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Obama and Clinton's State of Surveillance

President Bush is now daring Congress to defy his demand for more unchecked power to spy on Americans without warrants, vowing to veto temporary surveillance legislation and politicize his last State of the Union address for an attack on Democrats. Last week, Democratic leaders were considering a bill to grant a one-month extension of the administration's spying powers, a "compromise" tilted in Bush's favor, but Republican tactics have finally tried the patience of Majority Leader Harry Reid. He had been managing floor votes to advance the Republican bill and squash opposition from the majority of Democrats within his caucus, but that may change this week.

"The White House threat to veto a short extension of the Protect America Act is shamefully irresponsible," says Reid, who also derided Bush's new threat as simply "posturing" for the State of the Union. Reid added that if any terror-related problems were caused by legislative delays, "the blame will clearly and unequivocally fall where it belongs: on President Bush and his allies in Congress."

That's tough talk. It has not been matched by action yet, and unfortunately it does not add up anyway. While most Congressional Democrats have begun confronting Bush's unconstitutional demands, a few leaders like Reid and Intelligence Chair Jay Rockefeller are actually the ones pushing the Bush spying bill. That's the problem with Reid's new complaint.

At this point, Bush's "allies in Congress" on surveillance include Reid and Rockefeller. It may be hard to tell -- since Bush is repaying them with "shameful" attacks, as Reid said -- but they sidelined the more responsible spying bill to help Bush last week. (The "Leahy alternative" was backed by most Senate Democrats, and is closer to a Democratic bill that already passed the House.) Even with Reid pulling strings for Bush, Senate Democrats only fell four votes short of keeping the better bill alive. And they were missing two votes from their colleagues on the campaign trail, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Yet even Obama and Clinton are back in town for a night of pomp and rhetoric at the State of the Union. They both talk about "change" and "results" -- and here's a chance to act on it. It will take more than a speech or a vote to stop Bush's bill, though, it will take leadership. That means confronting the people who are wrong in both parties -- an (unpopular) President and the floor manager of an (unpopular) Congress -- to stop amnesty and the blueprint for a surveillance state. It's also what many Democratic voters want to see. The grassroots group Democracy for America (DFA) is running a full page ad in this week's Times pressing Obama and Clinton, while the netroots is pleading with Senators to defend the "rule of law."

And what, exactly, can they do? I see three major options:

1. Use their influence and political capital to recruit two more votes for the Leahy bill. That's all Leahy, Feingold and Dodd need to keep their fight alive under the current rules. Obama and Clinton were endorsed by a total of seven senators who voted the wrong way last week. As DFA explains, "if these presidential hopefuls bring along the support of these senators, they can sustain a planned filibuster [and] defeat any cloture vote."

2. Use their influence and political capital to press Reid to run the floor for the Leahy bill, instead of the Bush-Rockefeller bill. This is is tough for several reasons, but there's an opening now that Bush has essentially slapped Reid around and drawn some rhetorical pushback.

3. Rally the Democratic Congress to confront Bush's veto threat. Send the one-month bill to his desk and let this unpopular president remind the entire country of his irresponsible, cynical approach to governing. Maybe his approval ratings will drop into the teens like his Vice President. (I personally favor this third option the least, since it involves gamesmanship instead of a long-term policy, which Leahy's bill offers.)

Or they could channel Harry Reid, complaining about Bush while essentially allowing him to win again.

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Monday Update: DFA advertisement will run this week, but not on Monday as DFA originally told The Nation. Blogger dibgy responds to the options in Stepping Up:

Will it be door number 1,2,3 or 4? The truth is that it's mostly a symbolic thing for the Monday leading up the SOTU, and that's not a bad thing. It's a hell of a lot better that they're taking a public stand on this than if they weren't... on balance, this is better than I expected and maybe they can at least get the news media to pay attention to this issue with a couple of rousing speeches in defense of the rule of law. The gasbags can waste days talking about ephemeral, campaign trail dust-ups so maybe they can find a couple of minutes to talk about the [C]onstitution.

 

Sunday Update:

Reader "B_Kool_66" urges people to support DFA's effort here, and to rally for TV coverage to highlight the issue by contacting MSNBC's "Countdown" show at countdown@msnbc.com. Olberman has definitely championed constitutional battles before.

"METTEYYA," an informed and passionate advocate for Obama here at The Nation site, adds that Obama opposes amnesty for companies that allegedly broke the law by assisting illegal surveillance. That is true for both Clinton and Obama; and they were among the 28 Democratic senators who flatly voted down the spying bill in August. They both have strong voting records and platforms on constitutional rights, and I've credited Clinton in this space for her forceful discussion of habeas corpus. But again, I think the issue this week is principled leadership, not simply saying the right things. Bush says he'll go to the mat to bully Reid into granting him more unchecked power. He even looks ready to tarnish his final State of the Union to do it. And we need leaders who will not only vote against unaccountable spying, but go to the mat with the full power of their office and their bully pulpit to defend the Constitution.

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Advertisement courtesy of DFA

Chill, Bill

It is time to pull Bill Clinton off the campaign trail he never should have gotten on.

Yes, the former president is still a "rock star" in Democratic circles. Yes, he still has rhetorical and strategic skills that may play a role in the future campaigns.

But the results from Saturday's South Carolina primary confirm that Bill Clinton is doing the presidential prospects of his wife a good deal more harm than good.

Hillary Clinton must take control of her campaign. She must be the unequivocal and unquestioned face of her campaign. And she can only do that if Bill Clinton is moves out of the limelight he shared with his wife in New Hampshire and stole in South Carolina.

After Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in Nevada last Saturday, the buzz was that the former first lady would be in the running in South Carolina. Sure, she was behind. But she had momentum. And, while there was a flurry of speculation about the prospect that she might win, Clinton did not really need to win the primary in a state where Obama has held a poll lead for some time. She simply needed a credible finish -- something in the range of 45 percent of the vote.

With strong support from white woman and substantial backing from African-American women, a solid campaign organization, big endorsements and plenty of money, as well as the "sense of inevitability" that had been somewhat restored by her Nevada win, Clinton was well positioned to secure the finish she needed.

She didn't get it.

She didn't get close to it.

Instead, Obama beat her by a massive 2-1 margin, with 55 percent of the vote to just 27 percent for Clinton. Indeed, Clinton had to hustle hard in the final days to hold off a surge by John Edwards, who won a better-than-expected 18 percent of the vote and several delegates.

What happened? There will be a dozen lines of spin. Only one matters:

Clinton relied too heavily on her husband, former President Bill Clinton. And he blew it, badly.

In the final week, where the South Carolina race really played out, the contest was transformed from a contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton into something else altogether. While Obama effectively lived in the state during the period, Clinton took her campaign to a number of February 5 primary states.

She left Bill Clinton behind to dot the "I's" and cross the "T's." It was a task he should have been up for. Though there was always speculation about how Clinton would strike a proper balance between his roles as former president and campaigning spouse of a presidential contender, the theory was that it would be easiest for him in a state like South Carolina, where the former Arkansas governor would be on familiar ground.

Instead, Bill Clinton turned in one of the more embarrassing performances in the recent history of American electoral politics. Self-absorbed, angry, petulant and often troubling when he attempted to address racial concerns, he seemed -- wittingly or not -- to be reopening old wounds in a region where the debates about the flying of the Confederate flag remain unsettled.

"Bill Clinton is a huge loser in this," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein, a biographer of Hillary Clinton who suggested last night that Bill Clinton had "squandered his post-presidency" with his crude campaigning in South Carolina.

South Carolinians confirmed that assessment.

Of the 58 percent of South Carolina voters who told exit pollsters that Bill Clinton's campaigning on behalf of his wife was an important factor in the primary contest, two thirds voted for Obama or Edwards.

Only 37 percent of those who attached importance to Bill Clinton's aggressive presence in their state over the past week voted for Hillary Clinton. Forty-eight percent voted for Barack Obama, while 15 percent voted for John Edwards.

The Clinton campaign can spin that any way it wants.

But Carl Bernstein is right when he says of Bill Clinton: "the luster of this beloved figure is off."

It is time for Bill Clinton to go home to Chappaqua and let his wife mount the honorable campaign that his presence on the trail leading up to Saturday's primary made impossible. No, Bill Clinton is not the sum of what is wrong with the Clinton campaign. But he more burden than benefit at this point. And to think otherwise would be to deny the numbers from South Carolina.

Forgotten Voices from a Lost War

On January 30-31, 1968, the Tet holiday, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF, known to Americans as "the Vietcong") struck at five of the country's six largest cities, 34 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, and numerous military bases. NLF sappers even briefly captured part of the heavily fortified American embassy compound in the center of the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

Vietnamese government troops allied to the Americans were badly bloodied and American casualties were high. Fighting continued in parts of Saigon for three weeks and in Hue, the old imperial capital, for almost a month until, as with Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004, most of its buildings were destroyed. To retake major urban areas, air power was called in. In perhaps the most infamous phrase of the Vietnam War, an anonymous U.S. major said of the retaking of Ben Tre, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."

In a wave of TV images of unexpected carnage, all this broke over the American people, who had been assured that "progress" was being made, that, as American commander General William Westmoreland put it, "We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." (Sound familiar?)

The Tet Offensive was a home-front televisual disaster and proved a breaking point in terms of pubic support for the war effort (despite massive losses on the other side). A shocked Walter Cronkite, the avuncular anchorman of CBS News and an American icon, declared the war "mired in stalemate." President Lyndon Johnson, who was watching that broadcast, promptly turned to an aide and said, "It's all over." And yet the war, already visibly hopeless, would continue through another seven years of carnage as American ground troops were drawn down, while air power was relentlessly ratcheted up. (Again, does any of this sound familiar?)

Now, 40 years later, we are nearing Tet 2008 (February 7th), embroiled in another faraway war in another faraway land where Americans are dying and another people, another society is suffering grievous wounds, once again on an almost unimaginable scale. Once again, an administration is assuring Americans that "progress" is being made, that a corner is being turned. Once again, the planes are being brought in. And once again, the voices we seldom hear are those of the civilians who are suffering. Barely noted in our world while the war is ongoing, they will promptly be forgotten -- if the Vietnam experience is any measure -- when it's over (as someday it must be), while Americans focus on the "lessons" to be learned from an "American tragedy."

Tomdispatch associate editor Nick Turse is now in Vietnam interviewing Vietnamese who ended up on the other end of American weaponry (and, in some cases, the Vietnamese versions of present-day Hadithas). Traveling through the distant Mekong Delta, he offers unforgettable voices from the missing archives of a lost war. His piece begins this way:

"Nguyen Van Tu asks if I'm serious. Am I really willing to tell his story -- to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters in his country threw the limits of U.S. military power into stark relief -- during the 1968 Tet Offensive -- we sit in his rustic home, built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare knowledge of what 'America' means to far too many outside the United States."

 

With Kucinich's Exit, Democratic Discourse is Diminished

The media managers of the 2008 presidential contest worked for months to get Dennis Kucinich off the stage and out of the running. And they have finally succeeded, as the Ohio Congressman says he is now "transitioning out of the presidential campaign" and into a tough Democratic primary race for reelection to his Cleveland-area U.S. House seat.

Kucinich's decision to quit the Democratic presidential race is an acknowledgement of reality. Never flush with the funds needed to buy paid media, he has lately been denied access to the free media that is the lifeblood of insurgent candidacies. The congressman was excluded from the last few debates by the television networks, and his campaign events -- even those that drew substantial crowds in New Hampshire and Michigan – went largely uncovered.

The casual dismissal of what for Kucinich was always a sincere, issue-oriented endeavor made it easy for critics at home -- led by the virulently anti-Kucinich Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper -- to ridicule a campaign that raised critical issues as little more than an ego trip. That encouraged challengers to enter the March 4 Democratic primary contest for Ohio's 10th District House seat.

The critics claim that Kucinich has neglected his constituents in order to pursue what Bill Clinton might refer to as a "fairytale" campaign for a nomination that was never realistically within reach. "Our district is heading in the wrong direction because we have an absentee congressman," says Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose primary challenge to Kucinich has been generously funded by special-interest groups that disdain the incumbent's independent streak.

Kucinich, who flew to Cleveland rather than to South Carolina or California after the New Hampshire primary in which his campaign received more votes than the "serious" candidacy of debate-regular and one-time media darling Fred Thompson, was anything but an absentee congressman during his presidential run. If anything, the congressman neglected the national race in order to spend time in his district and on the floor of the House -- where he maintained a far steadier attendance record than the senators against whom he was running for the presidential nomination.

The congressman's greatest attention to his district during the course of the presidential campaign took the form of his focus on the economic issues that are most important to a working-class district that includes portions of the city of Cleveland and neighboring blue-collar suburbs. Even as he discussed the essential subject of the war in Iraq, Kucinich usually did so in the context of a discussion about the cost the war was imposing not just on the distant battlefields of Iraq but on the American cities from which needed federal funds have been diverted to fund a fool's mission in the Middle East.

Much is made of the populist turn the presidential race has taken as economic conditions have worsened. But when none of the other candidates were taking pointed stands on trade policy, the mortgage crisis and real health-care reform, it was Kucinich who staked out precise positions and forced the other candidates to offer working Americans more than mere rhetoric.

The AFL-CIO extended an enthusiastic invitation to Kucinich to participate in the labor federation's August debate in Chicago because union leaders knew that he alone would guide the debate toward specifics on questions of how to reform free-trade agreements, renew industries and protect the rights of workers to organize. At that debate, it was Kucinich who earned the loudest applause. And rightly so. He was bringing the concerns of cities like Cleveland to the national stage.

One of things that most debate moderators found so frustrating about Kucinich was his determination to talk about the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to working Americans, rather than to play their games. Kucinich forced the anchormen and the reporters, as well as the other candidates, to pay a little attention to the problems of factory workers, shop clerks and farmers. There is no question that the Ohioan's determination to do this influenced more prominent and well-funded contenders, especially former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Kucinich never got much credit from the media or the other candidates. But he influenced the national debate for the better, and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is diminished by his exit.

It is not just Kucinich who is leaving the national stage. It is the discussion about cities like Cleveland and Detroit and Milwaukee. Mayors have bemoaned the neglect of urban affairs in this year's campaign, but the former big-city mayor never allowed that neglect to become complete. Now, it may be, as least as far as the presidential race in concerned. But the congressman's determination to retain his House seat points to the likelihood that Congress will still be called upon to consider the concerns of a city on Lake Erie and the so frequently-forgotten people who live there.

Reid Clears Hurdle for Bush-Cheney Spying Bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cleared a key hurdle for the FISA Amendments Act on Thursday, advancing President Bush's preferred version of the spying bill, a move opposed by the majority of Reid's Democratic colleagues. The vote, 60-36, sets the Senate on a course to validate more warrantless spying by the Bush administration and provide retroactive amnesty to telephone companies accused of breaking surveillance laws -- an unpopular approach.

The ACLU, which has collaborated with a network of constitutional activists and bloggers to oppose the administration's surveillance policies, condemned the Democratic leadership in unusually tough language after the vote. "Under Democratic leadership, the Senate will now continue its debate on surveillance with a bill that resembles something from the administration's playbook. Six months after being hoodwinked into passing the Protect America Act, Americans are still waiting for Congress to grow a spine," read an official statement released Thursday afternoon.

Glenn Greenwald, an attorney who has written extensively about surveillance issues as an author and blogger, blasted the Democrats' caving on the surveillance bill as part of a broader pattern. "Democrats have failed repeatedly to end or even limit one of the most unpopular wars in American history. They have failed to restore habeas corpus. They have failed to fulfill their promise of 'fixing' the hastily-passed Protect America Act," he wrote at Salon. "They don't feel the slightest bit ashamed or remorseful about any of that," he added.

The Senate floor battle also reflected that Democrats remain divided over whether to confront the Bush administration over constitutional rights. Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy's alternative bill, which would keep telephone companies accountable for potentially illegal or unconstitutional acts, drew the majority of Democratic Senators, including strong backing from Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd. But Reid arranged floor votes to favor the Bush-Cheney version, introduced by Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller, and announced that he would force Democratic opponents to openly filibuster it -- a hardball demand he has rarely made against Republican filibusters.

The fight is far from over. The Senate is considering several more amendments to the underlying bill, and it must reconcile the legislation with a House version that does not include retroactive amnesty. But with opponents like these, President Bush may have forgotten that Congress ever changed hands.

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Update: The vote tally is here.

Matt Browner-Hamlin, a former blogger for Chris Dodd, works as an organizer for Credo Mobile on the FISA fight, and he emailed The Nation with this observation about the presidential candidates:

Senators Clinton and Obama rushed off the campaign trail to vote on the Farm Bill in November, ahead of the Iowa caucus. But with the Constitution on the line today for the second time in little more than a month, they both did absolutely nothing. No Democrat will mistake their inaction for leadership.

 

And Digby has more.

DNC Should Encourage Democrats to Campaign in Florida

Florida will not just hold a Republican primary next Tuesday.

It will also hold a Democratic primary.

The dynamics of the contests could not be more different, however. Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Mike Huckabee are working the state aggressively, with several of them – especially Giuliani, possibly Huckabee -- facing the prospect of political ruin in the state.

For Democratic candidates, however, Florida is currently a no-go zone.

Like Michigan, which held a Democratic primary January 15, Florida jumped ahead of the Democratic National Committee's official schedule for primaries and caucuses. As with Michigan, the candidates agreed not to campaign in Florida.

But what if one or more of the candidates started campaigning in Florida?

What if Illinois Senator Barack Obama, fresh from a win in South Carolina on Saturday night, flew to Miami for two days of intensive campaigning in Florida?

What if former North Carolina Senator John Edwards worked the union-friendly precincts of Tampa?

What if New York Senator Hillary Clinton went to Disneyworld?

The latest Mason-Dixon polling shows that Clinton leads among likely Florida Democratic primary voters with 47 percent support to 25 percent for Obama. Fifteen percent back Edwards, while roughly 10 percent are undecided.

Most observers suspect that that the numbers for Clinton are inflated and soft. Could Obama upset her and score a critical win a week before the February 5 "super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses? After all, a victory in the swing state of Florida counts for a lot more than one in the solidly Republican state of South Carolina.

The notion that Obama could divert his campaign to Florida, or that all the leading Democratic candidates might do so, has some state party officials excited.

In a letter to DNC chair Howard Dean, a top Florida Democrat, Alex Sink, asked that the party's official restriction on candidates campaigning in Florida be lifted for the last two days before the primary.

''At this point, the effort to preclude Democratic presidential candidates from campaigning in Florida is serving no purpose except to give the Republican Party a head start in the general election,'' Sink wrote in a letter to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and party leaders in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada, who had supported the restriction against campaigning in Florida.

After Florida scheduled its primary for January 29, the Democratic presidential candidates responded to pressure from the DNC – which stripped the state of its convention delegates in a punishment move that everyone knows will be rendered meaningless when a Florida delegation is seated at this summer's party confab – and the early primary and caucus states.

Sink and other Florida Democrats want Dean and party officials from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to -- the approved early-primary and caucus states -- to release the remaining candidates from their pledge and allow them to campaign on Sunday and Monday in what remains a critical swing state.

That would seem to make all the sense in the world.

But if Dean were to agree to a lifting of the limitation – and especially if he would agree to allow convention delegates to be chosen Tuesday -- that could create a problem for Hillary Clinton. As now, the Obama campaign is scrambling to try and convince media outlets that a Clinton win in Florida should be discounted as meaningless; but that won't happen.

Right now, if all goes according to plan, Clinton will gain some very cheap yet very favorable publicity next week. After Obama gets recognition for winning South Carolina, Clinton will get a "Hillary Wins Florida" headline on Wednesday – taking the shine off Obama's win and refocusing attention on the New York senator as the race moves toward the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.

State Representative Luis Garcia, a Miami Beach Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party says, ''There's going to be a winner and a loser in Florida, whether it counts or not."Garcia is only half right. While a Florida win would not count in the delegate race, it will count in the critical positioning for the February 5 primaries and caucuses.

As of now, it is most likely to count for Clinton, who will probably need the boost after losing South Carolina.

Putting Florida in play would not necessarily alter that equation, but it could.

And from a purely democratic sense, that would be appropriate.If Obama, Clinton and Edwards were to bring the race to Florida for several days of spirited campaigning, the limelight would move off the Republican contest – at least to some extent – and the biggest state that will vote before February 5 would do so in a real sense. Then, if Clinton were to get a "Hillary Wins" headline, it would stand for something. Similarly, if Obama were to win, or if Edwards were to run better than expected, it would have meaning.And there is no reason to deny Florida Democrats a glimpse of the candidates at this point.

The Cost of Fighting Torture

On Monday, January 28th, Joanne Anderson, Ozone Bhaguan, Le Anne Clausen, Art Landis, Ed Lewinson, Chris Lieberman, Diane Lopez Hughes, Tiel Rainelli, Gus Roddy and Stephen Schweitzer will face federal criminal trial for trespass - punishable up to six months in federal prison.

These eleven human rights activists are part of the faith-based group SOA Watch which stages annual protests and vigils calling for the School of the Americas to be closed down on the amply documented grounds that its alumni--Latin American soldiers from various US allies--are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Central and South America.

The eleven activists extended the protest last November and entered the Fort Benning military base Columbus, Georgia through a side entrance in order to continue the nonviolent protest being conducted outside the base by thousands of people including Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney.

Columbus will once again be the meeting place for human rights activists from around the country this coming weekend as families, friends and supporters will join in solidarity with the SOAW 11 as they stand trial. Join SOA Watch and the SOAW 11 on the eve of the trial for a "Festival of Hope" starting at 7:00 PM in the Days Inn Ball Room at 3170 Victory Drive in Columbus.There'll be a program of music, poetry and theater as well as the opportunity to meet fellow activists from across the country. Then, the next morning, the SOAW 11 along with friends, families and supporters will take part in a procession through downtown Columbus to the steps of the courthouse.

Click here to learn more about SOA Watch, click here to make a contribution to support the group's efforts, click here if you'd like to join SOA Watch's Research Working Group and click here if you'd like to volunteer on one of the organization's campaigns.

American Imperial Bankruptcy?

Within the next month, the Pentagon will submit its 2009 budget to Congress and it's a fair bet that it will be even larger than the staggering 2008 one. Like the Army and the Marines, the Pentagon itself is overstretched and under strain--and like the two services, which are expected to add 92,000 new troops over the next five years (at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion per 10,000), the Pentagon's response is never to cut back, but always to expand, always to demand more.

After all, there are those disastrous Afghan and Iraqi wars still eating taxpayer dollars as if there were no tomorrow. Then there's what enthusiasts like to call "the next war" to think about, which means all those big-ticket weapons, all those jets, ships, and armored vehicles for the future. And don't forget the still-popular, Rumsfeld-style "netcentric warfare" systems (robots, drones, communications satellites, and the like), not to speak of the killer space toys being developed; and then there's all that ruined equipment out of Iraq and Afghanistan to be massively replaced -- and all those ruined human beings to take care of.

You'll get the gist of this from a recent editorial in the trade magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology:

 

"The fact Washington must face is that nearly five years of war have left U.S. forces worse off than they have been in a generation, yes, since Vietnam, and restoring them will take budget-building unlike any in the past."

 

Even on the rare occasion when--as in the case of Boeing's C-17 cargo plane--the Pentagon decides to cancel a project, there's Congress to remember. Contracts and subcontracts for weapons systems, carefully doled out to as many states as possible, mean jobs, and so Congress often balks at such cuts. (Fifty-five House members recently warned the Pentagon of a "strong negative response" if funding for the C-17 is excised from the 2009 budget.) All in all, it adds up to a defense menu for a glutton.

Already, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that 2009 funding is "largely locked into place." The giant military-industrial combines -- Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon -- have been watching their stocks rise in otherwise treacherous times. They are hopeful. As Ronald Sugar, Northrop CEO, put it: "A great global power like the United States needs a great navy and a great navy needs an adequate number of ships, and they have to be modern and capable" -- and guess which company is the Navy's largest shipbuilder?

There should be nothing surprising in all this, especially for those of us who have read Chalmers Johnson's Nemesis, The Last Days of the American Republic, the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy. Published in 2007 (and just out in paperback), it is already a classic on what imperial overstretch means for the rest of us. As global stock markets tumble and the world shudders, Johnson has just written a piece of almost unbearable timeliness: "Going Bankrupt: Why the Debt Crisis Is Now the Greatest Threat to the American Republic." It is, quite simply, a magisterial account of how the mightiest guns the Pentagon can muster threaten to sink our own country.

He concludes:

 

"Our short tenure as the world's 'lone superpower' has come to an end... Some of the damage done can never be rectified. There are, however, some steps that this country urgently needs to take. These include reversing Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the wealthy, beginning to liquidate our global empire of over 800 military bases, cutting from the defense budget all projects that bear no relationship to the national security of the United States, and ceasing to use the defense budget as a Keynesian jobs program. If we do these things we have a chance of squeaking by. If we don't, we face probable national insolvency and a long depression."

 

 

Fix Our Broken Electoral System

In a campaign where there has been much talk about change, bringing new people into the process, and high voter turnout (at least on the Democratic side), the recent lawsuit in Nevada attempting to bar nine at-large districts created so that shift-workers could vote was indeed a low moment. Fortunately, a District judge made the right decision, protecting voters and rejecting a transparent effort to suppress turnout for Barack Obama.

As I noted in a previous post, shouldn't Democrats be on the side of getting more voters to the polls, not turning them away (leave that to the Republicans)!?

The Nevada shenanigans once again exposed problems with a voting system desperately in need of reform. If we are to succeed at this historic moment in bringing new people into the process and creating a fair, transparent, accountable and truly democratic system – then we need to understand how the hardwiring of our electoral system works against *real* change. As Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. has written in the pages of The Nation: "Our voting system's foundation is built on the sand of states' rights and local control. We have fifty states, 3,141 counties and 7,800 different local election jurisdictions. All separate and unequal." While many of the needed reforms are resolutely unsexy, they are also vital if we are to overcome our current crisis – a downsized politics of excluded alternatives and a growing mistrust of the way we vote and our election results.

The 2000 presidential debacle focused public attention on our increasingly dysfunctional electoral system. In its wake a pro-democracy movement has emerged, and efforts to bring democracy home are making headway on some important fronts. Many advocates have demonstrated the unreliability of so-called black box or touch-screen voting machines which can be hacked, breakdown, and don't always leave a paper trail to resolve tabulation disputes. California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen recently decertified Diebold voting machines.

Bowen, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Bruner, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie all support switching from touch-screen to optical scan machines, which read ballots that voters mark by hand, like a standardized test. They are more trustworthy and cost-effective, and they provide a record of each vote. Representative Rush Holt also recently introduced the Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act of 2008. Currently, 20 states are scheduled to conduct completely unauditable elections in 2008. This bill would reimburse jurisdictions that choose to implement voter-verified paper trails; provide funding for audits of voting; and help states move to an entirely paper-based system. It's a good effort at a quick-fix – but it still makes the fix optional.

"We're going to try to persuade as many counties as possible to do the right thing before November," Holt told me. "There is still time for them to do it, and I think the incentive in this bill, combined with public activism, will persuade some to put in a paper-based system and an audit."

What's truly needed is passage of Holt's HR 811 which would establish a voter-verified paper trail and audit of every federal election as the national standard. It currently has 216 bipartisan cosponsors and House leadership needs to be pressed to take action on it.

While we are seeing a real uptick in registration during the Democratic presidential primaries, much more could be accomplished if people had better access to the polls. Examples include: making Election Day a national holiday so that working people can more easily participate; allowing Election Day Registration (six states currently use it and voter turnout is 8 to 15 percentage points higher than the national average); and making registration at DMVs an opt-out process rather than opt-in – all of these measures would serve to boost registration and turnout. Senator Hillary Clinton and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones' Count Every Vote Act supports these needed reforms, and it also establishes minimum standards for the allocation of voting machines and poll workers to cut down on lines; re-enfranchises millions of Americans who have committed a felony but have completed their sentences; and allows for non-partisan election observers (so we never have to see another Katherine Harris oversee a disputed election).

We also need to do a better job protecting voters. For all of they hype about voter fraud, it occurs "statistically…about as often as death by lightning strike ," according to Michael Waldman and Justin Levitt of the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. In contrast, we know that efforts to keep people away from the polls are rampant in every election. We need to put an end to new exclusionary ID tactics, 21st century poll taxes, and unjust scrubbing of voter files. Also, Senator Barack Obama's Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Actwould make voter intimidation and election misinformation – like letters telling Latino voters that if they are immigrants and vote they will be arrested – punishable by more than just a slap on the wrist. It also establishes a process for reaching out to misinformed voters with accurate information before the polls close.

Vital reforms are also needed to ensure that elected representative's are more responsive and accountable to the people. First and foremost, we need to get Big Money out of our campaigns. Only "clean money" legislation will allow ordinary people to run for office and have their voices heard. Studies by the Campaign Finance Institute placed the cost of winning a House election in 2006 at nearly $1.26 million; just over $8.8 million for a Senate seat. In November, one analyst projected that the 2008 campaign would burn through 5 billion dollars. Public financing of campaigns would free elected officials from the influence of big money, and also increase the power of the public over their representatives.

In the Senate, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter's Fair Elections Now Act has garnered 9 cosponsors, and in the House, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act has 52 cosponsors behind it. Under both bills, candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt-out of further private contributions would be supported by public funding. The legislation was modeled on successful public financing systems in Maine, Arizona and North Carolina. Short of a system of full public financing, one modest proposal to reduce the influence of big money is to dramatically increase the amount of federal matching funds received for donations of $100 or less -- matching them on a 1:4 basis. The effect could be further reinforced by eliminating matching funds for donations over $100.

The power of incumbency also drastically restricts the choices available to the American people, exacerbating our downsized politics of excluded alternatives. Incumbents derive much of their power from the redistricting process, increasingly a bipartisan farce in which the parties collaborate to draw district lines that will preserve their power. As reformers often remark: "Instead of constituents choosing their legislators, legislators choose their constituents." Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington all have at least nominally independent commissions which have full authority over the process of drawing up Congressional districts – taking the process of drawing up districts out of the hands of the two major political parties.

Finally, if majority rule is to be more than a hollow slogan, and third parties more than "spoilers," we need to experiment with ways to more accurately represent the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions of the American people. Instant Run-off Voting (IRV) – in which low scoring candidates are eliminated after the first round of tabulations, and their supporters second-choice votes are added to those who remain, until one candidate gets the majority – offers another way to challenge the duopoly and also ensure that the winning candidate has the support of a majority.

We also need to do away with the Electoral College so that the president is elected directly by the people. The National Popular Vote Compact – in which states pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote instead of the winner of their own state – is one way people are working to achieve that. It would take effect when states representing a majority of votes in the Electoral College agree to join the compact. It would therefore ensure that the candidate with the most votes for president would be the winner, and every citizen's vote would count equally regardless of geography.

While there is reason to hope that this election will bring increased or even record-breaking participation at the polls, there's clearly work to be done so that we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let's demand a democracy promotion program at home to ensure that every voter can vote, every vote gets counted, money doesn't talk louder than the will of the people, and every challenger gets to make his or her case.