Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Obama Wins Straw Poll

Barack Obama won the first annual Take Back America straw poll held this afternoon. Of the over 700 respondents, 29 percent favored Obama, followed by John Edwards in a close second with 26 percent and Hillary Clinton in third with 17 percent. Al Gore won a not-too-shabby 8 percent as a write-in candidate.

For their second choices, Obama voters picked Edwards and vice versa, reflecting a strong anti-Hillary contingent at the conference.

The war in Iraq was the top issue for those surveyed, followed by health care and energy/global warming. The top priorities for those at the conference largely mirrored the American public as a whole said pollster Stan Greenberg, who conducted the survey in conjunction with the Politico.com.

Obama and Edwards clearly helped themselves with strong, lively, moving speeches. The response to Clinton, while still largely favorable, was more mixed, including a smattering of boos on Iraq.

Eighty-three percent of those queried described themselves as liberal or progressive. Time will tell whether their preferences match Democrats in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada.

Hillary Booed, Again

Last summer, when she criticized the idea of setting a timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq, Hillary Clinton was met with a chorus of boos at the annual Take Back America conference.

This year was supposed to be different. Hillary now pledges to end the war on her first day in office. But yet again she experienced boos at Take Back America when she put the blame on the Iraqi government for the mess in Iraq.

"The American military has succeeded," she said midway through her speech. "It is the Iraqi government that has failed." That line has become a standard talking point for politicians of both parties, especially Republicans. But the disingenuousness of the argument didn't sit right at TBA.

The reception caused Hillary to go off-script for a moment. "I like speaking here every year," she said. "I see the signs that say get us out of Iraq. That is what we are trying to do."

That seemed to mollify the crowd. And the rest of the speech, where she ticked off a laundry list of Democratic priorities--like achieving universal healthcare, cleaning up government and strengthening unions--played well.

All in all, she did better compared to last year. But it was no honeymoon, either.

Failing With Fatah

Since last November, the United States government has been prepping fighters from Fatah, the security arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to do battle with Hamas. "The plan, which [Condoleezza Rice] developed after speaking to President Bush, was to put pressure on the Hamas government by providing the Palestinian security forces loyal to [Mahmoud] Abbas with training, intelligence, and large shipments of supplies and new weapons, paid for by the United States and by Saudi Arabia," the Atlantic Monthly reported recently.

The $86 million plan, masterminded by Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, didn't work out as planned. Hamas easily routed Fatah in Gaza last week. It was both a diplomatic and military failure for the United States.

The US operation received surprisingly little scrutiny in this country. Few pundits noted the irony of the Bush Administration attempting to undermine the democratically-elected (though hardly moderate) Hamas government while preaching the virtues of democracy in Iraq.

In the wake of Hamas's latest victory, the Administration is once again trying to prop up Fatah with a "West Bank First" strategy. They better hope that this plan works better than the last one.

The Queen of Earmarks?

There is nothing inherently wrong with "earmarks," which the Sunlight Foundation describes as "a provision in legislation that directs funds to be spent on specific projects." But in recent years earmarking has become a symbol of the culture of corruption in Washington, used and abused by crooked politicians like Duke Cunningham and Conrad Burns to benefit wealthy benefactors.

The Hill reported yesterday that Hillary Clinton inserted more earmarks into the latest defense spending bill than any other Senator except for Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin. The 26 earmarks, totaling $148.4 million, mostly went to the New York-based defense industry. (For more on Hillary's ties to military contractors, see the Village Voice article "Mama Warbucks.")

These earmarks appear to be legitimate and above board. But that didn't stop the RNC from calling Hillary the "President of Pork" or John McCain from noting that the Pentagon did not request them.

And Hillary is vulnerable on the issue. When the Senate debated lobbying and ethics reforms in January, Clinton voted against requiring public disclosure of earmark sponsors and earmark recipients, and to change the definition of an earmark to include both federal and non-federal projects.

Foreign Agent Fred

The mainstream media is starting to pay attention to Fred Thompson's decades-long gig as a well-heeled Washington lobbyist. His client list has been noted in this space and elsewhere. What Thompson actually did for one of these clients, the British insurance firm Equitas Ltd, was fleshed out in a must-read column by the Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum today.

His main assignment: to use his connections to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to extract information about goings-on inside Congress and use it to benefit his multibillion-dollar client.

In exchange for this insider wisdom he was paid a cool $760,000...

Thompson's client, London-based Equitas Ltd., held billions of dollars to pay off claims from people sickened by asbestos, a once-common building material. It wanted Congress to limit how much it had to pay into a trust fund to cover those liabilities.

In an earlier era, the term of art for what Thompson did would have been "foreign agent." 

So the so-called folksy outsider in the Republican presidential field was until recently an access man aka foreign agent for a British insurance giant. My colleague David Corn notes that this story appeared on page A23, as part of Birnbaum's "On K Street" column, with no mention or tease on the front page. David invokes the old I.F. Stone adage: "you never know where in The Washington Post you'll find a front-page story."

Bad News Benchmarks

The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index provides the most authoritative measure of how much progress is being made in Iraq. Their recent findings? Not much.

The latest chart compares every May since the fall of Saddam in 2003. US troop deaths per month, American fatalities from homemade bombs, monthly insurgent attacks against coalition troops and civilians, and Iraqi civilian deaths are at an all-time high.

The number of foreign troops in the "coalition of the willing" are at an all-time low. So are the percentage of Iraqis who say their country is heading in the right direction. That's down from 70 percent after the liberation of Baghdad to 36 percent today, just above George W. Bush's own approval rating in this country.

"Overall levels of violence are down somewhat in Baghdad," the authors write. Yet across the country, "bad news still dominates."

Some Republicans have suggested using the "Iraq Index" as official benchmarks. That won't provide their party much relief.

Curbing Corporate America

Corporate and CEO profits are at an all-time high. The richest 1 percent in America posses the wealth of the bottom 95 percent combined. Companies deploy hundreds of lobbyists and spend millions of dollars courting members of Congress to win legislative favors. The presidential election in '08 promises to be the priciest in history, largely underwritten by big business and top dollar donors.

Whatever one thinks of Ralph Nader, his critique of how corporate America has come to dominate American politics seems more and more prescient. "The countervailing forces to corporate power have been in decline for the last 25 years," he says. Today Nader kicked off a three day conference on the subject of "Taming the Giant Corporation" at the regal Carnegie Institution in Washington.

The discussion couldn't come at a more pressing time. "There have never been as many exposes of corporate scandal in the progressive and mainstream media as there is today," Nader says. "And there has never been less impact to these disclosures."

The public certainly isn't satisfied with the status quo. In an April CBS News/Gallup poll, 59 percent of the public said life has gotten "worse" for middle-class Americans over the past ten years. Sixty-six percent believe that money and wealth "should be more evenly distributed" in America.

Yet there is often a disconnect between the views of the public and the actions of elected officials. Take the example of immigration reform, which failed to clear the Senate last night. Politicians and the media largely argue over whether the bill provides "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, while missing the larger point.

"What the immigration bill was really about was corporate America's ability to import low-skilled and high-skilled workers to keep wages down," says Warren Gunnels, a senior policy advisor to Bernie Sanders who spoke in the Senator's absence. High-skilled workers brought in on H-1B visas are paid, on average, $25,000 less per year than American workers, according to Gunnels. And last week, while Dell and IBM and Motorola and others claimed that they couldn't find Americans to take these jobs, those very companies laid off thousands of employees. So Sanders sponsored an amendment, along with Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, to limit the number of H-1B visas to companies that are concurrently laying off workers. It never reached the floor.

In The Nation two years back Nader proposed "How to Curb Corporate Power." It should be required reading for the Congress.

Hillary vs. Labor, Round II

Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, is becoming a liability for her campaign. Following the publication of The Nation's article, Hillary Inc., the heads of two large unions wrote a letter to Clinton, first noted in the New York Times this week, expressing their displeasure that Penn's PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, was helping corporations block union organizing drives, including one their unions were involved in at Cintas, a highly profitable uniform and laundry supply company.

After the Times story, the two most important labor leaders in America--the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney and SEIU's Andy Stern--also contacted the Clinton campaign. According to AFL-CIO spokesman Steve Smith, "Sweeney had a conversation with the campaign and registered his concern about Mark Penn."

As a result, two days before Hillary is to speak before an AFL-CIO forum in Detroit, Penn is trying to draw separation from his company's anti-labor work, telling The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder that "he will cede all oversight responsibilities for his company's labor relations clients to other managers."

A few weeks back Penn told The Nation that he had "never personally participated in any antiunion activity." He said today, via email, that he is "sending a clear message that I have no role in this and as a matter of conscience will not."

Penn's statements raise the question: how does one recuse themselves from work they claim not to be doing?

"The logic of the question has considerable merit," says Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton advisor and ambassador to organized labor. "Mark has told us that he is taking extra steps to assure people on the outside that he does not engage with clients that may be involved in controversial issues. The phrase 'Chinese wall' has been used."

Ickes predicts rival campaigns will use the anti-labor connection against Clinton. "You don't want to have attention deflected from the candidate," he says.

The Clinton camp believes it has put the matter to rest. "Mark is a extremely valued and vital member of our team and Hillary is pleased that he has not done this work in the past and will be recusing himself from any possible involvement in the future," says Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.

Yet some labor officials hoped Penn would go much further, taking steps toward terminating B-M's "labor relations" division or at least ending the contract with Cintas. Neither will occur, nor is Penn taking a formal leave of absence from the company. He's also not distancing himself from the money the "labor relations" wing brings in and the other controversial clients B-M represents in the defense, pharmaceutical and energy industries and the Republican lobbyists he oversees.

Penn's "recusal" must thus be seen as a classic case of PR spin; a phony gesture that fails to address the underlying problems or the reasons prominent labor leaders are upset with Clinton's campaign.

Hillary vs. Labor

A few weeks ago The Nation disclosed that Hillary Clinton's chief strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, leads a giant PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, that aggressively helps corporations stop union organizing drives. We cited the specific example of how B-M successfully assists the highly profitable and controversial uniform and laundry supply company Cintas in blocking union efforts to organize 20,000 of the company's garment workers and truck drivers.

The article and subsequent follow-ups prompted a lot of unease in labor circles. Now the heads of the two unions leading the organizing drive at Cintas, Bruce Raynor of UNITE-HERE and James Hoffa of the Teamsters, have gone public with their concerns, writing a letter to Hillary, highlighted in the New York Times today, expressing their displeasure with Penn's company and his role in her campaign. A copy of their signed letter is below:


Dear Senator Clinton:



It is with distress that we write you today. The Nation recently posted a story about Mark Penn, your pollster and chief strategist, detailing some of his firm's direct support for anti-union/anti-worker campaigns. His firm's activities in the effort to undermine workers right to organize at Cintas, a campaign our unions are involved in, is particularly disheartening.



We wanted to bring this to your attention since we value your positions on EFCA [Employee Free Choice Act] and many other workers issues and do not want to see you or the Democratic Party embarrassed.



We look forward to hearing back from you on this matter.






James P. HoffaTeamsters General President



Bruce S. RaynorUNITE HERE General President


A labor official told me that he expects Hillary to sit down with the two union heads and "placate us a little bit. But I don't think she'll cut Penn lose. He's her Rove."

Penn may eventually be forced take a formal leave of absence from Burson-Marsteller, a step he has thus far resisted. That might erase the political liability Penn has become for Hillary's campaign, but it hardly diminishes the underlying implications of his presence as her top strategist, the anti-union work Burson-Marsteller continues to do and the likelihood that if Hillary is elected Penn and his clients will greatly benefit, further blurring the distinction between the corporate and political world.

Perhaps in their private meeting Raynor and Hoffa will ask Senator Clinton why she elevated someone like Penn in the first place and chose to ignore his anti-labor ties.

The War Over "War on Terror"

Bill Clinton made a habit of blurring the differences between Democrats and Republicans. Now his wife is doing the same to her Democratic rivals.

"The differences among us are minor," she said during last night's debate in New Hampshire. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major." That's true, but only to a point. Take, for example, the rather important question of whether or not the US is engaged, as George W. Bush says, in a global war on terror.

In a speech last month, John Edwards courageously called the "war on terror" a "bumper sticker" for President Bush. "The war on terror is a slogan designed only for politics, not a strategy to make America safe," he said on May 23. "It's a bumper sticker, not a plan." He reiterated that criticism last night. The phrase was intended, Edwards said, "for George Bush to use it to justify everything he does: the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture."

When asked for her response, Hillary disagreed. "I am a senator from New York," she said. "I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11, and I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists who are intent upon foisting their way of life and using suicide bombers and suicidal people to carry out their agenda." Perhaps most tellingly, she concurred with Bush that the country is safer now than it was before 9/11.

Hillary has aggressively moved left on Iraq since entering the primary. But when it comes to the "war on terror," her answer last night revealed that she still favors the status quo.

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