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Obama Reaches the Mountaintop

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.

Sign the Open Letter From American Feminists

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 kpollitt@thenation.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.

Signed,

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.

Clinton and Obama Win Nevada

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.

Updates: OpenLeft's Chris Bowers compares media coverage of indirect democracy in Nevada and in the electoral college, while CNN breaks down the numbers.

At Daily Kos, kid oakland tees off this column to question Bill Clinton's role in voter suppression. At TalkLeft, a post slams Obama for Trying To Play Bush To Hillary's Gore.

And The Nation's Chris Hayes goes rural...

Wexler: Election Can't Distract From Holding Cheney to Account

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.

The Hidden Healthcare Crisis

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.

Clinton's Anti-Union Allies

Robert Johnson's nasty comments about Barack Obama earlier this week caused a huge stir in the media. Johnson issued a less-than-convincing clarification and then apologized to Obama on Thursday.

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.

A Must-Win State for Obama

Caucuses are indefensibly awful ways in which to select delegates to a political party's national convention, and they are an even worse way in which to sort out the field of candidates for either party's nomination.

Why?

Caucuses are time-consuming and complicated endeavors that are designed to repel rather than attract participation. Those who do so engage in a public setting that is ripe with opportunities for intimidation.

Perhaps worst of all, caucuses can be "gamed" by campaigns and powerful interest groups. For instance, the location of a caucus site can decide whether working people can participate -- as the whole fight over whether Nevada caucuses will be held in Las Vegas casinos illustrates. And the gaming creates an inherently unequal process. Casino workers have the caucus brought to them, while cab drivers must take a busy Saturday off in able to play their part.

Going into Saturday's Nevada caucuses, the balance is tipped in favor of Barack Obama. He has the backing of the biggest union in the state, the Culinary Workers, and that union has successfully defended a system that makes it easier for its members to participate in the caucuses than other Nevadans. (In fairness to the Culinary Workers, they have not done anything wrong -- in fact, they have explored a smart new route for increasing political participation by allowing voting at the workplace. And they have did so with the enthusiastic support of all the major Democratic candidates -- until the point at which they endorsed Obama and allies of Hillary Clinton began to object.)

Obama also has the endorsements of several of the state's major daily newspapers, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Reno Gazette-Journal (which bluntly declares that the Illinois senator "embodies the political and ideological perspectives that the party projects") and of key political players such as state Senator Steven Horsford.

Obama's spent an immense amount of time in Nevada, working the state as it has never been worked before. His campaign and its supporters have spent a fortune on television and radio advertising in the state, and the thrust has been far more aggressive than in previous contests. Ads attacking Clinton are all over the radio. A Spanish-language commercial, paid for by UNITE-HERE, the parent union of the Culinary Workers local in Las Vegas, translates as, "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. Hillary Clinton supporters went to court to prevent working people from voting this Saturday -- that is an embarrassment."

Put the pieces together and this points to an Obama win. No one benefits so much as Obama from the structure of the caucuses in Nevada, and he and his supporters have worked that structure from all the angles. They have, at the same time, attracted the sort of mainstream support and favorable media coverage that is traditionally afforded a front-runner.

And what if Obama loses? It'll be a serious setback after a week that, without a win, is likely to be remembered not as a time of triumph but as a moment in which he failed to capitalize on tremendous advantages -- and in which the Democratic senator praised Republican-icon Ronald Reagan for addressing "the excesses of the 60s and 70s." Of course, Obama will remain in the race, but his momentum will stall at precisely the time when he keep advancing against Clinton forcs that are ever on the watch for signs of vulnerability and weakness in their opponents.

Bottom line: While caucuses should not be definitional, this one could be. Nevada has become a must-win state for Barack Obama. He should get that win; but if he doesn't it will be a stumble for the campaign that played Vegas with the best hand.

Whither the Dream

This post was updated on January 20, and then again on January 21.

From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. His 1965 contribution was particularly resonant. This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue. Dr. King's words ominously ring as true today as the day they were written more than forty years ago.

"'Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,' said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down."

Here are some other links to articles marking the King holiday and suggesting ways we can try to live up to, and extend, his momentous legacy. (Please use the comments field below to suggest additional resources and ideas.)

Bruce Wallace talks to Taylor Branch, King's biographer about presidents, racial injustice, poverty and war.

Ashley Luthern looks at how King has inspired generations of non-violent protesting

Thanks to YouTube we can watch King's "I Have a Dream" speech given on August 28, 1963 on the national mall in Washington, DC.

On his PBS show this past Friday night, Bill Moyers included a mesmerizing seven-minute segment on the relationship of his former boss, President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King (and more broadly, the civil rights movement.) Watch it on on YouTube.

It really cuts through a lot of the recent tempest about the credit due to MLK and LBJ around civil rights legislation, honors the memory of Dr. King, puts LBJ's efforts in proper perspective, and addresses the broader theme of the importance of having both "outside agitators" and inside deal-makers to foster progressive change.

Finally, I thought this call sent to me by the great young environmental activist Billy Parrish was well-worth amplifying....

Honoring Dr. King with a Just and Sustainable Economic Stimulus

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated forty years ago in Memphis, he was there to help support the long struggle of the city's sanitation workers for decent jobs and dignity. He was also speaking out against the Vietnam War and organizing a Poor People's March on Washington and an Economic Bill of Rights, calling for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. In "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community", the last book he wrote before he was killed, he writes:

"There is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society...For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property-and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power. Let us, therefore, not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who call our beloved nation to a higher destiny."

Today the struggles for economic and racial justice must merge with the struggle to stop global warming. Its worst effects will be visited on the poor, and the great economic opportunity a clean energy future offers should be shared fairly with them. Equal protection and equal opportunity was what King demanded in the 1960s. We should be demanding the same today.

As Congress prepares a giant Economic Stimulus package -- up to $150 billion in emergency spending and George Bush suggests that it again be more tax cuts for the rich -- there is no better way to honor Dr. King's memory and continue his struggle than to demand that Congress go green and go equal in the stimulus. Click here to send a message to your member of Congress:

"In considering your economic stimulus package, please work to ensure that all proposed tax cuts and direct spending promote a clean energy economy and opportunities for poor and working class people. Through strategic investments in energy efficiency, mass transit and a Clean Energy Corps, we can not only avoid short-term recession, but also put hundreds of thousands of people to work and create a secure economic and environmental future for all Americans."

An ad hoc group of leaders - from Van Jones of Green for All to Gillian Caldwell from 1Sky to Joel Rogers from the Center for State Innovation and Jessy Tolkan from the Energy Action Coalition - have been working to develop more forward-thinking ideas for the stimulus. They could use our support.

Obama and the Reagan Wing of the Democratic Party

"The genius of American democracy has somehow done it again. George Bush is the right president at the right time."

So declared the consistently-conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper on the eve of the 2004 election.

The Review-Journal warmly endorsed Bush in 2000, as well.

If there is a Nevada newspaper that offers an unadulterated conservative line, it is the Review-Journal.

And who does this newspaper urge Nevada Democrats to support when they caucus Saturday?

Barack Obama.

In truth, the paper's editorial on the Democratic contest is more an attack on Hillary Clinton than an enthusiastic embrace of Obama. In dismissing Clinton, the paper's editors detail a bizarre list of particulars that begins with, "For starters, imagine Sen. Clinton and 'co-president' Bill Clinton invited onto a 'This is Your Life' talk show where they're joined by Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky."

It's merely predictable right-wing Hillary-hate that underpins the rejection of Clinton.

John Edwards, on the other hand, is slammed for representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

"Meanwhile," the editorial grumbles, "John Edwards' anti-capitalist populism is not in this country's long-term best interests."

Obama, on the other hand, is championed as "a good politician" who "knows how to speak to individual Americans and give them the feeling he cares about their concerns."

The old maxim that says "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" holds true here. Conservatives hate Hillary Clinton for who she is. They hate John Edwards for what he says. And they can live with Barack Obama, who could finish off the Clintons, who eschews edgy populism for "hope" and who this week said of a certain conservative: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

The soundest response to Obama's insights regarding Reagan comes from the man whose populism so unsettled the Review-Journal.

"When you think about what Ronald Reagan did to the American people, to the middle class to the working people," said John Edwards. "He was openly -- openly-- intolerant of unions and the right to organize. He openly fought against the union and the organized labor movement in this country... He openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day. The destruction of the environment, you know, eliminating regulation of companies that were polluting and doing extraordinary damage to the environment."

"I can promise you this," the former senator from North Carolina concluded, "this president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."

Clinton got trashed.

Obama got the endorsement.

But this round goes to Edwards.