Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Progressive Challenger Defeats DC Establishment in North Carolina

The progressive groups who unsuccessfully backed Bill Halter over Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic Senate runoff on June 8 scored a victory tonight when Elaine Marshall defeated Cal Cunningham in North Carolina’s Democratic Senate primary. Marshall will now face first-term incumbent Senator Richard Burr in November.

Marshall-Cunningham did not have the prominence of Halter-Lincoln, nor were the ideological distinctions nearly as stark. But groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn.org did rally behind Marshall in the final weeks of the race, to the dismay of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic political establishment in Washington, which hand-picked Cunningham, an attorney, Iraq war vet and former state senator. Marshall was not exactly an outsider—having served as the state’s secretary of state for four terms, defeating NASCAR legend Richard Petty in her first race—but she ran as a progressive populist and grassroots advocate during the primary, playing up her opposition to the surge in Afghanistan and support for healthcare reform, including a public insurance option, and Wall Street reform. “The voters of North Carolina don’t like that someone is trying to anoint or elect their candidate,” Marshall said before the vote. Washington intervention has been a decidedly mixed blessing this election year, paying off in Democratic primaries in Arkansas and Ohio but backfiring in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. “The Democratic Party should welcome the competition of ideas,” says Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America (DFA), “and not become an incumbency-protection racket.” Dean says the current clashes inside the party pit “a culture of activism versus a culture of incumbency.”

As has been well documented, it’s been a rough year for incumbents in both parties so far, even though Lincoln did squeak through in Arkansas (and now trails her Republican opponent, Congressman John Boozman, by thirty points). Halter’s loss obscured the excellent organizing work progressive groups did on his behalf. Arshad Hasan, DFA’s executive director, told me that Halter’s campaign exceeded its turnout targets for the runoff—yet so did Lincoln’s. Her base proved bigger than his. “What we need is a lot more and a lot better long-term organizing on the ground in places like Arkansas,” Hasan concluded after running Halter’s get-out-the-vote operation. Going forward, the Halter campaign, though ultimately unsuccessful, provides a framework for insurgent, outside-the-Beltway progressive engagement that can now be replicated and bolstered in other red and purple states, including in North Carolina, this fall. “If we want progressives in office, there’s never been a greater need for a fifty-state strategy,” Hasan says.

North Carolina should be a great test case for whether that strategy still has juice; Democrats won every major contested race there in 2008 and Barack Obama, surprisingly, carried the state by running a superb grassroots campaign. The political environment has become far less advantageous for Democrats since then, but last week the DNC announced a $50 million outreach effort to persuade first-time Obama voters—and register new ones—to vote Democratic in 2010. Turning out those voters—who were once inspired by Obama but retain questionable allegiance to the president and his party—will be critical to avoiding an electoral massacre in the fall. Marshall will go into the general election as an underdog, but in a tough year, her race could be an unlikely pickup opportunity for Democrats.

Whose Side Is Bubba On?

Bill Clinton is widely credited with helping to save Blanche Lincoln's primary campaign in last Tuesday's runoff election. But his intervention in the Arkansas Democratic Senate primary hasn't gone down well with some of his top supporters.

On May 28, while campaigning for Lincoln in Arkansas, Clinton used pretty strong language to characterize the labor unions that were backing Bill Halter (who worked in the Clinton White House), accusing them of "manipulating" votes to "terrify membe"rs of Congress and members of the Senate." Clinton has fought organized labor before—namely, when he aggressively lobbied for NAFTA in 1993 over their strenuous objections. But he and Hillary also boast close ties to a number of unions, most notably AFSCME, whose president, Gerald McEntee, was none too pleased by Clinton's remarks in Arkansas. "We were the first union to support him for governor of Arkansas, and we were on the last bus home for Hillary," McEntee told Politico this week. "I guess he forgot that. It was [a] slap in the face."AFSCME spent $3 million on Halter's behalf, so McEntee had reason to vent.

Environmentalists were also puzzled by Clinton's pro-Lincoln cheerleading, noting that she supported legislation that would prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution, introduced by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, failed to pass the Senate last Friday, but six Democrats voted for it, including Lincoln, an ominous sign for the prospective clean energy bills moving through Congress. As Joe Conason (a noted Clinton defender) points out in his latest Salon column, Clinton has been an outspoken advocate of combating global warming and reducing C02 emissions. "Whatever [Clinton] and Lincoln discussed before he went into Arkansas on her behalf, she evidently has not gotten his fervent message on climate," Conason writes. "The Murkowski-Lincoln resolution is also a rebuke to Clinton and everyone who shares his view that climate change is the most important challenge facing the world in this century."

Conason suggests that Clinton give Lincoln a talking to on this issue. "Nobody is more eloquent than the president from Hope in explaining why sound environmental and energy policy would promote rapid economic growth and balanced budgets," he writes. "And people in Arkansas apparently still listen to him. So maybe he should spend a little more time trying to persuade them that he knows what he's talking about on climate—and a little more political capital pushing Democrats like Lincoln back toward the scientific consensus and the political center." 

Why Clinton got so involved in this race remains a mystery, given that Halter once worked for him and Lincoln was widely viewed as a weaker candidate in the general election and hadn't come around on one of his signature issues. Was he repaying Blanche for her support of Hillary in 2008? Did he really believe she was a better candidate on the merits, and, if so, how did he justify her posture on climate change? Was he standing in as a trusted surrogate for the Obama administration, which is now out to protect Democratic incumbents at any cost? Or did he just want to play kingmaker yet again—wielding power for power's sake? Recent events raise the question…

Halter’s Loss a Missed Opportunity, Not Crushing Defeat

Blanche Lincoln’s victory over Bill Halter in last night’s runoff election was not a crushing defeat for the progressive movement, though it certainly hurts. It was more like a missed opportunity.

The progressive groups that endorsed Halter—from labor to environmentalists to netroots activists—accomplished a lot in a short period of time, building an incredible organization from scratch in three months on difficult terrain. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. Knocking off an entrenched incumbent is very, very difficult—the craziness of 2010 has obscured the fact that, before this election cycle, only four incumbent senators had lost their primaries in the past two decades.

Arkansas was always going to be a tough place to pull off an upset of this magnitude. From the beginning of this race, there was a disconnect between the progressive movement's aspirations and the realities of Arkansas politics. Halter’s natural coalition should’ve been Obama voters who were fed up with Lincoln’s defiance of the president, but there just aren’t that many of those types in Arkansas, and a lot of base Democrats stuck with Lincoln out of residual loyalty or because they just never got to like Halter, who ran a focused, disciplined campaign but was unable to shed the icy and overly ambitious image that surrounds him. In Pulaski County, for example, the home of Little Rock and the largest and most liberal county in the state, Lincoln beat Halter by seventeen points. In contrast, Obama beat McCain there by a dozen points in 2008, even though he lost Arkansas by twenty. During the first election in May, Halter did surprisingly well among conservative Democrats in rural southern Arkansas who showed for their local primaries and voted for him because they didn’t like Blanche. They didn’t show up a second time.

These facts have more to do with the peculiarities of local politics than with a broader failure by the progressive movement, which was rejuvenated and united by this race, even in defeat. Next time they have to organize in a red state like Arkansas, they’ll do better. Learning experiences are frustrating, but they are not worthless.

“Sometimes you can win by losing,” Tom Swan, Ned Lamont’s former campaign manager in Connecticut, told me a few months back. Incumbents usually don’t go down with the first blow; it takes a flurry of sustained punches before they fall. Despite the final outcome, the activist groups supporting Halter’s candidacy sent a message this spring to those Democrats who have most egregiously thwarted Obama's agenda or repeatedly changed positions on big issues based on political convenience: watch your back. This is a good fight for Democrats to wage—and it won’t be over anytime soon.

Ron and Rand Paul: Like Father, Like Son

Given Ron Paul’s sordid history regarding race relations in America, particularly the derogatory statements about African-Americans published in his longtime newsletter, it’s not surprising that his son, Rand, upon winning the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, immediately said that he didn’t agree with the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Since Rand is close to his father and shares the same paleoconservative libertarian philosophy, it’s worth further exploring Ron Paul’s views on these questions and whether his son agrees with them. While running for president in 2007, Paul was asked by Iowa radio host Dennis Raimondi whether he supported the federal government’s desegregation of public schools, a key part of the Civil Rights Act. “How would you have handled that as a person who believes in the federal government not getting too involved in the states?” Raimondi asked.

The short answer is that Paul opposed the Civil Rights Act. But here’s his lengthy reply:

"Yes, I would prefer that the states take care of this, as that’s the way that’s under the Constitution that we should do it. But back then we had the states doing the wrong thing. If your were in a neighborhood they would deliberately bus you out of the neighborhood in order to perform segregation and that was wrong. But the answer that they gave us was now they literally bus people in to promote integration and you should do neither. You should just have community schools and you shouldn’t have separate schools. But this whole idea that you can have perfections through government regulation by first busing people out and then busing people in—in a free society it is not a problem at all because parents are responsible for education and its either home school or private school. We’ve never really had that, we’ve always had public schools that were run locally, so if there are imperfections in the system it has to be dealt with by the people themselves as well as the school boards, but back in those days when there was segregation that was done by government so you blame all those problems on government and you just need to clean that mess up but not with the federal government under the constitution."

Paul seems to be saying that if schools were run locally there wouldn't have been segregation and that if America was truly free parents would either home school their kids or send them to private school. Both claims boggle the mind. Is Paul saying there is no role for public education in a free society? Does Rand agree with that?

There’s a lot more questions that need to be asked and answered—about Rand Paul’s beliefs and that of the Tea Party movement that has so enthusiastically embraced him—before the campaign is over.


Halter, Lincoln Keep on Runnin’

Though Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln got more votes in last night’s Democratic primary, her opponent, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, was the night’s big winner, keeping Lincoln under 50 percent (she led 44-42 or by 9,000 votes) and forcing a runoff on June 8.

The other big winner, though he won’t be making it to round two, was right-wing businessman D.C. Morrison, who pulled an unexpected 13 percent of the vote. Morrison ran as a very, very conservative Democrat; he called global warming a “hoax,” threatened to filibuster the nomination of any “pro-abortion” judge to the Supreme Court and proudly noted that he voted for Ron Paul in 2008. Which way his supporters will go in the runoff—or if they’ll vote at all—is now the $64,000 question in Arkansas politics.

Conventional wisdom holds that Morrison voters, however inchoate, will gravitate towards Lincoln, since she’s more conservative than Halter. But Morrison voters also tend to be of the anti-incumbent, Tea Party, damn-Washington-to-all-hell variety, which makes it hard to believe they’ll support a longtime incumbent senator. Halter has been making a populist pitch to these voters throughout his campaign, saying at his election night celebration (which had all the buzz of a victory party), “If you believe that Washington works for you, then Senator Lincoln should be your choice.”

But a good chunk of Arkansans were fed up with both the Lincoln and Halter campaigns, especially as the race became infused with negativity (with Lincoln’s side widely considered the greater offender) and issues began to disappear from the debate. “End it, don’t extend it,” Arkansas Times editor Max Brantley urged.

Well, now it’s extended and Halter has a choice to make—if he wants to defeat Lincoln, rather than just give her a good scare, he’ll need to add some meat to his message, drawing a clear contrast between his campaign and Lincoln’s on style and substance (he's done the former but not enough of the latter), as Joe Sestak did to Arlen Specter. Halter, in his speech last night, railed against “the special interests, the Washington, DC, insiders, Republican shadow groups, and the corporative executives and lobbyists who peddle greed over people from their Wall Street headquarters and Washington, DC, K Street offices.” But he offered no specifics about what he’d do differently from Senator Lincoln or why he’d be a stronger challenger against GOP nominee John Boozman, a three-term congressman from Northwest Arkansas who will be a strong candidate in a general election but will also face some of the same anti-incumbent angst currently directed towards Lincoln.

Lincoln remains vulnerable—she tacked right in Washington for much of the Bush and Obama years and then swerved to the left as Halter’s primary bid intensified. Halter can’t let her sudden conversion to progressive populism go unchallenged.

No matter what happens from here, the primary has been a good thing, forcing Lincoln to unveil a tougher derivatives bill than previously expected and energizing the progressive groups who’ve endorsed Halter, spurring them to organize effectively on politically conservative terrain. But, as last night showed, the newly ascendant progressive insurgents don’t just want to send a message to washed-up Washington insiders. They want to win.

UPDATE: A day after poll by Research 2000 shows Halter leading Lincoln by two points, for the first time, which would be a major momentum bounce if other polls confirm that finding in the next few days. Also, Max Brantley notes that Lincoln handily beat Halter in liberal Pulaski County (home to Little Rock) but lost big in the state's rural areas, which is the exact opposite of what political insiders were predicting. That means Halter got a lot of votes from conservative Democrats, which runs counter to the media's description of him as a fringe lefty. One labor source who's backing Halter told me from Little Rock this morning that way more of the Morrison vote is projected to go to Halter than Lincoln. based on their polling. "DC media is playing this as a left-right fight, and therefore wants to put each candidates' supporters in those neat little boxes, but that's not how AR voters are viewing it," he wrote. "It's way more 'change versus more of the same.' If we keep it that way we win."

A Good Primary Night for The Insurgents (So Far)

I first met Joe Sestak in 2006 when he was campaigning for a House seat in suburban Philadelphia against a ten-term incumbent. Few thought, originally, that he could win, but he persevered—like a typical Navy man—and after his opponent self-imploded Sestak cruised to an easy victory. That race in 2006 should’ve taught Arlen Specter not to underestimate his primary opponent in 2010. Sestak knocked off Specter tonight in an unpredictable Democratic primary, 53 to 47 percent at last count.

Virtually every powerful Democrat, from Barack Obama to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to the AFL-CIO, urged Sestak not to challenge Specter after the incumbent switched parties to run as a Democrat. A few months ago he was down by thirty points in the polls. But the Tea Partiers aren’t the only ones who are tied of being told what to do by their party establishment. Sestak scored a dramatic comeback by capitalizing on the rising angst among the Democratic base, tying Specter to his former Republican friends like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and highlighting the fact that Specter opposed Elana Kagan’s nomination as solicitor general and often couldn’t seem to distinguish between Republican and Democratic crowds. Specter’s forty years of Republican baggage ultimately proved too much of a weight for Democratic voters to bear. Sestak’s last ad, in particular, was devastating for Specter.


 “This is what democracy looks like,” Sestak said at his victory party, mentioning how he triumphed “over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.”

Meanwhile, the race in Arkansas between Bill Halter and Blanche Lincoln—where some thought Lincoln might get over 50 percent and score a clean victory—is still too close to call. That likely portends well for Halter if the race goes to a runoff. It’s been a good night for the insurgents, so far. 

The (Not So Lefty) Primary Insurgents

Virtually every media outlet in the country has descended onto Arkansas and Pennsylvania in recent days, trying to discern the meaning of tomorrow’s Democratic primaries, especially if incumbents Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln are headed for defeat (Specter could be, whereas Lincoln, at worst, is likely facing a runoff on June 8).

Their respective opponents, Joe Sestak and Bill Halter, are widely portrayed as lefty insurgents in most outlets. The reality is not so simple. They are certainly insurgents—challenging the party establishments in both states—but they’re not exactly full-throated progressives. Sestak is probably the more progressive of the two, though he did support President Obama’s troop escalation in Afghanistan, whereas Halter is a deficit hawk who’s refused to say if he supports the Employee Free Choice Act, even though he’s been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and SEIU. Both Sestak and Halter would be relatively mainstream Democratic senators, I’m guessing, reflecting the hues of their states (light blue in Pennsylvania, solidly red in Arkansas). Both will face tough races in the fall and start out as underdogs, should they win their primaries.

Meanwhile, both Lincoln and Specter are under fire less because they’re moderates and more because they’ve been all over the place on big issues, appearing crassly opportunistic and devoid of conviction to both the left and right. As I wrote recently in my Nation piece on Halter, there is no "purge" inside the Democratic Party comparable to the current purity tests within the GOP. Most moderate Democrats in Congress are not facing primary challenges this year and some frighteningly conservative Democrats could win with substantial party support.

Halter is not an especially compelling candidate but his race is noteworthy because it’s forcing progressive groups to organize on politically conservative terrain in a tough election year, which they’ll have to do more of if they really want to change the Democratic Party and elect better Democrats across the map. The primaries on Tuesday are a key front in a much broader fight.

UPDATE: The Washington Post's Greg Sargent does a good job characterizing the differences between the Democratic and Republican primaries tomorrow:

Halter and Sestak are mounting generally liberal challenges to their incumbent foes -- and despite this fact, there's still no equivalence between them and the ideological purgings we're seeing on the right.


That's because Halter and Sestak are trying to pull Lincoln and Specter in line with the Democratic mainstream, which neither represents. Lincoln and Specter are enjoying Dem establishment support despite being ideologically to the right of mainstream Dem positions.


Their challengers are fueled by an energetic grassroots effort to let the Dem establishment know this isn't acceptable. The Tea Party brigade, by contrast, is pulling candidates to the right of mainstream Republicanism. Therein lies the difference.

Lincoln in Limbo

The May 18 primaries in Pennsylvania and Arkansas are only five days away, with two hotly contested Democratic Senate contests to be decided. In Pennsylvania, Congressman Joe Sestak is closing on the incumbent Arlen Specter, while in Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln is trying to fend off Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and prevent the race from going to a runoff on June 8.

The race in Arkansas (which I wrote about in last week's Nation) has become infused with negativity, with a shadowy front group called Americans for Job Security—reportedly linked to the Chamber of Commerce—relentlessly attacking Halter on the airwaves. Attacks from Lincoln and her allies have put Halter on the defensive, raising his negatives and shifting the focus away from Lincoln’s muddled record on issues like healthcare reform and the bailouts.  Despite all the money spent by labor unions on behalf of Halter, one pro-Halter labor source told me recently, “Lincoln and Americans for Job Security are outspending all of us and the Halter campaign by about 4-1 this week and next.” Yet the attacks could also be backfiring. Arkansas News columnist John Brummett—the most widely read political commentator in the state—recently switched from Lincoln to Halter. His latest column called Lincoln’s campaign “cynically dishonest.”

Lincoln may be all over the map on the issues, but her recent swing to the left on Wall Street reform—a few weeks ago she unexpectedly introduced a much tougher derivatives bill than previously anticipated—has partially undercut Halter’s most effective argument: that Lincoln is a tool of big banks and big business. Nevermind that Lincoln was prepared to introduce a weak compromise bill with Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss before Halter intensified his challenge, or that Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington had to bail Lincoln out during a recent Democratic caucus meeting, according to BusinessWeek. A new report in CQ (subscription-only) speculates that Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd plans to to scrap Lincoln's legislation following Tuesday's primary. So basically that whole tough-on-Wall-Street thing was just a well-timed political charade.  

In Pennsylvania, Sestak is succeeding by tying Specter to his former Republican allies like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and highlighting the fact that Specter opposed Elana Kagan’s nomination as solicitor general and can’t seem to distinguish between Republican and Democratic crowds. The race is now a dead heat.

In Arkansas, the latest poll shows Lincoln up by nine, though she still isn’t above 50 percent, which she needs to get to prevent a runoff. In order to close the gap, Halter should follow Sestak’s lead and remind Democratic voters that Lincoln supported both Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, the bankruptcy bill, NAFTA and CAFTA, the original TARP bailout, eliminating the estate tax, and flip-flopped on the public option and Employee Free Choice Act. If Halter wants to win the primary, he can’t let Lincoln’s sudden conversion to progressive populism go unchallenged.


The Publisher, Then and Now

Let me congratulate my old boss and current colleague Greg Mitchell on his fabulous new media blog.

Now, if he doesn’t mind, I’ll encroach onto his turf for a few minutes.

Last night I attended a great conversation between New York Times columnist Frank Rich and Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley at the 92nd Street Y on Brinkley’s new book, The Publisher, a biography of famed media tycoon Henry Luce. Luce, of course, started Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, becoming, in Brinkley’s words, “the most powerful journalistic publisher in the mid 20th century.” With so much discussion about the state of media today, Rich said that Brinkley’s book “could not be more timely.”

Luce started Time in 1923, which originated as a journal for “smart-ass, opinionated kids from Yale,” Brinkley said. But it soon grew in prominence and Luce used the platform to promote his strongly Republican, fiercely anti-Communist views. Luce grew up the son of missionaries in China and called the fall of that country to Communism the saddest day of his life. He supported US intervention in Vietnam as a way to trigger a war with China, which he viewed as long overdue. 

Though Brinkley started researching the project before the inception of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch is no doubt following in Luce’s footsteps. Rich read an anti-Roosevelt editorial published in Time that trumpeted the dangers of “state socialism” and the threat posed by FDR to free enterprise in America. “It’s so similar to what’s being written about Obama today,” he noted.

“The hatred of Obama [on the right] is like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Brinkley responded. The Tea Partiers may very well be motivated by factors other than race or racism, Brinkley said, but when they speak of “taking back America,” he noted, “they want to take the country back for white people.”

Time and Life, incidentally, tended to be supportive of the civil rights movement and Luce, though rigid in his foreign and economic policy viewpoints, preferred moderate Republicans like Wendell Wilkie over fire-breathing conservatives like Barry Goldwater. Despite its conservative editorials, many Democratic families—Rich and Brinkley’s included—subscribed to Time. It was a surprisingly highbrow magazine for such a mass audience.

The same can’t be said of Time today, which is a shell of its former self, nor of its chief competitor, Newsweek, whose days may be numbered. “Would Luce recognize Time today?” Rich asked.

“Well, he’d recognize the logo,” Brinkley responded.  


The New Face of Palestinian Resistance

Palestinians are rock-throwing, Jew-hating, suicide-bombing terrorists.

Israelies are cold-blooded, land-grabbing, Zionist occupiers and murderers.

Spend any time following Middle East politics and you hear these stereotypes over and over. Views on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have only hardened in recent years, as a future of peaceful coexistence seems more and more unlikely. But what if another world is possible, as the saying goes, and already exists?

The new documentary Budrus, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, tells the remarkable story of how a Palestinian activist prevented the Israeli army from annexing his small village's land (and precious olive trees) during construction of the Israeli Separation Barrier. "The barrier did something unexpected," the film's narration notes, bringing together disparate elements of Palestinian society, including Fatah and Hamas members, in nonviolent resistance, with Israeli, South African and American activists joining the cause. Budrus chronicles a small victory in a much larger and uncertain battle, but with so much hopelessness in the region, it's worth highlighting and, hopefully, emulating.

After producer/director Ronit Avni, who grew up in Montreal with a Canadian mother and Israeli father, finished the 2006 documentary Encounter Point, audiences in the West kept asking her, "Where is the Palestinian nonviolent movement?" That question led her to Budrus, an arid village of 1,400 in the West Bank, and community organizer Ayed Morrar and his daughter Iltezam, the charismatic stars of the film. They began filming in 2007, after Israel adjusted the route of the barrier in response to Ayed's protests, relying on footage from dozens of activists who captured the action as it was ongoing.

Of course, the barrier still went up, though closer to pre-1967 borders, and suicide bombings in Israel have decreased in recent years, though whether that's because of the wall remains a matter of debate. And, as we know, Israeli settlement activity has only increased under Bibi Netanyahu's right-wing government, further dashing any chance of productive peace talks. Budrus screened at Tribeca against this bleak backdrop and became a surprise hit, playing to packed houses and winning a special jury mention.

The film premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December and will screen at the Jerusalem International Film Festival this July. Avni and director Julia Bacha are hoping to land a US distributor soon. In these trying times, Budrus needs to be seen.

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