The Nation

Bush's Cynical Numbers Game

For a long time, the President and his top officials remained on the page first bookmarked by Centcom Commander Tommy Franks during the early phases of the Afghan War when he said, "We don't do body counts."

On December 12, 2005, however, President Bush was faced with a reporter's question: "Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators."

To the surprise of many, the President responded with an actual number: "How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." When asked for the President's sourcing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded: "[M]edia reports which have cited information that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed."

As it happens, the White House has had something of a predilection for the pleasantly round number of 30,000. In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, in the President's State of the Union Address, he used that very number for Saddam's mythical stock of "munitions capable of delivering chemical agents"; and, post-invasion, for police put back on patrol in the streets of Iraq. In 2005, that number was cited both for "new businesses" started in Iraq and new teachers trained since the fall of Baghdad. In 2006, in the President's "Strategy for Victory," that was the number of square miles Iraqi forces were by then primarily responsible for patrolling.

Last week, the President was challenged again at his news conference because of a study in the respected British medical journal The Lancet that offered up a staggering set of figures on Iraqi deaths. Based on a door-to-door survey of Iraqi households among a countrywide cohort of almost 13,000 people, the rigorous study estimated that perhaps 655,000 "excess deaths" had occurred since the invasion, mainly due to violence. (Its lowest estimate of excess deaths came in just under 400,000; its highest above 900,000, a figure no one in the U.S. cared to deal with at all.)

When asked if, given the Lancet study, he stood by the number 30,000 Iraqi deaths, the President responded, "You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life--600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just--it's not credible." The reporter's response: "Thank you, Mr. President," and all and sundry turned to other matters.

And yet, such a statement is little short of the darkest of jokes. By last December, 30,000 was already a ludicrously low-ball figure for the Iraqi dead of the war, occupation, insurgency, and incipient civil war. Early on, in a study completely ignored in the U.S. press, a group of Iraqi academics and political activists tried to research the question of civilian casualties, consulting with hospitals, gravediggers, and morgues, and came up with the figure of 37,000 deaths just between March 2003 and October 2003. The cautious website Iraq Body Count, which now offers death statistics ranging from a low of 44,661 to a high of 49,610, was at that time in the 27,000 to 30,000+ range, but that was only for "media-reported" civilian deaths, not all Iraqi deaths, which, as the U.S. military surely knew, were far higher. An October 2004 Lancet study had estimated over 100,000 excess deaths.

Between December 12, 2005 and his news conference last week, even the President has admitted that Iraq has been going through an exceedingly violent period. We know that in just July and August, according to a UN report based on counts from the Baghdad central morgue and various hospitals, 5,106 Iraqis died, almost totally by violent means, often on the killing grounds of the 23 or more militias US officials have counted in the capital. For the rest of Iraq add another 1,493 dead souls (while noting that the July count lacks a single death from al-Anbar province, the very heartland of the Sunni insurgency). All over the country, it's evident that bodies go unreported. As the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer recently pointed out, "Bodies are increasingly being dumped in and around Baghdad in fields staked out by individual Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups. Iraqi security forces often refuse to go to the dumping grounds, leaving the precise number of bodies in those sites unknown."

So, for the President to "stand by" his almost year-old figure in the casualty wars--especially after this particular almost-year--while claiming that The Lancet study's figures weren't "credible," is, on the face of it, absurd. It's hardly less absurd that nothing significant was made of this in the media--that George W. Bush was not called on the carpet for a figure that, even based on his own previous testimony, is close to criminally negligent.

For more on this, go to the latest dispatch at my website, Tomdispatch.com.

Tennessee Turmoil

In one week, Republicans ran not one, not two, but three racist to borderline racist television and radio ads about Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, the Democrat who's trying to become the first black Senator elected from the South since Reconstruction.

One ad run by the Republican National Committee, (RNC) shows a scantily clad white woman who says "I met Harold at the Playboy party," before whispering, "Harold, call me," and winking.

Hillary Shelton, Washington director of the NAACP, accused the ad of playing "to pre-existing prejudices about African American men and white women." William Cohen, the former Republican Senator from Tennnessee, called it "a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment."

Another ad, by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, asks "what kind of man parties with Playboy playmates in lingerie and then films political ads from a church pew?" A valid question, only the ad is done in the style of a blaxploitation film and set to funk music. Would Republicans run the same ad against a white candidate? I think not.

A third radio ad, commissioned by a group called Tennesseans for Truth (sound familiar?), explicitly plays the race card by citing Ford's membership in the Congressional Black Caucus, "an all-black group of congressmen who represent the interests of black people above all others."

Amidst increasing pressure from members of both parties, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman had the first ad mentioned pulled from the airwaves yesterday, after he initially claimed he didn't have the power to remove it. In its place the RNC debuted a new ad, falsely claiming that Ford "voted to recognize gay marriage" and "wants to give the abortion pill to our schoolchildren." At least two stations, including WRCB in Chattanooga (Corker's home town), have refused to run the new ad. And Ford recently went up with this response.

Mehlman may have apologized to the NAACP last year for the Republican Party's legacy of "trying to benefit politically from racial polarization." But that's exactly what the GOP is doing in Tennessee.

Limbaugh's Cruelty

Rush Limbaugh has proven time and again what a nasty bully he can be.Remember his feeble attempt to insult Chelsea Clinton by criticizing herappearance when she was just a child? And his racist musings on whetherblack men were equipped to play quarterback?(FYI, Rush, at least five African-Americans are starting quarterbacks inNFL right now.)

This week however, Limbaugh sank to a new low by mocking actor MichaelJ. Fox and his battle with Parkinson's disease.

Fox has become a Limbaugh target because he has appeared inpolitical ads for Democratic senatorial candidates who support stem cellresearch, such as Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Claire McCaskill inMissouri.

"He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," Limbaugh toldlisteners Monday. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely anact...This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't takehis medication or he's acting."

Limbaugh ultimately offered a half-hearted apology, but it's difficult to takethis seriously. With a weekly audience of 10 million, he lives togenerate this type of controversy. He and Ann Coulter seem to be in acompetition for who can be the most consistently repugnant and woefullyignorant.

With his acting career essentially over, Fox now works to raiseawareness of the plight of people who suffer from Parkinson's. Even ifLimbaugh objects to stem cell research, it certainly isn't a crime forFox to weigh in on the issue. Muhammad Ali has done this admirably. So did the late Christopher Reeve. Will they be the next to draw Limbaugh'svindictive ire?

Stem Cell Politics

The last day that I spent with Paul Wellstone began on a sunny morning in the living room of his St. Paul home. I'd arrived to join him as he campaigned for reelection in what was widely seen as the most hotly contested Senate race in the nation.

But when I walked in, Wellstone was not making calls for campaign contributions or rehearsing soundbites.

He was reading.

Wellstone was a passionate reader. He always had a new book under his arm. And he read widely -- far beyond the confines of the history, biography and public-policy shelves that political figures tend to frequent.

On that last day, he was reading Michael J. Fox's 2002 book, Lucky Man: A Memoir.

Wellstone couldn't stop talking about the actor's autobiography, especially the sections where Fox wrote about his struggle with Parkinson's disease. The senator from Minnesota, whose parents had suffered from that ailment and who had himself been recently diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis, related to what he was reading. He went on at some length about how important it was for prominent people to be open about their chronic conditions. He felt it helped promote understanding and empathy, which in Wellstone's view was often the first step toward political engagement. And, as the senate's most passionate advocate for medical research and a national health care system, he felt that engaging the great mass of Americans in a discussion about the importance of federal and state funding of groundbreaking -- and sometimes controversial -- studies was essential.

Wellstone believed, as many scientists do, that with proper support, embryonic stem cell research could identify treatments and perhaps even cures for life-threatening illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Type I or Juvenile Diabetes, Duchenne' Dystrophy, and spinal chord injuries.

After President Bush's 2001 decision to sharply limit federal funding of medical research that uses embryonic stem cell lines, Wellstone said, "The sharp limitation of federal support may well close the door on some of the life-saving promise of embryonic stem cell research, which can be conducted consistent with basic ethical and legal principles that respect the value of human life. I do not believe that President Bush's decision will be the final word on this important federal policy. In light of this disappointing announcement, Congress, and the American people, will now surely be heard."

As he was on so many issues, Paul Wellstone turned out to be prescient.

On this, the fourth anniversary of his death in a Minnesota plane crash, stem-cell research is finally emerging as the sort of political issue that Wellstone thought it should be. And Michael J. Fox, whose book the senator was reading on that sunny morning that now seems so very long ago, is at the center of the debate. This week, Fox began appearing in televised campaign commercials for Democratic supporters of embryonic stem-cell research -- including Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, Maryland U.S. Senate candidate Ben Cardin, Illinois U.S. House candidate Tammy Duckworth and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle -- who are locked in tight races with Republicans who want to limit support for scientific inquiry.

Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators who once trashed Wellstone are now attacking Fox. Limbaugh has gone so far as to claim that the actor "is exaggerating the effects of the disease," while claiming that the commercials are "purely an act." Why the attacks? It comes back to that point Wellstone made: When a prominent figure who suffers from a life-threatening condition joins the debate over funding scientific research, it can shift the political pendulum. If Michael J. Fox succeeds in framing the stem-cell research fight as the life-and-death issue that it is, then, perhaps, "the American people will now surely be heard." And Paul Wellstone will again be proven right.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

NJ Gay Marriage Decision Due Today

Today at 3PM, the New Jersey Supreme Court will issue its ruling on Lewis v. Harris, the same-sex marriage case brought by seven gay and lesbian couples. My sources all predict a victory for gay marriage advocates, which would make New Jersey the second state, after Massachusetts, to legalize gay marriage. They point to the court's liberal record (including its ruling in the Boy Scouts case), as well as the timing of the announcement. It will be the last decision released before Chief Justice Deborah Poritz retires, so the expectation is that it will be a momentous one.

Of course, my sources could all be wrong, but with the election only two weeks away, talk has already begun on how a pro-gay ruling will play out in the ballot box. In New Jersey, Democrat Bob Menendez has edged ahead of Republican Tom Kean, Jr. in polls. But it's still a close race, one that could determine the balance in the Senate. Both candidates say marriage should be between a man and a woman, and New Jersey Republicans are largely Kean-Whitman moderates, not bible belters -- so it's unlikely that a pro-gay marriage decision will shake up that particular race much.

But what are the implications nationwide? With Christian conservatives threatening to stay home, and with the Foley scandal still occupying front page real estate, is this the GOP's last chance to rally its family values base? If NJ does go the way of Massachusetts, Bush will almost certainly reiterate calls for a federal marriage amendment. But is it too little, too late? Eight states have defense of marriage amendments on the ballot this November, but polls from some of them -- Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado and South Dakota -- indicate that the issue has lost some of its punch.

In a cynical way, I'm tickled pink that gays are now seen as sand in the electoral machine -- first gay marriage in '04 and now Foleygate in '06. Homosexuals: we're the equal opportunity spoilers, the Ross Perots of the new century. We're here! We're queer! And we will ruin your elections!

Alright, I'm getting a little too excited. I'll post again when the decision comes down. In the meantime, speculate wildly amongst yourselves.

Tricks, No Treats

Things are looking so bad for Republicans this year that you could almost feel sorry for them. That is until you see just how low they will go to cling to power. Here is just a partial roll call of their most recent dirty tricks.

A Republican attack ad accused New York Democratic House candidate Michael Arcuri of calling a sex phone line. When it was clearly shown the number was a misdial, seven television stations in upstate New York refused to run the ad.

California House Republican candidate Tad Nguyen's campaign sent out 14,000 letters in Spanish to residents with Hispanic surnames falsely threatening, and I quote, "if you're an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in incarceration or deportation."

In Tennessee the Republican National Committee is running a racially-charged ad that "juxtaposes women and men talking about [Democratic candidate Harold] Ford's good looks with suggestions that he took money from pornographers, was seen at a Playboy function and at the end, has a white blonde asking him to call her."

But as former White House staffer David Kuo points out in his new book, Tempting Faith, the dirtiest Republican trick of all is their pretense to care about evangelical Christians and their issues when in fact they have contempt for them. On November 7th we will see if the Republican base returns the favor.

He’s Still the One

Music fans know John Hall as the lead guitarist for Orleans and songwriter of hit singles like Still the One, Dancin' in the Moonlight, and Dance With Me. Activists know him as the musician who organized No Nuke concerts and released the song Power, an ode to alternative energy, just three weeks before the Three Mile Island meltdown. His fellow-citizens in upstate New York know him as a member of the Ulster County Legislature, and president of the Saugerties Board of Education. And, now, it looks like Americans might soon know this great musician and good man as Congressman John Hall (D-NY).

Hall is poised to unseat an incumbent previously thought to be invincible, Rep. Sue Kelly of the 19th District. According to Congressional Quarterly, "[Kelly] took 67 percent of the vote two years ago and has exceeded 60 percent in every election since 1998." That's why risk-averse, inside-the-Beltway Dems initially lined up behind Judy Aydelott, a lawyer and one-time Republican who they felt would appeal to the electorate as a moderate. But longtime activist Hall believed he could take his message directly to the people. And he did. He hired Amy Little, a 30-year veteran organizer on social justice issues, as his Campaign Director. (Little's career past includes raising over $30 million for Citizen Action groups and labor coalitions across the country, and serving as a National Field Director for GOTV and voter registration in 2004.) Since taking the helm of the Hall campaign, she has built a gutsy and effective grassroots organization.

Hall has a simple yet powerful message that resonates with voters. He told The Ostroy Report, "The biggest issue of the days are ending the war in Iraq, achieving universal health care with an affordable prescription drug plan and finding safe, clean, renewable solutions to our energy needs." On why he's running Hall says, "The situation in the nation and the world is at such a crucial juncture, and the stakes are so high. Right now, there are no checks and balances. I want to be a voice for creativity and honesty in solving our problems. I want to be proud, not just of our country but of our government."

The emphasis on a grassroots field operation has produced terrific results. On primary day the campaign had 400 people in the field and voting numbers were up 100 percent from the previous election. Hall defeated Aydelott by nearly 2:1, and received 49 percent of the vote in a 4-way race. The field team has now grown to 1,200 people, and it seems Hall – who flew under the radar for so long – may turn out to be the perfect stealth candidate to unseat Kelly.

Sadly, instead of celebrating Hall's ability to connect with the voters – not to mention his down-to-earth manner (see his spirited appearance on the Colbert Report) – big ticket Dems are still shying away from Hall's progressive credentials. One sign of that – 85 percent of Halls' fundraising comes from individuals contributing $200 or less.

Meanwhile, Kelly has done nothing to endear herself to the voters. Questions have arisen over her role in the Foley scandal (which broke on her 70th birthday) since she was Chair of the Page Board from 1999 to 2001. She lost her cool at an editorial board meeting when it was brought up; she literally ran away from reporters who wanted to talk to her; and she has defended and supported the Bush administration ad nauseam while building a voting record voters will love – if they love Tom DeLay!

On Sunday, the New York Times endorsed Hall as "a lawmaker of energy, steady conviction and clear principles" with an "ambitious and coherent" platform. He's also collected the endorsement of the Times Herald-Record (which has endorsed Kelly in the past). This week he will announce the Sierra Club's backing and he is heavily supported by labor.

While Kelly still has the typical big bucks of a Republican incumbent – and no one should underestimate the work that remains – the humanpower supplied by a unique coalition of labor and environmental activists could prove to be the difference on Election Day. If so, a lot of happy progressives will be dancing in the moonlight come November 7.

Jonathan Tasini is organizing trips upstate over the next two weekends to canvass for Hall. Click here if you're interested in going.

How Big Will the Anti-GOP Wave Be?

This morning at a briefing on the congressional elections, an event that featured former Representatives Dick Armey, Jennifer Dunn, and Dick Gephardt and that was sponsored by a Washington law firm, political analyst Charlie Cook--an independent handicapper trusted by Ds and Rs--offered good news for the Democrats. He compared 2006 to 1994, the year when Republicans shockingly seized control of both houses of Congress, netting a whopping 52 House seats. Cook noted that in October 1994, 39 percent of Americans said they believed the country was heading in the right direction and 48 percent thought it was on the wrong track. Now the right direction/wrong track numbers are far more negative: 26 percent to 61 percent. In October 1994, President Bill Clinton's approval rating was 48 percent. These days, President George W. Bush is about 38 percent. The approval rating for Congress in 1994 was 24 percent (with 67 percent disapproving). Today, it's lower: 16 percent (with 75 percent giving Congress a thumb's down). In 1994, Republicans had a 6 point lead in polls asking respondents to say whether they preferred a GOP or Democratic candidate. Now the Democrats have a 15 point edge. But when asked if their own member of Congress deserved reelection, 49 percent in 1994 said no; now only 45 percent say no. (In both years, 39 percent said boot the bum out.)

The bottom-line: out of five key indicators of the national politicalmood, four are significantly worse for the Republicans in 2006 compared to the Democrats in 1994. As Cook put it, the 2006 political wave (at this moment) is bigger than that of 1994. But that does not mean the Dems are going to win as many seats as the GOPers did twelve years ago. Gephardt cautioned that congressional districts are far more gerrymandered these days than they were in 1994 (which means fewer are in play) and that Republicans have had a year to prepare for this election and build a wall to hold back the coming storm. In 1994, he said, the Democrats were taken by complete surprise. And Dunn--perhaps trying to convince herself--maintained that her party had plenty of money to dump into the limited number of House contests up for grab and would be able to prevent the Democrats from picking up more than a dozen House seats. The Democrats need 15 seats to obtain control of the House.

Still, Cook, who attributes 70 percent of the electorate's sour mood to Bush's war in Iraq, was predicting a Democratic gain in the House of at least 20 seats and perhaps 35. As for the Senate, Cook described it as a toss-up, with control of that body resting on what will happen in Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, and New Jersey. The Democrats, according to Cook, probably will need three of these four races to win the Senate. He warned that there is a fair bit of "volatility" within the electorate and that it is nearly impossible to predict what will happen by adding up outcomes in individual House races. In 1994, he recalled, he and other trackers foresaw a GOP gain of 20 to 30 House seats--but nothing like what happened. "When there is a wave," Cook said, "they always go bigger than you expect."

Democrats, who have not done much to shape the current political dynamic, can hope so. For nail-biters, the immediate questions are obvious. Can Bush and Karl Rove do anything in the last two weeks of the campaign to change the weather? There's not much time left for an October Surprise. Can they pull off a November Surprise? If not and the forecast doesn't shift, can the Republicans construct fortifications to beat back the wave in just enough spots to keep their majority afloat in Congress? Cook thinks not. I'm not going to be as gutsy and make any predictions except this: Rove is either about to meet his Waterloo or to confirm his reputation as an odds-defying political genius.


It's always gratifying to know you got something right. At this pre-election briefing, I conducted interviews with top-dog Washingtonians (former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Armey and Dunn) for the Pajamas Media website, and I had the chance to talk to Armey about Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff. In the book, we chronicle how Armey first objected to the idea of going to war in Iraq, questioning the necessity of such an action and telling President Bush an invasion would lead to a quagmire. But after Dick Cheney pressured Armey, the Texan relented and voted in October 2002 to give President Bush the authority to launch a war against Iraq. In the book, we quote Armey saying he regretted that vote. So this morning I asked Armey if we portrayed his story accurately. Yes, he said: "I still think it's one of the worst votes I made." The Republican Party, he added, might deserve to lose the coming elections for having made the wrong call on Iraq.


FOR INFORMATION ON HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, click here. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Share the Wealth

Democrats have a money problem. The Republican National Committee has three times as much money to spend on key races as the Democratic National Committee does. The Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees are doing better, but Republicans overall still have $10 million more available to dump on last-minute attack ads and get-out-the-vote programs.

Luckily, there's a short-term fix. Seventy House Democrats who are running for re-election against weak or non-existent opponents are sitting on $50 million in campaign cash. Netroots groups, such as the blog MyDD.com and MoveOn.Org, are asking these protected Democrats to give 30 percent of that money to Democratic challengers or the party committees.

Thus far, only Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts has responded to the appeal. But others will follow if enough pressure is put on them.

Of course, the best long-term solution would be to get money out of politics by supporting clean elections. Yet under our current system, the "Use It or Lose It" plan should help Democrats make do.