Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

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.

From Willisville to Washington?

Arkansas is the only Southern state where Democrats are still a dominant electoral majority. It’s also the only state in the former Confederacy that’s never elected an African-American candidate to Congress or statewide office. Joyce Elliott hopes to change that shameful history this year.

Elliott, a state senator from Little Rock, is running for the second Congressional district seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder, who’s retiring. Much attention has been focused this spring on the Senate primary between Bill Halter and Blanche Lincoln, but Arkansas also has two open Congressional seats (Rep. Marion Berry is also retiring) this cycle, making it a prime battleground in 2010. Elliott is running in a crowded primary against Speaker of the House Robbie Wills, former Synder chief of staff David Boling and Patrick Kennedy, Director of Public Programs at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, among others. One early poll shows Elliott with a slight lead, though most of the electorate is still undecided. The candidates held their first debate Tuesday night. Here’s her opening statement:

Race is not the only factor that separates Elliott from the rest of the pack, though it does make her background particularly unique. She grew up in the dirt-poor town of Willisville, population 188, and was the first student to integrate the local high school in rural southwest Arkansas (30 minutes from Hope). “That was ugly,” she told me when we met in Little Rock. “There were no soldiers, no cameras.” Her first campaign ad recounts her biography:

She paid her way through Southern Arkansas University and went on to teach high school English for thirty-one years while becoming a leader with the American Federation of Teachers. She entered the state house in 2000 and became chairman of the House Education Committee before joining the state senate in 2008. She hasn’t been afraid to take controversial stands in the legislature, introducing hate crimes legislation to protect vulnerable minority groups and pushing for illegal immigrants who graduate high school to be eligible for college scholarships. She lost both battles, and knows these unpopular stands will be used against her, along with her race. “There are people who are absolutely convinced that it’s impossible for me to win because I’m an African-American,” she says. “That’s based on our history, having never done it before.” But, she points out, Barack Obama faced many of the same doubts before becoming president. (Obama has never been popular in Arkansas, losing the state by twenty points to McCain and the second Congressional district by ten.)

Elliott admits that the Democratic Senate primary has “sucked up all the oxygen” in Arkansas political circles. She’s remained neutral. “It’s been very divisive in the Democratic Party, which is not to say that’s a bad thing,” she says. “The party exists to have primaries. We shouldn’t be discoursing people from running for office.” But perhaps all the focus on the Senate primary helps explain why Elliott hasn’t raised as much money as expected or attracted national attention when she should be a natural ally for liberal groups like MoveOn and Emily’s List. (She has been endorsed by the Arkansas AFL-CIO.)

Her chief opponent in the race, House Speaker Robbie Wills, has already tacked to the right, saying he would’ve opposed the recently passed healthcare bill, which Elliott supports. Second district Republicans, meanwhile, are coalescing around Karl Rove-protégé Tim Griffin as their nominee, who Alberto Gonzales appointed US Attorney of Eastern Arkansas in 2006 as part of the “Attorneygate” purge. “Of course this seat could go Republican if Democrats run away from our principles,” Elliott says. “We run away in an apologetic manner far too often.” But after growing up in Willisville, nothing scares her. “I know this is difficult, but I’m not daunted by it,” she says. “I hope I’m the candidate that faces the Republicans. I know I am tough enough.”

The primary is May 18.

Labor to Lincoln: You're Not Obama's BFF

Last week I blogged about the ads Senator Blanche Lincoln is running on African-American radio in Arkansas, claiming she "stood with our president to pass healthcare reform." The ads drew a sharp response from Lincoln's primary challenger, Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter. "Who is Blanche Lincoln trying to fool on healthcare?" said the Halter ad. "She didn't stand up to the special interests, she worked for them."

Now one of the unions that endorsed Halter, the Communications Workers of America, has launched a new ad campaign further targeting Lincoln on healthcare and tying her to George W. Bush. Listen here.

Here's the script:


Stop right there. Listen up.


Have you heard the mess Senator Blanche Lincoln has been talking, right here on the radio?

To hear Lincoln tell it, she’s been President Obama’s best friend.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Time and time and time again, Blanche Lincoln opposed, obstructed, and downright got in the way of President Obama trying to get things done.

Lincoln lined up and led the charge with Republicans and insurance lobbyists to try to embarrass the President and kill health care reform.

Instead of protecting us, Lincoln’s helping big insurance companies protect their profits.


Then again what would expect?

Lincoln left us long ago.

She calls herself a Democrat but voted for George Bush’s tax cuts and sides with Republicans on too many issues.

She barely ever comes back to Arkansas…except when it’s voting time.

Call Senator Lincoln, at 202-224-3121.

Tell her we need Senator who won’t take us for granted.


CWA says the radio spot is running on eleven African-American radio stations in the state. "If you listen to hip-hop, R&B, gospel--any African-American radio--you are going to hear this ad," says a CWA official. "In stations around Little Rock it will run more than 50 times a day--twice per hour. In the smaller, regional stations it will run 20-30 times per day."

The union also unveiled a new TV ad aimed at middle-class Democratic voters, hitting Lincoln for supporting trade deals that sent US jobs overseas. "Since she killed our jobs," the ad wonders, "should she keep hers?"

Though only five percent of Arkansans belong to a union, labor has pledged to spend $4 million on Halter's behalf. The primary on May 18 will be a key test of their clout in this conservative state and unexpected battleground.

Lincoln Suddenly Stands With Obama

Describing Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln's position on healthcare reform as a flip-flop doesn't do justice to her political flexibility. During a year of contentious debate on President Obama's signature domestic priority, she's been all over the map.

In July 2009, she offered her support for Obama's healthcare plan and his inclusion of a public insurance option. "Individuals should be able to choose from a range of quality health insurance plans," she wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Options should include private plans as well as a quality, affordable public plan or non-profit plan that can accomplish the same goals as those of a public plan."

Yet two months later, after the public option came under fire from insurance companies and Tea Partiers, Lincoln changed her tune. "I would not support a solely government-funded public option," she said on September 1 in Little Rock. "We can't afford that." She vowed to filibuster any healthcare bill that included the public option she once supported, even though 56 percent of Arkansans backed the provision.

In December, she supported the Senate's healthcare reform legislation--which did not include a public option, in part due to opposition from the likes of Lincoln. Her first re-election ad this year cited her vote "against the public option healthcare plan," along with a number of other Obama initiatives. "I don't answer to my party," she said. "I answer to Arkansas."

In March 2010, Lincoln hailed the efforts of House Democrats to pass the Senate's healthcare bill, noting its "significant benefits" for Arkansas. But she then opposed the efforts of Senate Democrats to pass the House's fixes to the bill through reconciliation--the very process that enabled Democrats to agree on a final bill. "My opposition today to the package of amendments sent over by the House was that it did not undergo the same scrutiny and transparency as the Senate health bill that is now law," she announced on March 25. Only three Senate Democrats voted no on reconciliation--Lincoln, fellow Arkansan Mark Pryor (who wanted to give her political cover) and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Lincoln's obstructionism on healthcare and a host of other fronts persuaded Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter--a rising star in the state--to challenge her in the Democratic primary on May 18. Halter helped organize a free healthcare clinic for a thousand Arkansans in November 2009 and supported a public insurance option, along with passage of a final bill through reconciliation. He's been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, SEIU and MoveOn, and recent polls show him gaining on Lincoln.

Now, in an attempt to court the Obama voters she's repelled throughout the past year, Lincoln is running ads on African-American radio in Arkansas claiming she "stood with our president to pass healthcare reform." The ad continues: "Even though the Tea Party and insurance companies attacked Blanche Lincoln, she never abandoned our president, nor you." Listen to the ads below.

The ads also take a shot at Halter's main accomplishment as lieutenant governor--creating a state lottery to pay for scholarships for college, a popular program in the low-income state. "Bill Halter keeps talking about lottery this, lottery that," says one man in the ads. "The lottery doesn't give me access to healthcare."

In response, the Halter campaign began running this ad:

"Who is Blanche Lincoln trying to fool on healthcare?" says the narrator. "Here's the deal: she didn't stand up to the special interests, she worked for them. She sided with those Republicans who tried to kill President Obama's reforms unless insurance company profits were protected. Insurance companies and HMOs rewarded Lincoln with more the $800,000 in campaign cash...Senator Lincoln, my people aren't fooled. Bill Halter is the one who'll stand up for us."

In addition to the healthcare ads, Lincoln has been touting her "A" rating from the NAACP, which the organization's Arkansas chapter takes issue with. "If I had to grade her even on health care reform she definitely wouldn’t get an A," said Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas NAACP. "She’d maybe get a C minus."

I'll have much more on this hotly contested race as we get closer to the primary.

Remember 11/4/08?

On the day of President Obama's healthcare summit, I took a break from the political hubbub and saw a new documentary about the day of his election, 11/4/08.

Two years ago, filmmaker Jeff Deutchman (full disclosure, a friend from college) asked his friends across the globe, from Dubai to Alaska, to record the hours from 8 am until 4 am on Election Day. The resulting "participatory democracy" captures the nervous anticipation, frenzied excitement and euphoric celebration that marked that historic day. "It's like being in a dream," says a young Obama field organizer in St. Louis after the results come through. Perhaps if our politicians remembered why they were sent to Washington, they'd do a better job once they got there.

Given the events of the past year, it's easy to be cynical now, as the infectious idealism of the Obama generation gives way to inertia and intransigence inside the Beltway. Some of the skepticism voiced about Obama in the film--"are you worried that if he gets elected it will be tough to live up to everyone's hopes?" one man asks--seems prescient, while starry-eyed slogans like "In Obama We Trust," are painful to relive.

But just because Obama hasn't always lived up to many people's lofty expectations thus far doesn't mean they were wrong to expect a lot of him. "I haven't voted for twenty years, but I see the dream," says a man in New Orleans. "Obama." Watching the film you're reminded how it felt for so much of the country to have such hope. As polls close, a sixty-year-old black woman from St. Louis tells a story about how, as a little girl, she remembered the senseless murder of Emmett Till in 1955. "If you only knew how much this means to me," she tearfully tells a room of Obama volunteers, referring to the prospect of electing the first black president. We often lose sight today of what a milestone that was.

The movement of 11/4/08 was a thrilling one. The story of 11/5/08 and beyond, with all its maddening twists and turns, has yet to be told.

Deutchman's film will be playing at SXSW in Austin this month and hopefully at a theater near you soon. Here's the trailer.

11/4/08 trailer from Jeff Deutchman on Vimeo.

So Long Harold (Don't Call)

Harold Ford Jr. was the best thing that ever happened to Kirsten Gillibrand.

His helicopter trips to Staten Island, unyielding apologism for Wall Street and rapidly shifting positions on issues like abortion and gay marriage made Gillibrand's own flip flops and defense of Big Tobacco seem like a distant memory.

Junior, as folks back home in Tennessee call him, seemed to think he could just waltz into Manhattan, take a cushy job as an executive with Merrill Lynch (at the very moment millions of people were losing their jobs because of Wall Street's shenanigans), breakfast at the Regency, cozy up to a few disaffected Democratic donors and voilà, a Senate seat that he could no longer win in Tea Party Tennessee would be waiting for him in New York. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, this was not.

Now Junior is putting the kibosh on his fitful challenge to Gillibrand, writing today in the New York Times that although "there are compelling reasons for me to run...the likely result would be a brutal and highly negative Democratic primary — a primary where the winner emerges weakened and the Republican strengthened. I refuse to do anything that would help Republicans win a Senate seat in New York, and give the Senate majority to the Republicans." At least for once he's keeping his fellow Democrats in mind, even in yet another smug op-ed where he takes credit for pushing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's trial out of New York and putting healthcare legislation on the back burner.

Everyone knows that Ford is dropping out because he realized, finally, that he couldn't win. What started as a bad joke became an absurd spectacle in political theatre. It's usually a bad sign to start a campaign by polling voters to see how they'll react to the news of your lavish Wall Street bonus. Any ordinary helicopter pilot could tell you that won't play in these times, whether it's in Poughkeepsie or Park Slope.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it were) for Gillibrand, there's an obnoxious billionaire with a sense of self-importance that dwarfs even Junior's waiting stage right. Bring on Mort Zuckerman!

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