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The State of Healthcare

According to the Bush administration, the new health care plan that the President unveiled in the State of the Union address Tuesday would cover three million people who are currently uninsured. Three million – out of forty-seven million. After years of dangerous inaction, this is what Bush rolls out to address a grave and growing crisis!

And, of course, no Bush domestic proposal would be complete without a further gutting of the social compact – this time, "cutting Medicaid payments to public hospitals and other ‘safety net' providers by $3.9 billion over the next five years." As Deborah Bachrach, a deputy commissioner in the New York State Health Department, told the New York Times, this cut would impact hospitals "that serve some of the lowest-income, most vulnerable patients." This at a time when many such facilities are already struggling to survive.

The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy survive untouched – in fact, they receive a new deduction if they purchase their own plans. However, the continuing War on the Middle Class is being…well, escalated. Workers who, according to the President, "choose overly expensive, gold-plated plans" through their employers will be taxed, while those who buy plans on their own will receive a deduction. As Columnist Paul Krugman suggested in a Times op-ed, who in our nation has one of those gold-plated plans? Krugman goes on to write, "The uninsured don't need an ‘incentive' to buy insurance; they need something that makes getting insurance possible…. Mr. Bush…is still peddling the fantasy that the free market, with a little help from tax cuts, solves all problems."

"The President's so-called health care proposal won't help the uninsured, most of whom have limited incomes and are already in low tax brackets," said Democratic Representative Pete Stark, Chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. "But it will hurt middle-income Americans, whose employers will shift even more cost and risk to their employees."

And as Gerald Shea, assistant to the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O, told The Times, "It would throw into turmoil the employment-based system of health insurance, and it would impose a new tax on the middle class."

Most experimentation (both good, not-so-good, and bad) with health care policy is happening at the state level. The often-touted Massachusetts plan – in the words of Doctors Steffi Woolhandler and David Himmelstein of Cambridge Hospital and Harvard Medical School – "offers empty promises and ignores real – and popular – solutions." By requiring every resident of the state to have health insurance or pay a fine while doing nothing to control costs of insurance and care, or setting standards for coverage – Big Insurance wins, and consumers lose. And the middle-class which doesn't qualify for subsidies but can't afford insurance is further squeezed.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a similar plan. Again, the plan mandates coverage but, according to State Senator Sheila James Kuehl, "it doesn't ensure that coverage will be comprehensive and affordable…. [it will] at best provide high-cost, low benefits plans for many Californians; it limits what employers pay but not what individuals must pay or what insurance companies can charge."

Although Schwarzenegger has won praise for a "bipartisan approach," in fact both his plan and that of Massachusetts Governor Milt Romney move in a direction Romney's staff calls "a culture of insurance" and "personal responsibility."

State Sen. Kuehl herself has a plan for universal coverage that I previously reported on here. Her proposal – SB 840 – would offer all Californians comprehensive care and the right for a patient to choose his or her doctor. It would replace insurance companies with a statewide trust fund that collects premiums paid by employers and individuals. The creation of a single fund reduces administration costs from nearly 30 percent of total health care costs to under 10 percent. With 80 percent of Californians wanting a government guarantee of affordable health care coverage, one hopes state legislators will take another look at the Kuehl plan.

The Washington Post reports that Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell has proposed a tax – on tobacco and businesses not offering health care coverage – in order to create state-subsidized private insurance for its 767,000 uninsured people. Vermont, Illinois, and Maine have all enacted legislation to expand coverage of uninsured residents as well, and at least eleven other states are "considering" doing the same.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, any real action to improve this unacceptable situation – worse than any other industrialized nation in the world – will have to overcome a lot of naysayers (not to mention powerful lobbying interests with their campaign dollars). Consider these statements from three representatives to The Washington Post:

"The truth of the matter is that dealing with this problem between now and the election is not realistic," said Senator George Voinovich.

"Congress is not going to act in a major way to deal with this access problem in the next couple of years," said Senator Jeff Bingaman. "That's the unfortunate reality that we're facing."

"If we tried to adopt a universal health-care plan on the federal level, we probably wouldn't have the votes," said Representative Frank Pallone Jr.

Nothing like negative, self-fulfilling prophecies to justify do-nothing proposals from our elected leaders.

The fact is there are 78 co-sponsors of HR 676 – the United States National Health Insurance Act introduced by Representatives John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich. There are 225 labor organizations supporting it as well. It would expand Medicare to every resident through savings from negotiated bulk procurement of medications; a tax on the top 5 percent of income earners; and a phased-in payroll tax that is lower than what employers currently pay for less comprehensive employee health coverage.

"There are only two real choices in the present healthcare debate… commercially-based models which reinforce the insurance industry and fail to provide genuine universal and comprehensive care, and HR 676, a patient-based model which caregivers know is the most effective, humane approach," said Deborah Burger, president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

"Solutions to the health care crisis based on increasing our reliance on private health insurance companies are bound to fail," said Dr. Oliver Fein, director of Physicians for a National Health Program. "Insurance companies limit patients' choice of doctor and hospital, and take money out of patient care and put it into marketing, bill collectors and claims deniers. We need a National Health Insurance program."

At a time when our nation is spending $8.4 billion per month in Iraq it is clear that the resources are available where there is political will. Just as the President proposes that we continue to follow his course of folly in Iraq, so too will he ask us to stay a course which causes the number of uninsured to grow year after year, and makes access to comprehensive health care a privilege for the fortunate who can afford it.

Tonight, when President Bush offers his flawed prescription for improving the state of health care, respond by signing on to the only real solution: universal health care now.

State of the What?

State of the what? Let's see, 28%, 31%, 33%, 35%. That pretty much sums up the State of the President -- or, at least, of his ever more dismal approval ratings in four of the latest major polls (and don't even mention his state of approval in similar nose-diving polls abroad). Only two Presidents, on the eve of a State of the Union Address have ever scored lower--and one was Richard Nixon at 26%, seven months before he resigned his Presidency. (The other was Truman at 23% and mired in the Korean War.) Unbelievably enough, those aren't even the worst figures around for this administration. Try 26%, 29%, 29%, 30%; that's about how many Americans now think any presidential State of Iraq plan or strategy makes the slightest sense according to polls by Newsweek, CBS, the Washington Post/ABC News, and NBC/the Wall Street Journal. A little lower and you're in the polling basement, the sort of place not normally accessible even to a bunker-busting President.

Basically, if the networks didn't cut off all prime-time programming for the State of the Union Address, I suspect that the percentage of Americans bothering to listen to George W. Bush's words might prove infinitesimal. After all, as the latest polls all essentially indicate, but Mark Murray wrote of the NBC/WSJ poll, "Nearly two-thirds of Americans appear to have given up on success in Iraq and also on [George Bush's] presidency."

In fact, we would undoubtedly do better to stop listening to any of the official words of this administration, since they bear next to no relationship to administration acts. This State of the Union Address, which will be analyzed to death in the press and on TV, matters not a whit. Never has an administration reached for its dictionaries faster or more often to redefine reality to fit its needs. Seldom has the media spent more time parsing (and then generally passing on) words that were meant to do little but promote fantasies, escape responsibility, and confuse the public. It's the acts -- all aggrandizing, all aimed at promoting the unfettered power of a President and Vice President who never learned the word "enough"--that matter and, wherever you look, they couldn't be grimmer in our tattered, battered union.

If you want to read more about just one of the key issues that won't be addressed tonight, turn to former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega's latest piece, "Lying and Spying," on how this administration has slipped and slid away from responsibility for its illegal National Security Agency surveillance program. Click here and scroll down.

State of the Union: Disapproval of Bush

President Bush will use tonight's State of the Union address to make what White House Press Secretary Tony Snow refers to as "bold proposals" designed to appeal to Democrats.

In one of the more remarkable admissions ever by a presidential spokesman regarding the surreal nature of the administration in which he serves, Snow suggested that Bush's speech would be a departure from past State of the Union remarks in that it would "reflect a little bit of the political reality.''

Reality is good. And it makes sense for Bush to reach out to Democrats as, for the first time since he assumed the presidency in 2001, the Republican chief executive will be addressing a Congress that is completely controlled by members of the opposition party. But Bush's ridiculously doctrinaire proposals to send more US troops into the Iraq quagmire, undermine the health benefits of unionized workers and renew his exceptionally unpopular and ineffectual No Child Left Behind education initiative are unlikely to resonate with even the most conservative Democrats.

In fact, the key player in Congress on health care issues, Congressman Pete Stark, the California Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee's health subcommittee, has said that Bush's proposal to tax existing health benefits is so ludicrous that it is unlikely to be seriously considered by Congress. "The president's so-called health care proposal won't help the uninsured, most of whom have limited incomes and are already in low tax brackets," explains Stark. "But it will hurt middle-income Americans, whose employers will shift even more cost and risk to their employees.''

Even more significantly, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, Louisiana Congressman Jim McCrery, says he's hearing complaints from conservative members of his caucus who object to Bush's health plan not because it will undermine existing benefits but because it represents a tax increase.

Bush should take the report from McCrery seriously.

Instead of pitching his remarks to Democrats, who would be fools to sign on with the sinking-ship presidency of the one of the most unpopular presidents in American political history, Bush ought to be worrying about keeping his fellow Republicans on board.

This is no small matter for the President.

It is no secret that Bush delivers this State of the Union address not as the bold warrior president of 2003 and 2004 but as the lamest of lame ducks. A new CBS News poll has the President's approval rating at a career low of 28 percent. That's 14 points below where he was at before he delivered his State of the Union speech a year ago. The President appears to be in a freefall. In November, he had a 34 percent approval rating. In December, it was 31 percent. In early January, it was 30 percent. Now, for the first time, it's in the twenties. And, historically, State of the Union addresses chip a half point or more off an incumbent president's approval rating--after last year's address, Bush went down two points.

What is most striking in the poll numbers is not the top line, however. It is the breakouts by party identification. A staggering 90 percent of self-identified Democrats disapprove of Bush's presidency, while 64 percent of independents place themselves in that column. They are joined by 29 percent of Republicans.

The CBS numbers are the the worst for Bush in the latest round of surveys. Newsweek has him at a 31 percent overal approval rating. ABC News has him at 33 percent.

But the dramatic levels of Republican disapproval are consistent throughout the polls, with surveys showing that between one-quarter and one-third of the President's partisans have turned against him.

That turn is reflected in Congress, where the administration faces a Republican revolt on Iraq not just by longtime critics of the war such as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel but from Virginia Senator John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Armed Servives Committee. Another one-time Bush supporter, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, is leading a push in the House to tell the president that the administration cannot move against Iran without Congressional approval. Bush's remarks tonight are unlikely to bring Republicans who have left his camp back under the big tent, and he runs the very real risk of causing more GOP members of the Senate and House -- particularly those facing difficult reelection races in 2008--to sign on for anti-surge resolutions like the one Warner is promoting.

On the domestic front, fiscal conservatives who have long grumbled about the president's spending policies are unlikely to be satisfied by an expected State of the Union address promise to balance the budget by 2O12--three years after Bush leaves the White House. In combination with the likely rejection of his health-case related tax hikes, Bush's cavalier approach to budget matters runs the risk of turning true conservatives against him.

That's the most serious threat to the president tonight.

There is no way Bush is going to win over Democrats with the sort of State of the Union address that seems to be in the offering.

But it is a real possibility that he will turn even more Republicans into critics of the administration.

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Ending Folly in Iraq

A recent CBS News poll reveals that over 70 percent of Americans believe President Bush should obtain congressional authorization before escalating the war in Iraq. And a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that the public trusts congressional Democrats over Bush to handle Iraq by nearly a two-to-one margin, and that 59 percent of Americans – including over 25 percent of Republicans – want Congress to block the President's escalation plan.

All of this begs the question: what is Congress going to do about it?

According to the New York Times, White House officials are "far more concerned about threats from Congressional Democrats to take aim at spending on the president's new plan" than any non-binding, bipartisan resolution opposing escalation.

Nevertheless, there are some Democrats – like Senator Joseph Biden, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – who have deluded themselves into thinking that words alone will stop Bush from pursuing his disastrous war.

"The single most important thing to do is generate a consensus here in the United States Congress," Biden told The Washington Post. "I cannot believe that the president of the United States would not pay heed to a bipartisan resolution."

Majority Leader Harry Reid echoed his colleague's sentiments, telling The Times: "The president's plan will receive an up-or-down vote…. With that vote, our hope, really our prayer, is that the president will finally listen: listen to the generals, listen to the Iraq Study Group, listen to the American people and listen to a bipartisan Congress."

With all due respect to both Senators, what President have they been watching for the past six years?

Which isn't to suggest that there is no value in the non-binding resolutions that will be offered shortly after the State of the Union address tomorrow (the Senate is expected to take up such resolutions on Wednesday). The resolutions represent an opportunity to show a groundswell of opposition and also to recruit Republicans into taking a stronger position against the war – most notably thus far are resolution co-sponsors, Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine. (A former Bush aide who is still close to the White House said that if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate "a delegation of [conservative] Senators could one day show up in the Oval Office to tell Bush that the party is no longer with him and the war must end – much like Senator William Fulbright forcefully urging President Lyndon Johnson to bring the Vietnam War to a close.")

But passage of even a strongly worded resolution is no sure thing. According to The Times, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson – Hagel's Nebraskan counterpart – is working with Republican Senators John Warner and Susan Collins on a resolution which wouldn't "flatly oppose" the President's escalation. And the prospect of a filibuster led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also looms – although as Hagel said , "I don't believe there was one Republican senator who came forward with any kind of enthusiasm or any kind of strong support of the president's plan."

Even if a resolution does pass, if Congress then stands pat it would be a disaster in a nation where the people have so clearly expressed opposition to this war. (Even Chris Wallace of Fox News pointed out to Dick Cheney that the will of the people was demonstrated in an election – not a poll). Representative Barbara Lee – Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – said the resolutions are "a first step. [Our] bill will allow members of Congress to move forward and sign onto the second step." Lee, and Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters' Bring Our Troops Home and Sovereignty of Iraq Restoration Act calls for a six-month withdrawal and limits funding toward that end (as well as the training and equipping Iraqi and international security forces).

Representative Jerrold Nadler has also offered the Protect the Troops and Bring Them Home Act. The bill provides that no funds can be used in Iraq except to protect our troops and to arrange for their withdrawal beginning in one month and ending by December 31, 2007. Nadler's legislation would also allow funding to assist Iraqi security forces, support reconstruction, and further diplomatic consultations.

In a statement the other day, Nadler said: "It has been wrongly asserted that Congress cannot force the President to de-escalate or withdraw from Iraq because it cannot use its only real power – cutting off funds – lest it be accused of ‘abandoning the troops.' But if Congress appropriates funds, but limits those funds to protecting the troops and redeploying them from Iraq, that would be the best way of supporting the troops."

Representative James McGovern made that very point in 2005 with the End the War in Iraq Act. His bill would limit funding to protecting the troops for a safe and orderly withdrawal; supporting reconstruction and diplomatic efforts; and equipping Iraqi security forces and an international stabilization force.

Presidential candidate, Representative Dennis Kucinich, has also introduced a plan to use funds to end the occupation, withdraw all troops and close all military bases in Iraq, and build an international peacekeeping force.

The key to all of these proposals which would use the power of the purse, Nadler says, is "undercutting the political demagogic attack that it somehow means we are not supporting the troops."

One might expect to hear such attacks from the Bush administration or its dwindling supporters but it was most clearly expressed last week on the eve of her entry into the Presidential race – by Senator Hillary Clinton. Back from Iraq and Afghanistan, she has said in interview after interview that she will not cut funding because "our troops are in harms way."

I would ask the Senator to please point to any legislation that would cut funding for troops in harms way. As a Democratic strategist recently wrote, "This is nothing more than a slur, an echo of the politically dishonest rhetoric of the administration."

In fact, on Meet the Press, Senator Edward Kennedy said of the undercutting the troops myth: "… it's been so abused, the statements about what – what would happen. We would have an orderly departure. We would set a time and have an orderly departure. We would make sure that our troops had the armor and had the bullets, not like the administration has when we went in, when we didn't have the armor, we didn't have the bullets, we didn't have the up-armored humvees."

Clinton appears to be pursuing that old-time triangulation strategy at a moment when bold leadership is desperately needed: denouncing escalation and calling for a cap on the number of troops (appeal to the party base); opposing a date for withdrawal or using the power of the purse (appeal to "centrists"); and calling for an increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan (promote an image of being strong on defense).

Others in the Senate will more aggressively seek an end to the war. Kennedy's legislation would block funding of any troop increase without an explicit congressional authorization. (This is the approach favored by Representative John Murtha as well). Kennedy described his legislation: "It says that the president should come to the Congress and be able to demonstrate… that we need the increased troops, the increased resources with a new authorization…. Otherwise we have a cap in the number of troops that are there, and we don't have the resources to send additional troops there."

Senator Russ Feingold has also consistently opposed the war and urged using the power of the purse for an immediate withdrawal. After hearings in these next few weeks, he plans to introduce legislation to do just that – as he did in the last session of Congress.

Looming over all of this action (and inaction) is the 2008 presidential campaign. Former Senator John Edwards has called on Congress to use the power of the purse to stop escalation, saying that anything less would be a "betrayal"; Senator Christopher Dodd would cap the number of troops but so far has avoided the funding issue; Senator Barack Obama – who has opposed the war from the outset and is expected to introduce legislation this week – said in a released statement, "I not only favor capping the number U.S. troops in Iraq, but believe it's imperative that we begin the phased redeployment I called for two months ago, and intend to introduce legislation that does just that."

And in the House, according to the Washington Post, there is a growing conflict between "antiwar stalwarts such as Murtha" who want to use the power of the purse, and some senior Democrats like Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who advocate a "go-slow" approach.

On January 27-29, labor, veterans, students, and peace groups from across the nation will mobilize in DC in order to increase grassroots pressure on our representatives to use their power to end the war – a war that is not winnable militarily, is looting our treasury, and is sending our servicemen and women into the crossfire of a civil war.

Meanwhile, these same representatives are hearing from their strategists, "For the sake of staying in power, you must not exercise the power you have in the matter of war."

That is folly. And after four years of folly in Iraq, it is time to put an end to it.

A version of this post appeared on The Guardian's Comment is Free blog.

Iraqi Millstone Round Bush's Neck

Coming into his sixth State of the Union address, Bush is politically weaker than ever before, and the cause is clear: Iraq.

The most recent WaPo-ABC poll found that 51% of Americans disapprove strongly of Bush's performance, and a further 14% disapprove somewhat, while only 33% express any level of approval at all. 48% said the Iraq war is the single most important issue they want Bush and the Congress to deal with this year.

And the recent news from Iraq is not good. Saturday was one of the killingest days for US service members in Iraq. Today (Monday), 88 Iraqis were ripped to death in a double car-bomb blast in a Baghdad market. On Monday, too, the US military worked hard to produce some "good news" for the Prez by issuing a report that they'd killed 93 Qaeda-related rebels in a 10-day operation in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. (On the other hand, how many Qaeda-related rebels were there in all of Iraq, before Bush launched his ill-fated invasion of the country in 2003? Considerably fewer than 93, for sure.)

But possibly the worst recent Iraq news for the Prez came from the Shiite holy city of Karbala where on Saturday, some very bold and well-organized anti-US insurgents wearing what looked like US uniforms drove a sizeable convoy of SUVs right into a joint US-Iraqi base, and hunted down the US service members there, killing five and wounding three, before the whole convoy roared right out into the sunset again, unimpeded.

The base in question was a "Provincial Joint Coordination Center" (PJCC), where US troops were co-deployed alongside colleagues from the Iraqi "security forces." Very evidently, what happened there Saturday was a massive breach of security... And the fact the assailants were able to drive their multiple vehicles out of the compound after the attack without incident indicates-- perhaps even more strongly than the fact that they were able to get into it so easily-- that they likely had a number of confederates among the Iraqi security personnel working there.

Which presumably was a major reason why the US authorities in Baghdad did not want to divulge the details of the attack too widely. (Their brief press statement about the incident is here.)

Bush's new "surge" plan for Greater Baghdad-- and the whole of the US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq-- depends crucially on effecting a large increase in the numbers of US soldiers co-deployed with members of the "Iraqi security forces."

But the news from Karbala-- which is only the latest, though perhaps the most serious, incident in which Iraqis co-deployed with Americans have apparently given aid to anti-US attackers-- is likely to make the US commanders in Baghdad, Qatar, and Washington more wary than ever about such co-deployments. "Force protection", that is, the protection of the lives and wellbeing of their own soldiers, has been the overwhelming mission of the US deployment in Iraq all along, and has been pursued even at the cost of risking the lives of much greater numbers of Iraqi soldiers or civilians.

Given the US public's strong concern about US casualties, this emphasis on force protection is, perhaps, politically understandable. In announcing the most recent "surge", Bush has tried to signal that the US public might need to accept that there could be some increased US casualties during its early phases-- but he "promised" us, as well, that these would not last for long...

But all in all, for the Bushites, it's an extremely inopportune time for detailed news about an attack like the one in Karbala to get out and be disseminated to a wide US readership.

And yet, they proved unable to suppress the news. (As is clear from thre WaPo account linked to above, and also from here, this was primarily because the Karbala provincial governor was unwilling to participate in their attempts at a cover-up.)

Which is an indication of the Bushites' large and continuing political problems in Iraq, as well.

Meanwhile, US citizens who are concerned about both the wellbeing of the now long-battered people of Iraq and the lives and safety of the US service members deployed there should be asking the Bush administration's people some very pointed questions about the real prospects their "surge" plan has for de-escalating tensions in Iraq and paving the way for a US troops withdrawal that is speedy, orderly, and total...

In my clear judgment-- and based on all the evidence to date, including the above-- it has none.

Election Starting Way Too Early

Barack Obama -- born in 1961, therefore, by many calculations, a Baby Boomer -- is positioning himself -- with the help of pundits like John Broder of the New York Times, as the Generation X candidate, claiming that Americans are tired of the Boomer generation and want a "different kind of politics."

What's that about? Anti-Baby Boom rhetoric is so 1992 (and we elected a Baby Boomer that year anyway). Obama acknowledges that the actual problems that worried the 1960s generation -- racism, war, poverty -- haven't gone away. He's vague on what sort of agenda he would pursue as a post-Boomer politician. That's not surprising since Generation X -- my generation, though perhaps not Obama's -- doesn't have any political opinions to speak of. Which renders Barack's critique, essentially, one of style. So we're supposed to be impressed that he's into web-streaming video?

You can't really blame Barack for talking nonsense. He's running for President.And that's why I'm sick of him already. And Hillary. And all the rest of these bozos and their "Exploratory Committees." Right now, these folks are exactly as significant to me as Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. That is to say, I'm not going to stop myself from reading about them, but I recognize that doing so is a rather foolish distraction from the rest of life.

Like the holiday season, the presidential election season is not without its amusements but begins much too early. The endless horse-racing by pundits and press is already starting, and I feel my stomach turning, not just at the tedium of it, but at the dizzying pace at which it forecloses political possibilities, and even conversation of any substance. Can't we have a little time for real politics before we're civically obliged to attend to this drone-fest of nothingness? A few months to talk about issues and ideas before the white noise about "name recognition" and "fund-raising capacity" and "poll numbers" begins?

Mostly, this election madness is a media creation. But even progressives are already obsessing over 2008, even in casual conversation. Can't we focus instead on building the anti-war movement, which is planning a potentially huge march in D.C. this weekend? And pressuring the Democratic Congress to do just a few sensible, widely popular things: stop Bush's escalation in Iraq, pass real global warming legislation and refrain from starting a war with Iran? And on the state level, lots of newly elected governors are making exciting promises -- Eliot Spitzer in New York, for instance, promises universal pre-K -- shouldn't we work to make sure they deliver? And the important daily work of local politics, like passing living wage laws so that more working people can live on their earnings without the help of soup kitchens? Out of these smaller battles, larger movements grow. Out of such movements, politics can emerge in which elections are about something; without such politics, electoral discourse is as weighty as Page Six, and that's where we are right now.

I do, of course, want to wrest the White House from the Republicans. I'm as eager as anyone else to end the horror of the last six years. I understand why Democrats are desperate for more exciting candidates, and for victory. But I don't think that feeding the machine too early is going to help.

Reason for Modest Hope

Shouldn't we pause to take note of the rare convergence that has unfolded in the Democrats' "early bird" contest for president? At this moment, the two hot candidates staring down each other--maybe glaring enviously--are a woman and an African-American. With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as frontrunners, America has never been here before. To sharpen the point, throw in Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor who also announced last weekend, as the first Mexican-American to make a serious run for the White House.

I don't want to over-analyze the meaning, but surely it says something promising--even audacious--about the possible state of the union. The coming political season at least offers extreme novelty. Race and gender are both going to be on the ballot in nominating primaries, if only as the subtext, and neither is automatically assumed to be a fatal burden. Intolerance has not exactly disappeared from American life, but this allows us to imagine that another barrier to power--an obstacle deeply grounded in prejudice--might be ripe for obsolescence.

Many young people probably regard this as obvious and unremarkable. Those of us who have reached a certain age reflect in awe at the strange patterns that lead eventually to historic change.

The first presidential contest I saw up close as a young reporter turned on this question: Can the American republic survive with a Roman Catholic president? That was 1960 and I was working in a very Republican town where many voters saw John F. Kennedy as the agent of the pope. Local evangelical preachers told them so from the pulpit, Sunday after Sunday. But the Catholics in town--good Republicans too--were shocked by the open bigotry around them. They didn't talk about it much, but afterwards confided they had crossed party lines and cast a discreet vote for religious equality.

Sometimes, the early "stars" in Democratic contests lose their glow and voters gravitate to other candidates espousing other issues. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have numerous assets and handicaps in addition to their glamour, race and gender. So if they do lose, it won't necessarily mean intolerance has triumphed again. If Democrats wind up choosing another white guy--who knows--this too might be a sign of maturity.

Protesting the War

On Saturday, January 27 there will be a major mobilization in Washington, DC against the war in Iraq organized by United for Peace and Justice. The idea is to show Congress that America wants a peace surge, not a troop surge, and to push legislators to listen to the voters, not Bush, and bring the war to a close. The weekend's activities will include an interfaith peace service and a Congressional Education Day on Monday, January 29th. Click here for info on transportation and here for info on housing, and help spread the word by posting flyers, downloading web buttons and sharing videos.

And if you're a student organizer (or the parent or friend of one!) you should know that our friends and partners at Campus Progress are making every effort to ensure that all students are able to make their voices heard by offering travel grants of up to $300 for students organizing carpool or van trips to the capital. Click here for info on how to apply

Along these lines, the Revolting Students of Wisconsin are offering radically reduced bus tickets to any Wisconsin student who wants to attend the march. There's also still time make a donation to Adopt-A-Student to make it possible for a student to go who couldn't otherwise afford it.

So go to DC on January 27 if you can, and watch this space for more ideas coming up on how to help get us out of Iraq.

Thinking Vietnam, Fighting in Iraq

It's been a repetitive phenomenon of these last years--when fears about disaster (or further disaster, or even the farthest reaches of disaster) in Iraq rise, so does the specter of Vietnam. Despite the obvious dissimilarities between the two situations, Vietnam has been the shadow war we're still fighting. The Bush administration began its 2003 invasion by planning a non-Vietnam War scenario right down to not having "body counts," those grim, ridiculed death chants of that long-past era. His administration, as the President put it before the November mid-term elections, wasn't going to be a "body-count team." But the Vietnam experience has proven nothing short of irresistible in a crisis. Within the last month, after Bush himself bemoaned the lack of a body count in the vicinity, the body count slipped back into the news as a way to measure success in Iraq.

And that was only the beginning. With the recent plummeting of presidential approval ratings and the dismal polling reactions to Bush's "new way forward" in Iraq, the Vietnam scenario is experiencing something like a renaissance. Sometimes, these days, it seems as if top administration officials are simply spending their time preparing mock-Vietnam material for Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. The recent "surge" plan, for instance, brought that essential Vietnam vocabulary word, "escalation," back into currency. (It was on Democratic lips all last week.) Even worse, the President's plan was the kind of "incremental escalation" that military commanders coming out of Vietnam had sworn would never, ever be used again.

In any case, when Republican Senator (and surge opponent) Chuck Hagel questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the E-word last week, she denied it was an appropriate moniker. Here's what she suggested instead. "I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad." (And, of course, Stewart promptly pounced…)

But that, too, was only the beginning. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, called the President's plan "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, just appointed senior military commander in Iraq in charge of the Baghdad "surge," turned out to have written a doctoral thesis, much publicized last week, entitled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era." ("Don't commit American troops, Mr. President unless… You have established clear-cut, attainable military objectives for American military forces… [and] you provide the military commander sufficient forces and the freedom necessary to accomplish his mission swiftly...")

Part of the plan Petraeus is evidently to put into effect involves an urban version of what Los Angeles Times reporter Julian E. Barnes labels "a spectacular failure" of the Vietnam War, the "strategic hamlet" program in which whole communities were to be sealed off from the "insurgents" of that era. For Baghdad, the military is now redubbing these -- with another obvious bow to Stewart's show -- "gated communities." ("'You do it neighborhood by neighborhood,' said the Defense official. 'Think of L.A. Let's say we take West Hollywood and gate it off. Or Anaheim. Or central Los Angeles. You control that area first and work out from there.'")

Fears that Iraq's collapse into civil war (or a U.S. withdrawal) might knock down other states in the region like so many ten pins, as former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski reminded us in a Washington Post op-ed, "Five Flaws in the President's Plan," brought another Vietnam classic back to the fold: "the (falling) domino theory." With the President's latest threats against Syria and Iran--"We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq…"--yet another oldie but goodie from that era has reappeared: "hot pursuit": As in pursuing the commies (or Islamo-fascists or Shiite renegades or al-Qaeda terrorists) across the Cambodian or Syrian or Iranian border. And speaking of Cambodia, Congress did at one point prohibit the use of funds to pursue war in that country, exercising its constitutionally guaranteed power of the purse, a thought that only in the last weeks has made it back from the critical wilderness into the mainstream as a respectable, debatable position for any politician.

But perhaps it's no more complicated than this: In a world in which self-determination and nationalism are bedrock values, once you've tried to occupy a country, whether under the banner of anti-Communism or anti-Islamo-fascism, whether claiming to be in support of the "Free World" or "freedom" itself, it may no longer matter which counterinsurgency tactics you use or strategies you adopt, or whether you count bodies or not. Once you've taken such a path -- as long as you don't make the decision to withdraw--you may always find yourself in that limited land of options that we like to call "Vietnam."