of the negative response to the ads.
As the firestorm built, team Bush went into immediate damage-control mode. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was dispatched to defend the ads as a reflection of America's "shared experience" during Bush's term. But Giuliani refused to say whether he would exploit 9/11 images in a similar way if he was running for office, so his did not prove to be a particularly effective defense.
The Bush campaign has been counting on Karen Hughes, one of the president's closest and most camera-friendly aides, to provide the first line of spin. She did a round of television talk shows to defend the commercials as tasteful and necessary. But, as usual, Hughes pushed the Bush line harder than was appropriate, or useful.
"I can understand why some Democrats not might want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath of (the attacks)," she grumped on "The Early Show" on CBS.
Does Hughes seriously mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten the details of September 11, 2001, or of the president's actions in the weeks and months that followed? That's a stretch. Even Hughes admitted, in the same interview, that, "September 11 was not just a distant tragedy." And what aspect of the president's "leadership" is highlighted by incorporating images of the dead being removed from Ground Zero into a campaign commercial?
More importantly, why would Hughes, an expert in the choice of words, choose to dismiss the widows, relatives and comrades of the dead as "some Democrats"? The answer speaks volumes about the thinking within the closed confines of the president's inner circle. The Bush team's view is that anyone who criticizes the president, even someone who lost a family member or colleague in the collapse of the twin towers, is automatically an anti-Bush partisan.
That's a serious miscalculation by the Bush campaign. And a surprising one. Hughes and others are allowing intense loyalty to their boss to cloud their judgement. Does this mean that the Bush team, which is made up of some of the ablest political minds that money can buy, is destined to blow this reelection campaign -- just as the able team of Bush's father blew the previous president's 1992 reelection campaign? Not necessarily; it is still a long way to Election Day and this campaign will take many unexpected turns over the next eight months. But it does suggest that the people who dressed the president up in flight-suit drag to declare the Iraq War mission accomplished last May are still off their game. In a week when they had planned to claim control of the political discourse, they lost it. Badly.
"We must preserve radio as a medium for democracy."
Sen. Russ Feingold, on January 30, 2003, before the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on Media Concentration and Ownership in Radio
When Clear Channel yanked Howard Stern for violating its new 'zero tolerance' obscenity policy, the network cited as its reason a racial epithet made by one of Stern's listeners. But, Clear Channel's explanation is hogwash.
I agree with the many people who think that Stern is offensive to minorities and women. He's degraded the quality of radio by trafficking in crude sexual references and unseemly racial remarks for as long as he's been in broadcasting. But the issue here isn't indecency; to paraphrase James Carville, it's the First Amendment, stupid.
When Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, critics predicted that a new round of consolidation would sweep America's radio industry. Clear Channel, on cue, grew from 40 stations in the 1990s to 1,225 stations in 2004. Currently, Clear Channel and Viacom control approximately 42 percent of America's radio audience. Clear Channel has stifled diversity, opposed low-power FM, killed off localism in news, music and other forms of entertainment, and occupied the front lines of the conservative culture wars.
Clear Channel's decision to fire Stern signals the latest target in its sights--the Bill of Rights. Its decision is based not on any pious, self-serving qualms about indecency on its stations but on its desire to curry favor with Bush and his Republican Congressional allies.
The implications are alarming. If Clear Channel can yank the commercially-successful Howard Stern, then it has the power to silence any DJ or radio kingpin who refuses to play the network's chosen music, adhere to its appointed standards, or mouth Clear Channel's political line.
Its decision to pull the plug on Stern coincides not with a sudden increase in Stern's offensive behavior but with a rise in Stern's anti-Bush rhetoric. According to Jeff Jarvis of the blog Buzzmachine, Stern "has become an anybody-but-Bush voter," based, in part, on his concerns about the threat of censorship from the FCC. Stern also recently endorsed Al Franken's book on the air.
Is it a coincidence that Stern came out against Bush shortly before his suspension? Or that Clear Channel president John Hogan was due to appear before a House subcommittee investigating indecency over the airwaves, on the heels of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction"?
What is not under dispute, according to the Center for Public Integrity, is that Clear Channel vice-chairman Thomas Hicks and Hick's law firm have given Bush more than $225,000--and Clear Channel's PAC, executives, and their relatives have given three-quarters of their political donations to the Republican Party.
So, they couldn't have been too happy to hear Stern's recent on-air rant about the president: "Get him out of office. I'm tellin' you, man, he's in dangerous territory [with] a religious agenda and you gotta vote him out--anyone but Bush," Stern railed.
Clear Channel's founder, Lowry Mays, also has close ties to Bush. He was put on the governing board of the University of Texas Instrument Management Company by Bush when he was still governor of Texas. (Hicks won an appointment, too.)
"When these insider dealings were exposed by the Houston Chronicle in 1999," Micah Sifry wrote in his blog about Stern and Clear Channel, "Hicks resigned from the company's board. By then, he had made Bush a rich man when he bought the Texas Rangers from him and his partners in 1998 for $250 million, three times their investment in the team."
Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is sponsoring a bill, the Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act, that will prevent Clear Channel from leveraging cross-ownership in an anti-competitive manner, and once again make the radio dial safe for speech. Now more than ever, this bill needs to pass, because Clear Channel, with a big assist from the GOP, is trampling on the First Amendment. (Click here for info on how you can contact your elected reps in support of S 221.)
1. Conventional wisdom rules. John Kerry started out the front-runner, according to the political handicappers. And largely because of the same reasons that he was initially dubbed the guy-to-beat, he ended up the front-runner, winning nine of ten contests on Super Tuesday. The no-longer-running Howard Dean finally won a state: Vermont. Kerry was the safe choice. Democrats went for a fellow who was not too young, not too fiery, not too bold, not too flashy; they selected a solid, workhorse Democrat who is mostly liberal but who is no rip-roaring populist. He has the experience and the gravitas--perhaps too much gravitas--to be president. Some observers have likened Kerry to the dead-man-walking Bob Dole of 1996, but Kerry, who could use a jolt of Dole-like humor, is much more a fighter. Don't forget he was a crusading prosecutor before becoming lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Which brings us to the next point.
2. A million cuts. A journalist called me the other day to ask what would be the most perilous time for Kerry between now and the convention. My answer: every day. It's clear the Bush campaign strategy is to nick away at Kerry 24/7. They will go over the thousands of votes Kerry has cast and use them as ammunition, accusing him of voting to weaken national defense and supporting wacko liberal positions. This has already started. The White House and the GOP have cited long-ago votes against certain weapons systems as evidence Kerry cannot be trusted to safeguard America. Recently Fred Kaplan on Slate debunked much of this early attack. A good example he cited: Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie slammed Kerry for having voted to cut $1.5 billion from the intelligence budget in 1995. But this money was appropriated for a spy satellite that the National Reconnaissance Office never launched. And the Senate was voting to rescind these funds, which were not going to be used. A majority of the Senate supported this position. But facts don't matter. The goal of the GOP is to turn Kerry into a bleeder. To force him to explain his votes and past positions over and over--and then again. Even if he has reasonable explanations, he still could end up looking weak if he constantly has to defend his past actions. Kerry is going to have to find a way to answer the attacks without becoming too entangled in a charge-countercharge dance. He has to avoid appearing as if he has lots of 'splaining to do, but he also cannot let criticism go unanswered. This will not be easy. His top aides tell me that they are ready for the Bush assault. But they are only now in the process of creating a war-room type of operation to deal with the incoming.
3. After 9/11, grown-ups are wanted. John Edwards ran a swell campaign. He had the best speech of all the candidates. ("There are two Americas....") He had the best temperament. And he has plenty of brains beneath his golden locks. But he couldn't seal the deal. He didn't even come close. It was not because of his ideas; he had few policy differences with Kerry. It was not because he didn't have the funds to make himself and his positions known to primary voters. It was probably because in this post-9/11 period he did not come across as ready-to-lead. He has not finished his first term in the Senate; he had no previous experience in government or foreign policy. He talked--at length!--about sharing the values of the working class (having been the son of a mill worker before becoming a millionaire trial attorney) and understanding their lives (presumably in a way that the blue-blooded Kerry could not). But empathy only goes so far. It's not the same as inspiring confidence and reassurance. And it could well be that Democratic voters in 2004 wanted a candidate who reeks of maturity and experience. Edwards was confronted by a stature gap--and the gap won. After 9/11, protector-in-chief is at the top of the list of the president's job responsibilities. Edwards was not able to persuade voters he yet has the chops for that.
4. Issues? We don't need no stinking issues? This was not a contest decided by issues. Most Democratic primary voters were opposed to the Iraq war, skeptical of Nafta and similar trade accords, and uneasy about the Patriot Act. Yet the two candidates who fared best in the primary contest--Kerry and Edwards--both voted for legislation granting Bush the authority to go to war and for the Patriot Act. Kerry voted for Nafta; Edwards was not yet in the Senate for that vote, but he did vote for extending most favored nation trading status to China. No issue--not even the war--defined the campaign for most voters. When Howard Dean, the only top-tier candidate who had opposed the war, dropped out, his antiwar vote did not flock to Representative Dennis Kucinich, the only other serious antiwar candidate. (Sharpton is not a serious candidate.) Edwards tried to make trade an issue separating himself from Kerry. But he was hanging on to a thin reed: that his criticism of the recent trade pacts was edgier than Kerry's. But that effort failed. Union voters--who perhaps are the most concerned about trade--still went overwhelmingly for Kerry. This was a contest among candidates not messages. Dean learned that early. Which brings us to electability.
5. It ain't no sin to be electable. And there's nothing wrong with a voter using electability as a criterion. When I heard voters remark that Kerry had the E-quality, they often explained it by saying he possessed a solid record in the Senate, had acquired years of experience in foreign policy, boasted sound and decent policy stands, and was ready and able to challenge Bush forcefully. Those are all fine reasons for picking a candidate. Selecting a candidate based on electability is not necessarily a cop-out; it's rendering the judgment that the candidate is equipped to beat the other guy and become president. In 2000, many Republicans signed on early with George W. Bush, noting his electability. But what they had in mind was that he had the bucks, the brand name and the endorsements needed to clobber his primary opponents. They were right, and it worked out well for Republicans and conservatives. Kerry's so-called electability seems based more on his qualifications than his advantages.
6. But what about Edwards' cross-over appeal? Yes, Edwards did well among Republicans and independents in those states where the Rs and Is can vote in the Democratic primary. But in 2000 Senator John McCain was a big hit with the Indies and had more appeal to Dems than Bush. And he only got so far. In party primaries, the first-place ribbon goes to the guy who excites (or wins the votes of) the party faithful. Parties do not nominate folks because they are liked by the other side. That's the way it is. Each party is burdened by this dynamic. And most Republicans who voted for Edwards would probably end up voting for Bush.
7. Edwards for veep? He has a net worth of millions, but Edwards is not a retire-early-and-take-up-fly-fishing guy. He's already given up his Senate seat. What's he to do now, except angle to be Kerry's sidekick? He could be a fine choice. But it's far too early for Kerry to be thinking about getting hitched. He has until the convention in late July. And he should wait to see how the race against Bush develops. Then he will know what he might need (or want) in a running mate. Perhaps polls will show a toss-up state Kerry must win is fading for him. A veep candidate from that state might reverse the drift. It's true that a running mate rarely has much impact on a presidential race. (See Dan Quayle.) But if a few extra votes can be gained by a good pick, Kerry ought to make his calculated choice as close to the November election as possible. Edwards will have to sit tight.
8. Kucinich has pushed far enough. Every presidential campaign needs someone to push the policy envelope. With his advocacy of a single-payer, nonprofit healthcare system, his proposal for a Department of Peace, his pledge to trash Nafta, and his call to replace U.S. troops in Iraq with international peacekeepers (a plan that rests on several optimistic assumptions), Kucinich played that noble role. But now it's time to fold the tent. He had his shot. The left wing of the party--the peaceniks, the anti-Naftaistas--did not rally behind him in sufficient numbers. And the math is undeniable; he has no chance. One can--and should--only defy the physical laws of the universe for so long. Yet before the votes were tallied on Super Tuesday Kucinich was vowing to keep going until the convention. On CNN, he claimed that Democrats had to choose him because he is the only candidate who could bring in "the Greens, the Natural Law Party." The Natural Law Party? While every vote does count--Florida showed that--it's doubtful that the Democratic nominee's fortunes will rise or fall on the disposition of the Natural Law Party vote. And Kucinich failed to win over more than 9 percent of the Democratic voters of his home state of Ohio. With his presidential campaign, Kucinich did position himself as a--if not the--leading progressive of the House Democrats. But if Kucinich stays in the race, insisting that only he can beat Bush by attracting outsider voters, he risks coming across as a crank who cannot recognize political realities rather than as a visionary willing to challenge conventional thinking.
9. If Kucinich should go, then Sharpton should really go. It's galling to watch this man go on and on about the need to stay in the race so he can arrive at the convention with delegates and make sure his party ends up with the right policy positions. Sharpton endorsed Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato, an ethics-challenged machine hack, in 1986 over Democratic nominee Mark Green. (History declared: I worked on the Green campaign.) Sharpton also supported Republican Michael Bloomberg's mayoral bid in 2001 (again, over Green). And this year he is being advised and assisted (including financially) by GOP strategist Roger Stone, who was involved in the so-called khaki riot at the Dade County municipal office in 2000 that may have led to the shutdown of the Miami recount. So where is (and was) the party loyalty Sharpton now cites as his reason for staying in the race until the convention? He's not in this for a platform debate--as if that matters this year. He's in this to advance a single cause: Al Sharpton. He wants the camera time, and he wants a speaking gig at the convention. The Democrats have showed him more than enough kindness. He's lucky to have received the free air time he's already obtained. This reverend deserves no more time in the pulpit.
10. It's the journalists, stupid? Right before Kerry made his victory speech on Super Tuesday, one of his top advisers told me, "The real question in this race will be, do American journalists take presidential politics seriously?" By that he meant that the media can play a critical role in the contest: truth-testing the attacks (and shaming candidates that mount dishonest and unfair assaults), highlighting the important policy differences between Bush and Kerry, and making clear for the voters exactly what is at stake. He obviously believes that Kerry would benefit from such media behavior. But if the Kerry campaign is relying upon the media to do a good job consistently on these fronts, then Democrats ought to worry. Kerry now has to figure out how to do three things simultaneously: thwart the Bush attacks, launch his attacks on Bush, and present a positive message based on his positions and his own attributes and past actions. He cannot count on reporters to assist him. This is not their fight; it's his. And it will be a helluva battle.
*********DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! 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." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.
Had John Edwards won the Ohio and Georgia primaries on Tuesday, it would have been difficult to prevent him from staking his claim on the Democratic nomination for vice president. But Edwards lost Ohio by 18 percentage points and Georgia by six. And the North Carolina senator's candidacy was rejected at least as enthusiastically by voters in the eight other states that held Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses on SuperTuesday.
So John Kerry scored two victories Tuesday. With his 9-state sweep (and a completely credible second-place show in Vermont against that state's sentimental favorite, Howard Dean) he went from frontrunner to presumptive nominee. And, by vanquishing Edwards so thoroughly, he freed himself to pick the running mate he prefers.
This does not mean that Edwards is out of the running for veep. He survived longer as a serious contender than any of the other prominent challengers to the Kerry juggernaut. He got high marks as a personable, tireless and almost always on-message campaigner. He put together the best stump speech of any of the candidates -- a emotional call for closing the economic gap between what hedescribed as "the two Americas." And he successfully raised an issue -- the damage done to American workers and communities by free-trade agreements -- that Democrats will have to address if they want to be competitive this fall in critical states such as Ohio and Missouri.
But Edwards got stuck in second-place and never secured the range of primary and caucus victories he would have needed to position himself as an inevitable running mate. Like former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, who ran second to Jimmy Carter in Democratic primary after Democratic primary in 1976, Edwards comes out of the competition with a reputation as an appealing campaigner, a genuine contributor to the debate and, unfortunately, a loser.
With Edwards' star shining a bit less brightly, his name will be just one of the many considered by Kerry as the veep sweepstakes heats up. The usual suspects will be trotted out. It will be suggested that Kerry needs to attach himself to a conservative Democratic Leadership Council-insider like Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. But Bayh cast a controversial May, 2001, vote for the Bush administration's initial plan to cut taxes for the wealthy, making him a difficult choice if Kerry wants to run, as he should, as a critic of the Bush administration's failed economic policies.
There is already a good deal of talk about Florida Senator Bob Graham, who clearly has more to recommend him than Bayh. As a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for instance, he is prepared to critique the Bush administration's misguided approach to the war on terrorism. But Graham proved to be ill-prepared for primetime when he mounted his own listless campaign for this year's Democratic presidential nomination. The best argument for Graham is that he might help Kerry win Florida, allowing Democrats to avenge the scandalous 2000 miscount of that state's votes. The best argument against Graham is that, if polls are to be believed, he might not help Kerry win that state's critical electoral votes.
Graham won't be the only vice presidential prospect whose prime appeal is the prospect that he or she might be able to "deliver" a state. But, if Kerry is as smart as he has proven to be so far in this campaign, he won't play the old game of picking a running mate who might--emphasis on "might"--help him carry a particular battleground state. Rather, he will follow the lead of Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and pick a vice presidential prospect who helps to energize the party's base voters nationally, and who adds ideas and energy to a ticket that will be needing more of both those commodities.
Among the people Kerry might consider are:
* New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the single most effective battler against corporate abuses in either political party. Spitzer has been a watchdog on Wall Street and a fearless advocate for consumers. He's also got a great track record as a defender of women's rights. Spitzer's smart, he's quick on his feet and he already has achieved a stature that extends well beyond New York's borders.
* Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the sole opponent in the Senate to the Patriot Act and the most prominent Democratic advocate for campaign finance reform. Feingold's got a far better record than Kerry on issues of concern to working Americans and farmers, meaning that he could be a particularly effective advocate for the ticket in the swing states of the Great Lakes and the upper Midwest.
* Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, one of the savviest and mosteffective members of the current Congress. He's a former state Supreme Court Justice with a great legal mind. And wouldn't it be interesting to hear a Texas-accented voice explaining the folly of the war with Iraq, the Patriot Act and other Bush initiatives?
* Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who would bring to the ticket varied experience and a base in the southwest -- an emerging swing region. Born in New York, Napolitano moved to Arizona after law school, helped represent Anita Hill, served as U.S. Attorney for Arizona and was elected that state'sattorney general in 1998. Four years later, she beat a top Republican to win the governorship.
* California Representative Diane Watson, a veteran Los Angeles educator who served on the Los Angeles Board of Education, as a state legislator, and as the U.S. ambassador to Micronesia before her election to Congress in 2001. A fierce critic of the Bush administration on education issues, she is, as well, one of the most consistent advocates in Congress for media reform. And, as a passionate and highly-energetic African-American woman, she could do a tremendous job of maximizing turnout among the party's base voters.
* Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky, the truest heir to Paul Wellstone in the current Congress. An able grassroots organizer and a skilled communicator, she is one of the most energetic members of the current Congress. And she is arguably its most aggressive progressive. Schakowsky is often the first member of the House to voice criticism of the latest Bush administration misstep -- she had a statement out on Haiti before the administration had even started spinning. As a vice presidential candidate, she would drive Karl Rove and his crew crazy by outmaneuvering them at every turn. And it is almost too delicious to imagine her debating Dick Cheney.
When Ralph Nader chided what he called the "liberal intelligentsia" for appealing to him not to run in 2004 as "a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people," he added, "You'd never find that type of thing in Canada or Western democracies in Europe."
But Ralph was being disingenuous by not acknowledging that before Americans can take advantage of the heightened democracy enjoyed by those nations, we need a slew of electoral reforms that he may support on his campaign website, but which have gone virtually unmentioned in his media appearances and speeches.
I agree with Nader that America's democratic promise isn't fulfilled and that we live with a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. But, as The Nation noted in our "Open Letter" appealing to him not to run in an election when the overwhelming mass of progressive voters have only one focus--beating Bush--Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises.
Instead of demonizing Nader though, progressives and indeed all Democrats should fight for reforms that open up our electoral system. One place to start would be to demand that the Democratic presidential candidate--and the party's platform--support electoral reforms that reflect an understanding that the party that can capture the hearts and minds of political newcomers can build a voting majority.
For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of US voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. We need an electoral system that accommodates and indeed celebrates our country's diverse views. It's no accident that Howard Dean drew his strongest support among young people. Like Dennis Kucinich, he embraced instant runoff voting and stressed the importance of reforms that allow the range of voices and choices found in democracies with more modern voting systems.
Both Dean and Kucinich, like Nader, know that our two major parties have effectively colluded to dramatically narrow voter options. But there's nothing in American political culture that mandates the present system. It's an artifact of self-protection by the two party duopoly that at this point is particularly damaging to Democrats.
So here's my list of some ideas on how to reconstruct American democracywith links to groups working on their behalf:
1. Proportional Representation. The most obvious difference between electoral politics in the United States and Europe is our plurality, winner-take-all electoral system. Giving all representation to the candidate with the most votes by definition shuts the door on political minorities. Nearly all European legislatures have forms of proportional representation--called "full representation" by reformers here--where 51 percent of the vote wins a majority of seats, but not all seats. Winning 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of seats, and in some nations, like Germany and Belgium, candidates and parties can win with far less support.
Indeed new parties form in European democracies in roughly comparable numbers as they do in the United States; the difference is that with "full representation," more than half of these parties ultimately win seats and a chance to bring new voters and issues into politics even as the leading parties typically function as stable pillars of coalition governments. Arguments about how difficult it is to govern under proportional representation--as in Italy--collapse under the weight of sensible policies coming from countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Reflecting Americans' limited understanding of the political systems of other nations, it's unlikely that the Democrats will embrace full proportional representation yet--although they do have the wisdom to use it to elect delegates to their presidential convention. But if they turn to Illinois' experience with its more modest system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts (essentially three adjoining legislative districts that are combined into one), they will see they have nothing to fear and much to gain.
Illinois used cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, and there's increasing bipartisan support in the state to restore it. Three-seat districts with full representation lower the share of voter support necessary to earn a seat to roughly 25 percent. That change alone would open up nearly every area in the country to healthy two-party competition, give third parties a better chance and address the goals of redistricting reformers. (It's worth noting that restoring cumulative voting in Illinois has support from a range of political figures, including the two most recent Republican governors and African-American Democratic figures like the Secretary of State Jesse White and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.)
Amarillo, Texas shows what cumulative voting can do for fair representation in the US: after having had an all-white school board for two decades, it adopted cumulative voting in 1999 and now has a school board which looks much more like its voter base with four white members, two Latinas and an African American.
2. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Most presidential democracies have runoff elections in which the top two candidates face off if no candidate wins a majority. This allows voters more luxury in supporting any candidate they like in the first round with little fear that doing so will assist in electing their least favorite candidate.
Ireland has an even better system: instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV simulates a full runoff election in a single round of voting through the simple device of allowing citizens to vote both for their favorite candidate as well as for the candidate they would support if their favorite fails to advance to the runoff. The result is a winning candidate able to build a true majority coalition.
And when given the chance, American voters seem to like IRV; this month Berkeley voters supported IRV for city elections by a margin of 72 percent to 28 percent; a recent telephone survey in Illinois found that a majority of voters-- including strong Democrats by a margin of two-to-one--supported IRV for presidential elections; in 2002, it was adopted in San Francisco for city elections; 53 of 56 town meetings in Vermont supported resolutions calling for IRV for gubernatorial elections, and in 2001 the Utah Republican Party adopted instant runoff voting for elections that take place at its state conventions.
Given their understandably angry reaction to Nader's candidacy, Democrats should consider a reform that would accommodate such a candidacy in the future. Instant runoff voting could be adopted for presidential elections in any state by a mere statute. Public backers in recent years have included the leaders of the state senates of Maine and New Mexico, two states where Democrats control the state government. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson-- one of Nader's fiercest critics--should take the lead in supporting a reform that is a win-win solution to the "spoiler" controversy.
3. Fusion. One American answer to the question that in most other systems is answered more straightforwardly by proportional representation, namely, how can you give representative weight to minority electoral sentiment, is fusion voting.
Fusion lifts prohibitions against more than one party nominating a candidate. That simple change permits people to vote their values without wasting their votes or supporting "spoilers." The positive experience of the Working Families Party in New York in recent years shows that you can build a viable minority party this way, even in the otherwise inhospitable electoral environment of the US.
Fusion also has the weight of long American experience behind it. Before the early 20th century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties before major parties started banning it, and it has been particularly prominent in New York's electoral history. Fusion also has helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system.
4.Democracy Toolkit: Then there are a slew of reforms that would increase voter engagement in the system, improve responsiveness of the major parties to the full electorate, and offer good complements to full representation, instant runoff voting and fusion.
*Public funding of elections, either through general revenues, individual tax credits or special scrip. Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money.
* Election day registration. A third of American adults are not registered and, even if caught up in the excitement of an election in its final days, are denied a chance to vote. Reforms in voter registration are all the more possible in the wake of technological innovation and recent movement to statewide voter registration databases.
*Election day as a holiday. The highest voter participation in the United States is in Puerto Rico, which makes election day a holiday (as incidentally, does The Nation's collective bargaining agreement). In addition to giving frenzied working people time to get to the polling booth, this contributes to a civic awareness of the importance of elections.
*Consolidation of election calendars. Because the United States spreads voting throughout the year, the impact of one's vote in any one election is weakened, and important primary and local elections often draw single-digit turnout as a consequence.
*Tying FCC licensing to more public affairs programming. A real public channel or two would dramatically increase electoral awareness.
* A Constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote, as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has publicly proposed. The lack of a right to vote in the Constitution allows states to disenfranchise more than four million citizens convicted of felonies and to fail to establish and maintain voting systems that ensure everyone who wants to vote will be able to cast a vote that counts.
Admittedly, these are just a beginning. It's worth remembering that in recent years two out of five state legislative races haven't even been contested, and that the number of marginal congressional seats is at an all-time low. The Electoral College results in most voter mobilization being focused on the fifteen or so battleground states, not the the nation as a whole.
As so many citizens understand, America needs a democracy reconstruction project. I just wish Nader would use his pulpit and street cred as a legendary public interest advocate to fight for these measures rather than launching a candidacy that might help reelect the most reactionary government in our lifetime.