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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Centrist Democrats = Corporate Sellouts

Every time I hear about Joe Lieberman's latest apostasy, I think, Oy vey! There he goes again. More Joementum.

Remind me why we still call this guy a Democrat? Sure, Lieberman caucuses with Democrats in the Senate--Joe is nothing if not opportunistic and who wants to be part of a lowly Republican minority?--but I think he forfeited his right to call himself one when he almost became John McCain's VP and campaigned stridently against an Obama presidency. Yet somehow he managed to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Gotta love those Senate Democrats--they always find a way to reward someone for stabbing them in the back. See Baucus, Max.

Following Lieberman's threat to filibuster a public option, every paper played up the story of how the "centrists" are now rebelling. Watch out, the centrists are coming! "Centrists unsure about Reid's public option," the Washington Post reported today. Let's get real. These holdouts are not centrist Democrats; they are corporate Democrats, which should be an oxymoron. They'll do whatever the healthcare industry wants and use their red state constituents as an excuse to do so. Only Lieberman is from Connecticut, one of the bluest states in the country. So what's his excuse?

Well, some rather large insurance companies reside in Connecticut and, as Joe Conason points out, Lieberman's wife just so happens to have been a drug industry lobbyist for Hill & Knowlton. Conason reports:

 

Among Hill & Knowlton's clients when Mrs. Lieberman signed on with the firm last year was GlaxoSmithKline, the huge British-based drug company that makes vaccines along with many other drugs. As I noted in July, Sen. Lieberman introduced a bill in April 2005 (the month after his wife joined Hill & Knowlton) that would award billions of dollars in new "incentives" to companies like GlaxoSmithKline to persuade them to make more new vaccines. Under the legislation, known as Bioshield II, the cost to consumers and governments would be astronomical, but for Lieberman and his Republican cosponsors, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., the results would be worth every penny. Using the war on terror as their ideological backdrop, the pharma-friendly senators sought to win patent extensions on products that have nothing to do with preparations against terrorist attack or natural disaster.

 

Sounds like a bit of a conflict of interest, no? Let's take a look at some of these other so-called "centrists." Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is in the pocket of Wal-Mart (just like her fellow Arkansan in the House, Blue Dog leader Mike Ross), Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is tied up with every major industry in the Bayou State and Ben Nelson...Well, he's Ben Nelson. What more need I say?

This healthcare debate has provided what they call a clarifying moment. When it's all over, we'll know exactly which side these Democrats are on.

What's Wrong With Washington

I've never met Heather Podesta. I've only spoken to her husband, Tony, once. But I found this Washington Post profile of her on Sunday incredibly distasteful. And I imagine I wasn't alone.

Sample quote from the "it girl" lobbyist, nonchalantly praising herself in third person: "This is a very good time to be a Democratic lobbyist...it's incredibly exciting to be able to engage with Democrats and really see things happen. It's always a good time to be Heather Podesta."

Wow, so much for modesty! It's not clear what things happening Podesta is referring to. The Post notes her clients include:

 

health-care clients such as insurance giants Cigna and HealthSouth, drugmaker Eli Lilly and the breast cancer group Susan G. Komen for the Cure; financial powerhouses such as Prudential and Swiss Reinsurance Co.; and energy outfits such as Marathon Oil, the major utility Southern Co. and Climate Masters, a geothermal heating firm.

 

Southern Co has spent millions of dollars trying to kill legislation aimed at combating global warming. Eli Lilly has poured more money than any other drugmaker into opposing President Obama's healthcare reform efforts. Marathon Oil is one of the top polluters in the United States. Why would a self-proclaimed Democrat openly brag about representing any of these outfits? (She also happens to be the sister-in-law of John Podesta, the former Clinton chief of staff who managed President Obama's transition.)

The article further describes how "at last year's Democratic convention, Podesta wore a scarlet L to razz Obama for talking so much about curbing lobbyist enthusiasm. She rejected about a dozen mock-ups before settling on a Gothic-style letter, which became such a popular giveaway that she blew through 100 of them."

Yes, because being a lobbyist is so contrarian. Way to take a stand Heather!

Change on K Street simply means replacing one class of lobbyists with another. In Obama's Washington, people like Heather Podesta should be shunned, not celebrated.

Baucus & Grassley Hijack Obama's Agenda

Barack Obama received 67 million votes in the last election. Senator Max Baucus of Montana received 349,000 votes when he ran for re-election last year. His Republican counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, got just over a million votes when he last ran in '04.

So how, exactly, was Obama's landslide victory a mandate for Baucus and Grassley to hijack the president's agenda? When it comes to healthcare reform, trusting Baucus was the first mistake Obama made. Allowing Baucus to cede so much authority to Grassley is the second.

When Baucus became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee after Democrats recaptured Congress, many Democrats were justifiably worried. After all, Baucus helped shepherd through Congress two of President Bush's signature initiatives, his tax cuts and Medicare privatization plan. He received a ton of money from corporate lobbyists, many of whom were former staffers of his. In a Nation profile in early '07, I dubbed him "K Street's Favorite Democrat."

Baucus' staff went to great lengths to convince me that he really was a progressive at heart. Just look at how he fought Bush's privatization of Social Security, even when the president came to Montana! Ok, but one relatively modesty stand does not erase a career of compromise and capitulation. Matt Yglesias came up with a fitting nickname for the Montana Senator: Bad Max.

Yet as Democrats solidified their control of Congress and Obama cruised to the White House, Baucus tried to convince his Democratic colleagues that they had nothing to worry about with him at the helm of such an important committee with jurisdiction over crucial financial matters. He endorsed Obama during the primary and Obama tapped Baucus' top aide, Jim Messina, as his chief of staff for the general election and deputy chief of staff in the White House. The hiring of Messina should've set off alarm bells among progressives, signaling that Baucus now had an influential booster in the president's inner circle.

"Max Baucus could prove a progressive legislative giant," Ezra Klein wrote just after the election. "Or he could be Bad Max." The latter, unfortunately, is what we've seen of late. Was "Good Max" always a facade?

When it came time to assemble a healthcare bill, Baucus gathered behind closed doors with the so-called "gang of six"--Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Republicans Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Grassley. As Yglesias pointed out, these six senators represents 2.74 percent of the US population, or 1/5 of California. Yet they quickly became the most influential group in the Congress. In a secret, backroom process, they disregarded the president's preference for a public option and likely killed the best chance we had for substantive healthcare reform that would cover all Americans, lower costs and give people a real choice of plans.

In a superfluous attempt to appear "bipartisan," Baucus once again bent over backwards to appease Grassley (the two have a long history and even when Baucus is holding the hearings it's difficult to tell who's really running the committee) even as Grassley falsely railed that Obama wanted to pull the plug on granny and made it clear, yesterday, that he has no intention of voting for whatever bill he is currently helping to draft. Ezra summarized the gist of Grassley's appearance on MSNBC yesterday:

 

He railed against "government-run health care" and the "Pelosi health-care bill." He talked about bureaucrats and exploding deficits. He sounded like a House conservative giving a stump speech. Grassley presumably leaves his stemwinders behind when he's with the Gang of Six. But this was not a comforting sign. This was not a unifying performance.

 

 

Second, Chuck Todd asked Grassley whether he'd vote for the bill if it was a good piece of policy that he'd crafted but that couldn't attract more than a handful of Republican votes. "Certainly not," replied Grassley. Todd tried again, clarifying that this was legislation Grassley liked, and thought would move the ball forward, but was getting bogged down due to partisanship. Grassley held firm. If a good bill cannot attract Republican support, then it is not a good bill, he argued.

 

 

Grassley, in other words, is working backward from the votes. If the Gang of Six reaches a compromise that the Senate Republicans don't support, Grassley will abandon that compromise, regardless of the fact that he's the guy who built it. The Gang of Six, in other words, falls apart if it can't assure a vote of 76.

 

Grassley is clearly the one who's off his meds. Democrats are rightly asking themselves what's the point of a 60-vote, supposedly filibuster-proof Senate majority if a crazy Republican from Iowa can derail their agenda? How can Baucus rely on Grassley? And why did Obama ever trust Baucus? Does he still? The answers to these questions will help determine whether healthcare reform can be salvaged in Congress.

Dean Slams Senate Finance Committee

Howard Dean guest hosted Countdown with Keith Olbermann at an opportune time last night, following reports that the Senate Finance Committee--helmed by Montana Democrat Max Baucus--is preparing to exclude a public option from its long-awaited healthcare bill.

"What if the Senate Finance Committee has already done the Republicans' dirty work for them?" Dean asked rhetorically at the beginning of show.

Dean has just authored a book on healthcare reform--detailing why America needs a public option--and knows quite a bit about the subject from his years as a doctor and governor of Vermont. He called Baucus's reported bill the "so-called compromise."

Dean asked Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, why Baucus would "give away something something so fundamental to healthcare reform as a public option?"

"We‘ve got to have a public option in the plan that we send to the president‘s desk," Van Hollen responded. "We‘re all still hoping that the Senate Finance Committee bill will have a public option."

Dean noted that 72 percent of Americans, according to a New York Times poll, support a public option. "Is what Americans want already dead in the Senate?" Dean asked.

"No," Van Hollen answered. "I certainly hope not. It‘s certainly not dead with respect to the bill that we‘ll send to the president‘s desk." But it isn't clear what kind of leverage House Democrats have with the likes of Baucus, nor do we know yet whether they'll be able to keep their own Blue Dog conservatives in line.

"Voters were promised change they can believe in," Dean told Van Hollen. "Are you concerned about what may happen to our party in 2010 or 2012 if we don‘t get any change at all?"

Van Hollen said that Democrats will be judged on whether they delivered on a promised new direction. What they end up doing on healthcare will go a long way towards answering that question.

In the next segment, Dean asked Wendell Potter--a former spokesman for Cigna turned whistleblower--"ideology aside, what motive do Republicans and Blue Dogs have to defeat the public option?"

"I think the motive is to satisfy the expectations of the insurance industry," Potter responded.

As a riposte, Dean played a clip of Bill Kristol praising government-run healthcare for our troops.

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Later in the show, Dean interviewed The Nation's Chris Hayes about the right-wing birther moment. He asked Chris if Republicans risked losing even more political capital by pushing such lies. "I'm not sure how much reputational capital is left in the Republican Party at this point," Hayes answered. Zing!

At the end of the show, Dean talked to Olbermann, who's vacationing in Cooperstown, about the possible reinstatement of Pete Rose to major league baseball. Dean admitted the talk show gig was "a lot harder than I thought it was."

He'll be guest hosting again tonight.

Is Max Baucus Change We Can Believe In?

For months, advocates for and against true health care reform in Washington have been closely watching Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the all-powerful Finance Committee, and wondering what he'll do. We don't know the answer yet. Baucus was instrumental in helping George Bush pass tax cuts for the rich and privatize Medicare, but he's also said he wants to shepherd Barack Obama's healthcare plan through Congress and make universal coverage a reality once and for all. Thus far, we don't which Baucus will show up, the Bush-loving friend of big business or the populist ally of Obama.

There's a reason The Nation dubbed Baucus "K Street's Favorite Democrat" in a profile I wrote back in March 2007, after the Democrats recaptured Congress and Baucus became chair of the Finance Committee. Some background:

 

After helping to craft the largest tax cut in a generation, Baucus raised more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector for his 2002 re-election campaign. Opening doors in both directions were former Baucus staffers. During the debate over whether to add a $400 billion privately run prescription-drug plan to Medicare, his former chief of staff, David Castagnetti, and legislative aide, Scott Olsen, were part of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's $8 million lobbying effort. Shortly after the legislation--written largely by the pharmaceutical industry--passed, Baucus's top staffer on the Finance Committee, Jeff Forbes, left to open his own lobbying shop, with clients including PhRMA, the drug maker Amgen and the American Health Care Association. These companies have in turn donated generously to Baucus; almost $700,000 between 2001 and 2006 from the healthcare industry and pharmaceutical lobby.

 

 

A study last year by Public Citizen found that between 1999 and 2005 Baucus, along with former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, took in the most special-interest money of any senator. He tops the list of recipients from business PACs. And only three senators have more former staffers working as lobbyists on K Street (at least two dozen in Baucus's case). Now that he's chairman, "former aides of Baucus, in particular, have been in demand on K Street by companies that hope to limit damage to their business interests," reports Congressional Quarterly.

 

The Sunlight Foundation recently reported that "five of Baucus' former staffers currently work for a total of twenty-seven different organizations that are either in the health care or insurance sector or have a noted interest in the outcome," including many of the firms--like PhRMA--that are sure to lobby against or work to severely dilute Obama's bill. Moreover, the Billings Gazette found that Baucus raises $1,500 a day from the medical-industrial complex, more than any other Democratic senator. "Baucus," the Gazette reported, "insists that this cascade of money is not unduly influencing his work." Said a Baucus spokesman, "No matter the issue, Max always puts Montana first."

Ok. Even if true, that's not always a good thing. The New York Times reports today that senators are considering taxing unhealthy products, like soda and cigarettes, to pay for healthcare reform. A 3 cent tax on a can of Coke would raise $51.6 billion over a decade, the Joint Committee on Taxation calculated. Unfortunately, such a move might harm the sugar beet industry of Montana and the high fructose corn producers of Iowa, the latter represented by Baucus' GOP counterpart and longtime ally on the Finance Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley. (The two are so close it's not clear who's heading the committee at times.) Thus Baucus says the proposal is on "life support." Protecting narrow state interests trumps covering 47 million uninsured Americans. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to your Congress!

There's still a chance Baucus will do the right thing and draft a meaningful healthcare bill with a strong public option that gets through Congress and to the president's desk. But it's a little scary to watch a man so compromised become the point person on Congress' most important bill.

Iran's Twitter Revolution

Forget CNN or any of the major American "news" networks. If you want to get the latest on the opposition protests in Iran, you should be reading blogs, watching YouTube or following Twitter updates from Tehran, minute-by-minute.

Some absolutely riveting and thrilling reporting has been done over Twitter by a university student in Tehran who goes by the moniker Tehran Bureau. The Iranian authorities shut his website down over the weekend and he was attacked by hard-line militias but he's been able to send short posts around the world over Twitter. Via Micah Sifry, here is a list of Iranian bloggers who've been twittering about the clashes between opposition protesters and government forces loyal to Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. I found out about many of these sites thanks to the great twittering by Tom Mattzie, formerly of MoveOn.org

In the US, bloggers such as The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney have surpassed most traditional news organizations by posting around the clock updates. They've relied on incredible YouTube footage from inside Iran, like this one of a pro-Mousavi rally today.

Outside the US, the likes of the BBC and Britain's Channel 4 have also done brave and courageous reporting, often shooting on their cell phones and in the backs of cars, as the Iranian regime clamps down on coverage of the apparently rigged election and its volatile aftermath.

It's been amazing to watch this coverage amidst all the turmoil. I'm not sure what the Iranian regime expected when they fixed the election, but the outpouring of texts, tweets and video from Tehran has sparked a worldwide solidarity movement. Whatever the outcome, there is no going back.

UPDATE: Also read Marc Ambinder's post on the topic.

Mutually Assured Destruction in Virginia Primary

In January 2004 in Iowa, an infamous murder-suicide took place. No, not a real one. This was of the political variety. In the final days of the Iowa caucus, Dick Gephardt launched a series of attack ads against Howard Dean. Dean--supposedly still the front-runner--responded in kind. The candidates finished a distant third and fourth. There is some truth and some myth to this theory, but the tale lives on.

Much the same thing happened in Virginia last night. From the get-go, Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran viewed each other as their biggest obstacles to winning the Democratic primary for governor. In debates, radio ads and TV spots, Moran portrayed McAuliffe as a crony capitalist carpetbagger who vociferously campaigned against Barack Obama. McAuliffe tagged Moran as a hot-headed Richmond insider in the pocket of defense contractors and called his political consultant, Joe Trippi (long rivals from the Dean days), "an ass." McAuliffe claimed he was joking but neither Moran nor Trippi were much amused. The contest seemed oddly personal. The video below gives you a good example of the frequent absurdity of the race.

Voters got tired of the Moran-McAuliffe antics, which reeked of old politics, and rewarded the guy who stayed out of the fight, state senator Creigh Deeds. Mr. Anonymous benefited from being bland and likeable and shot up in the polls after receiving the Washington Post's surprise endorsement. McAuliffe and Moran both cratered, coming in at least twenty points behind.

Dems Vie for Victory in Virginia

The Democratic primary for governor of Virginia, which takes place on June 9, has been a pretty nasty affair from Day One. At a February fundraising dinner, Democratic candidates Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran, Terry McAuliffe and Republican nominee Bob McDonnell (the current Attorney General) came together for an ostensibly friendly roast.

After telling a joke about Deeds' donkey, Truman, McAuliffe referred to Brian Moran's media consultant, Joe Trippi, as an "ass." He said Trippi had come up to him at The Palm one day and offered to help with his race. "I said to him, 'You really want to help me? That's what you want to do? You want to help me, Joe? Great. Go work for Brian and go do for him what you did for President Dean and President Edwards."

From the audience Moran yelled, "How's President Hillary Clinton?"

That exchange pretty much sums up the primary so far. McAuliffe--the former head of the DNC, campaign chairman for Hillary and best friend to Bill--has spent his rivals into the ground and touted his "outsider" credentials, a bit of a shocker given his background as the consummate Washington insider.

Moran--a longtime delegate from Northern Virginia and brother of Congressman Jim Moran--has attacked McAuliffe over his ties to big business and for campaigning against Barack Obama. Deeds, a delegate from rural Bath County, has largely laid low and now has an ad out touting his recent Washington Post endorsement, meant to appeal to increasingly populous NoVa.

McAuliffe had opened up a big lead in a race that hasn't generated a whole lot of excitement, but now polls show a virtual dead heat. Moran's advisers say their numbers have it tied, while other polls show either Deeds surging or McAuliffe barely holding onto his lead. The rancor between McAuliffe and Moran--which no doubt stems in part from the animosity between Terry and Trippi--may give Deeds, who lost to McDonnell by 323 votes in the 2005 attorney general's race--the opening he needs.

Moran staked out the most progressive positions of the three during the primary--opposing a new coal-fired power plant and supporting a hike in the sales tax to improve Virginia's transportation nightmare--but Deeds may have the best chance in a matchup against McDonnell, given the closeness of their past contest and his appeal in both the rural and urban sections of the state.

McAuliffe is a wild card. Many Democrats, myself included, didn't think he'd make it out of the primary and still believe he'd get trounced in a general election. McDonnell will be a formidable opponent, a law-and-order conservative who plays to the base but can appeal to the broader populace in a demographically changing, politically diverse state. Democrats have won the last two governors races and the presidency, but Virginia is by no means (yet) a solidly blue state.

Bloomberg's the 'Disgrace'

It's bad enough that Mike Bloomberg jerry-rigged a third term for himself via the hapless city council--a maneuver not even Rudy Giuliani could pull off after 9/11--and has already spent $19 million in the middle of a recession on an re-election campaign where he's facing only nominal resistance from city comptroller Bill Thompson.

But now anybody who has the audacity to question the mayor's decision to handicap democracy is called a "disgrace." That's what happened to the New York Observer's Azi Paybarah at a press conference in Queens yesterday. Bloomberg mentioned how the New York economy was improving, which prompted Paybarah to ask Bloomberg if such a turnaround undermined his supposed rationale for running for mayor again--that only Bloomberg could handle the city's finances during an economic calamity. Watch the response:

This is not the first time that Bloomberg has jumped on a reporter for asking a perfectly legitimate question. Quite frankly, he's behaving more like an emperor or an autocrat than the humble public servant he claims to be.

I don't think Bloomberg's been a bad mayor. He's been good on some things and poor on others. The city has, by and large, flourished on his watch. A majority of New Yorkers remain satisfied with the job he's done. Yet the city feels a little like Singapore these days, well-run but ultimately sterile. The way Bloomberg's been buying elections contributes to that.

During the presidential election, it seemed as if New York, more than any other place, embodied the spirit of Obama. "Obamaism" was its own kind of religion here, New York's Kurt Andersen wrote. So it's a little sad how, just a few months later, we're witnessing a decline in democracy right in our own backyard.

L'Affaire Edwards: To Sabotage or Not?

On the heels of Elizabeth Edwards' revelation in her new book that she wanted her husband to drop out of the race for the presidency after having an affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, George Stephanopoulos reported on Sunday that Edwards staffers had convened a strategy to "sabotage his campaign" if he won the Democratic nomination.

Onetime Edwards strategist Joe Trippi has since responded to that report, calling it "complete bullshit."

Trippi told CNN: "No one that I know had such a plan, I wasn't involved in a plan like that, it didn't exist, it's a fantasy."

Trippi may be right, but I distinctly recall a conversation with an Edwards confidante at the Democratic Convention in August that lends some credence to the "sabotage strategy." I asked the Edwards insider--who asked not to be named--whether the staff knew about Edwards' affair (and possible love child) and whether they had planned to do anything about it. "We would have prevented Edwards from becoming the nominee had he won Iowa," this person told me based on my recollection of the conversation, "because we believed some portion of the rumors to be true."

I remember being surprised at that revelation and finding the whole scenario somewhat implausible. Why wait until after Iowa? If longtime staffers knew about or suspected Edwards' entanglements, shouldn't they have acted long before it reached voting time?

I asked that same Edwards confidante yesterday whether such a "sabotage strategy" ever existed? The person replied: "To suggest there was a plan is too strong. There was concern that if Edwards were actually in a position to seriously be the nominee, then this stuff needed to be aired and dealt with. He couldn't be the nominee without this dealt with in a real way." There was never an official conference call or the like, but such chatter did take place among Edwards campaign vets as the candidate picked up steam in Iowa in December. Prior to that point, it was assumed--even among some longtime supporters--that Edwards had little change of winning the nomination.

The Edwards staffers who discussed such a scenario figured "the problem would fix itself"--either Edwards would lose Iowa and drop out, or "if he was doing well, he'd get a lot more scrutiny and the press would either figure it out or not."

It's possible, in the end, that some people in the Edwards campaign knew about or suspected the affair and were prepared to do something about it, and others were kept in the dark or didn't take part in such conversations.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell makes a good point in her latest Notion blog; it's strange that people are blaming Elizabeth for opening old wounds when her husband's extraordinary carelessness and selfishness created this problem in the first place.

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