The Nation

Herseth Win Matters (A Lot)

Champions of losing parties and their pundit pals are always quick to claim that special elections for open US House seats don't matter. That's what Republican operatives and conservative talk radio hosts are doing today, as they try to explain away Tuesday's pick-up by the Democrat Stephanie Herseth of a previously Republican-held seat in South Dakota. Republicans are claiming that their candidate got a late start, that Herseth had better name recognition and, above all, that this was a local race in which no one could possibly find signals regarding national trends.

They are, of course, wrong.

Special elections results, especially when they follow upon one another and begin to form patterns, mean a great deal in American politics. In the last two election cycles where Democratic challengers defeated Republican Presidents, those wins were preceded by patterns of Democratic wins in special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans. Before the 1976 presidential election, Democrats swept a series of special elections in traditionally Republican districts--even winning the Michigan House seat vacated by Gerald Ford when he accepted the vice presidency in Richard Nixon's collapsing Administration. In 1976, after assuming the presidency, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Similarly, before the 1992 election, President George Herbert Walker Bush was embarrassed when his Republican party lost special elections for seats it had held. Of particular significance was the June 4, 1991, election of Democrat John Olver to the western Massachusetts seat vacated by Republican Representative Silvio O. Conte, a close Bush ally.

Special elections for House seats have always been a big deal for savvy strategists in both parties, precisely because they know that such elections can tell us a great deal about the political moment. Early in 1985, Republicans were riding high after Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election win in 1984. A Democratic House seat in Texas came open and the GOP made a major push to win it, seeking to signal that Democrats could no longer win competitive seats in the south. The party's top operative, Lee Atwater, was dispatched to run the race of the Republican candidate, and it was no secret that the Reagan White House hoped a win in the Texas special election would cause Southern Democratic House members to switch parties in droves. Unfortunately for Atwater, Democrat Jim Chapman won the seat. Atwater admitted that he had "the dry heaves for three days" after the loss.

Will Republicans be similarly upset following the South Dakota vote?

Not exactly. Republicans are no longer a party on the rise, looking for breakthrough wins. They have power, and it is easier to defend the high ground than to take it.

But there is no question that the South Dakota result represents bad news for the GOP. Coming not long before fall elections, when Republicans must defend the White House and narrow margins of control in the House and Senate, a pair of special-election wins for Democrats running in traditionally Republican House districts will set off alarm bells within the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.

But while Democrats were celebrating Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it is important to remember that the South Dakota result is not a guarantee of Democratic destiny. It is merely a indication of what might come to pass if Democrats get their act together this fall.

For Democrats and Republicans, however, such signals matter.

During the contest that preceded Herseth's election by a 51-49 margin over Republican Larry Diedrich in Tuesday's statewide voting, the Democratic and Republican Congressional campaign committees poured more that $2 million into television advertising that targeted fewer than 300,000 South Dakota voters. Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush swept into the Plains state to campaign for Diedrich. And, after Herseth won, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was declaring early Wednesday morning that "Stephanie Herseth's win to tonight sends a clear message to President Bush and Congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for change."

Allowing for predictable hyperbole, Pelosi is hitting closer to the mark than the Republicans who claim this one election has no meaning. The Democrats do, indeed, seem to be on something of a roll in special elections for the House this year.

Between 1991 and 2003, Democrats failed to win a single special election for a House seat vacated by a Republican.

In 2004, Democrats have won two such seats: First in the rural 6th District of Kentucky, where former state Attorney General Ben Chandler secured a lopsided special election victory in February, and now in South Dakota with Herseth.

For all the protests from Republicans about how the South Dakota race was unique, it is difficult to imagine that if President Bush were riding high in the polls and public confidence in the stewardship of Republican House and Senate leaders were equally high Herseth could have prevailed. South Dakota knows how to vote for Democrats--the state sends two Democratic senators to Washington--but the House seat Herseth won had been safely in Republican hands for years. Republican Rep. John Thune regularly won the seat with as much as 75 percent of the vote until he gave it up in 2002. Former Governor Bill Janklow then won the seat with a solid margin over Herseth. (Janklow's involvement in a deadly driving accident cut his Congressional career short, provoking the special election.)

To get a sense of how much of a breakthrough Herseth's win represents for South Dakota Democrats, remember this: The party now controls the state's entire Congressional delegation for the first time since 1937, when the popular programs of Frankin Roosevelt's New Deal helped Democrats to break the historic Republican hold on the rural states of the upper Midwest.

It has been a very long time since Democrats were on the rise in rural America, in large part because the party has abandoned the economic populist, pro-small farmer themes that were traditionally its greatest strength.

Herseth's homey campaign embraced populist economic messages about the need to protect family farms and revitalize rural America. After she lost the 2002 race, Herseth went to work with the South Dakota Farmers Union, the local affiliate of the progressive National Farmers Union, and her campaign this year reflected an understanding of the issues that most concern rural America. She criticized free-trade agreements that have harmed the interests of farmers and rural communities and she strongly supported Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation that protects the interests of US farmers. In addition, Herseth attacked the Bush Administration's assaults on Medicare and the President's promotion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations that ship jobs overseas.

Is there a recipe here for Democrats as they seek to win the dozen seats they need to retake control of the House? Perhaps.

Referring to those 2000 presidential election maps that showed states won by George Bush colored red, Representative Bob Matsui, the Californian who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now says that, "Democrats can win in red states. Democrats can win in rural districts that have traditionally been in the hands of Republicans."

Matsui is getting to the point that matters. With Bush in trouble, his coattails are going to be far more slippery than they were in 2000 and 2002, even in states where he is still likely to beat Democrat John Kerry. That creates an opening for Democrats in rural areas that the party has neglected over the past decade. But it is just an opening; after years of focusing far too much attention on suburban districts, the Democratic party has lost touch with rural America. Candidates such as Herseth and Chandler, both of whom come from prominent Democratic families with deep roots in their states, can make up for the party's failings. But not every rural district will have a Herseth or a Chandler in the running. That means that the Democratic Party must change if it wants to capitalize on the opportunity that the 2004 election season seems to have handed it.

Democrats need to develop a serious rural strategy, which echoes National Farmers Union stances on trade and farm policy and promises a measure of revitalization for regions that have been in decline sometimes for decades. If they do so, they could find that the dozen seats they need to retake the House are not located in the suburbs but in rural America.

Clean Elections Work

Arizona's pioneering system of full public financing of political candidates, called the Clean Elections Act, is under fierce attack by wealthy special interests with deep pockets and national conservative ties that run all the way from Tom DeLay to Bush's fundraising machine. They've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a constitutional referendum on the November ballot that could crush America's best hope for people-powered democracy.

As the lead editorial in the new issue of The Nation argues, progressives now need to rally like-minded citizens to defend Arizona's exemplary model of civic empowerment.

Thousands of small contributions can help beat back this big-donor funded attack on democracy. The Public Campaign Action Fund is asking people to contribute the manageable sum of five dollars (or more) to help keep Arizona "clean" and, if you have the time, to ask your friends to pitch in too.

Why five dollars? Under the Clean Elections Act, five dollars is the most a voter can give a candidate. Small donors mean as much to candidates as big donors because candidates take no big money from special interests whatsoever. Talk about the great equalizer. The bank president can't give more than the teller in his bank. Now you can understand why well-heeled developers, insurance companies, Bush "Pioneers" and corporate lobbyists are so hellbent on overturning the Act.

Please help thwart their efforts to undo a terrific democratic reform in Arizona. And check out The Action Fund's homepage for a range of ways you can help decrease Big Money's choke-hold on politics in the US today.

Our Camera in NY's Prisons

You need look no further than the prisoner abuse in Iraq to understand the importance of the work of the Correctional Association of New York.

For almost 160 years, since a law passed in 1846 gave it the legal authority to do so, the CA has been visiting and inspecting New York State prisons and reporting its findings and recommendations to the State Legislature and the public. It usually follows up its reports with public education and advocacy in support of reform legislation.

Off and on over the course of the CA's history, it has had contentious dealings with state prison officials. But, since the summer of 1999, the relationship has been especially combative. In the past the CA would produce a report and the Department of Correctional Services would attack it, dismiss the findings, even villify the CA and its staff in the press and threaten the organization's access to the prisons.

The latest incident dates to last August. Shortly after receiving a draft copy of the CA's report Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons, officials in the Department of Correctional Services retaliated by imposing a range of restrictions on the organization's prison access, including how and with whom it can conduct visits, to whom it can speak during visits, and what part of the prisons it can see.

The Lockdown New York report, it's important to point out, powerfully documents the many problems plaguing the state prisons' punitive segregation units, especially the mistreatment and neglect of the disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who end up confined there for 23 to 24 hours a day for week, months, sometimes years at a time with little or no social interaction. The report documents extreme sensory deprivation; high rates of suicide and acts of self-harm; men in their underwear cowering in corners, mumbling incoherently; men ranting so feverishly that it was unclear whether they were insane to begin with--or driven mad by the conditions of their confinment.

It's too bad, isn't it, that the Correctional Association can't bring cameras into the prisons, rather than having to conjure up the images in words. But in important ways, the CA is our society's camera. Its representatives go everywhere in the prisons: the cellblocks, clinics, yards, visiting rooms, kitchens, program areas, punitive segregation units. Its members talk to prisoners and guards. (The CA's public education and advocacy program after the Lockdown New York report led to first steps toward more humane and sensible policies: The New York State Assembly passed a law banning the confinement of mentally ill people in disciplinary units; Governor Pataki also included an additional $13 million in his proposed budget for increased mental health services in the prisons.)

For months the Correctional Association tried "back channel" negotiations to resolve the dispute with the State, but prison officials remained intransigent on key issues involving access. Finally, in March, the CA sued in federal court, asserting that the State had effectively violated its First Amendment right to exercise free speech. The judge in the case has urged both parties to meet and seek a negotiated settlement; the CA has engaged in these meetings. What the outcome of these discussions will be is not yet clear.

So far legal fees for the case have amounted to over $100,000 (and that despite the 25 percent discount offered by CA's lawyers, Emery, Celli, et al.) Since these costs were not budgeted, the CA must find a way to find untapped sources to cover them.

In my view, speaking as both a longtime board member of the CA and as a concerned citizen, it's crucial that the Correctional Association prevails in this case, not only so that it can regain its access to our prisons--so critical to the organization's valuable work--but also to send a message that the state government's ugly, bullying tactic doesn't carry the day. For information on how you can help, click here or contact Susan Gabriel at the Correctional Association at 135 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003, 212-254-5700 or sgabriel@correctionalassocation.org.

How Bold Should Kerry Go?

In late May, Senator John Kerry, being interviewed by Associated Press, said he would not appoint to the Supreme Court anyone who would "undermine" abortion rights. That was the customary position for a Democratic presidential candidate. But Kerry kept talking: "That doesn't mean that if [the Court was not narrowly divided on abortion] I wouldn't be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view." The interviewer had his headline: "Kerry Open to Anti-Abortion Judges." And before the story was published, the Kerry campaign found itself in another dust-up and had to rush out a clarification in which Kerry vowed, "I will not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who will undo" the right to an abortion. Two days later, a strategist for the abortion rights community--a veteran politico who has known Kerry for decades--was on a conference call with anti-Bush organizers in swing states. "Welcome to the exasperation of watching Kerry campaign," this person said. "The good news is he's thoughtful, intelligent and deliberative, the bad news is he's thoughtful, intelligent and deliberative. His mind wanders, he likes to see the other side, he ruminates, the shit hits the fan, and he has to backtrack. Get used to it."

John Kerry campaigning is often not a pretty sight. Democrats and others yearning for the defeat of George W. Bush will have to keep in mind Kerry's limitations as they assess the candidate and hurl advice at him (be bold, let Bush implode on his own, tack to the center, rally the base, talk about Iraq more, talk about Iraq less). In May, the media carried reports of panic among Democrats disappointed that, given the bad news from Iraq, Kerry had not opened a commanding lead over Bush. But there was no reason to view the absence of a massive Kerry lead as an omen of demise. As Kerry campaign people repeatedly point out, in 1992, before the conventions, Bill Clinton--now regarded as a political Superman--was running third in the polls behind the first George Bush and Ross Perot. Kerry was already competitive with Bush. And Kerry's record-setting (for a Democrat) fundraising--he bagged twice as much as Bush did in April--quieted some of the intra-party griping. "Because of the money coming in, the campaign is organizing in the swing states earlier than Democrats usually do," says one Kerry fundraiser. "It's not as early as it should have been--but earlier than usual."

The campaign has had troubles. Some Democrats knocked it for not including enough minorities. There was conflict between consultants. And it created a flap by floating the lousy idea that Kerry would not accept the nomination at the convention in order to continue fundraising. But if the campaign organization is, more or less, flying straight and adequately fueled, there still are two causes of concern: Kerry and his message. Are he and his ideas sufficiently well-known and well-regarded so that the candidate and his stands, not merely anti-Bush sentiment, can motivate potential Kerry voters? "It's no secret that what's driving the fundraising and support for John Kerry is anti-Bush, not pro-Kerry," says a Kerry fundraiser. "This election is about Bush. As long as John Kerry doesn't become a Michael Ducks, he's fine."

Is non-Dukakisness really the goal? Or does Kerry need to be a better and/or a bolder standard bearer promoting a more distinct and piercing message? A Democratic consultant not affiliated with Kerry notes the campaign's decision to focus its first ads on Kerry's life story, emphasizing his Vietnam days, "made Democrats outside the campaign nervous that Kerry was not out there defining hard issues differences with Bush." He adds, "By now in 1992 Clinton had already established he was all about improving the economy and dealing with health care. I don't think voters have any sense of what the Kerry agenda is. An issue agenda will show he's not just a rich guy, opportunistic and ambitious."

The campaign has announced the second wave of ads will be issues-oriented, and a senior Kerry adviser remarks, "People needed to know Kerry better. And we think the recent ads have worked." It's hard to tell. Bush's approval numbers were plummeting at the end of May, and Kerry was beating Bush in the match-ups. But polls suggested much of the public viewed Kerry as a whatever-it-takes pol. In one survey, only a third accepted the notion that Kerry says what he believes; 58 percent reported they think Kerry says what he believes people want to hear. And Bush scored higher on leadership traits, such as strength and honesty. A reasonable interpretation of these numbers was that Kerry was benefiting more from Bush's liabilities--mainly, the screw-ups in Iraq--than his own assets.

"Kerry's biggest problem is Kerry," says one of his fundraisers "When he says dumb things--like when said he didn't own a SUVA, his family did; when he said he voted for the $87 billion in Iraq before he voted against it--he gets hammered. I tell him, make sure you don't have to explain what you say." Kerry campaign staffers naturally downplay Kerry's miscues. "All this stuff about his statements and ruminations, I wonder if the voting public follows it," says one.

But Kerry and the campaign have yet to convey fully and widely that he is a candidate of strength, purpose, ideas and passion. Late-night host Craig Kilborn cracked, "I just saw John Kerry's new television commercial, and he said, ‘I'm John Kerry, and I approve of this message--if I have one.'" MoveOn.org has drafted a petition calling on Kerry to "go big" and be "bold." And reporters, Republicans, and others have asked, where's Kerry's plan for Iraq?

All this illustrates the problem with--or confronting--the Kerry campaign, for Kerry does have message, he has gone big on some fronts, and he has presented as much of a plan for Iraq as Bush. But none of this has been much noticed or covered. In the same interview in which he bungled the abortion question, Kerry said, "I've heard some people say, well, what's the message?…The message is clear, folks: We're going to make America stronger at home by being fiscally responsible, investing in health care and education, becoming energy independent, and we're going to make ourselves stronger in the world by restoring America's respect and influence with a better foreign policy. It's that simple."

It's not poetry, but it qualifies as a message. Kerry has pushed an energy independence initiative and a health care proposal both more extensive than anything produced by the Democrats in Congress. Yet there is the matter of his tone. He whacks Bush for pursuing "the most arrogant, reckless, and ideological foreign policy." But Kerry has backed away from the hard-edged populist rhetoric he deployed late in the primaries. Railing against revolving-door special interests is no longer a climax of his campaign speeches (though a Kerry ad recently blasted Bush for having "taken millions from big oil and gas companies.") Is he heeding the call of the Democratic Leadership Council and stepping toward the right in an act of ideological repositioning (that may or may not register with the small slice of undecided voters in a few key states)? Or is it more an issue of style?

When Clinton in 1992 wanted to prove he was a "New Democrat," he promoted welfare reform and showcased his devotion to the death penalty. Kerry has done nothing so dramatic. (He is an opponent of capital punishment.) He has talked about deficit reduction and supported certain tax cuts (while opposing breaks for the wealthy). He has straddled the line between the DLC and the traditional Dems without causing much fuss. To triumph in the battleground states, is it better for Kerry to be a populist firebrand who excites the Democratic base or a center-chaser who nabs swing voters? This is more a question of theology than a correct-or-incorrect choice. Neither path guarantees success. Ask Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman. A longtime Kerry aide says, "Being perceived as a Kennedy liberal won't help, but he's been consistent, talking about equality and justice for working families. Some days it's heath care, some it's education. This is no fundamental shift."

On Iraq, Kerry has crafted a position that differentiates him from Bush but not in black-and-white fashion. "People keep coming up to us saying John Kerry should be more specific on Iraq," says former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Kerry adviser, "and I ask them, have you read the speech he gave at Westminster College? And people say no." In that address, Kerry called for fully internationalizing the "transformation of Iraq." He urged bringing in NATO troops, establishing an international high commissioner for Iraq, and establishing a massive training effort to build Iraq's own security forces. To stabilize Iraq, he said, he would be open to sending more US troops. Kerry's position went beyond Bush's stay-the-coursism, yet it was no clear-sounding call for quick withdrawal. Here was Kerry nuancing his way through a tough call.

There have been debates on Iraq within the campaign's foreign policy team. "For a while," says a senior Kerry foreign policy adviser, "the debate was whether it was better not to offer an Iraq plan. Now there's a continuing discussion on how to deal with the changing realities in Iraq." But there are no indications Kerry or his camp feels pressure to consider pulling out the troops. "It has been clear to everyone," this adviser says, "that cutting and running is not the right approach and that Iraq can't be an American-only operation, that we have to broaden the international role dramatically. But one question has been, how hard do you hit the president? And we also haven't engaged the issue of an exit date. That's politically difficult because it would look like cutting and running. Kerry has to establish he's steely enough to do the job."

Another foreign policy adviser to the campaign notes, "most of Kerry's advisers want to get US troops out as quickly as possible. The issue is how direct to be. Perhaps there will be more political pressure for a pullout. I disagreed with him over his vote to authorize the war, but I've come round to thinking he has rather good political instincts about these matters." And while several Democratic foreign policy wonks outside the campaign have advocated setting a deadline for removing US troops, Kerry has not endorsed a D Day for disengagement. "It means," says Holbrooke, "hardliners get harder and wait you out. A hard date increases the chances of civil war. It's irresponsible."

"Kerry is playing it very cautiously," says a Democrat close to Kerry's foreign policy team. "It's a prevent-defense kind of game. He's counting on Bush to keep making mistakes. I'm skeptical of it. But it could work. My fear is that he's not setting a strong enough foundation for people not only to reject Bush but to embrace Kerry." Holbrooke argues that the main issue is the man, not the plan: "In temperament, style and experience, nothing could be more different than John Kerry and George Bush. That's more important than Kerry's plan." For his part, Kerry last month said of Iraq. "You have to give the president some room to get things done, but if he doesn't do what he has to do…." His voice trailed off. Then he added, "It's a very difficult thing, but I think the president has to lead. Really lead." That was hardly a stirring declaration.

The question for the Kerry campaign and Kerry himself is this: should the campaign and Kerry let Kerry be Kerry, or should he be nudged beyond his natural borders. Kerry is a traditional liberal with a careful manner who occasionally, but not steadily, displays commitment and passion. His leads in the polls are likely the results of events beyond his control. But circumstances change, and he has to prepare for that. Can Kerry make a deeper connection with voters without a sharper style or a sharper message? "It is fair to say that we haven't yet seen the John Kerry who can coldcock George Bush," says Ralph Whitehead, a professor of public service at University of Massachusetts. " He has the ability to bring himself to that point. He has time--the convention, the debates. But, certainly, Democrats would feel better if they saw a few flashes now. There is a lot of energy flowing into John Kerry from the anti-Bush forces. But not a lot coming out of him. He has not yet created a feedback loop." Democrats ought to hope he starts establishing such a loop soon--just in case being the other guy in the race, the one who isn't Bush, turns out to be not good enough.


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Nader Does the CFR

If only Candidate Nader were Citizen Nader. That's what I kept thinking as I listened Monday evening to his speech delivered in the citadel of America's establishment--the Council on Foreign Relations. When Nader castigated Bush for committing "high crimes and misdemeanors" by misleading the nation into a war "based on false pretenses," it may have been the truest thing ever uttered in the mahogany-paneled chambers of the CFR.

But while the message is strong; the medium is wrong. As The Nation has repeatedly said, America's consumer rights crusader got the important thing wrong when he decided to run for President this year.

At the Council, the mood was as if an exotic animal had loped into the building. Nader was greeted sourly by some, apprehensively by others, warily by many. A few leading Democratic Party fundraisers had come to check out his current message. Former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson sat in the front row--and seemed to welcome Nader's nod to Sorenson's recent book which includes a section on America's unmet needs. The crowd of about 150 people included affluent investment bankers, lawyers and assorted journalists and foundation types.

Peter Osnos--publisher of Public Affairs Books--introduced the speaker with a quip about how few people have enjoyed Nader's "political durability." He mentioned three others--"there's Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan and Jesse Jackson." And to put it candidly, Osnos said, "lately Nader has been driving many of his admirers nuts."

It wasn't only his admirers who looked like they'd been driven nuts. At times, it was as if the elaborately framed portraits of former Council chieftains like David Rockefeller were rattling on the wall as Nader issued a ringing call for Bush's impeachment.

In his speech, "Waging Peace, Advancing Justice, Promoting Security & the Civic Displacement of Corporate Globalization," (or as he joked, "how to twist the tail of the cosmos in 20 easy minutes"), Nader criticized the phony handover of sovereignty scheduled for June 30th and called on the White House to set a date to end its military and corporate occupation of Iraq.

In the Q & A period, Nader was grilled by several people about why he's running in a year in which the stakes are so high. Wouldn't he be a spoiler, as he was in 2000? (Readers of this space know his answer.) Nader's response that he could gain support among Republican and conversative voters disgusted with this administration was met with palpable skepticism. And, stubborn as ever, Nader didn't bend on his message that on the fundamental issues that affect the future of our democracy, the differences between the two parties are still virtually indistinguishable.

"Yes, the parties are polarized on social issues and access to civil justice and rights, but both parties have sold our politics to the highest bidder and are unwilling to challenge sovereignty of corporations over people. The rhetoric is different; the reality is not." That comment elicited a slight hissing in the room. Later Nader said, somewhat contemptuously: "We've been completely abandoned by liberals."

Nader's speech netted a story in the New York Times, which focused on Nader's call to impeach Bush. But there were a few other tidbits:

* Nader thought it was hopeful that there was "increasing rebellion among retired foreign policy and intelligence officials," and that "this war was waged against the considered opinion of so many of them."

* Nader consciously attempted to cloak himself in President Eisenhower's legacy by drawing a connection between his speech and the General's classic speech warning of the military-industrial complex. Any talk of cutting our bloated military budget is more taboo today than it was twenty years ago, Nader rightly observed. (He referred the crowd to the work of Columbia professor Seymour Melman.)

* The "drive to war" represented the "fragility of our democratic institutions. The "lack of any deliberative process by the US Congress, the lack of an investigative process by the media--which clicked their heels" is a "severe scar on our democratic process."

* The Founding Fathers, Nader said, "did not want the declaration of war put in the hands of one man."

* "The last war that Congress declared was the War on Poverty." If our institutions of government had worked, we might have avoided this quagmire, he argued.

* We have a messianic militarist as a President; and our re-engagement with the world is hindered because Bush talks like "an out-of-control West Texas sheriff" and has a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and for our constitution," Nader stated.

* Saddam was the US's dictator. The US supported him as a bulwark against Communists, Nader stated, and we averted our eyes to his atrocitieswhen it suited our strategic needs. "The economic sanctions imposedon Iraq were a clear violation of international law and contributedto the deaths of thousands of children."

* He decried the Administration's exploitation of fear since 9/11: "To say that President Bush has exaggerated the threat of Al-Qaeda is to trip into a political hornets' nest." But it is time to raise the "impertinent question" about whether we've seen a vast exaggeration of the threat of terrorism" for the purpose of fulfilling the GOP's agenda. "Chill the other party; chill dissent; distract attention from domestic necessities and from the fact that a lot of corporations who are pouring money into Bush's private kitty get a lot of contracts; and Bush maintained his position in the polls--until recently."

* Citing William James, Nader made the case for why "we need very, very strenuously the moral equivalent of war." We need a humanitarian foreign policy, he argued. It should be a "shame on our conscience that we can't find billions to pursue the goals of alleviating hunger, poverty, that we can't find the money to take on the greatest assault of WMD that is heading our way: tuberculosis, pandemics heading from China which will take hundreds of thousands of lives here, millions there."

* Nader has finally woken up to the possibilities of the internet, quipping that "Other than the use of the internet, presidential politics hasn't had an innovation since TV makeup."

* He believes that he will be on as many state ballots as in 2000.

* Asked about the veepstakes, he followed up on what he said on ABC This Week. "I think Kerry should pick Gephardt or Edwards. Either would help him. They're both good on their feet, have their own constituencies, and are already vetted."

* Called on people to support the work of Citizens' Debate Commission to challenge the two party corporate control of the debates. (Do it at least as an antidote to insomnia, he urged, prompting some laughter in the hall.)

* He spoke little about his recent meeting with Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, but did say that when he asked Kerry how he would push through his energy independence policies,in the face of oil and gas and other energy lobbies, Kerry told him, "Just let me get in the White House and I'll use the bully pulpit." "I told him I just didn't think that was a sufficient answer."

The applause at the end was wary and light. Nader may have been invited into the citadel but he was not welcome for long. On the sidewalk outside, a lone Green Party member was leafleting. I didn't see anyone taking.

Gore Blasts Bush on Iraq

Last night, in another of a series of speeches sponsored by MoveOn.org, Al Gore spoke to 900 people at New York University in a talk that was interrupted by applause more than a dozen times. Gore accused President Bush of "utter incompetence" on Iraq, adding that the president had "made the world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the threat of terrorism against the United States."

As Maureen Dowd noted in her New York Times column today, Gore's remarks represented "one of the most virulent attacks on a sitting president ever made by such a high-ranking former official."

Click here to read and circulate the text of this speech, click here to watch a webcast of the talk and click here for more info on Move.On, which is providing widespread support to the efforts to unseat Bush in November.

Help Stephanie Herseth

When I wrote about South Dakota populist Stephanie Herseth in this space in April, the polls showed her well ahead of her rightwing rival in the race to finish out Bill Janklow's Congressional term. And, although she still leads in the contest for South Dakota's only US House seat with less than two weeks left before the state's special election on June 2, new polls indicate that the race has narrowed, in large part due to the 1.5 million dollars spent on television advertising by national Republicans anxious to hold onto the seat.

Click here to read "A New Populist on the Block," my weblog detailing why Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions (although she isn't perfect--as some readers pointed out in smart comments.) And click here to donate urgently need funds to counter her opponent's war chest.

A Middle Class Scorecard

The non-partisan Drum Major Institute has just released its first-ever scorecard of votes on legislation that significantly impact America's middle class. In "Middle Class 2003: How Congress Voted," representatives were graded on their votes on key legislation that both helps the middle class (the American Dream Downpayment Act, the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act) and hurts it (Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act and the Death Tax Repeal Act).

The results are clear: legislators need to put their rhetoric about the middle class where their votes are. While the Senate earned a B grade overall, fully one quarter of Republican Senators received an F. The scores in the House of Representatives revealed a similar divide: the House received an overall grade of C, but ninety-nine percent of Democrats passed compared to only one-third of Republicans.

The GOP is good at talking the middle-class talk, especially during an election year. But what about the walk?

"Middle Class 2003: How Congress Voted" makes it possible to hold elected officials accountable for the legislation that determines the quality of life for middle-class families. Check out the Drum Major Institute's website for the scorecard which was sent home with every legislator as they return to their districts this week. It's a valuable tool for the press, policy makers and voters alike.

Can Iraq Get Any Worse?

Let's review.

* The head of the picked-in-Washington Governing Council in Iraq was assassinated just outside the highly protected command center of the occupation six weeks before a new but yet to be named Iraqi government assumes sovereignty.

* The Baghdad home and compound of Ahmad Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress received $33 million in US taxpayer money for providing wrong and misleading (deliberately so) intelligence on WMDs and other matters, was raided by US troops and Iraqi police, pursuant to warrants issued by an Iraqi judge. The early indications are Chalabi's gang may stand accused of a) corruption; b) impeding an investigation into possible corruption in the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq; c) fomenting a coup or otherwise trying to interfere in the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq; d) engaging in espionage by sharing sensitive information with Iran; or e) all of the above. The raid came two days after the Pentagon stopped funding the INC and four days after Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged he had made false assertions about Iraq possessing mobile biological weapons labs during his February 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council. That charge had been based on intelligence provided by an INC source. At Bush's State of the Union speech in January, Chalabi was a guest of the president and sat right behind Laura Bush.

* An attack mounted by US forces near the Syrian border has led to charges that the American troops massacred a wedding party. The US military claims it struck a legitimate military target. Local Iraqi health officials maintain most of the victims were women and children.

* The prison abuse scandal rolls on, with more photos and more videotapes. Meanwhile, a soldier who worked for military intelligence at Abu Ghraib military has gone public with the accusation that guards at the prison were encouraged to abuse the prisoners. At higher levels, the US military and senior military officials have not been able to get their stories straight on who actually was in charge at Abu Ghraib and what interrogation practices were authorized (and by whom) regarding Iraqi detainees.

* The newspapers are filled with quotes from US officials working for the occupation authority who express despair and discouragement about the current situation and the road (or lack thereof) ahead.

* There are signs that security in Iraq is deteriorating further. Iraqis complain about kidnappings and lawlessness. American reporters, by and large, rarely venture beyond the Green Zone and their hotels. Earlier this week, a Time writer told me that the newsmagazine has only three people in Iraq. Much of the video footage shown on cable news stations has been shot by non-Americans hired by US media outlets. The war is too unsafe for Americans to cover. And reconstruction efforts are slowing down or stopping.

* Halliburton still cannot work up a legitimate bill for hundreds of millions of dollars in food services it has supplied in Iraq.

* Neocon Bill Kristol, one of the main promoters of the war, called George W. Bush's handling of the war "incompetent." Columnist George Will has accused the Bush administration of being unable to think clearly about Iraq. Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, has groused about "growing US messianic instincts." In other words, some hawk-mice are abandoning the ship. (They're not calling for withdrawal--the neocons, actually, are urging dramatically expanding the US military mission in Iraq--but they are distancing themselves from the commander-in-chief.)

* And remember how the war in Iraq was supposed to bolster the Middle East peace process? Tell that to the parents of the children recently killed in Gaza during a protest.

Can it get much worse? The sad answer is, yes. After the June 30 hand-off, the lines of authority could become less clear in Iraq. There will be a caretaker government supposedly composed of non-politicos. And the US military will have to coordinate its counterinsurgency operations with this group. Imagine the negotiations that will ensue, as the US military tries to mount operations against the various insurgencies. How much leeway will the new government provide the US forces? After the recent "wedding party" attack, will these Iraqi leaders permit the US to strike at will? It is not difficult to foresee US operations in Iraq turning into a collection of Falluja-like standoffs. And if the new Iraqi government is supposed to be representing the Iraqi people, how will it deal with Iraqi resentment against the US occupation and military operations? A few weeks ago, Gallup reported that 57 percent of Iraqis want US troops to leave immediately. If that's an accurate reflection of popular will, how can the new sovereign government permit US forces to stay and have a free run of the country? How can the Bush administration claim it is fighting for democracy in Iraq, if it keeps troops there in defiance of Iraqi public opinion?

These are difficult questions. No wonder Bush's handling of the war in Iraq wins the approval of only a third of the American public in recent polls. Yet there do remain the diehard Bush defenders. A few days ago, I was debating Jed Babbin, a contributor for National Review Online, and he declared--no ifs, ands, or buts--that "we're winning the war in Iraq" and that the American people had full confidence in Bush. I asked for evidence of the latter proposition. He noted that he has been able to visit the heartland of America and suss out what "the people" are thinking. Bully for him. In another debate, George Neumayr, the managing editor of The American Spectator countered my pessimism by noting that Bush was doing a fine job and any criticism of him was both unfounded and counterproductive (read: of aid and comfort to the enemy). These and other traditional cons have yet to follow Captain Kristol off the reservation--though CNN's Tucker Carlson has mea culpaed his prewar enthusiasm, blaming his hawkishness on an unnamed pal who persuaded him to ignore his own instincts and ride along to the sound of the guns.

In the midst of this recent slide, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (of the Cheerleaders for Chalabi crowd) begrudgingly admitted the administration might have made one or two slight miscalculations. But the bigfoots--Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld--continue to duck responsibility for their misjudgments. Bush may still be taxing himself trying to come up with an answer to the question posed at his last press conference: can you think of any mistakes you have made as president? At the time, none came to mind. And he has not gotten back to us on this subject. As for Cheney, it would be encouraging to see him--the godfather of the administration's neocon cabal--working hard to get back from Chalabi the $27 million the United States wasted on this neocon darling, was convicted in Jordan of massive bank fraud. Perhaps Cheney can ask US troops to seize Chalabi's compound and assets and sell them off on eBay: "Item No. 23: Iranian tapestry rug, suitable for use in the office of a head of state." (Chalabi pals at the neoconnish American Enterprise Institute appear to be standing by their man in Iraq. Danielle Pletka, AEI's veep, dismissed the Chalabi raid as likely "political manipulation in order to disable somebody who has been a thorn in the side of the" occupation authorities. So it's Paul Bremer's fault. Catfight on the right!) And while Rumsfeld has expressed regret that half-a-dozen GIs turned Abu Ghraib into their own personal dungeon, he has yet to apologize for--or even acknowledge--the woefully inadequate planning that occurred for the post-invasion phase of Mission Iraq. A year ago no one, Rumsfeld said, could have predicted the troubles of today. But military and foreign policy experts back then foresaw precisely the problems that now confront the United States. But Rumsfeld thought he knew better--or perhaps he didn't think. He should be accepting responsibility for that screw-up, not the sadistic antics captured on pixels.

The bad news about the bad news is that there is not much reason to expect a change in the trend. Forget the John Kerry plan--whatever it may be. If he is fortunate enough to win (and he ought to be careful what he wishes for), he won't assume office until January 20. By then the first round of elections are scheduled to take place. But, no doubt, the situation in Iraq will have changed so much that whatever Kerry has to offer today could well be irrelevant by then. For now, it is Bush the Infallible who is stuck with the mess in Iraq, and the nation is stuck with him.


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