John Edwards went back on Wednesday to New Orleans, the city where a year ago he launched a populist campaign to make poverty an issue in American politics.
He did not arrive in triumph, but he certainly did not look or sound like a defeated candidate.
The news of the day -- always blunt, and as such imprecise -- was that Edwards ended his formal run for the Democratic presidential nomination where it began -- in the impoverished city that was so battered both by Hurricane Katrina and the official neglect that came before and after that mighty storm.
And it was true that Edwards had suspended his candidacy.
But his campaign was far from finished, as the former senator from North Carolina made clear.
"Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for," he told supporters who were still waving "John Edwards for President" posters. "Do not walk away from what's possible, because it's time for all of us, all of us together, to make the two Americas one."
Promising to continue pressing the Democratic party to embrace economic justice themes, he told cheering supporters that, "We must do better if we want to live up to the promise of this country we love so much."
The suddenly former candidate admitted that he was torn about his decision, suggesting that when backers in Minnesota had told him to keep fighting, he "almost reconsidered."
The fact is that Edwards did not want to abandon the presidential race. He kept up an intense schedule of events in "Super Tuesday" states even after he secured credible but disappointing third-place finish in his native state of South Carolina's Saturday primary.
But money was short -- too short for the media buys necessary to compete in the television "air wars" that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are preparing to reach voters in the score of states that will vote February 5. Media attention was scant, and usually focused on the question of why he was staying in the race. And even sympathetic Democrats were starting to abandon Edwards -- who is not expected to make an endorsement today but who never made much secret about his differences with the Clinton camp -- for a surging Obama campaign.
Yet, Edwards pressed on in the days after Obama's big win in South Carolina.
As late as Tuesday night, when Edwards won 14 percent of the vote and carried ten counties in Florida's Democratic "beauty contest" primary, the former North Carolina senator was still on the trail. More than 1,000 union members and activists rallied for his populist call to action at a Carpenters union hall in St. Paul.
Edwards recalled the legacy of his late colleague in the Senate, Paul Wellstone. The Minnesota crowd cheered the memory of one Democrat who made fighting poverty central to his politics and the hope that another Democrat might yet carry the fight forward.
But Edwards recognized it was no longer possible to do that as a third-wheel presidential candidate.
So instead of flying from St. Paul to Fargo for a scheduled event anticipating the February 5 North Dakota caucuses, Edwards and his team turned their plane toward New Orleans.
In the city where he began running, Edwards announced that, "It is time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path."
That was a reference to the virtual certainty that, with his exit, Democrats will now nominate the party's first woman or first African-American candidate for president. But both Clinton and Obama made it clear that John Edwards, or at the very least the issues he raised, will be a part of that history.
"At a time when our politics is too focused on who's up and who's down, he made a nation focus again on who matters -- the New Orleans child without a home, the West Virginia miner without a job, the families who live in that other America that is not seen or heard or talked about by our leaders in Washington," declared Obama on Wednesday.
Clinton said, "John Edwards ended his campaign today in the same way he started it -- by standing with the people who are too often left behind and nearly always left out of our national debate."
But after that formality, the speech played out as what it had been billed: an anti-poverty address. Some of the lines were repeats from the stump speech. But, with their champion leaving the field of battle, there was a new poignancy to Edwards promise to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and those without health care that "we will not forget you... we will not allow you to be forgotten."
As he spoke, it became clear that, even if the Edwards candidacy is done, the Edwards campaign will continue. By virtue of the warmth toward him and his message that was so in evidence Wednesday, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate remains in a position to influence his party and his country to recognize and address the painful reality that there are "two Americas -- one rich and one poor."
It is, says Edwards, "the mission of my life."
It's been an uphill climb all the way: And today, John Edwards signaled he's done.
Outspent by his opponents and crowded out of the media spotlight by the drama of the Clinton/Obama rivalry, the former senator from North Carolina calls it quits atoday at a New Orleans event billed as a speech on poverty.
Edwards has not won a single contest in the Democratic race for president, and lags behind front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in public opinion polls.
Today, he's headed to New Orleans with his wife and three children for an appearance at the city's Musicians' Village, a Habitat for Humanity project providing housing for the city's displaced artists and performers.
New Orleans, the glaring symbol of how the poor have been marginalized in America over the past eight years, is a fitting place for Edwards to end his campaign for the presidency pegged to economic justice.
The Associated Press is reporting Edwards will not immediately endorse either candidate in what is now a two-person race. But now, all speculation will be on who he'll throw his support to. Given the levels of hostility between the Clinton and Obama camps, not only has the race lost a strong progressive voice, but a person of civility and passion.
John McCain won a personal victory in Florida Tuesday night.
But he still has not won the Republican ideological battle that will continue through Super Tuesday and perhaps deep into February and March.
After the bitterest Republican race since the 2000 South Carolina contest he lost to George W. Bush, McCain prevailed in the Florida Republican primary--and with it the frontrunner status that just six months ago seemed unachievable for the campaign of a maverick who has never been trusted by the party's base.
Florida gave McCain a clear if hardly overwhelming victory over his chief rival for the GOP nod, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. With most of the votes counted, McCain had 36 percent of the vote. Romney had 31 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who focused his quest for the presidency on Tuesday's primary, finished with a dismal 15 percent. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is essentially out of money but can still stir evangelical fervor, was just behind with 14 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the anti-war libertarian who finished a credible second in the Nevada caucuses, was winning just 3 percent of the Florida vote.
That was the win McCain needed – and with it all of the 57 delegates awarded in the winner-take-all contest.
But it was not the win McCain wanted.
The senator Florida won on the basis of the strong support he received from the state's relatively large blocs of moderate and liberal Republican primary voters.
Unfortunately for McCain, liberals are most certainly not the definitional players in the Republican nominating process.
Nor are moderates the heart-and-soul of the Republican Party. Conservatives are. And McCain is still struggling to win their loyalty. Indeed, even now, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett says, "The anger and bitterness toward John McCain is extraordinary among conservatives."
That's strong language.
But the fact is that McCain is winning the race for the Republican nomination without the support of the most conservatives.
He did not get it in New Hampshire, where he won the critical first-in-the-nation primary contest with the votes of moderate independents.
He did not get it in South Carolina, where he won the traditionally definitional first southern primary after conservative voters split among Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.
And he did not get it in Florida, where self-described "conservatives" told exit pollsters that McCain was not their first choice.
Conservatives made up 62 percent of the Republican primary voters in Florida, and they favored Romney over McCain by a 37-27 margin. (The numbers were even more lopsided among social conservatives. Among the 52 percent of Florida primary voters who say abortion should be illegal, Romney won with 35 percent to 27 percent for McCain and 23 percent for Huckabee. Among the 43 percent who said abortion should be legal, McCain got 43 percent to 26 percent for Romney and 20 percent for Giuliani.)
McCain secured his win only because 28 percent of Republican primary voters were moderates, and they favored him 40-22 over Romney.
McCain did even better among the 11 percent of Republican primary voters who, remarkably enough, identified themselves as liberals.
They favored the Arizona senator 46-25 over Romney.
But there are not that many more Republican primaries where self-described "liberals" are going to be a measurable -- let alone meaningful -- demographic.
That's why, while McCain was smiling Tuesday night, so was Romney.
As the Giuliani campaign fades to grey – even if "America's mayor" has not yet formally quit, he was talking about his presidential run in the past tense last night – McCain can hope to pick up a good portion of the moderate vote that went to 9-11 candidate. (He's expected to pick up Giuliani's endorsement in California on Wednesday.)
But, if Huckabee slides further, Romney will benefit.
So it was that McCain's Florida victory speech contained a near-funereal reference to "my dear friend Rudy Giuliani." The Arizona senator could barely wait to start throwing the dirt on the former New York mayor's political grave.
At the same time, McCain hailed the "good humor and grace" of the Huckabee campaign, leaving no doubt that he very much hopes it will continue.
Such are the vagaries of the Republican race. John McCain is ahead, and he might just win the nomination. But he has yet to win 40 percent of the vote in a single primary or caucus. McCain has taken the lead because conservatives have been deeply divided – so deeply divided that they may cede their party's nomination to a maverick they do not trust and they do not currently support.
McCain may yet close the deal. But to do so, as Bill Bennett says, "John McCain still has to talk to conservatives."
"We must ensure that all life is treated with the dignity it deserves," President Bush declared during his final State of the Union address. He then segued into a call to ban human cloning. He didn't talk about dignity in terms of ravaged pensions, working longer hours for lower wages, and the loss of healthcare and other benefits. He didn't talk about dignity in terms of the rise in poverty – 37 million Americans, one in eight citizens now living below the poverty line in the wealthiest nation in the world. And he certainly didn't talk about dignity when it comes to migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida where – as Senator Bernie Sanders told me just days before Bush's SOTU – "the norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery."
These farmworkers pick the tomatoes many Americans eat at McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast food chains. They are paid 45 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. It's grueling work, as Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser noted recently in a New York Times op-ed: "During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes." For that two tons the worker can expect about $50, and annual wages of $10,000-$14,000. Wages have been stagnant for more than two decades. Two weeks ago, six people were indicted on slavery charges for beating workers, chaining and locking them inside U-haul trucks, and threatening physical harm if the workers left their jobs. This is far from a rare occurrence, as the Miami Herald wrote, "… farm crew slavery stories and the brutal exploitation of undocumented workers have long since lost their shock value in Florida."
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – a community-based worker organization – has "exposed a half-dozen slavery cases" that helped trigger the freeing of more than 1,000 workers, and also advocated for better wages, living conditions, respect from the industry, and an end to indentured servitude. CIW recently scored critical victories in negotiating a penny-per-pound surcharge – so workers would now receive about 77 cents per 32-pound bucket – with McDonald's and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC). The corporations – not the tomato growers – would pay the 40 percent salary increase. Astonishingly, Burger King has refused to go along with the deal (tell Burger King to pony up)– it would cost them less than $300,000 annually and the corporation took in $2.23 billion in revenues in 2007. Not to mention three private equity firms control most of Burger King's stock, including Goldman Sachs. In 2006 Goldman Sachs' top 12 execs took home bonuses exceeding $200 million – "more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year," according to Schlosser.) Even more outrageous is the response of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state's growers. The group has said it will fine any member $100,000 for accepting the extra penny per pound for worker wages.
It's no surprise that Bush has failed to use the bully pulpit to call out slavery and excessive greed in our nation. It's also no surprise that Sen. Sanders is once again taking a leading role in serving as the conscience of the Senate. Two weeks before the State of the Union address, Sanders, along with Schlosser, went to Immokalee to meet with CIW and witness the working and living conditions firsthand. In letters co-signed by Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown, he urged both Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to support the penny-per-pound deal. He's also working with Kennedy to hold hearings on this issue in the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee chaired by Kennedy. I spoke with the Senator about his experiences down in Immokalee, and why this is such an important issue for our country. If President Bush truly wants to use his final year in office to ensure that all life is treated with dignity, he should head on over to Sen. Sanders office and get involved.
Here, then, is what Senator Sanders shared with me:
"It was really stunning – the likes of which I have never seen in my life. I've long been interested in workers issues. But when we talk about the race to the bottom here in the United States I would say that Immokalee, Florida is the bottom. I think those are workers who are more ruthlessly exploited and treated with more contempt than any group of workers that I've ever seen and I suspect exist in the US.
What I observed is… I was out at 5:30 in the morning, where tomato pickers from all over the community assemble at several locations, primarily in a large parking lot. School buses come by to pick them up and take them to different growers' tomato fields. Some are selected and some are not. So, for a start, when you line up at 5:30 in the morning, you don't know if you're going to make a nickel during that day. You're standing there, and someone is pointing, ‘you, you, you… but not you….' and you can see people dejected, because by 8:30 the buses are out and if you're not selected you're not gonna work. So these are desperate people then who have just discovered that that day they're not gonna earn a penny.
Then you get on the bus and depending on which farm you're going to it will be longer or shorter, but perhaps you're going a half hour away…. You're getting to the field at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, and you don't go to work right away. You're getting paid piecemeal. The pay is very, very low to begin with, but you're getting paid piecemeal. You can't pick until the sun comes out and dries the tomatoes. So we got photographs of workers just hanging around the bus waiting for the tomatoes to dry and that might be an hour, hour and a half. Now it's not only that this is your time, it is in a sense the contempt that you are so disposable, that we can get you out here just to sit around doing nothing while you're waiting for the tomatoes to dry….
Then you go out and you're picking tomatoes and you make on average about 45 cents for a 32 pound bucket of tomatoes – about a penny and a half per pound. That is not a lot of money. My understanding is that at the end of the year these are workers that will make 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 a year, working a very, very difficult job, under a very hot sun. After you do this job for a number of years your knees go out because you're bending over all of the time. Obviously there are no benefits that go with the job. I went over to the health center to see what was going on…. I met with these workers, and talked to them – they just don't go to the doctor. Some of them are able to take their children to the doctor, they have no real access to healthcare.
In terms of their living conditions, I visited trailers… and these trailers were old, decrepit trailers where you had 8 to 10 people living in the trailer. In the morning to get to the bathroom, sink, or stove, you gotta wait in line to do it, because there are a lot of people in front of you. And they're paying in some cases $50 per person, per week! You got that? So, the landlord who owns this old trailer is getting $2000 a month. And what someone there told me – I don't know if it's true or not – they buy these old trailers for about $2000 so they get their money back at the end of one month.
The days I was there – it was raining, when it rains you don't pick. The next day it rained mid-day so you had half a day of picking. Then, an amazing coincidence – when I was there the US Attorney announced an indictment on slavery charges. So we have seen now – I don't remember exactly the number – of different indictments that have been made against different individuals for slavery… which means that some of these people are being held in captivity, in some cases in chains. I think in the last instances, a couple of workers literally forcibly busted out of truck in which they were held against their will. So, the norm there is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery. And this is taking place in the United States of America in the year 2008.
Now some people might say, ‘Well, I don't pick tomatoes why do I have to worry about it?' And the answer is that so long as these types of abysmal working conditions exist in the US, they create a culture which leads us to the race to the bottom… which says that any worker can be subject to arbitrary actions on the part of an employer. Just create a very, very strong anti-worker culture, which is part of the destruction of the middle class, the increase in poverty, the lack of respect for working people in this country.
Now the good news is there is a very wonderful group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who have managed to put pressure on large buyers of tomatoes, i.e., fast food chains like Yum! which owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, and McDonald's, to pay an additional penny a pound. And if you understand that if someone is making a penny and a half a pound, and they get an additional penny, that's a very significant increase. Burger King has been resistant, and there is now pressure being put on Burger King and other companies. And I would hope that as Americans, we all do everything we can, to demand that companies pay these workers a living wage and end this horrendous exploitation.
The Tomato Growers Exchange seems to be playing a very reactionary role. They are claiming that this additional penny a pound is in violation of antitrust law… I myself think that the issue – if you look at the amount of money that is being asked to be contributed by McDonald's, Burger King, and so forth – it is nothing. Very, very small number. I don't think the money is the issue. I think truthfully, in my gut, the issue is a question of a balance of power. It is a feeling right now that you have workers who are absolutely helpless, the feeling that if they achieve some victories, they may have more confidence in themselves and more of an ability to stand up for their rights.
So, imagine, just put yourself in their place. You don't know whether you're gonna work or not, there are no guarantees that you are – I may pick you, I may not – if you come there, if I pick you, you're gonna wait around for an hour and a half. What does that do to you as a human being? But these are desperate people who need the work, so to my mind it was an eye-opening experience, and I hope that as a nation we can end that kind of exploitation.
The very good news – what was positive about my visit down there was – we did a press conference, and the reporters went to Burger King, and Burger King came forth with what appeared to be a conciliatory response. Now whether it is just talk or not, we can't tell. But we want to pursue that. And certainly what we released when I was down there was a letter that was written by Senator Kennedy, Sen. Durbin, Sen. Brown and myself. And Sen. Kennedy has been very clear in telling me that he is prepared to do hearings on this issue. And I think that's terribly important, not only in exposing the exploitation, but trying to explain to the American people how slavery can take place in the United States in the year 2008."
Florida is where the national political ambitions of New York mayors go to die.
Rudy Giuliani will learn that lesson tonight if he finishes fourth -- as could happen -- in a Florida Republican presidential primary on which he has gambled his political future.
"We win in Florida, we're going everywhere else," the former New York mayor told crowds in the Sunshine state on the eve of a primary contest that polls say is now between Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. "Florida is going to lead the way."
In fact, if Florida leads as expected, it will be showing "America's mayor" the exit door from a race he misread by skipping early caucus and primary states to concentrate on Florida.
In fairness to Giuliani, if he loses he will not be the first New York City big shot to be humbled by Florida voters.
Thirsty-six years ago, New York Mayor John Lindsay, a recent convert from the Republican Party, launched his campaign for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination in Florida. He bet that the state where so many New Yorkers had retired would be fertile ground for the Big Apple among the Palm Trees campaign.
Lindsay announced his candidacy in Miami and ran a classic New York campaign, with lots of flash and big elbows. He dismissed his chief rival, Alabama Governor George Wallace, as a symbol of "repression, division, segregation." And he was talked about as a serious contender. "Mr. Lindsay will be seeking support from the substantial Negro and Jewish populations in Florida," wrote Frank Lynn in a December 25, 1971, story for The New York Times, which covered Lindsay's Florida fight like a local story. "Many of these Floridians are transplanted New Yorkers who may look kindly on the home-town candidate."
That was the hope of the Lindsay campaign, as it is today the hope of the Giuliani campaign. The fear was that the transplanted New Yorkers might have left the city to get away from politicians like John Lindsay.
The fear turned out to be correct.
Lindsay finished fifth in the March 14, 1972, Florida primary. Wallace got 75 of the state's 81 delegates. The remainder went to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who won the Miami area where Lindsay had focused so much of his campaign.
Lindsay straggled on to Wisconsin's primary three weeks later and then quit the race. A year later, he would leave the mayor's job rather than face a likely reelection campaign defeat.
Will Giuliani do any better than Lindsay?
On paper, yes. He could well finish third in Florida. At worst, he's headed for no worse than a fourth-place finish.
But, of course, that's in a five-way race -- with McCain, Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.Lindsay was in an 11-way race and while he trailed Wallace, Humphrey, Maine Senator Ed Muskie and Washington Senator Henry Jackson, the New York Mayor actually beat the eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern.
How about percentages? Lindsay won 7 percent of the Florida Democratic primary vote in 1972.
Could Giuliani do that badly? The latest polls have him battling with Huckabee for third place, with each candidate pulling around 13 percent.
So perhaps Rudy Giuliani will run better than the last New York mayor who tried to use Florida as the launching pad for a presidential bid.
That may be the last spin left for America's mayor after tonight: Giuliani Squeaks Past John Lindsay.
If Barack Obama's South Carolina win was a "black" thing, it's awfully strange how it's going down in Butte. US towns don't come much whiter or more hope-resistant than this battered old Montana mining town. And yet organizers here resonate with his call, not because they think he'll change things here, but because they believe the movement he's inspiring will help them do that work.
It was mid-morning Sunday when I finally flipped open my laptop to watch Obama's South Carolina victory speech. The only other soul in the faded foyer of the once-grand Finlen Hotel was Debbie, the receptionist. Obama's words drew blue-eyed Debbie over. What do you think? I asked. Looking at the crowd, her smile revealed more than a few missing teeth. "That looks like everybody," she said. "That's good."
The Finlen is a lonely place; a 1920s relic perched on a snow-swept slope between stone-cold, closed Victorian banks and bars and the country's biggest toxic Super Fund site. Butte was once the copper capital of the world (and the most unionized town in the US) but the swag and smut of the 1880s is long gone and Butte's as broken now as the bones of its best-known 20th century export - Evel Knievel. And even he is dead.
The exuberant crowd behind the stylish Senator Saturday was Southern, sunny, multi-racial and all revved up. The backdrop to his words in Butte was very different. Obama's pledges of "change" and "purpose" and "belief" echoed, airy, into this wintry, white, whupped, western town. This place aches for solid stuff like union jobs and productive work and there was precious little promise of either in Obama's speech.
So can Obama's magic move Butte? Before the morning was over, I was able to ask the question to a group of local activists. The Montana Human Rights Network was holding its annual"Progressive Leadership Institute" in the Finlen this weekend and two dozen local organizers gathered around to hear the speech in between workshops on running effective campaigns and running for local office.
"It's not that he would change anything in Butte," said Alan Peura, a City Commissioner in Helena. "But he's building momentum that we can use to make that change ourselves."
Although John Edwards was by my survey probably the group's favorite candidate, Obama roused them, not by his policy promises, but by the opening he presents.
"At the very least, we'll have four years of movement-building from the Presidential bully pulpit, which is the polar opposite from what we've had," chimed in Jason Wiener, a Missoula city councilman.
Obama's wrong on fuel, said Patricia Dowd. He supports liquid coal, a fossil-fuel-burning non-alternative that Dowd, an environmentalist, is against. "But I love the fact that he always thanks his organizers first. He values what we do and that makes it easier for us to do our work.''
"I don't trust all this talk about bi-partisanship," said retired MT Congressman, Pat Williams, one of the longest-serving progressives ever to sit in the US House. "Compromise can be just another word for collusion." On the other hand, Williams sees movement potential at the party level if Obama were to be the candidate. Williams served in Congress under Clinton in the early 1990s. He saw how the Clinton magic worked – for Clinton only. "We lost the Governors, the House, the Senate."
Ken Toole, one of the founders of the Network and a student of the Right remembers how the Right came to power. Gaining the White House wasn't the last it was the first stage of that process. "The best thing Obama could be is our Reagan," said Toole. "Reagan didn't deliver a whole lot in terms of policies, but he shifted the country's direction."
Even from Butte, it's clear to organizers: Obama's not the savior: we are. He opens a door. We push.
Laura Flanders is the author of Blue Grit: Making Impossible, Improbable, Inspirational Political Change in America, just out in paperback from Penguin Books. For more information, go to www.lauraflanders.com.
The Constitution requires that presidents "from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
Tradition has made the annual State of the Union address the primary public venue for such reporting.
As such, the State of the Union address is officially a big deal. And it is always accorded an appropriate measure of attention by the television networks, members of Congress (unless, like John McCain, they are bidding to replace the president) and the American people. But some State of the Union addresses are more equal than others.When George Bush addressed Congress in 2005, he did so as the most powerful man on the planet: the reelected commander of a warrior nation that was controlled down to the very roots of its executive, legislative and judicial branches by the president's partisan allies. Even if it was obvious to any serious observer that severe second-term rot had already begun to set in, Bush boldly renewed America's acquaintance with all the bad ideas – neo-conservative military adventuring and free trade abroad, deficit spending and related flights of fiscal fantasy at home – of his tenure.
Nothing was going to change, the president told America. Nothing would get better.
And nothing did. The occupation of Iraq grew deadlier and more expensive, the occupation of Afghanistan grew more unstable, trade deficits grew, structural deficits bloated, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and America's economy slowly swirled down the drain.
Then came the election of 2006, with its defeat of Bush's Republican Party and the restoration of Democratic control of the Congress. Even if the Democrats did not provide Bush with the full-bodied opposition that the voted had hoped for, their presence broke the illusion of Bush's omnipotence.
So it was that the president delivered his final State of the Union address last night as a broken man whose partisan allies would not even wear the "I'm a Bush Republican" pins that had been delivered to their offices by a puckish critic of the president and his party.
Even in the face of the humiliation that is a 31 percent approval rating, the president could not muster the humility that might have engendered sympathy.
Instead, he steadfastly stuck by a failed agenda. Yes, there were minor bows to reality, highlighted by his recent recognition that some redistribution of the wealth will be required to slow the arrival of a scorching recession until after this year's elections.
But even as he promoted the economic stimulus package that his aides and congressional leaders had cobbled together, Bush refused to make the most basic connections with regard to the crisis he has created.
Noting that Bush aides were promising on Monday that the president would offer "no new ideas" in his speech, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democratic freshman, observed, "That's unfortunate. Mr. President: Our country is in grave economic trouble. We have a housing finance meltdown going on while energy costs spiral up and down. Affordable and accessible healthcare is out of reach to almost 50 million Americans with 6 million alone added during this President's tenure. Our educational system has left far too many children behind, while our bridges are literally falling down in America. Mr. President: our country needs an economic stimulus package that will result in something more than pocket change for most working families. Mr. President: The best American economic stimulus package you could offer the American public is to end this war in Iraq."
Unfortunately, of not surprisingly, Bush declined to take Ellison's advice.
As predicted, the president's last State of the Union speech echoed the empty rhetoric of the speeches that came before it. There was an extended call on Congress to make permanent the tax cuts for the rich that have so skewed the nation's economic balance since Bush secured them. There were attacks on spending by a president who has presided over the dramatic bloating of deficits that are the spawn of unsustainable spending. There were more defenses of free-trade pacts that have harmed workers, the environment and communities in the United States and abroad. And there were more fantastical claims about the successes of the disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president would have made news last night if he had said, "I'm sorry. I broke it."
But George Bush never was very good at taking responsibility for his mistakes. So he offered America another order of "the usual."
Unfortunately for him, American has lost its taste for what this president is peddling – and for the man himself.
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, summed the evening up best when she said, "Tonight's speech is the 'swan song' of a presidency that is ending and will not be missed. President Bush may choose to believe that the state of our union is strong; but under his direction, our economy is flailing, our infrastructure is crumbling, the number of uninsured and underinsured Americans is rising, America's moral and strategic leadership in the world is plummeting, our Constitution is being trampled, and our servicemen and women and their families are sacrificing enormously in an unnecessary war."
With the delivery of this final State of the Union address, Bush fulfilled one of his constitutional duties.
Would that Congress might do the same and begin impeachment hearings.
In the absence of that appropriate response to a failed presidency, we are left with the sad circumstance of State of the Union address delivered by an executive whose tenure is over in every sense save the one that matters most.
As such, the circumstance, while sad for Bush, is sadder still for America.
Hillary Clinton has decided to rewrite the rules of the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Like other candidates, she pledged not to campaign in Florida after the state jumped ahead on the schedule of caucuses and primaries set by the Democratic National Committee. She had to make that pledge if she hoped to compete in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, as Iowa and New Hampshire zealously guard their starting status on the political calendar.
But Iowa and New Hampshire are history and, after a landslide loss in South Carolina on Saturday, Clinton needs a win.
So she has begun appearing in Florida in anticipation of Tuesday's Democratic primary there.
Clinton's move insults not just the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who trusted her pledge but also the voters of all the states that respected the DNC's outline for the nominating process. Effectively, she is saying to Democrats in states that will participate in February 5th's "Super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses and in the two dozen states that have scheduled later votes: You may follow the rules if you please, but I write the rules as I please.
That's the raw political reality of Clinton's move, even if she is spinning it as an embrace of participatory democracy.
"Hundreds of thousands of people have already voted in Florida and I want them to know I will be there to be part of what they have tried to do to make sure their voices are heard," said Clinton before jetting to Sarasota and Miami for events on Sunday.
The Clinton campaign claims that the senator from New York is abiding by the no-campaigning pledge because Sunday's two Florida events were technically closed to the public. But the stops were treated as major news events in a state where many Democrats have expressed anger over the absence of the party's presidential candidates during a period when Florida is overrun by Republican contenders.
The truth of the Clinton strategy was writ large in a memo from top strategist Howard Wolfson, who announced on the day of the campaign's dismal showing in South Carolina that, "Regardless of today's outcome, the race quickly shifts to Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Democrats will turn out to vote on Tuesday. Despite efforts by the Obama campaign to ignore Floridians, their voices will be heard loud and clear across the country, as the last state to vote before Super Tuesday on February 5."
"Efforts by the Obama campaign to ignore Floridians"?
Obama's just abiding by the pledge. Admittedly, it's a foolish pledge. None of the campaigns should have taken it, and they all should have agreed to drop it. But in the absence of such an agreement, Obama is not ignoring Floridians. He is remaining true to his word.
Of course, Obama is surging, while Clinton is desperate.
How desperate? She says she'll be back in Florida Tuesday night, presumably to claim a win like the one she hailed after beating "uncommitted" in a Michigan primary that the other major candidates skipped.
After Michigan and Florida moved up their primaries to dates that were unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee -- in hopes of gaining a more meaningful role in the nominating process for big states -- the DNC announced that delegates chosen in the rouge primaries would not be seated at this summer's party convention.
It was always assumed that once a nominee had been identified, he or she would pull rank and reverse the DNC's decision to exclude delegations from the two states. Michigan and Florida have historically been battleground states in November elections, and no nominee wants to offend a battleground state.
But it was expected that this exercise would play out after the primaries were done.
Clinton is now rejecting that politeness along with the no-campaigning pledge.
"I will try to persuade my delegates to seat the delegates from Michigan and Florida," she declared before arriving in Florida. "Democrats have to win Michigan and have to try to win Florida and I intend to do that. The people of Florida deserve to be represented in the process of picking a candidate for president of the United States."
That may sound like a high-minded embrace of democracy -- or at least realism regarding the fall campaign -- but it's really nothing more than the latest political gambit from a Clinton campaign that is developing a reputation for playing fast and loose with the rules. Having "secured" Michigan, Clinton is now playing her Florida card. If she wins big in the Sunshine state and then succeeds in qualifying delegations from Michigan and Florida for the convention, the senator will get the bulk of the close to 350 delegates from the two states. That's more than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina combined will send to the convention.
No wonder Hillary Clinton is laughing all the way to the Florida primary.
Her arrival is Sarasota was timed so that she could be photographed with palm trees behind her. "It is a perfect day here in Florida," declared a bemused candidate who officially was not campaigning in Florida as she posed for the classic Florida campaign photo.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.
Advertisement courtesy of DFA
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.