Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Cynthia McKinney, Enough Already!

The media should be talking about Tom DeLay and the collapse of the conservative movement. About immigration reform and the divide in the Republican Party. About how the Bush Administration is trying to export democracy to Iraq while cutting funds for democracy promotion. About how four House Republicans are pushing to force the House to debate the war. Or--if you want something seedy--about how yet another Bush Administration official was arrested, this time for trying to seduce a 14-year-old girl over the Internet.

Instead, they can't get enough of Cynthia McKinney, a controversial Democrat from Georgia who last week punched a police officer on Capitol Hill. It's not just Fox News. Wolf Blitzer had her in the Situation Room. Even Jon Stewart last night juxtaposed images of DeLay and McKinney, as if their sins were equal. And McKinney inexplicably keeps the story alive by holding media appearance after media appearance.

The Nation defended McKinney when the right-wing and AIPAC slimed her as an anti-Semite back in 2002. But, as far as I'm concerned, she's on her own now.

Maybe she was racially profiled, as McKinney adamantly claims. But there are 435 members of the House of Representatives. Surely Capitol Police don't always recognize every member, especially when they've just changed their hair style and aren't wearing any identification. It may have been an honest mistake.

So, for the good of the country and your party Ms. McKinney, can we move on?

Two Years Too Late

I'm glad John Kerry finally has a coherent position on the war in Iraq. He's against it, and he wants US troops to leave. I just wish he would have said so two years ago, when it might have made a difference. From his New York Times op-ed today:


Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren't willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave.



If Iraq's leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year's end. Doing so will empower the new Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in the position of running their own country and undermine support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country. Only troops essential to finishing the job of training Iraqi forces should remain.


The question now: will more of Kerry's Senate colleagues follow suit?

Why Didn't DeLay Delay?

Did Tom DeLay decide to step down abruptly because he thought he would lose a tough re-election fight? Or did he decide to jump ship before his party returned to minority status?

His money-laundering trial will soon begin in Texas. Former top aides recently pled guilty to "a far-reaching criminal enterprise operating out of DeLay's office," as the Washington Post put it. The internal polling numbers in Sugar Land, Texas, were not good.

DeLay may have been able to stay afloat and squeak out a narrow election victory. He'd still have a plum seat on the Appropriations Committee, doling out federal dollars to his favorite pet projects and corporate benefactors. But as an architect of the Republican majority, toiling in the minority would be a hard pill to swallow.

His colleagues better prepare for the worst. Here's what New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks forecasted over the weekend:


There's the war. There's really a torpor in the administration. They're not doing anything right now. I think it's now likely to move the House--that they will lose the House. And I think House Republicans, privately, most of them admit that. For like a year they were saying, `Well, we've got it so sewed up with redistricting. We'll lose, but we won't lose the whole House.' I'd say about two weeks ago the conventional wisdom shifted and people said, `We're in such trouble. We are going to lose the House.'


Henry Waxman with subpoena power. John Conyers with impeachment power. John Murtha with war spending power. The Democratic dream would become a Republican nightmare, paid for and sponsored in part by Tom DeLay.

Congress vs. the Law

Congress needs to remember the lyrics from that old Clash song: "I fought the law and the law won."

A series of remarkable events last week proves why.

Jack Abramoff was sentenced in Florida, a prelude to his trial in Washington. Days later Tony Rudy, a former top aide to Abramoff and Tom DeLay, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges--the third figure implicated thus far in L'Affair Abramoff. More indictments are coming down the pike.

The Justice Department did its job. But Congress didn't do theirs.

The Senate passed an incredibly weak lobbying reform bill. The House voted, on party lines, against initiating a congressional investigation into Abramoff's influence over members of Congress. The House Ethics Committee, the body charged with policing fellow members, did finally meet for the first time in a year, but refused to take up any new investigations.

Nothing new there. How many more indictments will it take before members of Congress see the light?

Competence Won't Get US Out of Iraq

Trumpets blared on the loudspeaker. Dozens of members of Congress gathered on a makeshift stage, draped by giant American flags, cops, firefighters and veterans in uniform, and a huge banner reading "Real Security." In advance of the midterm elections, the Democrats were determined to appear both "smart and tough," a phrase used by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh that has become common parlance for the party.

Their national security agenda, released today after months of bickering, pledged to modernize the military, kill Osama bin Laden, kick our oil addition and immediately implement the 9/11 Commission's recommendations for homeland security. But on the issue of Iraq--the most pressing security concern for most Americans--the Democrats remained deliberately vague. Their alternative states:


Ensure 2006 is a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with the Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country and with the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces.


What that means no one quite knows. As blogger Atrios writes, "If 2006 fails to be 'a year of significant transition' what will Democrats be saying then?"

Mostly, Democratic leaders stuck to poll-tested sound-bites. Namely, one theme: the Bush Administration's incompetence.

Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid: "Dangerous incompetence."General Wesley Clark: "Incompetent leadership."Madeleine Albright: "Rank incompetence."

All the talk of incompetence made me think of an American Prospect article from October entitled "The Incompetence Dodge." Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias wrote:


The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge -- a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place.


Exactly right. If before pro-war Democrats used the incompetence argument to dodge how and why we entered Iraq, today they're using the same language to circumvent any real discussion of how we get out.

No Reform in Lobbying Reform

What a coincidence: the Senate is set to wrap up its debate on lobbying reform the same day Jack Abramoff is sentenced in Florida on conspiracy and wire fraud charges.

There was a moment, after Abramoff's guilty plea in January, when real reform seemed possible. Everything was on the table, anxious leaders of both parties declared. Everyone wanted to be a reformer. No more.

New Majority Leader John Boehner has nixed the efforts of Dennis Hastert and David Dreier in the House. The Democratic plan stands no chance of passing a Republican Congress. And the Senate has failed to adopt or even consider any of the reforms that would actually make a difference: publicly financed elections, an independent ethics enforcement agency with teeth, a ban on lobbyist fundraising.

"Reform legislation is now crippled," Public Citizen declared yesterday.

The opportunities for overhaul do not appear often. The last time Congress took up lobbying was 1995. Since then the profession has exploded, its influence at an all-time high. See "Billions for Big Oil."

The American people want a dramatic cleanup, as I wrote a few months back:


Ninety percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll say it should be illegal for lobbyists to give members of Congress gifts, trips or other things of value. More than two-thirds of the public don't want lobbyists giving campaign contributions to Congressmen or Congressional candidates. A majority believe lobbyists shouldn't organize fundraisers on a candidate's behalf.


Tough luck. Banning gifts and meals is enough for most Senators. Refuse a hamburger and call it a day. Abramoff is all but forgotten in Washington--that is, until another indictment hits the front page.

UPDATE: The legislation passed this afternoon 90-8. I'm assuming Sens. McCain, Graham, Obama, Feingold and Kerry voted against the bill because it was too weak. Sens. Coburn, Inhofe and DeMint presumably voted nay because they oppose the entire concept of lobbying reform.

So Much for Straight Talk

So much for "straight talk." If you needed any more proof that the maverick John McCain will run as the ultimate insider come 2008, scroll down.

McCain, February 28, 2000, Virginia Beach, Virginia:


I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative, an advocate of a strong defense, and yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate. They distort my pro- life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters.



Why? Because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message.



Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.


Press release from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, March 28, 2006:


American military hero and Arizona Sen. John McCain will deliver the Commencement message at Liberty University on May 13, at 9:30 a.m., in the Liberty University Vines Center.



While Sen. McCain and Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell have had their share of political differences through the years, the two men share a common respect for each other and have become good friends in their efforts to preserve what they see as common values. This will mark his first ever appearance at Liberty University.


More from the Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance:


Falwell said McCain's appearance at LU's graduation is another sign that McCain is wooing evangelical Christians.



"He is in the process of healing the breech with evangelical groups," Falwell said.



Falwell said McCain has expressed a willingness to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, an issue dear to conservative Christians.


Our cover story on McCain back in November showed him juggling images of Teddy Roosevelt and Falwell. The "agent of intolerance" has become his new best friend.

Bush Tries to Backtrack

Every once in a while a politician stumbles into telling the truth. Even George W. Bush. Unwittingly, of course.

At his Tuesday press conference, Bush dropped one of the biggest bombshells of his presidency: American troops would not leave Iraq on his watch. Not in 2006 or 2008. Let John McCain or Hillary Clinton make that call. Bush's plan for victory amounts to: someone else clean up my mess. If Bush were a five-year-old, he'd undoubtedly receive a spanking.

His "plan" is the inverse of Colin Powell's famous Pottery Barn rule. Bush broke Iraq, never acknowledged owning it and now refuses to fix it.

The White House quickly tried to spin their own spin. The President's counselor, Dan Bartlett, said Bush's comment had been "over-interpreted." White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush never said what he said. Troops will come home, McClellan insisted, just not all of them. And don't you dare ask when, pesky media. It's your fault we're talking about this in the first place.


I think some of the coverage also seemed to leave the impression with readers or viewers that the President was saying that there will be large or significant numbers of troops in Iraq after he leaves office, and that's not what the question was. The question was will there be zero -- when will there be zero or no American troops in Iraq. So he was referring to that specific question.


I'm sure that explanation will satisfy the 61 percent of Americans who disapprove of Bush's handling of the war. CNN's John Roberts rightly told Bartlett: "You've given Democrats a real opening here."

If only they would take it. Sure, Harry Reid called Bush "dangerously incompetent." And Ted Kennedy noted that "the patience of the American people is wearing thin." No surprise there. But most of the party's leaders, including virtually all of the prospective nominees for the '08 nomination, stuck to silence.

MSNBC right-winger Joe Scarborough, of all people, nicely summarized the current debate: "When it comes to getting out of Iraq, Republicans may be clueless, but Democrats are spineless."

Operation Overhyped

Last Thursday the Pentagon launched "Operation Swarmer"--described as the largest air assault in Iraq since March 2003. I was at a conference on Iraq at the Center for American Progress and saw the news flashing repeatedly on CNN, MSNBC and Fox. The timing, a few days before the war's 3rd anniversary and amidst a torrent of negative opinion polling for the Bush Administration--seemed highly suspicious.

Well, this Operation, like so much of what the Administration has told us about the war, turned out to be a lie. According to reporters on the ground from Time magazine:


There were no air strikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What's more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the US and Iraqi commanders.


Moreover, former AP correspondent Christopher Albritton writes that the targeted area north of Samarra has been "swept/contained/pacified/cleared five or six times since 2004." Operation Swarmer "was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army--although there was no enemy for them to fight." There were as many troops, fifteen hundred, as residents in the desolate area. No wonder Albritton termed the mission "Operation Overblown."

It's reassuring to know where our $300 billion are going. Aren't there enough threats in Iraq that we don't need to fight nonexistent ones?

Get Your War Out

On the day the Bush Administration renewed its commitment to preemptive war--and conveniently launched the largest air strikes in Iraq since March 2003--a conference of security experts assembled at the Center for America Progress to examine just how that preemptive test case is going.

The verdict?

Not so hot. And conditions on the ground threaten to move from bad to worse.

"Where are we?" asked Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter and the day's keynote speaker. "We are in a mess," he said, echoing comments he told me recently.

"American legitimacy has been undermined...American morality has been stained...American credibility has been shattered."

Where are we headed?

The US is caught in two wars in Iraq: insurgents against occupiers and Sunnis against Shiites.

"The US umbrella, designed to stifle them, but so porous it perpetuates them, keep these wars alive."

What should we do?

The Bush Administration "is not capable to make a cold judgement or look at alternatives because of their stake in past misjudgments: in some cases, lies, in some cases, crimes."

According to Brzezinski, the US should ask Iraqi leaders to ask us to leave. And we should set a date for our departure, roughly by the end of this year.

The Democrats, through their silence and evasiveness, have made themselves largely irrelevant from this debate. Even though dissatisfaction with the war is causing President Bush's approval ratings to plummet, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds. Even though "a congressional candidate favoring withdrawal of all US troops within a year would gain favor by 50%-35 percent, while one who advocates staying 'as long as necessary' would lose favor by 43%-39 percent," the WSJ writes.

How bad do the numbers have to get before the Democratic Party, as a whole, takes a clear stand on the war, or a prominent Republican utters Senator George Aiken's famous words: "The best policy is to declare victory and get out."

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