Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Vitter-Sweet on DC Madam

So much for the DC madam's client list not being newsworthy. Tell that to Senator David Vitter, the conservative Louisiana Republican and first major politico linked to Madam Deborah Jane Palfrey.

After the AP reported that his phone number appeared in Palfrey's phone records, Vitter apologized for "a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible." He continued: "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling." It was unclear if that was before or after a prominent Louisiana Republican accused Vitter of repeatedly shaking up with a prostitute in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Vitter, in yet another delicious slice of religious right hypocrisy, is one of the most outspoken social conservatives in the Senate. He co-sponsored legislation to federally finance abstinence-only education and called a ban on gay marriage the most important issue in the country today. He also told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that "infidelity, divorce, and deadbeat dads contribute to the breakdown of traditional families."

Marc Ambinder reminds us that Vitter was the first GOP Senator to endorse Rudy Giuliani and serves as one of the campaign's key ambassadors to social conservatives.

It gets better. Vitter first ran for Congress to fill the seat of Speaker of the House Bob Livingston, who resigned after his extramarital affairs became public. Asked in 2000 what she would do if her husband committed similar transgressions, Vitter's wife Wendy responded: "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

The GOP's Iraq "Anguish"

The newest GOP buzzword: anguished. That's the phrase most often used these days to describe how Republicans feel about the war in Iraq. Three prominent GOP Senators have rhetorically broken with the Bush Administration in the past two weeks. More are sure to follow.

According to the New York Times, "White House officials fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush's Iraq strategy are collapsing around them." Maine Senator Olympia Snowe says enough is enough. She invokes another Iraq buzzword: benchmarks. The Iraqi government must meet the targets requested by Congress by much-vaunted September. Or else.

Yet another dissident Senator, Indiana's Richard Lugar, says "there's no conceivable way that" the benchmarks will be met. And the White House may be preparing to scrap those goals altogether in search of "alternative evidence of progress."

What's an anguished Republican to do? They'll be votes on Iraq in Congress this week. That's a good place to start.

A Clinton Spy Scandal?

When news of the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program became public, Senator Hillary Clinton called the eavesdropping "strange" and "far-fetched." In a fundraising email she went on to blast "a secret program that spies on Americans!"

Now her chief strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, may have a spying problem of his own.

A lawsuit filed in New York by a former employee of Penn's polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland, alleges that when the employee left the firm and started a rival consulting business, workers at PSB hacked into his BlackBerry and illegally monitored his email. The lawsuit, filed in mid-June and reported by the AP on Wednesday, claims that Penn approved of the surveillance.

The backstory is a complicated one. Penn originally sued his former partner Mike Berland and Mitchell Markel in Manhattan court for allegedly violating a non-compete clause with PSB. In response, Markel filed a countersuit detailing the supposed improper email monitoring.

As of now, it's impossible to know who to believe. Penn, through an attorney, has denied any wrongdoing. But it should be noted that Penn sued a former close colleague of his, pollster Peter Brodnitz--who's worked for Tim Kaine and Harold Ford Jr--when Brodnitz left PSB in 2004. And his firm threatened legal action when former employees started a "PSB survivors" message board documenting what they perceived as personally abusive and unethical behavior in the workplace.

So the latest suit and countersuit, while juicy and contentious, is not surprising. To be continued.

Obama Hits Another Homer

Barack Obama hit another one out of the park. By now you've heard all about the $32.5 million the Illinois Senator's campaign raised in the second quarter of this year. That's five million more than the big kahuna, Hillary Clinton, who was easily supposed to win the money chase. And well more than three times the amount of John Edwards.

Obama tapped over a quarter million donors en route to smashing all primary fundraising records. That's a very impressive number. But let's not lose sight of what it all means.

Obama's first quarter take was powered by a lot of small donors. And to his credit Obama doesn't accept money from lobbyists. But that didn't stop him from cozying up to powerful sectors such as Wall Street and raising a boatload from places like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. We'll know the details of the second quarter take soon enough.

Money corrupts. Take one look at Washington today. Obama has said so himself. "We need a President who sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American," he said in New Hampshire recently.

Obama has a natural instinct for reform. He's co-sponsored legislation to publicly finance political campaigns. But every time a politician holds a top-dollar fundraiser, it seems like another little piece of idealism gets bought.

While he's stuck in a system driven by dough, Obama should keep talking about how to change it.

Should Democrats Nuke Washington?

It was not so long ago that Republicans threatened to "nuke" the Senate if Democrats employed the filibuster to block President Bush's judicial nominees, particularly those to the Supreme Court (which in light of recent decisions, they clearly should have).

Fast forward two years later, with Democrats narrowly in control, and the Senate is in a state of permanent filibuster. It takes 60 votes to get "cloture" and pass just about anything.

As a result, pieces of legislation that won a majority but failed to garner 60 votes, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a minimum wage increase without tax breaks for business, major investments in renewable energy and mandates for clean-energy sources, the importation of cheap prescription drugs from Canada, allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare, countless amendments to the immigration bill and on and on.

We are told this is just the way the Senate works. Fine. But there is a clear double standard in terms of media coverage. No one reported that Republicans "filibustered" the Employee Free Choice Act. And no Democrat is vowing to nuke the Senate as a consequence.

During the debate over the "nuclear option" Matthew Yglesias and a handful of other liberal dissidents urged Republicans to proceed, arguing that in the long run the filibuster was a major impediment to progressive change. Perhaps they were right.

Death Penalty Gets New Airing

Written and reported by Matthew Blake:

The death penalty is finally beginning to remerge as an issue inside the halls of Congress--and it only took the second Congressional power shift in 50 years and the unprecedented Department of Justice dismissal of 8 or 9 US attorneys to make it happen.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold on Wednesday held a hearing of the Senate Judiciary's Subcommittee on the Constitution that drew attention to the lack of information available about when the Justice Department seeks capital punishment and the financial and social costs involved when it does. Fired US Attorney Paul Charlton testified that even he did not know death penalty protocol under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and told the committee that he was fired after refusing to authorize the death penalty for a case with no corroborating forensic evidence.

"It is fitting that we will hear from some of the same organizations that testified at that last hearing in June 2001," Feingold said, in reference to the last time the Senate held a hearing on the subject. "That is because in some respects, we know little more today than we did six years ago."

The US is the only Western democracy that still employs the death penalty. Yet since 2000 the Justice Department has not released any data on how many capital cases it has decided to prosecute, the success rate of its prosecution, the race and ethnicity of the defendants and the cost of pursuing a death penalty case. This is not merely another instance of the Bush administration keeping the public in the dark--the department itself apparently does not keep track.

"A lot of resources go into prosecuting a death penalty case," Feingold said to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Barry Sabin, who represented embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "Now, does the department track monetary cost in any way?"

"I don't believe we do that," Sabin said.

"Do you have any sense of what it costs for the US attorney's office to pursue a death penalty case?" Feingold asked.

Sabin replied he did not and when Feingold requested the Department look into the matter, Sabin said he could not promise that such information is readily obtainable. In preparation for the hearing, Feingold had learned from DOJ that in one-third of all cases where the Department sought the death penalty the Attorney General overruled a prior decision from a US Attorney that capital punishment should not be pursued.

One such overruling has played a starring role in the scandal surrounding Gonzales's dismissal of Arizona prosecutor Paul Charlton. Charlton concisely told the committee that in United States v. Ricos Rio, he defied the Justice Department's authorization of the death penalty in a murder case after the Department declined to fund exhumation of the victim's body, which likely would have determined the defendant's guilt. Charlton had requested to meet with the Attorney General about Ricos Rio and was denied. He was told by former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's staff that "McNulty had spent a significant amount of time on this issue with the Attorney General, perhaps as much as 5 to 10 minutes."

Stunningly, that's more time than Congress spent on the issue over the past six years.


Voices of Tomorrow

You've heard all the stereotypes. Students are apathetic, complacent and unaware of the world around them.

There's a grain of truth to that statement. But a whole lot of falsity. Just ask the 1,000 student journalists and activists who converged on Washington early this week from every single state for the third annual Campus Progress conference.

On Monday The Nation co-sponsored a journalism training day at the Center for American Progress with over 150 student journalists, featuring speeches by Katrina vanden Heuvel and two of America's best muckraking journalists, Barbara Ehrenreich and Eric Schlosser, panels on covering corruption and the courts, featuring the likes of Helen Thomas, Dahlia Lithwick, David Corn, John Nichols and yours truly, and workshops on culture, blogging, investigative journalism and reporting beyond the Beltway.

In her lunchtime address, Ehrenreich implored students to focus on issues like race and inequality that are so often excluded from mainstream media. She told a story about how an indifferent editor in a posh Manhattan restaurant agreed to let her do a piece on poverty as long she "made it upscale." Yet by ignored these petty dictates and immersing herself in the lives of her subjects, Ehrenreich has been able to produce such memorable and lasting work as her book, Nickel & Dimed.

Schlosser, the author of the best-selling Fast Food Nation, also spoke of spending years chronicling stories of struggle and injustice: undocumented migrant strawberry pickers in California, workers fighting to unionize for better pay, horrific conditions for employees at massive hog farms, and most recently, for an upcoming book, the millions of Americans incarcerated in prisons. This kind of work isn't easy, Schlosser said. But it is more necessary than ever.

Excerpts of the journalism conference will soon be available on The Nation's website and broadcast in the coming weeks on Radio Nation with Laura Flanders on Air America Radio.

At day-two of the conference on Tuesday, hundreds of activists joined their journalist counterparts. Prominent speakers like legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison moved beyond cliché by articulating not just the unprecedented challenges faced by college-age Americans, but also the unique assets their generation might bring to politics and the world.

"We've completely screwed you guys," Hersh told a room of more thanone thousand. "You're going to have to do so much better than we did."

But Hersh deviated from a relentless attack on American foreign policyto give his observations on current college students and add a bit of hope.

"Young people today are less seduced by the mercantile, Wall Streetsociety of 20 years ago," Hersh said. "There is more concern for theThird World."

Attendees agreed that problems well beyond the plush academy move students the most. "It is the issues farthest away from us that get the most attention," said Bobby Smith, a sophomore at Ithaca College. One example is how students are fighting to force attention and an end to the genocide in Darfur.

Like Hersh, Ellison, who became the first Muslim elected toCongress in November, spoke of the Iraq war's immorality and its consequences for both the troops and America's credibility. But he devoted much of his talk to issues that hit closer to home, such as student loans and credit card debt. Ellison adroitly tied the need for a single-payer health care system to the fact that many in the audience will be without coverage--and in debt--upon graduation

"We need you to continue to talk about affordability for college,"Ellison told the audience. In 2006 the over two-thirds of college seniors who took out loans graduated an average of $19,200 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Ellison also stressed that making politicians pay attention meansgetting young people to the ballot box.

"Don't forget to turn out votes, not just at your campus, but two-yearcommunity colleges and vocational colleges," Ellison said. He added that in his race for Congress, "We blew up the vote at the Aveda Institute of Hair and Cosmetology."

The conference closed with a panel of young Iraq war veterans, who spoke movingly about their time in combat and the hardships upon returning home. They are the lucky ones. Every week soldiers so often still in their teens are shipped back in body bags.

Young people, said Abdul Henderson, a vet from Los Angeles who spoke out in the film Fahrenheit 9/11, have the power to change things if they so choose.

Another one of the panelists, Jon Soltz, is a testament to that possibility. Upon finishing his tour in Iraq, "confused and disillusioned," Soltz began to speak out after being threatened with arrest for trying to attend a Veterans Affairs press conference in his hometown of Pittsburgh. "I don't know why I'm good enough to go to war but not good enough to ask the tough questions of our leadership," Soltz recalled. He soon founded an advocacy group called Vote Vets, which ran some of the hardest-hitting and most effective TV ads of the last election cycle, exposing how pro-war politicians had betrayed the troops.

Soltz found an audience, both with veterans throughout the country and attendees at the conference, who after two days of speaker after speaker, still listened intently to every word. "This is the only time where I've been in a room with young people in the last three-and-a-half years," Soltz said, "when I felt like people cared."

--With Reporting by Matthew Blake

Thompson's Spies & Smokers

Now that he's an all-but-declared candidate, surging in the polls and touring key primary states, Fred Thompson's campaign is starting to come together. One of Thompson's top operatives is an old PR hand named Ken Rietz.

Since Rietz is hardly a household name, here are a few things you should know about him.

Back in the 1970s, the late investigative reporter Jack Anderson described Rietz as a "key member of a Nixon campaign 'spy' team." Roll Call recently explained what that entailed: "When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Rietz acknowledged he had paid a college student $150 a week to infiltrate a peace vigil at the White House and set up the demonstrators for drug arrest charges. He also tried to plant a driver with then-Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), a presidential candidate, to get inside information."

Rietz resigned from the RNC, then led by George Bush I, and became an organizer for Ronald Reagan in California. In the 1980s Rietz joined the huge PR firm Burson-Marsteller, now run by Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn.

One of Rietz's big assignments at Burson, as reported by Tom Edsall today, was to set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris. The group, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, was founded in 1993 "to give the appearance of grassroots opposition to smoke-free laws without its corporate involvement being detected." Rietz is now one of a number of powerful tobacco-industry allies in Thompson's inner circle.

During the 2004 election Rietz headed a shadowy 527 called the November Fund, funded largely by the Chamber of Commerce, that ran $10 million in ads in battleground states attacking John Edwards and the "trial-lawyer lobby in DC." In September 2004, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the November Fund illegally received $500,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, colluded with the Bush-Cheney campaign and violated a moratorium on attacking candidates by name 60 days before an election. CREW head Melanie Sloan called the group's work "illegal and unethical."

Today, Rietz is largely in charge of Thompson's media strategy, organizing conference calls, recruiting talent and orchestrating "grassroots" buzz for the candidate.

It's a good thing that Thompson plays a District Attorney on Law & Order. Because in real life his close associates represent anything but.

McCain’s K Street Connection

Remember that old story about the pot and the kettle. Well, Tom Edsall of the Huffington Post reports today that John McCain, the once-crusading reformer, has more lobbyists on his staff than any other '08 presidential candidate.

Two of his top guns are Congressmen-turned-lobbyists Tom Loeffler of Texas and Slade Gordon of Washington, who represent clients such PhrMA, the powerful pharmaceutical industry trade group whose influence McCain used to regularly deride. McCain called the Medicare privatization bill of 2003 the "Leave No Lobbyist Behind Bill." Now those very same lobbyists are members of his inner circle.

One of McCain's top operatives is Charlie Black, an ally of Ahmad Chalabi and Lockheed Martin, another company McCain has criticized for its sweetheart deals with the Defense Department. (Black's lobbying firm, BKSH & Associates, also happens to be a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller, the huge PR firm run by Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn.)

On the flipside, Edsall reports that of the major Democratic candidates Barack Obama has the fewest ties to K Street. Perhaps that's why he just gave the strongest speech yet of this campaign season about how to clean up the cesspool in Washington.

"From Jack Abramoff to Tom Delay, from briberies to indictments, the scandals that have plagued Washington over the last few years have been too numerous to recall," Obama told voters in New Hampshire on Friday.

"But their most troubling aspect goes far beyond the headlines that focus on the culprits and their crimes. It's an entire culture in Washington - some of it legal, some of it not - that allows this to happen. Because what's most outrageous is not the morally offensive conduct on behalf of these lobbyists and legislators, but the morally offensive laws and decisions that get made as a result.

It was a great speech. One that almost made me yearn for the McCain of 2000.

Cleaning Up Congress & Campaigns

As the post-Watergate presidential financing system collapses and Congressional elections grow more expensive by the millions every cycle, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter believe it's time to fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed and run. Earlier this year they introduced the first bipartisan bill to publicly finance federal races, modeled after successful "clean election" laws at the state and local levels. (See The Nation's "Making Elections Fair.") This week the Senate Rules Committee held the first of what reformers hope will be many hearings on Durbin-Specter and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. Our Washington intern Matthew Blake attended the hearing and filed this report:

On Wednesday morning, Senators Durbin and Specter were given a chance to make an impassioned plea to their colleagues about why the current financing system was broken--and how their bill would fix it.

"Politicians spend so many hours with special interests and wealthy donors that we don't know what life is like for average working people," Durbin told the committee. "We need to get out of the fundraising business and into the constituent and policy business."

Former Senator Warren Rudman testified in support of Durbin's bill on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of former Senators, including Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

"Increasingly, candidates qualifications are being measured by thesize of their wallets, not the strength of their ideas," Rudman said. Under Durbin-Specter, Senators "will be free to spend their time and energyattending to the nation's business instead of wasting their time onnonstop and demeaning fundraising."

As expected, Senators from both parties quickly attacked the bill and defended a status quo system that re-elects incumbent politicians 98 percent of the time.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who led the fight against McCain-Feingold, assailed the bill as "welfare for politicians"--a common attack line echoed by conservatives. He noted that fewer and fewer Americans (currently 9 percent) choose to check the box contributing to the voluntary presidential public financing system. But McConnell failed to note, as Nick Nyart of Public Campaign pointed out, polls showing that two thirds of Americans support true public financing.

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a possible target of a major corruption inquiry in Alaska, railed against "bloggers who are hired to attack candidates and do nothing more than paid political advertisements---I'm limited in dollars but these attackers aren't."

Committee chair Diane Feinstein worried that, "somebody without their marbles collecting signatures could get $13 million in California with a chance for additional vouchers."

After her opening statement, Durbin quickly took Feinstein aside and explained that she was wrong. The bill would require candidates in his home state of Illinois to collect 11,500 $5 donations to qualify for public funds, hardly a number that "somebody without their marbles" could easily collect.

Feinstein eventually apologized for her digression on signatures and seemed generally supportive of the bill. Proponents of the bill hope that she'll be one of my converts on the road to reform. For Durbin and Specter, the task ahead is to persuade their colleagues that it's wealthy private sector donors, not reformers and bloggers, who are corrupting Washington and perverting Congress and political campaigns.

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