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.
"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."
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.
The Clintons play dirty when they feel threatened. But we knew that, didn't we?
The recent roughing-up of Barack Obama was in the trademark style of the Clinton years in the White House. High-minded and self-important on the surface, smarmily duplicitous underneath, meanwhile jabbing hard to the groin area. They are a slippery pair and come as a package. The nation is at fair risk of getting them back in the White House for four more years. The thought makes me queasy.
The problem is not Hillary Clinton per se or the sharp exchanges and personal accusations that squeamish political reporters deplore. That's what politics is always about. Tough, even nasty conflict is educational, also entertaining. Politics ain't beanbag, as Mark Shields likes to say.
The one-two style of Clintons, however, is as informative as low-life street fighters. Mr. Bill punches Obama in the kidney and from the rear. When Obama whirls around to strike back, there stands Mrs. Clinton, looking like a prim Sunday School teacher and citing goody-goody lessons she learned from her 135 years in government.
I thought Obama did quite well in response, looked strong and stayed in character. But we shall see. He was compelled to play defense and to hope the audience recognized foul play. It's possible the Clintons won on points, simply by making Obama look like a confused young man who had to keep repeating what he had actually said.
The style is very familiar to official Washington, not just among the Clintons' partisan adversaries, but among their supporters. The man lied to his friends. All the time. They got used to it. They came to expect it. I observe a good many old hands among the Senate Democrats are getting behind Obama. It would be good to know more about why they declined to make the more obvious choice of endorsing the power couple.
We are sure to see more of Mr. Bill's intrusions because the former president is pathological about preserving his own place in the spotlight. He can't stand it when he is not the story and, one way or another, he will make himself the story. I used to be sympathetic toward Mrs. Clinton on this point. No longer.
She is using her egocentric husband to do the low-road hits for her campaign. He is good at it--a real charmer if you've never seen his act before. Or is Mrs. Clinton's husband using her? People can ask that question without disturbing the principles of feminism.
Evidently, many of the mainstream party faithful want the Clinton team as their presidential nominee. It's their choice, of course. But does the rest of the country really deserve this?
Let's see. They were wrong on Hillary Clinton, essentially nominating her for the presidency months before a primary was held. In Iowa, they were wrong on Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama, John Edwards and Clinton (again). In New Hampshire, wrong on Obama, Clinton (yet again), and -- at least earlier in the campaign season -- John McCain. In Michigan, wrong on McCain (again) and Mitt Romney. Just remind me, in this strange presidential nomination season in which each obscure primary is treated as if it were the night of the presidential election, when have they been right?
You know just who I'm talking about. Before we're done -- as with some losing sports team on a record-setting roll -- the season's entertainment may consist of rooting for them never to be right, straight through November 4, 2008. They could be the Buffalo Bills, who lost four Super Bowls in four consecutive years, or, more humbly, this year's Miami Dolphins, who went 0-13, and became a national news phenomenon, before winning their first game.
These days, when you read anything about the next stop on the presidential primary local, as in this passage, even from a sharp observer like Michael Tomasky, you should run for the hills or head for the nearest bookie to plunk your money on a Giuliani loss: "It's also suddenly plausible that Rudy Giuliani, who I still think may be the party's strongest candidate for November, could elbow his way back into this thing. He's counting on a win in Florida, which votes on January 29."
Investigative journalist for the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh caught this spirit in a recent interview when he said: "If I knew this, I mean, who would win [the presidential race], I'd be at the race track everyday. Not reporting… No one knows. Listen, this is politics, and I'm just a guy who writes, who writes stories about the war."
And don't think sports is the worst analogy to use here either. After all they love it. They talk about "handicapping" each primary and, as if it were indeed a crucial bowl game, endless "high-stakes moments." So think of the collective media (not leaving out their good right arm, the prolific pollsters) as the Miami Dolphins of this political season, already nearing 0-13 and surging toward a record -- and we're barely out of the first quarter in the slog to the presidency. At a time when TV's fiction writers are MIA and much of TV life is deep in reruns and reality-show hell, political pundits, reporters, and talking heads, writer-less as they may be, can do no wrong by doing primary-season wrong. The political ratings are already smashing. As CNN/USA Today President Jonathan Klein puts it, without a sitting president or vice president in the race, these primaries are "like 'The Apprentice.' Except that you're the ones that get to say 'You're Fired.' "
So I'm ready to handicap this one. The little media nag that couldn't probably can't. It isn't coming up from the rear; it won't win, place, or show, but when it gets one right, as when Miami won, that will be national news.
In the meantime, consider the very mindlessness of the media. One of the canniest media critics around, Jay Rosen, whose Pressthink blog is a must-read in any season, is now in his twentieth year of "horse-race criticism." In a recent piece, entitled "The Beast Without a Brain," he makes clear just why the who's-gonna-win story works so well for journalists (even when they're abysmally wrong), while managing to fail the rest of us.
In the duel of King Holiday weekend speeches, there is no question that Barack Obama won.
Indeed, on Sunday, he delivered the finest speech of a campaign that has heard the senator from Illinois deliver many fine speeches.
Obama did so by talking about deficits.
No, he did not return to the horrible, managerial language of the Clinton era, which tried to make the mere business of paying bills and balancing accounts into some sort of moral mission for the Democratic Party.
Nor did he simply deliver the kitchen-table economics address that he can and will master -- with a few loans from John Edwards -- if he is intent upon winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Rather, in his Sunday speech at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Barack Obama went to a higher ground -- to that mountaintop that King occupied until his death on April 4, 1968, and that Bobby Kennedy stood for a brief and remarkable political moment that played out between April and June of that fateful year.
"Unity is the great need of the hour - the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country," Obama told a audience that hung on the every word of the most emotionally-effective orator to seek the presidency since Kennedy.
"I'm not talking about a budget deficit. I'm not talking about a trade deficit. I'm not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans," explained Obama. "I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny."
Obama used this notion of a deeper and more fundamentally-damaging deficit to frame the message of a campaign that is only now beginning to distinguish itself not just from the failures of the Bush era, with its immoral embrace of the economics of inequality and imbalance, but of the Clinton era, with its adherence to a technocratic economic vision that while sounder than Bushism still treated moral concerns as footnotes to a broader project.
Of course, it is appropriate to balance budgets. But there is nothing appropriate or moral about balancing what are at their root statements about our values -- for what else can a budget that by its very nature picks winners and losers be? -- on the backs of the poor.
"We have an empathy deficit when we're still sending our children down corridors of shame - schools in the forgotten corners of America where the color of your skin still affects the content of your education," said Obama, who continued:
"We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make in ten months; when families lose their homes so that lenders make a profit; when mothers can't afford a doctor when their children get sick.
"We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others; when our children see nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree today, in the present, in the twenty-first century.
"We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our cities; when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur; when young Americans serve tour after tour of duty in a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged.
"And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a breach in our compassion; when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the hungry that God calls on us to feed; the sick He calls on us to care for; the least of these He commands that we treat as our own.
"So we have a deficit to close. We have walls - barriers to justice and equality - that must come down. And to do this, we know that unity is the great need of this hour."
It will take more than just interest-rate shifts or macro-economic strategies to close the "empathy deficit."
And, to his immense credit, Obama recognizes this.
"Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country, we've come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap," the senator says. "We've come to believe that racial reconciliation can come easily -- that it's just a matter of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the past, and that if the demagogues and those who exploit our racial divisions will simply go away, then all our problems would be solved. All too often, we seek to ignore the profound institutional barriers that stand in the way of ensuring opportunity for all children, or decent jobs for all people, or health care for those who are sick. We long for unity, but are unwilling to pay the price. But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes - a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts."
The call for "a broadening of hearts" is more than just rhetoric. It is a practical necessity. Obama can win the Democratic nomination and the presidency only if voters make a great leap. It is not a strategic leap. It is an emotional leap -- motivated by faith and hope rather than compromise or cold calculation. To inspire it, Obama must avoid the pits and valleys of those squabbles into which the Clintons seek to draw him. That is the petty politics of the past, the politics that cost him a win in Nevada and could well cost him the nomination.
Instead of arguing about who closed which casino door in Las Vegas or who said what on a radio ad, Obama should be shouting from the mountaintops about this "empathy deficit" and about our ability to leap across it if we make the right choices.
This is the speech Obama has needed to deliver.
This is the speech America has been waiting for since that awful and glorious spring of 1968.
Barack Obama has found the language for a politics that transforms rather than merely transitions. He should not retreat from the mountaintop. He should hold the rhetorical ground he has finally captured, and call us to join him upon it.
With advice and counsel from the History in Action e-mail list, I wrote up the Open Letter below to protest the way the media slanders the women's movement as indifferent to the human rights of women in the developing and/or Muslim world. Fact: it's feminists who first identified atrocities against women around the world--female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child marriage, spousal violence, rape-- as violations of human rights, not family matters or customs of no state importance. It is feminists who have consistently pushed for women's rights to education, health care, and legal and social equality and who've pushed organizations from the UN to Amnesty International to broaden their perspective to include women's rights to be free from violence and coercion. "Women's rights are human rights" was not a slogan dreamed up by David Horowitz or Christina Hoff Sommers.
In only four days, the Open Letter has gathered 700 signatures. it's been signed by people from all walks of life and every part of the country: writers, scholars, students, activists, leaders of feminist organizations and global health organizations, doctors, nurses, kindergarten teachers, clergypeople, stay-home mothers and so on and on--to say nothing of a whole bunch of people who simply describe themselves as "feminist."
If you'd like to sign, send your name to me at email@example.com, and be sure include how you would like to be identified; for example, writer, professor (with department and university), activist, astronaut, parent, movie star. if you are active with a feminist/progressive or global organization or NGO, that would be a good thing to mention. I would like the list to show that all sorts of women, and men, are feminists and how many are actively working for women's human rights. And yes, men can sign!
An Open Letter from American Feminists
Columnists and opinion writers from The Weekly Standard to the Washington Post to Slate have recently accused American feminists of focusing obsessively on minor or even nonexistent injustices in the United States while ignoring atrocities against women in other countries, especially the Muslim world. A number of reasons are given for this supposed neglect: narcissism, ideological rigidity, reflexive anti-Americanism, fear of seeming insensitive or even racist. Yet what is the evidence for this apparently now broadly accepted claim that feminists don't support the struggles of women around the globe? It usually comes down to a quick scan of the home page of the National Organization for Women's website, observing that a particular writer hasn't covered a particular outrage, plus a handful of quotes wrenched out of context.
In fact, as a bit of research would easily show, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of US feminist organizations involved in promoting women's rights and well-being around the globe--V-Day, Equality Now, MADRE, the Global Fund for Women, the International Women's Health Coalition and Feminist Majority, to name some of the most prominent. (The National Organization for Women itself has a section on its website devoted to global feminism, on which it denounces a wide array of practices including female genital mutilation (FGM), "honor" murder, trafficking, dowry deaths and domestic violence). Feminists at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have moved those organizations to add the rights of women and girls to their agenda. Feminist magazines and blogs--Ms. magazine, Feministing.com, Salon.com's Broadsheet column, womensenews.com (which has an edition in Arabic)--as well as feminist reporters and commentators in the mainstream media, regularly report on and condemn outrages against women wherever they occur, from rape, battery and murder in the US to the denial of women's human rights in the developing or Muslim world.
As feminists, we call on journalists and opinion writers to report the true position of our movement. We believe that women's rights are human rights, and stand in solidarity with our sisters who are fighting for equal political, economic, social and reproductive rights around the globe. Specifically, contrary to the accusations of pundits, we support their struggle against female genital mutilation, "honor" murder, forced marriage, child marriage, compulsory Islamic dress codes, the criminalization of sex outside marriage, brutal punishments like lashing and stoning, family laws that favor men and that place adult women under the legal power of fathers, brothers, and husbands, and laws that discount legal testimony made by women. We strongly oppose the denial of education, health care and equal political and economic rights to women.
We reject the use of women's rights language to justify invading foreign countries. Instead, we call on the United States government to live up to its expressed commitment to women's rights through peaceful means. Specifically, we call upon it to:
--offer asylum to women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution, including female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and forced marriage;
--promote women's rights and well-being in all their foreign policy and foreign aid decisions;
--use its diplomatic powers to pressure its allies--especially Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive countries in the world for women--to embrace women's rights;
--drop the Mexico City policy--aka the "gag rule"--which bars funds for AIDS- related and contraception-related health services abroad if they provide abortions, abortion information, or advocate for legalizing abortion;
--generously support the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which supports women's reproductive health including safe maternity around the globe, and whose funding is vetoed every year by President Bush;
--become a signatory to The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the basic UN women's human rights document, now signed by 185 nations. The US is one of a handful of holdouts, along with Iran, Sudan, and Somalia.
Finally, we call upon the United States, and all the industrialized nations of the West, to share their unprecedented wealth, often gained at the expense of the developing world, with those who need it in such a way that women benefit.
Katha Pollitt, writer
Marge Piercy, writer
Susan Faludi, writer
Alix Kates Shulman, writer
Julianne Malveaux, president, Bennett College for Women
Anne Lamott, writer
Mary Gordon, writer
Linda Gordon, historian, NYU
Jennifer Baumgardner, writer
Ruth Rosen, historian
Jane Smiley, writer
Anna Fels,MD, psychiatrist and writer
Debra Dickerson, writer
Margo Jefferson, writer
Jessica Valenti, writer
Dana Goldstein, The American Prospect
Karen Houppert, writer
Gloria Jacobs, The Feminist Press
Carole Joffe, professor of sociology, UC Davis
Janet Afary, Middle East historian, Purdue University
And more than 700 more women and men.
Please add your name to this powerful list, and thanks.
Update: You can read the complete list of signatories to date here, and, of course, you're most welcome to sign the letter at any time.
So the Clintons like Nevada after all.
Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by about six points in the state's caucus on Saturday, netting 12 of the 25 delegates at stake. But Barack Obama won the number that could matter most, earning 13 of Nevada's national convention delegates, which ultimately determine the Democratic nominee. That made for a "split decision," according to Congressman James Clyburn, an influential member of the House Democratic leadership who is unaffiliated with any candidate. Obama sounded even more confident on Saturday, saying "we came from over twenty-five points behind to win more national convention delegates than Hillary Clinton because we performed well all across the state, including rural areas where Democrats have traditionally struggled." But it's not that simple.
Rural areas did secure Obama's delegate edge. His five-point lead in the rural section of Nevada's Second Congressional District, which stretches across most of the state north of Las Vegas, won him the single delegate at stake there. With one delegate in play, caucus math is winner-take-all. So while Clinton won about 43 percent of the area, she had no delegates to show for it. And the delegates are weighed by past voter registration -- not the actual turnout on Saturday -- which can also widen a gap with the true popular vote. But the popular vote is not actually available.
The Nevada Democratic Party only released a statewide tally of local delegates. There are over 10,000 of them; Clinton has about half (5,335). But local delegates do not reflect a pure popular vote. Just like national delegates, if a local precinct only has one delegate, then it's winner-take-all. Precinct totals can exaggerate the support for the candidate in the lead, and minimize the totals for a trailing candidate. (That's why John Edwards' Nevada turnout appears unusually low.) If you think reading about this system is hard, just imagine caucusing.
Or just try explaining it. The AP and cable networks initially misreported Obama's delegate count. (The Nation first reported Obama's delegate lead.) The AP quickly caught the error, but its new article still incorrectly refers to the precinct totals as a "popular vote." And on caucus night, the pundits were already talking about John Edwards' collapse, as if the statewide tally was a popular vote.
The arcane caucus rules are not only important because they determine -- and potentially distort -- the voters' will. The caucus itself was a controversial issue all week, as the Clinton Campaign said parts of the system were unfair and potentially illegitimate. President Clinton ratcheted up the rhetoric on Friday, saying he personally witnessed voter suppression by members of a union backing Obama, an explosive charge that senior Clinton aides could not substantiate. (NBC's Chuck Todd pressed the issue on a Saturday conference call for reporters.) But in another curveball for this primary season, Hillary Clinton actually benefited from the caucus arrangements her campaign assailed, especially on the Las Vegas Strip. She dominated turnout at the 9 major casinos, which made an arrangement with the state party so that employees could caucus away from home. She won the most "at-large delegates," which President Clinton slammed as patently unfair because they counted "five times as much as everybody else." And her statewide numbers may be slightly higher than the true popular vote. Obama benefited too, of course, nabbing a national delegate in a region where Clinton's support was perfectly strong.
It all comes back to national delegates, since they pick the nominee. After Nevada, the Obama Campaign began circulating delegate-obsessed quotes from Clinton aides. ("You've got to remember this [is] about getting delegates." Terry McAuliffe! "This is a race for delegates…It is not a battle for individual states." Howard Wolfson!) But Nevada, like many states, does not bind national delegates by the actual turnout. Delegate preferences can technically change at the Nevada state party convention, held in April. (Many state parties operate on the premise that the nominee will be decided by the time of their conventions, anyway.) The Clinton Campaign invoked the convention in a three-sentence rebuttal to Obama on Saturday night: "Hillary Clinton won the Nevada Caucuses today by winning a majority of the delegates at stake. The Obama campaign is wrong. Delegates for the national convention will not be determined until April 19." Jill Derby, Chair of the Nevada State Party, also spoke out on delegates as the results came in. She emphasized that national delegate counts are "based upon an assumption that delegate preferences will remain the same," when in fact they could change at the convention. Derby added a disconcerting line to hammer the point home: "We look forward to our county and state conventions where we will choose the delegates for the nominee that Nevadans support."
Translation: If this thing is close, "we" party insiders will "choose" for the rest of the state.
At least the sparring over delegates has forced out a rare political confession, helping expose the distortions of these party rules. And the reforms present themselves: Require binding votes, absentee voting rights, proportional measurement and a true popular vote.
And The Nation's Chris Hayes goes rural...
This work of electing a new president is important, indeed.
And it is exciting, especially as the contests for both the Democratic and Republican nominations remain unsettled.
But is vital to remember that the current president and vice president hold a lease on something akin to absolute power that does not expire for a year. And if George Bush and Dick Cheney have proven anything over the past year, it is that they do not require a great deal of time to do a great deal of damage.
So while the work of electing a new president is important, the work of restoring a system of checks and balances on the executive branch is equally important.
Florida Congressman Robert Wexler recognizes this fact, and he refuses to allow congressional Democrats to neglect their most important duty.
Wexler, who has become the House's most ardent advocate of opening impeachment hearings against Vice President Cheney reminded his colleagues this week that, "The issues at hand are too serious to ignore. Dick Cheney faces credible allegations of abuse of power that if proven may well constitute high crimes and misdemeanors"
Wexler is airing the right questions when he asks: "Did the Vice President unmask a covert CIA agent for political purposes? Did the Vice President order the illegal surveillance of Americans and the illegal use of torture? "
Wexler is reaching the right conclusions when he declares, "Evidence mounts almost daily on these charges. Just recently former White House press secretary Scott McClellan revealed that the Vice President and his staff purposefully gave him false information to report to the American people - a clear obstruction of justice. This Administration has undermined the checks and balances of our government by brazenly ignoring Congressional subpoenas, and through reckless claims of executive privilege. Impeachment hearings are the only means available to this House to force the Bush Administration to answer questions and tell the truth."
And the Florida Democrat is stating a blunt truth about the current Congress, a Congress that was elected to hold this adminstration to account: "If we fail to act history may well judge us complicit in the alleged crimes of Vice President Cheney."
The work that Wexler is doing to initiate impeachment hearings is important, just as important as the work of electing a new president.
"In fact," he told the House this week, "in the history of our nation we have never encountered a moment where the actions of a President or Vice President have more strongly demanded the use of the power of impeachment."
Wexler and those who have sided with him -- including Madison Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a fellow member of the Judiciary Committee -- are challenging their fellow members of Congress to be more than mere spectators. And they are not accepting the excuses that are made by members who appear to believe as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does, that some parts of the Constitution are "off the table." "I have heard the arguments – that it is too late – that we have run out of time -- and that we don't have the votes. While today there may not be enough votes in to impeach, it's premature to think that such support would not exist -- after hearings," says Wexler. "Let us remember that it wasn't until after hearings began that the Watergate tapes emerged. Arguing that it is too late to hold hearings sets a dangerous precedent, as it signals to future administrations that in their waning months in office they're immune from constitutional accountability."
It is an election year, a time of great political theater. But nothing that will be said in the debates among the men and women who would shape the next administration is so important as what Wexler is saying about the holding the current administration to account.
Last Spring, following the death of twelve-year old Deamonte Driver of Maryland whose untreated tooth infection spread to his brain, I wrote about the national epidemic of dental disease and the lack of access to dental care faced by the poor and working class. Last month, an article in the New York Times painted a horrifying picture of the state of dental care, where bootleggers sell dentures that would otherwise be unaffordable to many people missing teeth; where low Medicaid reimbursement rates perpetuate a dearth of participating dentists; where untreated cavities are a leading cause of kids missing school, people use Krazy Glue to reattach broken teeth, or swish rubbing alcohol to treat an infection, "burning the gums and creating ulcers."
Currently, Medicaid only covers pulling teeth to treat infections – not root canals or dentures – which can certainly dim the job prospects for someone trying to earn a living in our economy.
"Try finding work when you're in your 30s or 40s and you're missing front teeth," Jane Stephenson, founder of the New Opportunity School in Berea, Kentucky told the Times.
According to Maryland Senator Ben Cardin's staff, dental decay is now the most common chronic childhood disease in the US, affecting twenty percent of children aged 2 to 4, fifty percent of those aged 6 to 8, and nearly sixty percent of fifteen year olds. It is five times more common than asthma among school age children, and nearly 40 percent of African-American children have untreated tooth decay in their adult teeth. Improper hygiene can increase a child's adult risk of having low birth-weight babies, developing heart disease, or suffering a stroke. Eighty percent of all dental problems are found in just 25 percent of children, primarily those from lower-income families.
In March, in response to Driver's death, Cardin cosponsored the Children's Dental Health Improvement Act of 2007 along with Senator Jeff Bingaman, who had pushed similar legislation for seven years. The bill called for $40 million annually for five years to help community health centers hire dentists to serve poor children. It also would have awarded $50 million in grants to help states improve dental services to children enrolled in Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). At the time, Cardin said on the Senate floor: "It is outrageous today that in America, a young boy can die because his family can't find a dentist to remove an infected tooth. It is not enough simply to mourn Deamonte's death. We must learn from this failure of our health-care system and take action to make sure it never happens again."
The dental bill was folded into the CHIP bill. The final version of CHIP – passed by Congress and vetoed by President Bush – didn't contain the grants sought by Cardin and Bingaman but it did guarantee dental coverage to kids and also established minimum standards of care. Senator Cardin explained the dilemma he and his colleagues faced: "When things get tight in state budgets, one of the first things they cut is something that's not mandated, so when we had to choose between grants to cover dental benefits or a guarantee of dental care, the latter was a greater, immediate priority. We know now that dental care is vital to a child's overall health -- experts tell us that it impacts many other aspects of their health as well. Not to mention it's an indicator of one's ability to get ahead and thrive," he said.
Cardin, Bingaman, and their allies were successful in passing $5 million in grants in the Labor Health and Human Services bill to help states reach poor kids but clearly – as indicated by the initial grant request – the need is far greater than that. Even Cardin said of the CHIP bill, "There is more work to do…. We still have to improve reimbursement for dental providers [so more dentists will participate in Medicaid], and get grants to the states to allow them to offer dental wraparound coverage for those who may have health coverage, but no dental insurance."
A Cardin spokeswoman also said that this is the best that Democrats were able to achieve at this time. "Clearly healthcare in the US needs help. We need to fix the system as a whole and Democrats in the Senate are trying to make changes that reflect those priorities."
Indeed, improving reimbursement rates and the availability of dentists is necessary in order for poor kids to avoid long waiting lists and get the timely services needed. (One dentist, for example, told the Washington Post that an abscess "is like a time bomb, ticking.") When Driver passed away nearly a year ago the state Senate initially responded with legislation to provide $2 million annually over the next three years to expand dental clinics for the poor. But it was determined at the time that the funds were not available, causing State Senator Jamie Raskin to tell me, "We always have enough money for things we don't need – like funding the war in Iraq, or boondoggle projects that will make developers a lot of money. But when it comes to things we do need – like dental care for kids – suddenly there's no money."
According to the Washington Post, less than one-third of nearly 500,000 Maryland children on Medicaid saw a dentist last year, "a statistic that is typical of the problem nationwide." But things are looking a little better in the state now. After Driver's death, Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene Secretary John M. Colmers created a Dental Action Committeeto make concrete recommendations on what could be done to increase access of dental care providers for lower-income people. One of the key recommendations was a $44 million grant to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates equal to the median charges in the Atlantic region. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's proposed budget – released yesterday – requests $16.1 million, including $14 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates ($7 million from the state, matched by the federal government); $1.4 million for two new dental clinics in regions that currently don't have them; and $700,000 for a mobile dental clinic to serve the school system. Colmers said they hope to phase-in the $44 million Medicaid allotment over 3 years.
"We're not going to solve these problems overnight," Colmers told me. "This is a substantial down-payment towards reaching our goals."
Raskin agreed. "You feel the difference between having Democrats and Republicans in state office on an issue like this. The Democrats really feel that the maldistribution of dental care is a scandal and are willing to pay to get dental care to poor kids. Budget times are tough but this is an excellent use of targeted funds," he said. "The Democrats feel very passionate about this. I talk to constituents who tell me that the quality of dental care people receives has become a very good predictor of how well they will progress in the work force and how well they will do in life. Dental care is key to individual opportunity in America."
Although there has been much talk about healthcare reform in the presidential campaign, there has been little mention of dental care. The Obama and Edwards campaigns declined to comment for this article. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor at Hillary Clinton for President, pointed to a recent speech Senator Clinton delivered in Iowa where she made her commitment to dental coverage clear – and it happened to touch on Deamonte Driver's death: "I want to cover dental care. And in the congressional plan, which I open up to everybody...there are more than 250 plan choices. Most of them cover dental care. One of the things we are finding out is all of the connections between dental problems and heart disease, between dental problems and other systemic conditions. So, if we don't cover dental care, you're going to miss a lot of the problems that will then get very expensive...I talked about the story of a young boy, 12-years old, living in Maryland… had a toothache. [His mother] couldn't find a dentist to take him because they didn't have any money for a dentist. They called every dentist they could get and some were very sympathetic, but they said, ‘Well, we already have our full compliment of charity patients. We can't take anybody else.' Turned out he had an abscess. The abscess burst, so he ends up in Johns Hopkins Hospital. They tried to save him. He dies. The hospital incurred $300,000 worth of medical care trying to save him because his mother couldn't get a $60, $70, $80…dental visit. So that's the kind of story that underscores the unfairness of the system, but also the importance of covering dental care, and I intend to do everything I can to make that happen."
It's good to see some Democrats on the Hill – and in the statehouses – working so hard to craft a sane and humane response to this epidemic. Much remains to be done, but there are good people who will keep this on the radar and continue this fight.
Yet few of the stories on Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and a top surrogate for Clinton in South Carolina, noted his controversial standing in the African-American political community. Johnson has been one of President Bush's top black allies, lobbying for the repeal of the estate tax and the privatization of Social Security, as Jonathan Chait of The New Republic reported in a 2001 profile of Johnson.
Johnson also has a history of opposing unions that makes Clinton's allies in labor quite uncomfortable. Back in 1993, workers at BET voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Writer's Guild. According to an article in the Washington Afro-American, a historically black newspaper, AFL-CIO organizer Ed Feigen alleged that "during and after the election, BET violated the workers rights by offering them raises and promising benefits if they didn't join the union in."
"Employees were also threatened with job loss if they did vote the union in. A total of 13 employees were laid off after the election, hours were cut back, and two lead organizers with the Writer's Guild were fired, according to reports issued by the AFL-CIO. Mr Feigen told the AFRO that Mr. Johnson had stated to his workers that their actions were an act of disloyalty and that BET would never have a union."
One BET employee, Kimberlyn Dickens, said management had a "plantation attitude." Another BET employee, Samone Lemieux, said Johnson "promised us increased benefits and improved working conditions if we stopped our union organizing activity. However, after the election Mr. Johnson threatened us with discharge because of our union activity. He told us he had taken a $15,000 investment and turned it into a $400 million company, and that he was not about to start giving his money away."
There's little evidence that Johnson's opinion of unions has changed since then. Keith Boykin, host of the BET show My Two Cents, writes on his blog:
In May 2000, BET made the AFL-CIO's list of notorious anti-union companies, and the year before, 120 comedians, including Richard Pryor, bought full-page newspaper advertisements to complain that Johnson refused to offer union wages to performers on its "Comic View" show. Three years before that, Johnson was reprimanded by the National Labor Relations Board for BET's interference with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' organizing efforts, a case that BET later appealed and won. But in February 2000, Johnson told USA Today, "We don't need a union. They're only money-making machines."
Johnson is not the only controversial figure within labor circles to play a high-profile role in Clinton's campaign. I reported last May that the PR firm of Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, maintains an active union-busting division.
The actions of Johnson and business of Penn tell a different story than Clinton's advocacy for labor. Clinton may not share these views, but as she courts union workers in Nevada and elsewhere, it's fair to ask why she deploys anti-labor individuals on behalf of her ostensibly pro-labor campaign.