"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.
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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.
In 1966, barely two years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by the House and Senate, a handful of intrepid candidates challenged pro–Vietnam War Democratic incumbents in party primaries. The most prominent of their number, Ramparts magazine editor Robert Scheer, took on California US Representative Jeffrey Cohelan, an otherwise liberal Democrat who refused to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s warmaking in southeast Asia.
Scheer won 45 percent of the vote in that year’s Democratic primary and went on to a distinguished career in journalism. But he also did something else. His campaign planted the seeds for a 1970 challenge to Cohelan by Ron Dellums, who dispatched the incumbent and went on to serve almost three decades in the House. Dellums was not the only antiwar challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent that year. In New York, Bella Abzug upset seven-term incumbent Leonard Farbstein. In Massachusetts, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry and Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School, both prepared campaigns against hawkish Democrat Phil Philbin, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Kerry stepped back and Drinan went on to beat the twenty-six-year incumbent in a September, 1970, Democratic primary.
The war in Iraq is different from the war in Vietnam. But as in the late 1960s and 1970s, antiwar candidates have begun to prepare primary challenges to Democratic incumbents who supported the October 2002 “blank check” resolution authorizing George Bush to order a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The most serious so far is that of Ro Khanna, a 27-year-old San Francisco attorney with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Yale, who is taking on twelve-term incumbent Tom Lantos in a heavily Democratic Bay Area district.
Lantos has a reasonably solid liberal record on domestic issues, and he generally wins high ratings from the AFL-CIO and groups such as Americans for Democratic Action. But it’s a different story on foreign-policy matters. Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was one of the leading advocates in the House for the use-of-force resolution in 2002. He served as a pro-resolution floor manager and said it was his “privilege” to deliver eighty-one Democratic votes for the president. Last year, Lantos was a champion of the Bush Administration’s proposal to allocate another $87 billion to fund US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has, as well, been one of the House’s most consistent Democratic backers of the Patriot Act.
Khanna launched his challenge to Lantos in December, saying, “In March, Democrats in San Mateo County and San Francisco will have the opportunity to reject Bush’s flawed Iraq policy and his misguided war on our liberties, and to send someone to Congress who shares their own values.”
The question, then, was whether Khanna, a political newcomer, could mount a viable enough campaign against an entrenched incumbent to make the choice he promised a realistic option. Though Lantos remains the favorite going into Tuesday’s primary vote, Khanna has made a race of it. He has raised a respectable amount of money—close to $250,000 by mid-February—and attracted enough volunteers to run an energetic campaign that feels in the best sense like that of Howard Dean, whose presidential run Khanna supported.
The challenger was endorsed early on by the California Democratic Council, a coalition of grassroots Democratic groups across the state that had in the past backed Lantos. More recently, he has picked up strong support from two of San Francisco’s most prominent progressives, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a Democrat, and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a Green who last year came within a few percentage points of being elected that city’s mayor. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is another Khanna enthusiast. “I live in the 12th Congressional District in California. We’re a pretty sensible (you might call us liberal) bunch,” Lessig, the author of The Future of Ideas, wrote in a recent entry on his popular weblog. “Over 80 percent oppose the war. Almost 70 percent oppose the Patriot Act. Yet our Congressman—a wonderful and amazing figure, Tom Lantos—doesn’t vote the way his district thinks. He has supported the war. He has supported the Patriot Act. I haven’t done this before, and I’m not going to do this much again, but this gap between who we are and how we are represented has led me to help Congressman Lantos’ opponent—Ro Khanna. Ro’s a bright, young, committed Democrat, committed to representing the views of his district.”
Khanna also has the backing of the region’s influential alternative weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which said in an editorial, “We’ve been saying for years that Rep. Tom Lantos needs a good challenge, and a bright, Yale University-educated 27-year-old lawyer named Ro Khanna is finally giving him one. Khanna—who would be the first person of Indian descent elected to Congress since the 1950s—is campaigning primarily on the issues of the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act. Lantos supported both; polls show a strong majority of the voters in this western San Francisco and northern peninsula district oppose both.”
The high level of support for Khanna has got the political establishment scared. The challenger has started taking hits for being a corporate lawyer and for fueling his campaign with money from Indian-American entrepreneurs who are not always the most progressive players. For the most part, the attacks are standard political cheap shots. But they could take a toll on a candidate who is relatively new to the district and, despite an energetic campaign, not nearly so well-known as the incumbent.
That said, Khanna has posed enough of a threat to force Lantos to spend a substantial chunk of his $1.5 million campaign fund. The incumbent has, as well, begun to talk about problems with the Patriot Act.
After taking a good deal of criticism from local media for failing to accept Khanna’s debate challenges, Lantos faced off Friday against Khanna and a third candidate, Maad Abu-Ghazalah. During the debate, Khanna said, “We have a chance to do something absolutely extraordinary in this election: to hold a congressman responsible based on his voting record. Mr. Lantos has had a distinguished career in public service, but his votes for the war and the Patriot Act don’t represent the will of this district.”
The extent to which Khanna’s campaign actually ends up holding Lantos responsible will be decided by the voters on Tuesday. Win or lose, however, Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond says, “Khanna has done what you would hope a challenger would do. He has forced the incumbent to come home, to answer questions about his votes on issues like the war and the Patriot Act. This is exactly what primaries are for.”
Thursday night's wide-ranging and refreshingly substantive debate between the four remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination did little to slow the momentum of frontrunner John Kerry as the likely-to-be-definitional Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses approach. Kerry outmaneuvered his chief opponent on a key issue, and showed some skills that will likely serve him well in a November contest with Republican George W. Bush. But the Massachusetts senator made at least one statement – regarding presidential war making -- that ought to concern anyone who still thinks Congress should have a say on matters of war and peace.
Here are some highlights and lowlights from what is likely to be one of the last debates of the primary season:
KERRY TRUMPED JOHN EDWARDS ON THE TRADE ISSUE. The North Carolina senator has made criticism of free trade policies a central theme of his campaign to upset Kerry in "Super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses in states such as California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Minnesota. And Edwards has plenty of ammunition for the fight, as Kerry's record on trade issues is difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush. But, when the trade issue came up during Thursday's Los Angeles Times/CNN debate, Kerry was ready for Edwards. And he hit the North Carolina senator where it hurt.
After Edwards suggested that the frontrunner was changing his pro-free trade tune with recent statements about the need to insert protections for workers and the environment into trade agreements, Kerry suggested to voters that Edwards is, himself, something of a newcomer to the fair-trade movement.
Asked if he was "shocked" by Edwards' focus on the trade issue, Kerry said, "Well, I am surprised, because in his major speech on the economy in Georgetown this past June, John never even mentioned trade. And the fact is that, just the other day in New York, in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying to The New York Times that he thought NAFTA was important for our prosperity. Now he's claiming that he was against it and these other agreements."
Then, Kerry added, "I have said clearly for a number of years now, we have to have labor and environment standards in all of our trade agreements. That is exactly the same position as John Edwards."
From an issue standpoint, that was as close as Kerry and Edwards got to clashing. For the most part, they simply avoided taking shots at one another. That was good for Kerry, and devastating for Edwards, because polls show the North Carolinian continues to trail in all the big states that will vote March 2. Edwards is drawing large crowds, and he has momentum in Georgia and upstate New York. He has won some important newspaper endorsements in California, from the Sacramento Bee and the L.A. Weekly. But, in debate after debate, he has refused to take the bait when questioners have offered him opportunities to draw clear distinctions between himself and Kerry. On Thursday night, when he really needed to make those distinctions, Edwards instead sounded like he was more concerned about getting his name on Kerry's list of prospective running mates.
Edwards was not helped by the fact that, while he kept the gloves on, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich was far more aggressive than in the past.
Distancing himself from both Edwards and Kerry on the trade issue, Kucinich delivered the most useful critique of the World Trade Organization yet heard in a presidential debate. "Throughout this campaign I have visited city after city where I've seen grass growing in parking lots where they used to make steel, they used to make cars, they used to make ships. And let me tell you something: NAFTA and the WTO must be canceled. Let me tell you why. The WTO, for example, it doesn't permit any alterations. When we, as members of Congress, sought from the administration a Section 201 procedure to stop the dumping of steel into our markets so we could stop our American steel jobs from being crushed, the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States and said we had no right to do that. Now, the World Trade Organization, as long as we belong to it, will not let us protect the jobs. This is the reason why we have outsourcing going on right now. We can't tax it. We can't put tariffs on it. And that's why I say, in order to protect jobs in this country and to be able to create a enforceable structure for trade, we need to get out of NAFTA, get out of the WTO, stop the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, stop the Central American Free Trade Agreement."
On the trade issue, which Edwards has sought to make his own, the winners Thursday night were Kerry, on style, and Kucinich, on content.
KERRY SOUNDED SCARY ON THE SUBJECT OF MILITARY ADVENTURISM: After explaining that, "No. I do not regret my vote" for the resolution that authorized President Bush to use force in Iraq, Kerry said, "Let me make it very clear: We did not give the president any authority that the president of the United States didn't have. Did we ratify what he was doing? Yes. But Clinton went to Haiti without the Congress. Clinton went to Kosovo without the Congress. And the fact is, the president was determined to go, evidently. But we changed the dynamics by getting him to agree to go to the United Nations and to make a set of promises to the nation."
Apart from the question of whether the Congress actually "changed the dynamics" of Bush's march toward war, Kerry again appeared to embrace the view that presidents can go to war without Congressional approval. The comments Thursday night echoed stratements Kerry made in the debate before Wisconsin's February 17 primary.
Amazingly, no one, not even Kucinich or the Rev. Al Sharpton, let alone the media questioners, challenged Kerry to explain his view regarding the advice and consent that the Constitution says Congress is required to provide before presidents start wars. During the 1990s, a number of members of Congress, most notably U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, challenged the Clinton administration's decisions to intervene in the Balkans and other parts of the world without clear Congressional approval. "There seems to be an informal understanding that, despite the fact that the Constitution says the Congress must declare wars, and despite the fact that the War Powers Act is good law, the Congress is simply going to ignore its duties," Feingold complained at the time. "There has been a willing surrender of Congressional authority to an aggrandizing White House. It suits both their purposes. The Administration does not want to endure tough questioning about what it is doing around the world, and the Congress does not seem to want to take responsibility for deciding whether the country should be engaged in wars all over the planet."
Kerry stood with Clinton and against those who sought to assert the role of Congress in decisions about going to war. It should come as little surprise that now, as he seeks the presidency, he remains enthusiastic about extending the power of the executive. But shouldn't he at least have been asked to explain whether he thinks Feingold and others are wrong to assert the right and responsibility of Congress to provide advice and consent before the U.S. goes to war.
It is notable that, in 1970, when Kerry first ran for Congress, he told a reporter, "I'm an internationalist. I'd like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations." That sounded suitably anti-war, but Massachusetts anti-war activists wisely decided that year to back a candidate with a deeper understanding of the Constitution and of the role of Congress, Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School. Drinan won the seat and, citing Section 1, Article 8, of the Constitution, he promptly wrote a resolution to impeach then-President Nixon for his illegal bombing of Cambodia. The impeachment resolution won the support of twelve members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Boston attorney John Bonifaz, who is 2003 filed suit on behalf of a group of soldiers and members of Congress to challenging the Bush administration's authority to go to war, says that, in the aftermath of the Iraq war debate, it is important for this year's Democratic National Convention to adopt a platform plank that affirms the party's support for Constitutional controls on war making. "The policy of the party should be to oppose further erosion of the war powers clause of the Constitution," says Bonifaz, the author of Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush (Nation Books). "The party should say, 'Never again should a president be allowed to go to war as George Bush did.'"
On the basis of what he had to say Thursday night, it would be interesting to see whether John Kerry would support or oppose such a plank.
SOCIALISM VERSUS CAPITALISM: Toward the end of Thursday night's debate, Kucinich was explaining how a single-payer national health care system "would provide all coverage for everyone, all medically necessary procedures, plus vision care, dental care, mental health care." Moderator Larry King exclaimed, "In other words, socialism?"
Kucinich shot back, "Wait a minute. You know what? What we have now, Larry, what we have now, what we have now, Larry, is predatory capitalism which makes of the American people a cash crop for the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies."
Over the sound of thunderous applause from the studio audience, King replied, "Well, said."
Democratic frontrunner John Kerry coasted on Not-So-Super Tuesday, winning three more states as Idaho, Utah and Hawaii quietly picked delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Kerry had no trouble dispatching John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who is generally portrayed as the last serious threat to the Massachusetts senator's frontrunner status. Kerry beat Edwards by 36 points in Hawaii, 32 points in Idaho and 25 points in Utah.
In fact, the candidate who came closest to Kerry wasn't even Edwards.
The candidate who gave the Democratic frontrunner the best run for his money on Tuesday was Dennis Kucinich, who won a respectable 27.5 percent of the vote in Hawaii to Kerry's 49 percent. While no one outside the Kucinich campaign is suggesting that the Ohio congressman's strong showing in Hawaii will put him on the road to the nomination -- or even to more second place finishes in the foreseeable future -- this was the best showing of the campaign so far for Kucinich, who has frequently finished with less than five percent of the vote in this year's primaries and caucuses. And it comes at a particularly useful time for the candidate, who has been struggling to gain attention going into the March 2 "Super Tuesday" contests in delegate-rich states such as California, New York, Ohio and Minnesota. Kucinich, who says he is in the Democratic contest until the convention in July, may have an easier time making the case for his continued inclusion in Democratic debates now that he has secured a second-place finish and won delegates.
Kucinich, the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair who had collected no delegates in primaries or caucuses prior to Tuesday, appears to have won seven delegates from Hawaii, while Kerry will likely get 13. According to Hawaii Democratic Party chair Alex Santiago, Kucinich won the island on Maui, where the Ohio congressman campaigned Sunday night during the only pre-caucus campaign swing through the state by one of this year's contenders. Among Kucinich's Maui backers was singer Willie Nelson, who owns a home on the island and performed a concert for the congressman there.
Kucinich's late surge in the state was of sufficient concern to Kerry backers that, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the frontrunner's campaign organized a last-minute phone bank to get its backers to the caucuses, which attracted three times the turnout seen in 2000. That Kerry was held below 50 percent in Hawaii by anyone was a surprise, as the Massachusetts senator had the support of most of the state's Democratic Party establishment, including U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka and U.S. Representative Ed Case.
The fourth member of Hawaii's congressional delegation, U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie, was an early supporter of Howard Dean's presidential bid and continued to urge Democrats to vote for Dean in hopes of winning delegates who would promote a progressive agenda at the party convention in Boston. But Dean only won nine percent of the caucus votes, falling below the 15 percent threshold needed to gain delegates.
While Kerry and Edwards skipped Hawaii to concentrate on "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 states that will select 1,151 delegates March 2, Kucinich gambled that the long flight to Hawaii might be worth the effort. The congressman, whose best previous showings were third place finishes in Washington state and Maine, told Hawaii Democrats that they could send an anti-war message. "It's no surprise the other candidates haven't come to Hawaii, because they would have to answer why they voted for the war and why they voted for the Patriot Act," Kucinich argued at campaign stops, adding that, "The people of Hawaii have the opportunity to make a statement."
Kucinich's backers, most of them peace activists, drove the anti-war message home. Ephrosine Daniggelis, who campaigned for Kucinich on the University of Hawaii campus, told local reporters, "We have been working day and night; he is the only candidate working for peace." On caucus day, the grassroots Hawaii for Kucinich campaign messaged supporters that, "The caucus is a time for Democrats to give voice to our true beliefs and honestly debate which direction we want for our country and our party. Once the primaries are over, we will all support the party's nominee against Bush. But please do not silence your independent voice before it is necessary. If you oppose the war, do not vote for a pro-war Democrat in the caucus. If you support trimming military spending, support universal healthcare, free college tuition, fair trade, etc., please vote your conscience. While the eyes of the world are upon us, let's send a message that Hawai‘i is a special place and a very progressive state."
They succeeded in sending that message. Kucinich's solid second-place finish in Hawaii was one of the strongest showings in any primary or caucus for a candidate stressing an anti-war message -- including Howard Dean who, it should be noted, went at the task with considerably more more money, official support and media attention.
William Safire, New York Times columnist, doesn't know what he's talking (or writing) about. Who says? The New York Times.
Underneath the headline, "Found: A Smoking Gun," Safire on February 11 wrote a column that maintained a "clear link" existed between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A from-the-start supporter of the war in Iraq, Safire was declaring that one of Bush's main rationales for the invasion--a supposed operational relationship between Al Qaeda and Hussein's regime--was solid. In doing so, he was taking on all those who have challenged or questioned this Bush claim--a long list that even includes the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee who last September concluded that the prewar intelligence did not contain information to support the charge that Hussein had been in league with bin Laden.
What did Safire base his case-closed pronouncement upon? A New York Times story that had appeared a day earlier. Written by reporter Dexter Filkins (in Baghdad) and also based on reporting done by Douglas Jehl (in Washington), the front-pager revealed that the Kurds had intercepted a courier for Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist terrorist group that had been based in northern Iraq. The messenger, Hassan Ghul, had on him a CD-ROM that contained a seventeen-page document that appeared to be a letter from the head of Ansar al-Islam, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to Al Qaeda requesting assistance. Ansar al-Islam wanted to start an Iraqi civil war by attacking Shi'ite Muslims, and Zarqawi was hoping Al Qaeda would help him.
A-ha, exclaimed Safire, here was the proof that Safire himself was correct when he wrote on September 24, 2001--"not two weeks after 9/11"--that Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam. And he praised the work of the reporters involved. But Safire was molding facts more than he was marshaling them.
The actual New York Times story Safire relied upon said that the letter was not evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam. Filkins' dispatch noted that if the document was authentic, it would "constitute the strongest evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and Al Qaeda. But it does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era, nor is there any mention [in the request for help] of a collaboration with Hussein loyalists."
Safire ignored this important qualifier. In his column, he referred to Ansar al-Islam as an "Qaeda affiliate" and approvingly quoted George W. Bush describing Zarqawi before the war as an "Al Qaeda leader." But Safire did not mention that when CIA chief George Tenet testified before the Senate intelligence committee in February 2003, Tenet said that while the CIA believed Ansar al-Islam had received funding from Al Qaeda, Zarqawi considered himself and his network "quite independent" of Al Qaeda. Receiving money from Al Qaeda might qualify Ansar al-Islam as an "affiliate," but according to Tenet's testimony Zarqawi was no "Al Qaeda leader."
In his column, Safire was making a triple-play argument--from bin Laden to Zarqawi to Hussein--to claim that there had been an Al Qaeda-Iraq partnership. And he pointed to a remark that Secretary of State Colin Powell made during his February 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council: "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden." But Powell and the Bush administration has not been able to show that Hussein was firmly linked to Ansar al-Islam. After all, the group operated in the northern territory, where Baghdad had limited control. Moreover, in January, when Powell was asked whether there was evidence linking Hussein and Al Qaeda, he replied, "There is not--you know, I have not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the connection, but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did." In other words, the administration had nothing to prove there was an Al Qaeda-Iraq alliance (with or without Ansar al-Islam in between). For some reason, Safire did not share this information with his readers.
So Safire ignored what his paper's own reporters reported, and he juggled a highly selective set of factoids to make a rather serious charge: Ansar al-Islam equals Al Qaeda. He also ridiculed as "simply silly" the notion that strong evidence was necessary to make this case, deriding those skeptics who would demand that "the Ansar boss in Iraq must be found carrying an official Qaeda membership card signed by bin Laden."
But the last laugh (of derision) was on Safire. According to whom? The New York Times. Ten days after Safire's "smoking-gun" column, a page-one story by Douglas Jehl (the same Jehl whom Safire had hailed), reported that Ansar al-Islam "appears to be operating mostly apart from Al Qaeda, senior American officials say." Whoops.
Jehl's report continued: "Most significantly, the officials said, American intelligence had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq." Double whoops.
It seems that Zarqawi had asked for help, and bin Laden had said no. Is this how inseparable comrades-in-terrorism operate? Jehl's sources noted that Al Qaeda's rebuff was "an indication of a significant divide between the groups." Now, as Jehl's sources said, it would be a mistake to consider Al Qaeda's refusal to provide assistance as definitive evidence that the two outfits were at odds and unable to hook up in the future. "But, officials said, there are growing indications," Jehl wrote, "that the two groups are distinct and independent, and are embracing different tactics and agendas."
Now what had Safire said about that smoking gun request for help? Safire--perhaps following the lead of his commander-in-chief--had too eagerly overstated evidence. He had cited a postwar request for aid as a no-doubt-about-it evidence of a prewar alliance. That was a clumsy sleight-of-hand. And then it turned out that this request was not even proof of a current relationship between these two bands of terrorists.
This was not a first for Safire. He has often hyperbolically exclaimed, "case closed," in discussing the supposed Al Qaeda-Iraq connection, frequently pointing to the so-called Prague connection. In a November 25 column, he again noted that after the 9/11 attacks Czech intelligence had reported that 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague several months before the assault. But the CIA and the FBI had long ago concluded this Czech report was probably untrue--a development reported more than once in the pages of--you've guessed it--the New York Times. Still, Safire insisted the Atta-in-Prague story was worthy of further investigation.
Two weeks later, though, a major newspaper--yes, it was the New York Times--reported that Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the Iraqi intelligence officer alleged to have met with Atta, told American interrogators (after he had been nabbed by US forces in July) that the meeting with Atta never happened. The newspaper also disclosed that captured senior operatives of Al Qaeda had denied any alliance between Al Qaeda and Hussein. Quoting a classified intelligence report, the Times said that Abu Zubaydah, one of the most senior Al Qaeda leaders held by the United States, told the CIA that several Al Qaeda operatives had considered exploiting Hussein's antipathy toward the United States to obtain military equipment from Iraq. But, Zubaydah added, bin Laden vetoed the idea of working with the corrupt and irreligious Hussein. Safire did not praise this particular Times piece.
As the Atta-in-Prague story currently stands, it sure looks like Safire was wrong. That is, if you believe the New York Times. And in a recent piece in Salon, Barry Lando, a former producer for 60 Minutes, demolished a series of columns in which Safire accused several French companies of helping Iraq obtain rocket fuel components.
Safire ended his February 11, 2004, piece with a most disingenuous assertion. He noted that there were three reasons for the Iraq war: stopping mass murder; Hussein's ties to terrorism; and the "reasoned judgment that Saddam had a bioweapon that could wipe out a city." As for the first, there was no mass murder occurring at the time of the invasion. In a January 2004 report, Human Rights Watch noted that Hussein's mass killings had mainly occurred in 1988, during an anti-Kurd genocide, and in 1991, when Hussein suppressed the post-Gulf War uprisings that President George H.W. Bush had encouraged but not supported. "Brutal as Saddam Hussein's reign had been," the report noted, "the scope of the Iraqi governments killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention…. [B]y the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein's killing had ebbed." So Bush's invasion had not stopped any genocidal massacres.
As for Hussein's bioweapons, Safire wrote, "in time we are likely to find a buried suitcase containing that, too." (Too? What else has been found? No weapons of mass destruction so far.) Yet in a February 5 speech, Tenet said that while the CIA had concluded before the war that Iraq had a bioweapons development program, "we said we had no specific information on the types or quantities of weapons, agent, or stockpiles at Baghdad's disposal." Does Safire know something that Tenet doesn't?
If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by the paper's own correspondents, how should the paper's editors and publisher respond? Should they question the columnist's judgment and powers of evaluation? Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw--or suggest--connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire's recent work--unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors--shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11 masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of the New York Times?
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.
As President George W. Bush prepares to launch his first broadcast ads of the political season next week, it is clear that his well-groomed and well-rewarded donor network is doing their job. Relying on a pyramid scheme of Pioneers (those who raise $100,000 for the campaign) and Rangers (those who raise $200,000), Bush has amassed an astounding $143 million in less than a year, finance reports out last week revealed.
But showing appreciation for all the favors and rewards from the Bush Administration by raising a mere 200 grand is chickenfeed for some of these wealthy captains of industry. Rumors in January first reported by the Washington Post hinted at another category of donors--those who are able to haul in $500,000. And as I wrote on January 25 , ("Oligarchs for Bush"), Public Campaign Action Fund started a contest (http://www.pcactionfund.org/contest) to name this new category of bundlers for Bush. As a judge for the contest, I helped narrow the 1,191 entries down to five finalists (Cash Cowboys, Robber Barons, Weapons of Mass Corruption, Profiteers and The Funding Fathers) and now it's up to the public to pick their favorite.
The voting is open now, and will remain open until February 29, though if there is a lot of interest, the voting may remain open a little longer.
It's only fitting that as we are inundated with Bush's TV ads, we are also reminded who paid for them.
The best-case scenario for Ralph Nader's fourth presidential campaign -- a 1992 write-in effort in the New Hampshire primary, Green Party runs in 1996 and 2000, and the independent candidacy he announced on Sunday -- is to pull a Norman Thomas. In the Great Depression election of 1932, Democrats worried that Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate, would draw off votes in key states and help reelect Republican President Herbert Hoover. When the ballots were counted, however, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover in all but six states and was swept into the White House. At the same time, Thomas won close to 900,000 votes nationwide, and in many state his backers provided a cushion of votes for Democrats who swept local, state and congressional races. Thomas was invited to the White House, treated with respect on Capitol Hill and credited with providing the inspiration for important elements of Roosevelt's New Deal.
The worst-case scenario for Nader's 2004 campaign is the James Birney circumstance. Birney, a prominent attorney who served as secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, sought the presidency in 1840 and again in 1844 as the candidate of the abolitionist Liberty Party. Birney's second run for the presidency secured only 62,103 votes, out of 2.7 million cast nationwide. But Birney took away enough votes in key states such as New York from Whig Henry Clay, a more cautious critic of the expansion of slavery, to tip the election to Democrat James K. Polk, who campaigned on a promise to annex Texas as a slave state. Polk quickly did just that, and then ordered the invasion of Mexico. Until his death in 1857, Birney, the passionate abolitionist, was blamed for giving pro-slavery forces an upper hand at a critical stage in American politics.
Somewhere between those best- and worst-case scenarios lies the likely result for Nader this year. It is far less dramatic. Indeed, the most likely scenario for Nader in 2004 is that he will not matter much.
Running as an independent, Nader will not be able to capture the ballots lines nor the considerable enthusiasm of the Green Party's volunteer infrastructure, which played a critical role in securing him ballot status in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 2000. And running in a year when beating George W. Bush has emerged as the central issue for millions of progressives, Nader will also have to make this race without the assistance of long-time friends and backers such as Ronnie Dugger, Michael Moore and Jim Hightower. As a result, the best bet is that Nader's name will be on fewer state ballots than in 2000; he might not even secure the roughly two dozen ballot lines he had in 1996. If this turns out to be the case, Nader will have a much harder time arguing for his inclusion in the debates. And, come November, he will be much more likely to end up as an asterisk.
Of course, Nader sees things differently. Running as an independent reformer, he says, he will have greater appeal to the disenchanted of all parties. Currently, he's suggesting that disappointed supporters of Howard Dean, turned off by the somnambulant, centrist candidacy of John Kerry, might exit the Democratic column and search Nader's name out on the margins of state ballot that are reserved for independent candidates.
But there's a lot of wishful thinking in that calculus. Dean was never really the pox-on-all-their-houses reformer that he tried to make himself in a last-ditch attempt to distinguish his waning candidacy from those of John Kerry and John Edwards. He came to prominence in 2003 as the "Beat Bush" candidate who referenced the disputed Bush-v-Gore result of 2000 in his stump speeches, condemned the president for lying about weapons of mass destruction, accused Dick Cheney's Halliburton of war profiteering and delivered blistering attacks on John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.
If Kerry is the nominee, the Massachusetts senator and his backers admit that they are going to have to work to attract and inspire true-believing "Deaniacs." But, for the most part, the risk is that Deaniacs will disengage, not that they will align with Nader.
The 2004 contest is shaping up as a classic test of a contentious incumbent. Voters will likely approach the ballot box in November with far more clarity than was evidenced in 2000, recognizing that this year's election gives them a chance to embrace or reject another four years of George Bush, Dick Cheney and their administration.
For Nader to intrude into that choice in a meaningful way, it is necessary to imagine that substantial numbers of voters will go to the polls absolutely determined to remove the president from office -- grumbling all the way about the occupation of Iraq, war profiteering, assaults on civil liberties and tax breaks for the rich -- and then vote for Nader rather than a Democrat who could actually beat Bush. That's not a very likely prospect; and if it ever became one, Democrats would be particularly well positioned to counter it. Even as Nader objects, Democrats can and wlll argue that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, and they will have many more buyers for that line than in 2000.
This said, Democrats such as party chair Terry McAuliffe -- who says, "We can't afford to have Ralph Nader in this race" -- would be wise to calm down a bit with regards to Nader. It is true that, if a portion of Nader voters in New Hampshire and Florida had voted for Gore, the Democrat would have won those states -- no matter what schemes were hatched by Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his minions. But it is also true that, if a portion of Pat Buchanan's Reform Party voters in Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and New Mexico had cast their ballots for Bush, the Republican would have beaten Gore in those states. And savvy Democrats, such as former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, have always recognized that Nader voters helped US Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and US Representative Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, win tight races in 2000. Cantwell's victory put Democrats in position to seize control of the Senate in 2001, after Vermont's Jim Jeffords left the GOP fold.
So, rather than waste too much time on the 2000 blame game, those who seek to beat Bush in 2004 ought to focus on some bottom-line fundamentals regarding Nader's latest candidacy:
IT HAS GOTTEN HARDER FOR NADER TO ARGUE THAT THERE ARE NO DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO MAJOR PARTIES: On the night before Nader announced his candidacy, Al Gore appeared at an Idaho Democratic Party event where he presented a detailed denunciation of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's energy, environmental and economic policies. Gore remains an imperfect player. But his words and deeds over the past several years have done a great deal to undermine Nader's basic premise that it did really matter who won the 2000 election -- and, by extension, who will win the 2004 election.
NADER WILL BE MARGINALIZED NOT BY CRITICISM OF HIS STRATEGIES BUT BY THE THEFT OF HIS ISSUES: In the fall of 2000, Gore backers spent millions of dollars and immense amounts of time and energy seeking to demonize Nader. They came off as desperate and anti-democratic, and in some instances actually reinforced support for Nader. Worst of all, their sense of urgency was undermined by their own candidate. Apart from a handful of populist moments, Gore ran a tepid campaign in which he failed to adequately distinguish himself from the then "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush on core issues -- remember the second debate, when the Democratic and Republican candidates agreed to agree on question after question. Those agreements reinforced Nader's message. More importantly, Gore's failure to pick up Nader's themes limited the Democrat's ability to compete in several key states. Had Gore addressed concerns about free trade, the decline in manufacturing, and farm policies that favored corporate agribusiness, he might well have won Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia -- state's that voted for Bill Clinton but went narrowly for Bush. Gore's biggest mistake in 2000 was his failure to understand Nader's appeal. Both Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner at this point, and John Edwards, his most prominent challenger for the nomination, are stumbling over one another to present themselves as economic populists. That's a signal that they will do a better job than Gore did of competing for the support not just of potential Nader backers but of the far broader pool of voters (and potential voters) who need to hear a populist message on issues such as trade.
NADER MAY NOT EVEN BE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT INDEPENDENT OR THIRD-PARTY CONTENDER IN 2004: Those in the Bush White House and its echo chambers on right-wing talk radio and the Fox television network, who have been delighting in the prospect of a Nader run, may not be laughing for long. Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama jurist whose fight to display the Ten Commandments on state property drew national attention last year, is being courted by the right-wing Constitution Party as a potential presidential candidate. (The Constitution Party was on the ballot in 41 states in 2000, and retains a solid network of activist supporters nationwide.) With growing numbers of core conservatives angered by Bush's policies on immigration, federal spending and individual liberties, a Moore candidacy could develop into a serious problem for the president. More than 20 percent of the voters in January's New Hampshire Republican primary cast ballots for someone other than Bush; more than 10 percent of Oklahoma Republican primary voters did the same. Come November, Moore could pose a greater threat to Republican prospects than Nader will to the Democrats.
NADER IS EXTREMELY UNLIKELY TO LEAVE THIS RACE ANYTIME SOON: From the moment Nader said he was exploring a 2004 bid, it was obvious he was going to run. In addition to rejecting appeals from former supporters to join a broad "Beat Bush" movement, Nader dismissed offers of platforms and vehicles that would have allowed him to be a major player in the 2004 race without being a candidate -- just as he rejected the Green Party line. He is determined to have his say and, as his "Meet the Press" announcement appearance illustrated, he will have plenty of opportunities to do so. He believes he has something to add to the debate, and he knows he has a right to try. Additionally, he has come to enjoy campaigning. Energy devoted to trying to get him out of the competition is wasted.
Franklin Roosevelt and his supporters came to a similar conclusion with regards to Norman Thomas in 1932. So they treated him with respect during the fall campaign, while grabbing the best elements of the Socialist platform away from Thomas. In the end, Roosevelt won, while Thomas could say he contributed significantly to the process. Nader, who has always held Thomas in high regard, will cling to the hope that the Roosevelt-Thomas scenario will repeat itself -- unlikely as that may be. He can anticipate no better result for himself this year. And the alternatives are far less appealing -- for Nader, and for America.