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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

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.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

 

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.

Thompson's Team

For eighteen years Fred Thompson was a lobbyist in Washington, a part of his biography his jump-start presidential campaign is not likely to highlight.

So despite Thompson's "folksy" appeal, perhaps it's not surprising that his campaign team is a who's who of Washington insiders and corporate execs. Until recently his campaign manager-to-be, Tom Collamore, was a top tobacco industry exec at Altria (formerly Philip Morris). His division, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, has "been responsible for implementing countermeasures to combat public health efforts to control tobacco...and PM programs to enact tort reform, head off increased cigarette taxes and thwart legislated smoking restrictions."

Another rumored top Thompson staffer is Tim Griffin, the RNC operative who Karl Rove recently installed as US Attorney for Eastern Arkansas as part of Attorneygate.

His spokesman is Mark Corallo, the former press flack for Karl Rove during the Scooter Libby trial.

The man who organized a Thompson conference call this week, Ken Rietz, is a top exec at the PR firm Burson-Marsteller (which is ironically run by Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn). Rietz, as Rick Perlstein notes, once spied on Ed Muskie's presidential campaign on behalf of Richard Nixon in 1972 as part of "Operation Sedan Chair."

And though it's unrelated to his corporate past and present, it's worth mentioning (since we're talking about the GOP primary) that Thompson's second wife and key political counselor, Jeri, is 25 years his junior and younger than the kids from his first marriage.

Her Way, Her War

Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign would like voters to forget that she supported the war in Iraq. "Senator Clinton believes things are not going well [In Iraq], wants to begin phased withdrawal, wants to end the war," her spokesman Howard Wolfson told MSNBC on Friday.

It wasn't always that way. A new book by two New York Times investigative reporters, excerpted in the NYT Magazine this coming Sunday, painstakingly details that not only did Hillary support the war, but did so in a way that echoed many of the Bush Administration's most dubious talking points and undercut antiwar opponents.

"On the sensitive issue of collaboration between Al Qaeda and Iraq, Senator Clinton found herself adopting the same argument that was being aggressively pushed by the administration," reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta write. "The Democratic senator who came closest to echoing Clinton's remarks about Hussein's supposed assistance to Al Qaeda was Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut." In fact, on this point the reporters document that Clinton was to the right of Lieberman when she argued that Saddam gave "aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members."

For the better part of three years, Clinton stuck to her support for the war. As public opinion began to change, so did her position, albeit slowly. "I don't support a fixed date for getting out, and I don't support an open-ended commitment," she said in the summer of '06, trying to have it both ways. Yet after she was booed at the Campaign for America's Future, as Arianna Huffington notes, Hillary surprisingly signed on as a cosponsor of legislation to begin redeploying troops from Iraq.

Yet she resisted setting a timetable for withdrawal or using the Congressional power of the purse to bring the war to a close. "I face the base all the time," she told fellow Senators in '06. "I think we need wiggle room."

But once she entered the Democratic primary for president she shifted further left, supporting legislation to force an end to combat operations by March 2008 and voting against last week's funding bill for the war. She did both reluctantly, reflecting the cautious, calibrated style that has become her trademark. Indeed, two days before last week's Iraq vote she told reporters tersely, "When I have something to say, I'll say it."

Those words, like her tenure in the Senate, don't exactly illustrate a profile in political courage.

Colombia's Plan Clinton

The right-wing government of Colombia, which stands accused of collaborating with militias that kill union workers, is feting Bill Clinton at a "Colombia is Passion" awards ceremony in New York City next month.

They're shelling out $40,000 a month to the Glover Park Group, a PR and lobbying firm packed with Clintonites, to push for a US-Colombia free trade agreement that has been widely criticized by Democratic members of Congress. And President Alvaro Uribe has also brought on board the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, run by Hillary's chief strategist, Mark Penn, to "educate members of the US Congress" about the trade deal and the annual $5 billion in anti-drug aid bestowed on the Colombian government by the US under Clinton's Plan Colombia, according to Justice Department filings obtained by the AP (and wisely first flagged by David Sirota.)

I guess that's what one calls synergy. And for those that read my recent article Hillary Inc. it shouldn't be the least bit surprising.

You Have The Power!

It feels like everything and nothing is occurring on the Hill these days.

Democrats in Congress are caving on Iraq, compromising on trade, backtracking on ethics reform and pushing for an immigration bill that nobody likes.

Governing with a razor-thin majority ain't easy. And Democrats have done a robust and effective job at oversight, as promised. But they still lack either the backbone or the discipline to take real risks and fight the status quo.

It was fascinating to hear Nancy Pelosi hint that she will vote against her own House's latest Iraq funding bill. Could you imagine Tom DeLay acquiescing like that? Not to suggest that DeLay is a model for governance, but he would've pushed to get what he wanted--and only scheduled a vote once he did.

Ditto on immigration. Immigrant rights groups like the bill that passed the Senate last year, under Republican rule, better than the accord struck last week.

Even popular and straightforward measures, like raising the minimum wage, have been stalled for months.

Yesterday House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released a five-month progress report, trumpeting Democratic successes. It was an odd bit of timing.

A Bluegrass Battle for Dems

On Tuesday, Democrats in Kentucky will choose their nominee to battle notoriously corrupt Governor Ernie Fletcher this November. This is not just a typical Democratic primary, but another chapter in what some have described as the ongoing battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

The race pits relatively progressive Attorney General Steve Beshear against multimillionaire healthcare executive Bruce Lunsford, who's running as a Democrat even though he's given tens of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, endorsed Fletcher in '03 and has been involved in a number of questionable business ventures. Oh, and his political consultant is Doug Schoen, former partner of Mark Penn.

Organized labor has pummeled Lunsford, forming a 527 specifically to oppose him. Cliff Schecter has more on Lunsford's corporate background on his blog:

 

This race involves a candidate in Bruce Lunsford, who not only belongs in the Republican primary, but he belongs in the Ken Lay wing of the Republican Party. Lunsford made his millions founding the healthcare company formerly known as Vencor. While he was the CEO, the federal government brought a fraud claim of $1.3 billion against it, alleging that Vencor overbilled Medicare.

 

 

The company eventually agreed to pay a $104.5 million settlement, and ended up in bankruptcy. However, Lunsford's attacks on Kentucky's working families may not have ended there. Lunsford split his Vencor company before it headed to bankruptcy and created a second company, Ventas. It may not be to anyone's surprise that the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell, current Secretary of Labor to George W. Bush, Elaine Chao, was named to the Board of Directors.

 

 

In 1997, Lunsford and his partners were sued for "insider trading, fraudulent omissions and stock prices punctured by bad news in the health care industry." (Lexington Herald Leader, 6/1/2001) The lawsuit was tossed by a Louisville judge but in 2001, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reinstated the case after holding that the plaintiffs arguments "permit a strong inference that defendants engaged in securities fraud." (Courier-Journal, 6/7/2001)

 

 

Lunsford never learned to steer clear of his crowd of Republican friends, and ran for governor with a coterie of advisors that looked like a Jack Abramoff foursome returning from a Scottish golfing trip. One of his top advisors in 2003, Larry Townsend, followed Lunsford's lead in supporting George W. Bush, and even took it a step further by co-chairing "Democrats for Bush" with Zell Miller.

 

There's speculation in Kentucky that Lunsford, who supported Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for re-election in 2002, made a deal to support (or at least not actively oppose) him again. McConnell is one of the Democrats top targets in '08. That's one of the reasons why Tuesday's race has ramifications beyond the Bluegrass state.

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