When Russ Feingold first argued that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program was in clear violation of federal law and the spirit of the Constitution, and that the Senate must censure the president for his wrongdoing, the maverick senator was condemned by the White House, ridiculed by Republicans and given the cold shoulder by most Democrats.
But, now, the Wisconsin Democrat who in March proposed that the Senate censure Bush for flagrantly disregarding the law has a federal judge on his side. And the question becomes: When will Democratic and Republican members of the Senate join Feingold in demanding that the administration be held to account for its assaults on basic liberties and the rule of law?
Ruling on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of journalists, scholars and lawyers who expressed concern that the National Security Agency's spying initiative had made it difficult for them to develop and maintain legitimate international contacts and professional relationships, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit determined Thuesday that the warrantless wiretapping scheme is unconstitutional and ordered its immediate halt.
Holding that the spying program that was authorized and defended by President Bush violates the rights to free speech and privacy as well as the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, Taylor wrote in a 43-page opinion that: "Plaintiffs have prevailed, and the public interest is clear, in this matter. It is the upholding of our Constitution."
The decision by Judge Taylor offers vindication for Feingold, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, who has argued since the NSA wiretapping was exposed last year that the president had dramatically overstepped his powers in authorizing the program.
"Today's district court ruling is a strong rebuke of this administration's illegal wiretapping program," Feingold said on Thursday. "The President must return to the Constitution and follow the statutes passed by Congress. We all want our government to monitor suspected terrorists, but there is no reason for it to break the law to do so. The administration went too far with the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Today's federal court decision is an important step toward checking the President's power grab."
The key words in that statement are "an important step." The ruling by Judge Taylor, while significant, does not mark the end of this fight.
This administration will continue to battle judicial efforts to require the president to follow the law.
Ultimately, the job of demanding accountability will fall to the Senate.
At this point, Feingold has only a handful of Senate allies. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and California Democrat Barbara Boxer have been with the Wisconsinite since he proposed censure in March. In May, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry signed on. But most Democrats, including New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have refused to embrace the proposal.
With the courts stepping in, the time for Democrats and responsible Republicans to step up is now. A failure by senators to respect their duty to check and balance a lawless president makes those disengaged legislators as much a part of the problem as an abusive executive.
My earlier post on Fair Trade coffee drew plenty of responses. Some readers were eager for guidance on tasty Fair Trade blends, and encouraged me to keep looking. Others provided tips of their own. All these suggestions were included in The Notion's Fair Trade Coffee Tasting Extravaganza, which was held on Sunday at the lovely Camaje restaurant, on Macdougal Street in Manhattan.
Our panel consisted of four tasters: Julia Azzarello, a chef and cooking teacher at Camaje, whose resume includes stints at the distinguished New York restaurants Chanterelle and Allison on Dominick Street; myself; Daniel Gross, former Starbucks barista who was fired for union-organizing efforts; Helen Hurwitz, a Brooklyn-based reference librarian and bec fin. Doug Henwood, Nation contributing editor and publisher of the Left Business Observer, handled the tasting logistics and compiled the results (and is co-author of this Notion report).
All coffees were freshly ground and identically brewed in a French press for four minutes, and presented with only letter codes, without milk or sugar. They were graded for body, acidity, and balance on a 1-3 scale, and for overall quality on a 1-5 scale (with 5 being the best). All the companies whose coffees we tested sell exclusively fair trade, and most of the coffees we tried were also organic.
The rankings, and some comments.
Gorilla Yirgacheffe 4.25Broad consensus that this was the best of all ten coffees tasted. Rich & deep, with nutty, spicy, and chocolatey notes. Gorilla is Brooklyn-roasted, with an appealing logo, and the company also runs a lively cafe in Park Slope (at 5th Ave. and Park).
CounterCulture Yirgacheffe Ambessa 3.75A close second (clearly, Yirgacheffe from any vendor has something going -- it's a tiny town in Ethiopia with climate conditions that are uniquely coffee-friendly). Also rich & deep, though not quite as much so as the Gorilla; winey, velvety, nutty, "a very nice cup of joe." Counter Culture is based in Durham, North Carolina; the company also has a shade-grown line, for those of us who worry about the birds.
Equiterra, from The Fair Trade Coffee Company 3.56Some internal dissent on the panel despite the high overall score. Fans found it refreshing and fruity; detractors, chalky, and slightly muddy. Shows just how subjective coffee-tasting can be! Equiterra is a blend of Indonesian, Central American and East African beans, roasted inGarwood, New Jersey.
Dean's Beans Oromia 3.50Well-balanced, complex, bold, with a good mouth-feel. One taster found it reminiscent of Guinness. Dean'sis a company worthy of notice not only for fine coffee, but for paying the farmers above the fair trade price.
Gorilla Nicaragua Segovia 3.50One taster found it homey; another said it had no life. Perhaps these are two ways of saying the same thing.
Equal Exchange Black Silk Espresso 3.25Spicy, cinnamon-y, chocolatey. Equal Exchangeis the oldest and largest fair trade company in the U.S., and also sells tea and chocolate.
Vermont Coffee Company Cafe Alta Gracia 2.63Earthy - perhaps too much so; muddy, bitter even. The beans are from the Dominican Republic, roasted in Vermont. (In another illustration of the wild subjectivity of coffee tasting, the reader who recommended this coffee thought it was the best "in the world.")
Vermont Coffee Company Decaf 2.25Mellow and bright were the kind words; others found it lacking in flavor, and one taster was put in mind of bile. Luckily, Roastmaster Paul Ralston doesn't want you to buy it unless you live in Vermont; he didn't entirely approve of our nationwide taste test because "readers should find a local roaster to support." (In fact, we did liked the Brooklyn coffee much better.)
CounterCulture Nicaragua decaf 2.25Has more body than the Vermont decaf, but opinions differed on the taste: some found it citrusy and spicy, but one thought it vomit-like. Makers of specialty coffee -- and caffeine avoiders -- always insist that decaf is just as good as real coffee, but it ain't necessarily so.
No CO2, from Dean's Beans 1.88Despite its high-minded intentions - this Peruvian coffee is produced with no net ozone emissions> - it was the stinker of the lot. Grades ranged from mediocre to awful; tasting notes included words like "metallic," "soapy," and "burnt toast."
While the devastating rout of No CO2 confirmed what we knew from our sad Cloudforest encounter -- that political sincerity alone does not a decent cup of coffee make -- we did learn that there is plenty of fine Fair Trade coffee out there. So if you've been holding out on this innovative, socially conscious sector because you don't think it will taste good, you're fresh out of excuses. We intend this report not as the last word on Fair Trade coffee, but as an incitement to your own explorations.
Even though I'm terrified of flying and only do so equipped with an Ipod, yogic breathing exercises and Xanax, I can't wait to see Snakes on a Plane this weekend. For those of you in a total culture vacuum, this highly-anticipated action/horror flick stars Samuel L. Jackson and 500+ would-be terrorist snakes on board, yup, a plane. Violence, swearing, hissing, writhing, tongue-flicking and CGI effects ensue -- at least according to previews and media buzz. At one point, Samuel L. Jackson reportedly exclaims, "That's it! I have had it with these motherf---ing snakes on this motherf---ing plane!"
Forget the internet hype and anticipatory spoofs (Snakes in Ukraine, Snakes who Missed the Plane, Sharks on a Rollercoaster, Snakes on John McCain), I'm pegging Snakes on a Plane as the political satire of the year. Seriously.
As Bill Greider points out in his last post, the suspiciously timed announcement of a thwarted plot ("suggestive of al-Qaeda") to blow-up "multiple commercial aircraft" plays into Bush's "fear and smear" campaign. "So, once again in the run-up to a national election, we are visited with alarming news. A monstrous plot, red alert, high drama playing on all channels and extreme measures taken to tighten security," he writes. Beyond the coordinated spin of US and British officials and the now-discredited suggestion that the attack was imminent (in fact, scheduled for today, August 16), this latest "victory" in the "war on terror" has all the markings of a mass-mediated panic.
As in all great horror plots, the mundane has been transformed into the terrifying; the line between the two blurred. Is it lipstick or liquid explosive? Is your High Wycombe neighbor a 2nd-generation Pakistani-Brit or an "al-Qaeda inspired" Jihadist? The list of banned items grows longer, so do lines at security checkpoints. Mothers taste-test bottled breastmilk in front of airport screeners. Women ditch full bottles of Chanel No. 5 into garbage bins (talk about horrifying!). Diabetics abandon their insulin. And those damned colored alerts -- Yellow! Red! Orange! Red! -- continue to flash meaninglessly across our TV screens.
All of this commotion sows confusion. And since we can't tell the difference between a bomb and a balm, we might as well trust our government to do so for us. (Though apparently, airport screeners equipped with X-ray machines can't distinguish between an ordinary Nike sneaker and plastic explosives either.) So high-pitched is this hysteria that, just this morning, a passenger's claustrophobic incident on board a Boeing 767 instigated a military fighter jet escort and emergency diversion to Logan International Airport in Boston. And the "matches, screwdriver, Vaseline and two notes referring to al-Qaeda" that CNN excitedly reported were in this poor woman's possession? They don't exist, never did. According to a Transportation Security Administration spokesman, "there is no nexus to terrorism with this event" -- a surreal quote quite on its own.
When reality gets this crazy, an absurd movie like Snakes on a Plane might just be a welcome antidote. I can already imagine the reality-informed sequels: Shampoo on a Plane (radical gay hair-stylists, armed with gossip, curl relaxer and Tresemmé, hijack a flight to Miami but are foiled by Samuel L. Jackson and his extremely kinky afro) and Baby Formula on a Plane (fanatic breastmilk advocates force-feed Enfamil to terrified passengers, causing Samuel L. Jackson to shout, "I have had it with this motherf---ing infant formula on this motherf---ing plane!")
Alright, clowning aside, let me just suggest that comic horror films like Snakes on a Plane and the mass-mediated, transatlantic spectacle of this past week are two sides of the same coin. The former inspires laughs and thrills; the latter instills fear and acquiescence. But both appeal to the shop-worn conventions of the mass disaster, and both, in their way, are pleasurable. In his brilliant essay "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject," social theorist Michael Warner argues that airplane crashes -- rather than more frequent and more deadly car crashes -- fascinate because they cause injury to a mass body to which we identify and aspire. "Disaster is popular, as it were, because it is a way of making mass subjectivity available," he writes. It's this tendency, to become a mass public through scenes of real and imagined disaster, that the Bush administration and the docile press corps exploit, for political gain (as Greider suggests) or merely for the sake of audience share. But we don't have to look, or if we do, we can laugh. So turn off the tube and go see Snakes on a Plane.
Scroll down to read a letter of response from Steve Paulus, General Manager of NY1.
"Celebrity is no substitute for an honest and vigorous debate on a matter as fundamentally important as war."
That is what antiwar Senate candidate, Jonathan Tasini, told New York Times columnist Bob Herbert last May in describing his rationale for making a Democratic Party primary run against incumbent-Goliath, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Tasini has since qualified for the ballot with 40,000 signatures – far surpassing the required 15,000 – and he is polling at a surprising 13 percent (or, perhaps not so surprising, if one considers the outrage over Iraq.) But, despite Tasini's strong run, the voters of New York might not get that vigorous debate after all.
Cable news station, NY1 – owned by Time-Warner – declared that Tasini cannot participate in its televised debate series because he hasn't raised the arbitrarily required $500,000. Tasini nearly triples the 5 percent polling requirement but he doesn't have the cash flow NY1 is looking for to legitimize his candidacy.
Now there's democracy in action for you: only the wealthy or those who raise enough money are welcome in this contest of ideas – no matter how critical the moment in our nation's history and no matter how many voters pledge their support.
As the New York Post (whose owner Rupert Murdoch held a July fundraiser for Senator Clinton) points out, "Traditionally, the test of seriousness in a statewide candidate in New York is successful completion of the grueling ballot-access process. It ain't easy, to put it mildly - but Tasini has made that grade."
The Post editorial goes on to argue that "70 percent of New York Democrats consider Iraq to be a major Election Day issue." Don't the citizens of New York deserve to hear a range of views now that so many have expressed support for Tasini's candidacy?
Consider some of these differences on critical issues -- as outlined by the Peace Action Voter Guide (you can guess where the two candidates stand): Opposes the presence of permanent US bases in Iraq; Opposes a military invasion of Iran; Supports cutting outmoded items from the Pentagon budget to fund urgent domestic needs; Supports the US National Missile Defense Program; Opposes a time-lined withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, beginning in 2006; Supports a prohibition on US arms sales and military training to governments that the State Department deems human rights abusers. And there's more.
It's time to take on our downsized politics of excluded alternatives. Click here to contact NY1 and demand that it act in the public interest and allow this debate. It's the right thing for the New York Senate race, and it's the right thing for our democracy.
Letter of response from Steve Paulus, General Manager of NY1.
I read your blog and feel compelled to write you in response. First off, let me categorically state that NY1 has not disqualified Jonathan Tasini from any debate because there is no debate. Hillary Clinton will not agree to a debate with anyone so there is no debate to be held. We have featured Mr. Tasini in several stories and he has been a guest on "Inside City Hall." We are planning to invite him back at least once more before the primary. We have a nightly political program that airs in Albany, Rochester and Syracuse and have had Mr. Tasini appear before and we are planning on bringing him back again as well.
Now, regarding the financial criteria for participating in our series of debates. I would hope that you would agree that we have the right and probably need to set some sort of criteria for participation. In the 2005 Mayoral Campaign, the NYC Campaign Finance Board set a financial threshold of $50,000 in order to participate in their debates. To run for Mayor you need to buy television time in one market. To run a statewide campaign you need to buy television time in seven Nielsen markets. Multiply the $50,000 by seven and you get $350,000, a total the Tasini campaign hasn't come close to raising.
Regarding Mr. Tasini's financial statusalthough he has gotten enough signatures and is polling at about 13 percent, he has still raised less than $150,000. That is not enough to run a statewide campaignfor example, he doesn't have any kind of organization outside of NYC (no field offices anywhere in the State). We originally set the $500,000 criteria this way. There are 5.5 million registered democrats in NYS. If one tenth of them (ONE out of TEN registered Democrats) sent him $1 he would have raised $550,000.
NY1 has given more coverage to Mr. Tasini's campaign than ANY other television station. We are seen across NYS so he has gotten enormous exposure from his appearances on NY1. It isn't fair to blame NY1 for "disqualifying" a candidate when we are the only organization putting the resources into holding these kinds of debates. When an editorial in the NY Post chides NY1 I have to ask what about Fox 5 and the Post? Both are owned by News Corporation. Can't THEY make the effort to hold a debate in this race. If you Nexis or Google the NY Post and Tasini, they have mentioned him TWICE since his campaign began.
We've taken a lot of heat, we believe unfairly, and I hope that the facts make some sense and that you correct some of the misstatements in the Editor's Cut? We are getting a lot of emails from around the country and their basic premise is incorrect.
Thank you, Steve Paulus General Manager, NY1
What will happen to me if I get sick or injured and can't pay my bills?
On the domestic front, that's a key question on voters' minds as the November elections approach. A poll of working women, released on August 8 by the AFL-CIO, indicated that concern about access to quality medical coverage was rated the top issue by 97 percent of respondents, outpolling the income gap between women and men for the first time. MoveOn members, asked to vote on issues that they believe should define a "new positive agenda" ranked healthcare for all persons at the top of the list.
In California, one of the country's largest states and a decisive election-year battleground, the growing momentum behind healthcare reform is pushing two sharply different approaches into public view.
The first, a proposal for universal healthcare coverage, is presented in Senate Bill 840, authored by Southern California's State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-23). SB 840 would provide universal, comprehensive healthcare insurance to Californians while protecting consumers' ability to choose their own doctors. Under the SB 840 model, consumers and businesses would pay an income or payroll-based premium for a "solid, comprehensive plan" that includes medical, dental, vision, prescription drug, hospitalization and emergency coverage. Medical care provision would remain as the mix of private and not-for-profit business that it is now. SB 840 would also mandate that California use its purchasing power to negotiate bulk rates for prescription drugs and medical equipment. (The administrative costs for medical care in California would drop below 5 percent of total costs, compared to the whopping 25 to 30 percent currently being spent.)
On the other side, on June 16, Sandra Shewry, Governor Schwarzenegger's Director of the Department of Health Services hosted a meeting of journalists to discuss the possibility of "Massachusetts-style health reform" in California. As it turned out, uninvited healthcare experts and advocates showed up, as well, to deliver an early warning: Massachusetts' so-called universal healthcare plan is already bad news for the people of Massachusetts and would be a disaster for California.
The heart of the Massachusetts plan is this: every resident of Massachusetts must have health insurance by July 1, 2007 or pay a fine--but costs of health insurance and medical care itself are not controlled, nor are there adequate standards for what health insurance is supposed to cover. Big insurance wins; consumers lose.
The Massachusetts plan offers subsidies for the very poor--as it should, and allows those who can afford it to buy insurance pre-tax--but this plan squeezes middle class people who don't qualify for subsidies and can't afford to buy insurance pre-tax. The plan subsidizes people who earn up to 300 percent of the poverty level. But a typical group policy in Massachusetts costs about $4,500 annually for an individual and more than $11,000 for family coverage. Many families and business would be forced to choose between complying with the law and other vital necessities. Young and healthy people might be able to buy low premium plans, but even these are now typically considered affordable only to people whose income is greater than 499 percent of the poverty level. Furthermore, such high-deductible, low-coverage plans often don't offer even adequate coverage.
The sort of plans available to middle-class consumers--those with deductibles that run into the thousands of dollars--mean that most consumers would wind up footing the bill for most of their own yearly healthcare in addition to the premiums that such a law would force them to pay. If such consumers found themselves truly needing extensive coverage--if they get hit by a car or contract a serious illness--they may find out that their cut-rate plan will leave them in terrible financial trouble. (About half of all bankruptcies sustained in the United States today are the result of medical expenses incurred by people who had health insurance they thought they could trust). Middle class consumers will not be able to choose the doctors they most trust but will be forced to decide among the doctors whose services are covered by the plan they can afford.
The sad joke is that plans like this are being marketed as ‘consumer driven.' Healthcare consumers (that is to say, everybody) please take note: any so-called ‘consumer-driven' health plan is really an anti-consumer hit and run. California State Senator Sheila Kuehl is offering a real alternative. Her bold legislative initiative would bring truly affordable healthcare to all.
SB 840 has already been passed by the California State Senate and the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It will likely be up for a floor vote by the Assembly later this week or next Monday. Ask your California friends to support this bill--and to contact their Assembly representatives to vote "yes' on SB 840. And urge your own state legislators to put forth similarly bold proposals.
Joe Lieberman is no longer officially a Democrat in Connecticut. Perhaps that's why so many Republicans are rushing to his side.
Karl Rove is calling for support, Dick Cheney is coordinating attack lines and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman is practically endorsing Joementum.
Major GOP fundraisers are kicking in cash to the "Connecticut for Lieberman" campaign. They include hawkish supporters of Israel and influential DC lobbyists. After the primary, one major GOP donor in California sent a fundraising email to 2,000 of his political allies.
And top operatives from the White House are behind a new group, Vets for Freedom, devoted to backing Lieberman's stay-the-course policy on Iraq. VFF is already making headlines as the successor to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Oddly enough, one of the advisors to VFF is former White House official Taylor Gross, who worked against Lieberman during the 2000 recount in Florida.
Lieberman has a long history of acting, in the words of the New Yorker, as "a punching bag and a cheerleader for the Bush White House."
Now, as David Sirota writes, he's Connecticut's de facto GOP nominee--the Zell Miller of this election cycle. It's only a matter of time before Lieberman starts ranting about spitballs and challenges Chris Matthews to a duel.
August 8 was a good day for America. It went under the radar, but the American Bar Association's 550-member House of Delegates – the policy-making body that represents 400,000 ABA members (and includes true conservatives) – voted that it "opposes, as contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers, the misuse of presidential signing statements by claiming the authority… to disregard or decline to enforce all or part of a law the president has signed, or to interpret such a law in a manner inconsistent with the clear intent of Congress."
The delegates endorsed the unanimous findings of a bipartisan task force which had decried George Bush's use of signing statements "as an unconstitutional power grab." Bush has issued more than 800 challenges (more than all previous presidents combined) to provisions of passed laws, including whistleblower protection, protection of federally funded research from political interference, and the ban on torture.
This is an important step forward by a bipartisan, establishment institution. It signals widespread support for reining in an Executive branch run amok that imperils our Republic. This administration has demeaned our democracy. It's high time to follow the lead of the ABA. Demand that every candidate for office this November commit to repairing the damage done to our system of checks and balances by the Bush administration.
Forest fires, droughts and floods are all likely to become more severe and more common if global warming continues to heat the planet at the rate most scientists predict, reports an article in today's Independent by science editor Steve Connor.
The article, detailing a new climate change study that was just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stressed the point that extreme weather is likely to become more frequent and more severe. Marko Scholze, a climate scientist at Bristol University, said the research showed that if the global average temperature rose by more than 3 degrees centigrade over the next 200 years, as widely predicted, there is a high risk of extreme instances of forest fires or floods. "We looked at these extreme events and what we found was that a once-in-a-hundred-year event can become a once-in-a-ten-year event by the end of the century," he said.
Combating global warming may require nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy and society. Fortunately, the next generation seems to be starting to recognize that halting global warming is imperative. Taking the lead are the young visionaries behind the Campus Climate Challenge. A project of more than thirty environmental and social justice groups in the US and Canada, the CCC runs clean energy drives on campuses nationwide as well as taking part in municipal and state-level advocacy and public education campaigns.
The Challenge has already signed up 284 colleges and universities around the idea of using renewal energy and innovative alternative technology on campus. Check out a nifty map that shows which schools are participating, and click here if you're a student and you want to start your own campaign. Everyone can join the Stop Global Warming Virtual March. Finally, if you want to know what's on the minds of young people who care about the environment, check out these dispatches from the global youth climate movement. They offer a terrific rebuke to anyone who decries the students of today as apathetic.
Primary elections are not usually very exciting. A few political insiders pay close attention, a few party activists go to the polls and the news media give them a day's worth of coverage before moving on to bigger and better stories. But Connecticut's Democratic Party Senate primary was very different. Senator Joe Lieberman's defeat was a national event, with pundits, candidates and voters across the country speculating for weeks on what it means for November and beyond.
Was this election a referendum on the war in Iraq? Is this a shot across the bow of other incumbents who have put insufficient distance between themselves and the Bush administration? Yes, but maybe it was something more than that. By defeating Lieberman, Ned Lamont became just one of a handful of challengers to beat an incumbent in recent US history. That made this primary an unusual opportunity for voters to affect the outcome of both the election and, presumably, the resulting policies.
In our grossly uncompetitive election system in which nearly 60 percent of Senate seats and over 80 percent of House seats are won by landslide margins of 20 percentage points or more, it's not surprising that voters jumped at the chance to make a difference. (And they did: Lieberman was only the fourth incumbent senator since 1980 to lose a party primary.) And when the average margins of victory are 21 percentage points in Senate races and a whopping 40 points in House races, is it not surprising that Connecticut was where media from other states turned their attention.
After all, as New York Times columnist Peter Applebome put it, this is a nation in which "rigged redistricting has made genuinely competitive Congressional elections as rare as blowouts by the Knicks." Consider that in the House, more than 98 percent of incumbents have been reelected in each election since 1998. In the Senate, the average incumbent reelection rate for those four elections is 89 percent. Indeed, 2004 may have been the least competitive year ever, with only five incumbent loses in the House and one in the Senate. (And, needless to say, this isn't because the electorate is so pleased with the job its legislators are doing!)
For sure, Lamont's win is a real victory for progressives. But it's also a victory for democracy. That's why I keep thinking that the fact that a single incumbent being ousted is cause for this level of attention and excitement reflects the sad reality that most Americans accept and expect entrenched incumbency from elected officials.
It's not that Americans don't enjoy cheering for the underdog. They do. More relevant, perhaps, Americans quickly lose interest in a blowout--leading to apathy and declining voter engagement. But last week, something all too rare and exciting happened. As the Times' Applebome observed, democracy broke out in the State of Connecticut. Here's hoping this is just the beginning.
At the beginning of what is shaping up as America's summer of discontent, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" for a discussion about his opposition to the war in Iraq and the prospect that he might seek the presidency in 2008 as the candidate of Democrats who want their party to propose a dramatic departure from Bush administration foreign and domestic policies.
The program's host, Tim Russert, asked Feingold: "When will you decide whether you're running?"
"I'm going to look at this, Tim, after the elections in 2006," replied the maverick senator from Wisconsin. "I need to look at what happens in the congressional races -- how are the ideas I've been presenting resonating with the American people -- and decide whether this is something that makes sense or whether it's better for me to remain in the United States Senate."
On August 8, months before the point in November when all the 2006 results will be known, Feingold has gotten a strong and positive signal about how the ideas he's been presenting are resonating.
Anti-war challenger Ned Lamont's Connecticut Democratic primary win over pro-war incumbent U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman Tuesday was a clear victory for the activist wing of the Democratic Party that -- if liberal Internet blogs are to be believed -- sees Feingold as perhaps its most attractive contender for the party's presidential nomination in 2008.
On the morning after the Connecticut results came in, Feingold notes, a former staffer told him, "Hey, if you were looking for an excuse to not run for president, Russ, you didn't get it last night."
Feingold, whose Progressive Patriots Fund political action committee dispatched a check for $5000 to the Lamont campaign on Wednesday, describes the primary win by the anti-war challenger as "an affirmation of something much larger than Joe Lieberman or Ned Lamont."
The message to Democratic leaders who are still uncertain about whether to aggressively oppose the war, said Feingold, was beyond debate: "You are simply not listening if you don't know that the American people have had it with this mistake and want it to end."
Feingold's not just jumping on the Lamont bandwagon.
The Wisconsin Democrat was the first member of the party's Senate caucus to speak favorably about the primary challenge by anti-war businessman Lamont to Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who has been the party's most high-profile supporter of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration foreign policies that Feingold has so vehemently opposed.
Back in June, when he spoke to Russert, Feingold pointedly refused to endorse Lieberman for re-election, splitting with most other Senate Democrats and most of the party's Washington establishment. While he did not endorse officially endorse the challenger, the Wisconsin senator said, "I think Ned Lamont's positions on the issues are much closer to mine on the critical issues."
Now that Lamont has defeated Lieberman, Feingold has an indication that his ideas are resonating with Democratic voters -- and candidates.
In fact, Lamont cites Feingold as an inspiration and says he would side with the senator on many matters, including a controversial move to censure President Bush for authorizing the controversial warrantless wiretapping program from which most Democratic senators have distanced themselves.
For his part, Feingold says that Lieberman's "extreme support of this ... obviously mistaken (Iraq war) policy that has hurt so many Americans has put him in political jeopardy."
The Wisconsinite also argues that the Lamont victory sends a signal that Democrats can oppose the war and still be seen as friends and supporters of the troops, a theme Lamont echoed in his victory speech Tuesday night when he said: "We have 132,000 of our bravest troops stuck in a bloody civil war in Iraq and I say its time to bring them home to a hero's welcome."
It is not difficult to imagine Feingold borrowing that line from Lamont as he heads out on the presidential campaign trail, just as the Connecticut candidate borrowed themes from the Wisconsin senator. The Connecticut results are only a piece of the puzzle for Feingold, who has taken steps to build the organization needed to mount a presidential run and has traveled frequently to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early caucus and primary states in recent months.
But it's a significant piece. Lamont's win appears to indicate that the Wisconsin senator's unapologetic progressive positions -- a "Bring the Troops Home" stance on the war, strong support for civil liberties at home, opposition to Bush administration trade and economic policies -- have far more appeal among grass-roots Democrats than they do with the party's Washington elites.
Feingold has long complained that congressional Democrats who fail to support calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq are out of touch not just with their own party but with the country.
"Those who vote against bringing the troops home don't get it. They're not out there enough. They're not listening to the people. Frankly, they're not even looking at the polls," says the senator.
"I have been all over Wisconsin, all 72 counties, to 12 different states. I can tell you, the one thing I'm sure of [is that] the American people have had it with this intervention. They do want a timetable for bringing home the troops."
That message would likely be at the heart of a Feingold presidential campaign, along with the senator's suggestion that Democrats need to be bolder in their opposition to Republican policies.
"We lost in 2000, we lost in 2002, we lost in 2004," says Feingold. "Why don't we try something different, like listening to the American people?"
Connecticut voters echoed that theme on Tuesday. But in so doing, they may have complicated things for Feingold. The one thing that could trip up the Wisconsin senator's leap onto the national stage could be the fact that a number of other Democratic presidential prospects also seem to be getting the message from Connecticut.
Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who frustrated many Democrats with his tepid stance on the war as the party's 2004 presidential nominee, this year co-sponsored Feingold's call for a withdrawal timeline. Though Kerry and Feingold are working together on the Senate floor, there is a strong sense among political observers that the Massachusetts senator is trying to occupy the political high ground that Feingold previously had pretty much had to himself.
Former North Carolina U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee and an all-but-announced 2008 contender, has publicly apologized for voting in 2002 to authorize Bush to attack Iraq. Edwards as well, has been taking Feingold-like stands on a host of issues. This coming week, he will campaign in Connecticut with Lamont.
Even New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner in 2008, has begun to back off her pro-war position, which until recently was only slightly less strident than Lieberman's.
Clinton did not vote for the June Senate resolution that Feingold and Kerry proposed to establish a withdrawal timeline, but she did back a milder resolution sponsored by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin and Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed that prodded the Bush administration to begin taking steps to draw down the troop presence in Iraq.
Last week, as the Connecticut primary approached, Clinton engaged in uncharacteristically aggressive questioning of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a Senate hearing.
Though she and most other top Democrats backed Lieberman in the primary, Clinton distanced herself from the incumbent in July after he announced that if he lost the Democratic nomination he would campaign in November as an independent.
Clinton said she would back the winner of the primary, in a move that effectively shut down talk that Washington Democrats might stick with Lieberman even if he was rejected by the Democratic voters of Connecticut. On the Wednesday after the primary, she made good on her pledge by warmly endorsing Lamont, as did most other Democratic party leaders.
Like many of her other recent moves, Clinton's declaration of party loyalty was an indication that she and other Washington Democrats are increasingly aware -- and perhaps even respectful -- of the anti-war ferment at the party's grassroots. With an anti-war Democratic primary challenger of her own, labor activist Jonathan Tasini, Clinton does not want to end up in Lieberman's position. Nor does she want to cede too much political ground to Feingold.
After all, while Clinton is the clear leader in most early polls, a New Republic cover of some months ago pictured the New York senator as a sword-swinging Goliath. Feingold was also pictured ... as slingshot-wielding David.
Now that Connecticut Democrats have rejected a Democratic senator who backed the war in much the same language that Clinton has, the anti-war David of the Democratic Party is surely standing a little taller -- and feeling a little more confident as he considers a presidential run.